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It was going to rain. At the moment, the air was warm and sultry as late summer stroked lingering fingers over the Chicago area, but there were black clouds suspended above the lake and strong traces of red and gold on the leaves.
Labor Day had come and gone. Children were back in school, the tourists older now, couples for the most part, looking for both excitement and nostalgia as their vacation time wound down.
Meliana Maynard wasn't looking so much as listening to her neighbor Chris Blackburn's thumbnail account of the attempted break-in on her midcentury town house.
"Your alarm went off when the guy tried to jimmy the back door." Chris cocked a thumb over his shoulder. "He must have burned rubber across your lawn. Cops showed within four minutes." He grinned. "That's gotta be a first, right? I flashed my ID and went inside with them, but I don't think whoever it was made it past the back stoop." His grin widened as he rested both arms on her shoulders and set his face close to hers. "So how was your day, sweet cheeks? Did you cut into anyone worth mentioning?"
"A cute sixteen-year-old with a ruptured spleen and a guy with a gunshot wound to his right leg. Sorry, no gory details on that one." Meliana looked past Chris at the pair of approaching detectives. "Hey, Julie."
The female of the pair smiled. She had straight, chin-length blond hair, a squarish jaw and bright haze-green eyes. "Are you going to check your place with me, Mel, or hang out all day with that fed?"
"He's being supportive," Meliana said, but she tapped Chris's arms with her index fingers and got him to drop them. "What do you think — did he get inside?"
"I doubt it." With a nod to her partner and another head motion at Meliana, Julie started up the rear stairs. "I always think it's weird when people try to break and enter town houses — them being so close together and all. But you're on an end, so I suppose he figured he could pull it off. What are you doing, Blackburn?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Supporting a friend, Detective Denton." He quirked a brow.
"You got a problem with that?"
"I've got a problem with most feds, and you in particular. If Mel needed the FBI, which she doesn't, her husband, your former partner, would pull rank on you in a minute. Go home and watch the Sox get their tails whipped."
Chris's brow went higher. "Aren't you in Homicide these days? I don't see any dead bodies around here."
"It's called looking out for a friend, Blackburn. Although you seem familiar with the concept, this isn't your turf. Go away."
Despite the situation, Meliana's amusement rose. Julie and Chris had dated once, and it hadn't gone well. They'd butted heads, tossed a little too much alcohol into an already volatile mix and very nearly wound up having their own private kickboxing match.
"That's enough, you two. Do you have any idea who it was?"
"Not a clue. This neighborhood's been pretty clean lately."
"Except for the car thieves," Chris remarked from behind.
"She still has her car, doesn't she? I'll go through the house with you, Mel, but it looks like the guy bolted when he heard the alarm."
"Which is exactly what I said earlier," Chris countered with a smug air.
Meliana jabbed his ribs. "Stop needling her, Blackburn, or I'll think you've been spending time with Johnny."
Chris snorted. "No one's been spending time with your hubby — sorry, ex-hubby, Mel. He lives like a hermit up at Blue Lake. Last time I saw him he had one beer, two eggs and a few scary-looking slices of white bread in his fridge."
They were separated, not divorced, Meliana reflected, but she let it go. "Eileen Crawford cleans house for him. She'll stock his fridge. Did anyone look in my cookie jar? For money," she added when Chris opened his mouth. "I keep extra cash inside for emergency pizzas."
"God, you eat as bad as Johnny." Julie pushed the door open.
"It's a miracle you two lived long enough to get married."
"She dug a slug out of his chest is why they got married," Chris said.
"Nice try, but how we met isn't why we got married." Meliana scanned the living room. "Seems fine here."
It was the same in the bedrooms, the dining room, the bathrooms and the kitchen. Even her cookie jar rattled with loose change.
"A twenty, two tens and a chewed five-dollar bill. My neighbor's new puppy's teething," Meliana explained, screwing the lid back on. "The only drugs I have are run-of-the-mill aspirin, and my wine cooler still has seventeen bottles inside. I'd say he took off."
