Sherry Carter was happy. She ran her hand through her hair, pushed the bangs off her forehead, tugged at her earlobe, and smiled across the table at Aaron Grant.
The young reporter was wearing a sports jacket with his shirt collar unbuttoned and the knot of his tie pulled down. His brown hair was wavy and slightly mussed. And he was clean shaven — it occurred to Sherry he was always clean shaven, very clean shaven, almost as if he was too young to shave.
“How’s your soup?” Aaron asked.
Sherry barely heard him. “Huh?”
“How’s your gazpacho?”
“Oh. It’s okay.”
“I could have warned you,” Aaron said. He gestured with his spoon. “Chicken soup you can’t go wrong. Anything else you take a chance.”
“I said it was okay.”
Aaron smiled. “Yes, you did. But okay is not a word of praise. It is an equivocation, indicating a reluctance to make a value judgment. And implying a less than favorable assessment.”
Sherry tried to scowl, but made a poor job of it. Her eyes twinkled. “Does everything with you have to be wordplay?”
“Not at all,” Aaron replied. “Just look me in the eye and tell me the truth — your gazpacho is barely adequate, and you could make much better yourself — which I am quite sure is a fact — and I would do nothing but agree.”
“Oh, you like women who brag about their accomplishments?”
“Who said anything about women? I like people who are straightforward. Sex doesn’t enter into it.”
“That’s for sure.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Does that happen to you often?”
“That sex doesn’t enter into it?”
“Now who’s indulging in wordplay?”
“I wasn’t,” Sherry replied. “I was just looking you in the eye and telling you the truth.”
Aaron Grant laughed. Sherry laughed back. They found themselves leaning on their elbows, smiling at each other.
Aaron and Sherry were having lunch at the Wicker Basket, a small family restaurant on Drury Lane, just off Main Street in Bakerhaven, Connecticut. The restaurant was a step up from the local diner, featuring tables, not booths, with red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and linen napkins. It was a quiet, homey place, and while the food was nothing special, on this occasion the atmosphere was more important.
It was their first date.
And by Aaron and Sherry’s standards, it was going well. Even if they had taken refuge in the safety of wordplay. Both were linguists. Aaron was a writer, Sherry was a crossword-puzzle constructor, and as such they were highly competitive. Sherry loved sparring with Aaron, loved having an intellectual equal who was capable of giving it back as good as he got it. Bantering with Aaron Grant was a treat.
It was also safe.
It kept Sherry from exposing herself, from opening up, from talking about the things that really mattered. Like their relationship, for instance, and where it was going.
There were lots of things unsaid.
Sherry was older than Aaron. Just a few years, but with an unsuccessful marriage to her credit. Aaron was only a year out of college and still lived with his parents, which made him seem young on the one hand, and precluded him inviting her up to his room on the other. Or so Sherry imagined. Their relationship hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
For her part, Sherry lived with her aunt. And while the much-married Cora Felton couldn’t have cared less if Sherry had invited Aaron over — on the contrary, from the start Cora had been the one pushing the relationship — Sherry still would have felt inhibited by her presence.
So they really had nowhere to go.
As if that weren’t enough impediment to the relationship, Sherry had one more stumbling block.
Sherry’s aunt, Cora Felton, was famous. She was known as the Puzzle Lady, both for her national TV ads and for her syndicated crossword-puzzle column. Two hundred and fifty-six newspapers carried that column, including Aaron’s paper, the Bakerhaven Gazette. Cora Felton’s beaming face appeared in the Gazette every morning.
That in itself would not have been a problem, but Cora Felton didn’t write the crossword-puzzle column.
Cora Felton merely provided the image. Her face was Sherry’s conception of what the Puzzle Lady should be. Which apparently was everybody else’s, for the Puzzle Lady puzzles were wildly popular.
At the moment, this too was complicating Sherry Carter and Aaron Grant’s relationship.
Aaron knew Sherry was the Puzzle Lady.
Sherry didn’t know he knew it.
Aaron had found out while covering the Graveyard Killings, as the Bakerhaven murders had come to be known, figured it out himself and then finessed a confirmation out of Cora Felton, who couldn’t stand up to his cross-examination. Cora had left the task of telling Sherry up to him. So far he hadn’t gotten around to it.
Though, Aaron realized, that wasn’t quite the case. In fact, it wasn’t the case at all. It wasn’t that he hadn’t gotten around to it. Aaron wanted to tell Sherry more than anything. It was one of the reasons he’d invited her to lunch. And yet, he still hadn’t told her.
Because, more than anything, he wanted her to tell him.
It really bothered him that she hadn’t. That after all they’d been through together, she didn’t trust him enough to let him know. Not that Aaron couldn’t make allowances. He knew Sherry had suffered at the hands of her alcoholic ex-husband. But he knew that from Cora, not from Sherry. And he wanted to hear the truth from Sherry badly, so badly he was holding off telling her just to give her the opportunity.
But he could not hold out long. Aaron had made up his mind. If Sherry hadn’t told him by the end of lunch, that was it. He’d give in and speak first. Not that he thought he’d have to. From her manner, he had a feeling she was about to tell him.
