Cuff me, p.11

Cuff Me, page 11

 

Cuff Me
 


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  She took a deep breath and forced herself to reply to his message. If they had any chance of preserving their friendship after her marriage, she had to keep being open with him the way she had before Tom.

  Can’t. She wrote back. Tom’s in town. Have an extra egg roll for me.

  Jill set her phone aside and asked Tom about the most recent deal he was working on.

  Her phone buzzed beside her as Tom talked, and Jill ordered herself not to look at it. Reminded herself that looking at your phone when anyone was talking was rude. And when it was your fiancé, it was downright unforgivable.

  And yet, the second Tom stopped talking to peruse her spice rack, Jill tugged the phone closer to read Vin’s response.

  Please don’t be mad, please don’t be mad…

  K. Also, opened your fortune cookie. Says right here that you’ll die young unless you buy your partner Starbucks for the rest of the week.

  She smiled as she wrote back. What does yours say?

  That I’m brilliant. Also, well-endowed.

  Jill nearly choked on her sip of of wine. Isn’t that what it said last time?

  I know, weird, right. Think I should laminate this and hand it out in bars?

  “Something funny?” Tom asked as he turned back with a polite smile.

  “Nah, it’s nothing,” she said, putting her phone away with a little pang.

  But it didn’t feel like nothing.

  It felt like… something.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  Oh, that one,” Maggie exclaimed. “That’s the one!”

  Elena gave her sister-in-law an indulgent look over her glass of champagne. “You’ve said that about the last five.”

  Maggie sighed and leaned back on the pink sofa of the bridal shop, and rubbed her ever-growing belly. “Don’t judge me. You have champagne while I only get this stupid sparkling cider. Also, it’s the hormones. They’re killing me. Yesterday I cried when I saw a pigeon eating a French fry.”

  Jill was barely listening as she pivoted in slow circles in front of the enormous mirrors. “I don’t know—I don’t think I’m liking that big bow in back.”

  “It dwarfs you,” Ava said in her bossiest voice. “You need something that enhances your small frame, not overwhelms it.”

  “But I kind of like the poofy princess dress,” Jill said, her voice just shy of petulant.

  Elena tilted her head and gave Jill a look. “Really? Because two dresses ago you insisted on no poof.”

  Jill scowled at Elena in the reflection of the mirror. “I changed my mind.”

  She saw the look Ava and Elena exchanged. Not that they were trying very hard to hide it.

  Jill whipped around, her finger pointing at them. “What was that? What was that look?”

  Elena didn’t miss a beat as she smoothly stood up and swooped Jill’s champagne flute from the side table and came to stand beside her. “You’re edgy, darling. Talk to us.”

  Jill accepted the flute and stared at her best friend.

  Elena looked perfectly together and gorgeous as always. She was wearing one of those pencil skirts that she seemed to own a million of, in every color, and a simple white blouse. Her black hair was pulled back in a neat chignon, her makeup flawless, her manicure un-chipped.

  She made Jill feel small and frumpy.

  Which wasn’t fair. At all.

  It wasn’t Elena’s fault that she was gorgeous.

  Nor was it Elena’s fault that Jill had been in the mother-of-all funks for the past week.

  It wasn’t Elena’s fault that Tom had been busy and hardly remembered to call. Or that when he did call, Jill was always working on the time-consuming Lenora Birch case.

  Or that said case had yet to turn up so much as a potential clue, much less an actual suspect.

  Jill pressed a thumb between her eyebrows. “Ladies, what say you we abandon the dress shopping for the day?”

  “Done,” Ava said, not bothering to hide her relief.

  “We can go back to my place,” Elena said. “Eat junk food and bash boys?”

  Jill gave her friend a look. “You’re having guy trouble?”

  “It’s not for me, honey,” Elena said soothingly, petting Jill’s head. “Is everything okay with you and Tom?”

  “Yes,” she said automatically. “Everything’s great.”