"Good." Julie closed her notebook. "I can write my report and be home by seven. Hot date." She grunted in Chris's direction.
"Thankfully, not with a fed. You know, the only one of their kind I've ever been able to tolerate is Johnny, and even then there were times when I wanted to shove his ID up his — nose. Shut up," she said before Chris could speak. "I'm leaving, Mel. If you find anything missing, call me on my cell."
Through the kitchen window Meliana watched the storm clouds creep inland from the lake. The premature darkness reminded her of her wedding day when thunder had rumbled in the background of the outdoor ceremony and lightning had ultimately struck one of the three trees on the perimeter. She had to admit, no matter how it had ended, her relationship with Johnny Grand had been anything but dull.
"What are you smiling at?" Chris lounged against the counter and threw a tangerine into the air. A shrewd brow went up. "Johnny?"
She laughed. "I swear that lightning bolt was an omen."
"You think it was funny?"
"In retrospect. Come on, Chris, we were amazing for a while."
"And then Johnny went undercover."
"Yes." She sighed. "He did." Tossing her purse onto a chair, she headed for the stairs. "I need to change. I'm having dinner with the head of surgery and his wife tonight."
Chris followed her up. "All by your lonesome?" He clucked his tongue. "Not good, angel face. But no fear, I happen to be free."
"I'm not. I have a date."
He caught up with her and handed the tangerine over her shoulder. "That's not very nice, is it? Choosing a stranger over a friend and neighbor who's been there for you through thick and thicker?"
"If that's an offer of help, I accept." Amusement danced in her eyes as she turned. "It's a blind date, with the head of surgery's wife's nephew. You go in my place, tell the geek you like men who giggle and I'll go for a nice long run on the beach."
"On second thought, I might be getting a migraine."
"Yeah, I figured." She started for the bathroom, then paused and backtracked.
She regarded her top dresser drawer. It was open almost a full three inches. She always closed her drawers, not because she was a neat freak but because she'd gotten a puppy recently and he'd chewed several pieces of her clothing to shreds. On the other hand, the puppy had pretty much grown into a dog at this point.
She tipped her head to the side. "That drawer was closed when I left this morning."
Chris followed her gaze. "You think some crook bypassed your video equipment and laptop to poke through your drawers?"
"Not really. I'm sure it's..." She opened the drawer, froze, closed it. "Nothing."
"That nothing sounded like a whole lot of something to me." Chris pulled on the handle, peered inside. Then he looked at her.
"You keep roses in with your underwear?"
"One rose," she corrected. "Long stemmed, white, with a sprig of baby's breath." She picked it up and stared. "It's the fifth one I've gotten in the past month."
"I WHIPPED UP A BIG BATCH of chili and a pot of spaghetti sauce,
divided them into servings and labeled the containers." Eileen Crawford drew air pictures as she spoke. "They're in the freezer. You can cook pasta, right? Of course you can. There's fresh milk in the fridge, bread, vegetables and two big packages of cold cuts. Vacuum-sealed, so don't open the second until the first one's gone. I'll be back on Tuesday to tidy up the bathrooms and such. Will you be all right until then?"
Sometimes Johnny swore the woman was beamed from Mars to his doorstep twice a week as a test of earthling patience. Eileen had been cleaning houses for the residents of Blue Lake for twenty years. She was a heavyset woman with a faded Maine accent, curly blond hair and more nerve than anyone Johnny knew.And he knew or had known a great number of nervy people.
But that was in another lifetime, another world, one he didn't care to visit these days.
He tried to ease the woman politely out the door. "Thanks, Eileen. I appreciate the food and the clean sheets."
She shifted her handbag to her other shoulder. "You're just like my Zack when it comes to keeping house. Where clothing lands is where it stays. Has he been around to see you lately?"
Johnny fixed a smile on his face and kept it there as he nudged her forward. "Not for a week or so."
"Well, Sheriff Frank's been out of town. He belongs to some order of brethren or other and they convene every year at a big hotel, so Zack's been pushed a bit more than usual. I think there was some function he had to attend in Woodstock today. It's all go with you law enforcement types. Constantly busy. "
How busy could one of two deputies be in a town with less than fifteen hundred year-round residents and the tourist traffic down to boaters, backpackers and fifty-five-plus couples?