And she was.
As Sherry Carter sat in the Wicker Basket, smiling across the table at Aaron Grant, she felt at peace with the world. Because she knew she could tell him, and it would be all right. She could tell him about being the real Puzzle Lady. And she could tell him about her abusive ex-husband. And Aaron would understand. In spite of his jovial manner, in spite of his never taking anything seriously, Aaron was basically a good guy, and he would take it the right way. He might joke, sure, but it would be a friendly joke, a supportive joke, an accepting joke. He would put her at her ease.
Sherry was sure of it.
So why was she hesitating?
She would tell him now.
Sherry put her hands on the table, opened her mouth to speak, and —
Aaron Grant wasn’t looking at her. He was looking past her. The expression on his face was hard to read. Surprise, yes, but beyond that. Was it a pleasant surprise? It was hard to tell. But he appeared to be blushing. What was he looking at?
A figure appeared in Sherry’s peripheral vision and bore down on their table. Sherry looked up, frowned.
It was a young woman in a purple pants suit. Her blond hair was sculpted, curling down the side of her head in a casual, careless swoop that Sherry knew took patience to perfect. She was in her mid-twenties, but looked older, without looking old. She also looked sophisticated without looking sharp, stylish without looking styled. She looked intelligent, competent, totally self-assured. A woman who knows precisely what she wants. And knows exactly how to get it. That was Sherry’s first impression.
Aaron seemed stunned. He gawked at the woman, apparently incapable of speech.
She smiled. “Hi, Aaron.”
“Becky,” he murmured.
Then he was smiling and on his feet, totally recovered and performing introductions. “Sherry, this is Becky Baldwin. Becky, this is Sherry Carter. She’s the woman who helped solve the murder case.”
Becky Baldwin smiled and arched an eyebrow. “Really? I don’t recall reading that in the paper.”
“No,” Sherry said, matching her smile. “Aaron was nice enough to keep me out of it.”
“Oh, really? You didn’t want the credit? How modest of you. And how fascinating. You mean you actually solved these crimes?”
“No, I did not,” Sherry said. “And if you don’t mind, I would appreciate your not giving everyone in the restaurant the impression that I did.”
“Oh, was I talking too loud?” Becky Baldwin said, innocently. “I’m sorry. Occupational hazard.”
“Don’t tell me. You’re a cheerleader.”
Becky laughed. “I’m a lawyer.”
“You passed the bar?” Aaron said. “Congratulations.”
“A lawyer,” Sherry said. “So, you’re here to start a private practice?”
“Hardly,” Becky answered. “Bakerhaven’s not big enough to support another lawyer. I’m interviewing with some firms in Boston.”
“So you’re just passing through?” Sherry said. It bothered her how relieved she was to hear it.
“Yes, this is a hit-and-run,” Becky said. “Check in with my folks. Pack up some of my stuff.” She smiled at Aaron. “Look up old friends. Oh, and what do you do?” she asked Sherry.
It was clearly an afterthought. Never had Sherry’s impulse been so strong to tell someone she wrote a nationally syndicated crossword-puzzle column. She restrained it. “I teach school.”
“Oh, a schoolteacher. So you’re off for the summer?”
“Actually, I’m off most of the time. I’m a substitute teacher. I only go in when they call me.”
“Oh, a substitute. That must be stressful.” Becky smiled at Aaron. “I remember the trouble we used to give substitutes.”
“At age three?” Sherry said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I teach nursery school. Three-year-olds are not so rebellious.”
“Oh,” Becky Baldwin said.
The conversation ground to a halt.
Sherry wanted to ask, “When are you leaving?” but knew it would sound catty. She was relieved when Aaron asked it for her.
Until she heard Becky’s answer.
“I don’t know. I have a case to handle first.”
“A case?” Aaron said. “You’re kidding. How could you have a case?”
“I dropped by Arthur Kincaid’s law office to tell him I passed the bar, and he asked me if I’d handle something for him.”
“I don’t know. Some sort of conflict of interest where technically he’s retained on the other side.” Becky Baldwin pointed to a paper bag a waitress had just placed beside the cash register. “Anyway, I’m picking up salad to go, and having lunch with Arthur. He’s gonna brief me for the prearraignment, then I gotta get over to the courthouse and bail out my client.”
“What’s the case?” Aaron Grant asked.
Becky waved the question away. “Oh, it’s nothing. Town drunk broke into a house, was found passed out in bed. Hardly the crime of the century. Shouldn’t take long. Well, enjoy your lunch.”
Becky Baldwin paid for her salad, smiled, waved, and went out the door.
“Nice woman,” Sherry said.
“Uh huh,” Aaron said.
That was their entire conversation regarding Becky Baldwin. Still, her presence seemed to linger. The atmosphere certainly wasn’t the same as before she’d appeared.
Good intentions vanished.
Sherry didn’t confess to Aaron she was the Puzzle Lady, and Aaron didn’t confess to Sherry he knew.
They finished their lunch.
It was perfectly amiable.
And wholly unsatisfying.