  Elena narrowed her eyes.

  “Really,” Jill said. “He’s such a good guy. You all liked him.”

  “Well yeah, but it doesn’t matter that we liked him,” Ava said.

  “I like him too. Obviously. I love him,” Jill said.

  And she did. It was just…

  Every time they’d talked on the phone lately, it had felt… well, almost sibling-like.

  He asked about her day, she about his. They laughed, and there were no awkward silences. She cared about what he had to say.

  But something wasn’t right. She smiled whenever she saw his name on the caller ID, but there were no tummy flips. No slightly dry-of-mouth excitement to talk to him.

  And there should be. Their relationship was young. They should absolutely still be in the tummy-flip stage.

  And yet…

  Had Jill and Tom ever really been in the tummy-flip stage?

  Jill threw back the rest of her champagne.

  The four women strolled out of the bridal shop empty-handed and headed toward Fifth where they’d have better luck hailing a cab.

  Elena and Ava walked ahead, but Jill held back with Maggie, who was entering the waddling stage of her pregnancy and moving a bit slower.

  Maggie linked her arm with Jill as they walked side-by-side in companionable silence.

  All four women were good friends—Jill had known Elena the longest, of course. And then Ava had started dating Luc, and fit in marvelously.

  And then came Maggie, who was welcomed to the group enthusiastically when she’d captured Anth’s heart.

  But of all of them, Maggie was perhaps the kindest.

  A kindness that Jill was occasionally jealous of.

  Maggie was so damn sure of who she was, and who she was was just good. Maggie had once been the waitress at the diner the Morettis treated like their second home, but she’d recently made a career shift over to publishing.

  A pretty perfect fit considering Mags was an author in her own right; she’d recently landed a book deal for a teen love story.

  Add in the fact that she was married to the love of her life and pregnant with the first Moretti grandchild…

  The bitter truth was, Maggie had everything Jill wanted.

  Her footsteps faltered slightly as an alarming thought hit her upside the head.

  What if that was the reason Jill had said yes to Tom’s spontaneous proposal?

  Not because she wanted to marry Tom, but because she wanted everything that came with it.

  Maggie stopped with her, turning her warm brown eyes on Jill in concern.

  “You okay?”

  “Yeah,” Jill said, tugging her ponytail. “Maybe not. I don’t know.”

  Maggie glanced up ahead at the other two women. “You want to go somewhere? Talk?”

  Jill smiled. “You mean without Elena interrupting every five seconds?”

  Maggie smiled back. “My sister-in-law can be… opinionated.”

  Jill sucked in a breath at Maggie’s statement.

  There. That was what was bothering her. When Maggie had said sister-in-law, Jill felt it all the way to her bones.

  The truth of what was bugging Jill hit her like a bucket of ice water. Her three best friends were all part of the Moretti clan. Officially.

  Elena was a Moretti. Maggie was a Moretti by marriage. And Jill had no doubt that Luc and Ava had a wedding in their future.

  Which meant…

  It meant that Jill was the only one of the group who wasn’t a Moretti. Would never be a Moretti.

  And sure, they treated her like family now, but what about when she married Tom? What about if—when—she mo
ved to Chicago…?

  Jill sucked in a gasping breath.

  Maggie put her hand on Jill’s back in alarm. “What’s going on, honey?”

  “I don’t want to move to Chicago,” Jill said. The declaration came out a little breathy.

  She bent over and rested both hands on her knees. Her breathing got even shorter—the air harder to come by as though it refused to enter her lungs.

  Elena and Ava had apparently realized that they’d lost two of their group and turned back, and then they were there, each of them every bit as concerned as Maggie.

  “What’s going on?” Ava asked.

  “No big deal,” Jill said weakly. “Just having a breakdown here on the sidewalk for all to see.”

  “Talk to us, Jilly,” Elena said, her voice gentler than usual.

  Jill opened her mouth, but no words came out.