"I'm sure he'll get some time off soon."
"When he does, you two should go bowling, or head over to the grill for a game of pool." Eileen set a hand on her hip. "You're so practical, the pair of you. All I want is one grandchild before I retire, and what does Zack do? He dates a tourist for two weeks, then drives her down to O'Hare and says goodbye. Doesn't get her address, home or e-mail. I bet he never even thought to ask for her phone number."
"Maybe she wasn't the right one." They were almost at the door. "Move, Shannon," he said to his curious Irish setter. "Eileen wants to leave."
The big dog barked and began sniffing the woman's leg. She halted and rolled her eyes. "Doggie treats! I never gave them a thought. I'll run some out here first thing tomorrow morning."
"Shannon likes soda crackers. She can snack on those instead."
"Crackers? My God, Johnny Grand, did you treat your wife like this?"
Now it was Johnny's turn to stare. "Excuse me?"
She strengthened her grip on her shoulder strap. "I'm sorry. That was out of line. I just can't help wondering why a couple as lovely as you and Meliana broke apart. Your wife's a skilled surgeon, and yet she bandaged more knees and treated more stings and bites whenever she came up here than Dr. Fell — rest his soul — did in all his time on the lake. The woman's an angel."
Wanna bet? Johnny thought with equal parts humor and regret. "She has her moments," he agreed.
"How did you meet?"
Oh, no, she was settling in. "It's a long story, really long. I'll tell you about it another time. Right now..." The phone rang behind him.
"I'm expecting a call," he lied. "An important one."
She patted his arm. "You take it, then, and I'll let myself out."
"Walk her to her car," Johnny ordered Shannon in a low voice. He picked up. "Yeah, Grand here."
"I know you're there, Grand, but you should be here." Johnny waited until Eileen was out of earshot before turning away. "Julie? Why the hell are you calling me at —" he squinted at the burled wall clock that had come with the house " — eight at night?"
"Your wife got a rose."
He watched as Eileen's '81 Taurus sedan rolled off. "What?"
"Actually, she's gotten five roses in four weeks. Long stemmed, white, from a — ha-ha — secret admirer. And those weren't funny ha-ha's."
Johnny sat on the arm of the sofa. "What were they?"
"Worried. I take it your good buddy Chris didn't call?"
"About roses? No."
"Okay, here's the deal. Someone tried to break in to your — her town house today around five. We thought the alarm scared the guy off. Everything looked okay inside. But later, after we'd left, Mel found a white rose in her lingerie drawer. It isn't the first one she's received. It is the first one that's really violated her space. The other four didn't involve a break-in. Also..." She took a breath and Johnny heard the faint shudder beneath it. "Some of her lingerie's missing. She figures five or six pieces. One of them is that bustier thing she wore under her wedding dress — you know, the strapless bra slash corset slash garter belt number."
Johnny swore. "Did she call you?"
"Yeah, but only this time. She didn't mention the other four flowers until today. Blackburn was with her when she opened the drawer, but I figured — and I was right — he'd be as likely to contact you as cut off his foot."
Johnny searched the low tables for his car keys. "What are you doing about it?"
"There's not much we can do. We dusted for prints, but you know as well as I do we won't find anything. We'll also talk to her neighbors. So far, though, it seems like you bought into a complex where people mind their own business. Are you coming down?"
"Yeah." He checked under the sofa cushions for the keys.
"Don't tell Mel, okay?"
"You know, I really hate it when people say that to me. She's my friend, Johnny. She kept me from getting hysterical when I thought my mother was having a heart attack. Then she very calmly ran the tests and removed her gall bladder. I'll give you two hours before I blab."
"You're all heart, Jules."
He spotted his keys in a ceramic bowl beside the door, grabbed them along with his jacket and whistled for Shannon.
"Do me another favor, okay?"
"What is it?"
"Ask Mel if she's gotten anything else with those roses."