  “She doesn’t want to move to Chicago,” Maggie explained quietly.

  “Well, of course she doesn’t,” Elena cooed, cupping Jill’s face and searching her features as though looking for open wounds. “We’re not in Chicago.”

  Jill smiled. Weakly, but still a smile.

  “Have you told Tom this?” Ava asked.

  Jill shook her head.

  “You have to,” Ava said firmly. Kindly. “You’re one half of the relationship. You get a say.”

  “I know,” Jill said, biting her lip. “I know that. And it’s not like he made a unilateral decision. We talked about it, and I agreed, thinking that maybe a change would…”

  She broke off and the other three women waited patiently for whatever breakthrough Jill wasn’t sure she had the courage to reach for.

  Maggie’s hand stroked her back. “A change would what—what do you need to change?”

  Jill glanced at the ground, and Elena made a knowing, understanding sound. “Vincent.”

  Jill’s head snapped up. “Vin and I are fine.”

  Nobody said anything for several long seconds.

  Ava broke the silence. “Maybe that’s the problem, hun. Maybe you want more than fine.”

  Jill would have backed away from them had they not been surrounding her so completely. Instead, she settled for shaking her head. “I’m not following.”

  It was a cop-out. She knew exactly what they were getting at. But denial was the easier path. And right now, Jill needed easy.

  Elena’s fingers gently wrapped around Jill’s arm as she tugged her forward. “Let’s finish this conversation at my place.”

  “There’s nothing to discuss,” Jill said stubbornly. “Vincent’s my partner, and he’s happy for me. We work great together, sure, but he’s the best detective in the city. He’ll get another partner, and—”

  “And what?” Ava prompted as she lifted her slim arm to hail a cab.

  Vincent will find another partner.

  She’d be replaced.

  Granted, it’d be of her own doing. She’d be leaving him. But the thought of him showing up to a crime scene with someone else by his side, talking over beers about a case with someone else…

  Jill’s mouth tasted distinctly bitter.

  “It’s just work,” she said quietly, to nobody in particular. “We’re just partners.”

  None of the other women responded as they piled into the cab, and the long silence held an uncomfortable truth:

  What if just partners was no longer enough?

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  You’re grumpy today,” Vincent said, handing Jill a mocha.

  She took a sip of her sugary coffee. “That’s supposed to be my line.”

  He studied her through the dark lenses of his sunglasses. “You good?”

  “Yeah, real good,” she snapped.

  She wasn’t good. At all.

  Tom was flying in from Florida tonight, and she should be over the moon, but instead she felt… nervous.

  She had butterflies, but not the kind she’d been wishing for just days earlier. Instead she had a terrible sense of foreboding.

  “Really? Because you look kind of—”

  “Can we just focus on the case?” Jill snapped, interrupting whatever insult Vincent likely had at the ready.

  He was silent, and for a moment Jill had the strangest sense that maybe her rejection had hurt him. That maybe he wanted her to talk—to confide in him.

  And then he shrugged. “Works for me. Got any new thoughts?”

  No.

  No, she did not have any new thoughts on who freaking killed Lenora Birch, and it was starting to get ridiculous.

  Worst of all, their lack of progress had led to other investigators being assigned to the case. Something that had never happened in Jill’s career. Or Vincent’s.

  “Why aren’t you more upset?” she asked as they headed toward their car.

  “’Bout what?”

  “About the fact that they had to bring in extra resources for the case because we can’t do our job.”

  He shrugged. “Whatever catches the killer.”

  She jumped in front of him, holding up a hand so he had to stop. “Okay, my turn to ask. What’s going on with you?”

  “Don’t know what you mean.”

  “You’re seriously okay with the fact that this case is destroying our perfect record? That there’s a very real chance someone else will solve this before we will?”

  Vincent shrugged. “They can throw as many resources at this as they want, but it’s still going to be us that finds the guy. Or the woman.”

  She narrowed her eyes. “How can you be so sure?”

  He grinned, completely confident. “Because we’re the best, baby.”

  Baby? Jill watched in puzzlement as he moved around her and continued down the sidewalk.

  Something was weird with him. Definitely.

  Jill darted after him. “Okay, well then, what’s our next move because I can only talk to the same people so many times. Should we go back to question Holly Adams? She’s the only one who—”

  Vin shook his head. “I don’t want to make that trek again until we have something else to go off of.”

  “So then what?”

  He rocked back on his heels. “We start over.”

  “Sorry, come again?”

  “We start the case all over. Repeat from the very beginning when we arrived at Lenora’s house.”

  “Sort of hard to do a do-over in a homicide investigation case,” she said. “The whole lack of body, and whatnot.”

  “So we’ll pretend.”

  “And the point of this exercise?” she asked as she jerked open the car door.

  He glanced at her over the hood, tapping his fingers against his cup thoughtfully, looking very serene, and very un-Vincent-like.

  “We missed something, Henley. It’s the only explanation. Think about it: we’ve never had this much trouble on a case. It’s never taken us more than a couple days to have a solid list of suspects, and most of the time we’re leaning toward one suspect—the right one. But this case… we did something wrong. So let’s go fix it.”

  He lowered himself into the car, and Jill rolled her eyes, following suit.

  “Why do you think we missed something?” she asked as he turned the ignition.

  “We were off our game. Unused to each other after your three months away.”

  “Ah,” she said, understanding why he was so Zen about all of this. “That’s why you’re okay with this. Because you’ve transferred the blame to me. I was the one who left. I was the one who was gone for three months. I’m the one who messed up our routine…”

  He said nothing as he headed toward the Upper East Side—to Lenora Birch’s house, which was still lined in yellow tape.

  “Please, stop with all fervent denials,” she muttered.

  He glanced over at her. “I don’t blame you for going to Florida to take care of your mom, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

  “Just the getting engaged to another man part?”

  Jill hadn’t meant to let that l
ast part out. She heard the way that it had come out and cringed. Why had she thrown in the “another man” part. It made it sound like she and Vincent had some history—

  He said nothing for several moments. Not until he’d pulled up to the curb a couple blocks down from the Birch home.

  He pivoted in his seat, one hand going around to the back of her headrest as he studied her.

  Still, he was silent, and Jill’s temper snapped. She leaned forward and plucked the damn glasses off his face, tossing them none-too-gently up on the dash.

  But seeing his eyes did nothing to diffuse the strange tension in the car. If anything, their eye-to-eye contact made it worse.

  What the hell was going on here?

  Also, why was it so damn hot in this car? It was winter, for God’s sake.

  He jerked his eyes away then, and without a word climbed out of the car, slamming the door.

  Jill’s temper was good and truly bubbling now, and she was out of the car in record time, just as he was coming around the front of the car.

  “Listen, Moretti. You don’t get to just walk away when I’m talking to you, you—”

  Vincent never stopped moving. Not until he was in her face, crowding her until her back was all the way against the car, mere inches separating their tense bodies.

  Jill was appalled to realize that she was breathing hard. So was he, both of them all but vibrating with anger, and… and something else.

  His dark gaze was furious as it burned down into hers.

  “You’re spoiling for a fight, Henley.”

  “I’m not—”

  “You are,” he interrupted. “You keep poking at me, baiting me. You want me to say something, but damned if I know what you’re looking for.”

  Jill swallowed nervously then and had to look away, because damn it… he was right. He was totally, totally right, on all counts.

  “I—”

  He moved imperceptibly closer. She felt his breath on her face, coffee mingled with the mint, and suddenly she couldn’t look away from his mouth.

  “Let’s get one thing straight,” he said in a gravelly voice. “You were right before. You were the one who left. You were the one who met a man. You were the one who got a ring on your fourth finger in record time. You left me, yes. But I don’t resent you for it, and I never have. You got that?”

 
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