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Adirt-encrusted mountain bike. A battered kayak. Free weights loose on the floor. Gym clothes and squash rackets hanging from a pegboard. Street and ice hockey sticks leaned up against the wall.
Brendan O'Malley's idea of how to welcome guests to his place.
As she stepped into the foyer, Jessica Stewart told herself there were no surprises. It wasn't as if she'd expected feng shui or something out of a decorating magazine. She loved the guy. She really did. She didn't know if she was in love with him, but that was a problem for laterright now, she had to fight her way into his apartment and find out what he was up to.
Jess stuffed the key that O'Malley's brother Mikethe firefighter brotherhad loaned her. Brendan was one of the cop brothers, a Boston homicide detective. The other cop brother, the youngest, was just starting out. There was also a carpenter brother and a marine brother. Five O'Malley brothers in all. At thirty-four, Brendan was smack in the middle. A guy's guy.
There was, in other words, no logical reason Jess should have expected anything but hockey sticks in the foyer.
Brendan and Mike owned the triple-decker and were renovating it as an investment property. Brendan had the first-floor apartment to himself.
Jess had rung the doorbell. She'd pounded on the door.
Taking Detective O'Malley by surprise wasn't a good idea under any circumstances, but today it was really a bad one.
He'd almost been killed yesterday.
She hoped the kayak and mountain bike were a sign that he was still in town. Even his brothers didn't want him going off on his own so soon after a trauma.
Using the toe of her taupe pumps, Jess rolled the dumbbells aside and entered the living room. It was her first time inside his apartment. Their on-again, off-again relationship over the past two months had been at theaters, restaurants and her condo on the waterfront. They hadn't had so much as a candlelight dinner at his place.
It wasn't that it was a pigsty in the sense of trash and garbage all over the floors and furniture. He didn't live like a rator with rats. His apartment simply reflected his priorities. He had a flat-screen television, stacks of DVDs, an impressive stereo system, a computer, shelves of books on the Civil War and more sports equipment. In the living room.
He wasn't much on hanging up his clothes, either.
Mike had warned Jess when she talked him into giving her the keys to his younger brother's apartment. Brendan had lived on his own for a long time. His apartment was his sanctuary, his world away from his work as a detective.
Inviolable, and yet here she was.
She walked into the adjoining dining room. The table was stacked with car, sports and electronic gaming magazines and a bunch of flyers and guidebooks on Nova Scotiaanother sign, she hoped, that he hadn't already left.
He needed to be with his family and friends right now. Not off on his own in Nova Scotia. Everyone agreed.
Jess continued down the length of the apartment to the kitchen. A short hall led to the bathroom and bedroom. The bedroom door was shut, but she knew she'd never have gotten this far if he were on the premises. It was only five o'clockshe'd come straight from the courthousebut he'd taken the day off.
No dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter, none in the dishwasher.
Not a good sign.
The house was solid, built about a hundred years ago in a neighborhood that wasn't one of Boston's finest, and had a lot of character. Brendan and Mike were doing most of the work themselves, but they were obviously taking their timeboth had demanding jobs. They'd pulled up the old linoleum in the kitchen, revealing narrow hardwood flooring, and scraped off layers of wallpaper. Joe, the carpenter brother, had washed his hands of the place.
Jess peeked out onto the enclosed back porch, stacked with tools and building materials, all, presumably, locked up tight.
Brendan had mentioned, over a candlelight dinner at her place, that a couple of jazz musicians lived in the top floor apartment, a single-mother secretary with one teenage daughter in the middle floor apartment. He and Mike had fixed up the upper-floor apartments first because they provided income and allowed them to afford the taxes and mortgage.
Taking a breath, Jess made herself crack open the door to his bedroom.
It smelled faintly of his tangy aftershave. The shades were pulled.
The telephone rang, almost giving her a heart attack.
So much for having a prosecutor's nerves of steel.
She waited for the message machine.
"Stewart?" It was O'Malley. "I know you're there. I got it out of Mike. Pick up."
No way was she picking up.
"All right. Suit yourself. I'm on my way to Nova Scotia. I'm fine."
She grabbed the phone off his nightstand. "You left your bike and kayak."
"Don't need them." She could hear the note of victory in his tone now that he'd succeeded in getting her on the line. "Place I'm going has its own bikes and kayaks."
She noticed his bed was made, not that neatly, but he'd put in the effort. "Why sneak off?"
"I didn't want a lot of grief from everyone."
"Brendancome on. You had a bullet whiz past your head yesterday. You need to be with family and friends."
"The bullet didn't whiz through my head. Big difference. It just grazed my forehead. A little blood, that's it. I get banged up worse than that playing street hockey. A couple days' kayaking and walking on the rocks in Nova Scotia, and I'll be in good shape."
"Did you bring your passport? You know, they don't just let you wave on your way across the border these days"
"Quit worrying. I'm fine."
"You don't sound fine," Jess said. "You sound like you're trying to sound fine."
"What are you now, Stewart? Ex-cop, hard-ass prosecutor, or would-be girlfriend?"
She stood up straight, catching her reflection in the dresser mirror. Chestnut hair, a little frizzed up given the heat and humidity. Pale blue suit in an industrial-strength fabric that didn't wrinkle, repelled moisture, held its shape through the long hours she put in.
Definitely a former police officer, and now a dedicated prosecutor.
How on earth had she become Brendan O'Malley's would-be girlfriend?
"Don't flatter yourself, Detective. Just because we've seen each other a few times doesn't mean I'm mooning over you"
He laughed. "Sure you are."
"I've known you forever."
"You haven't been sleeping with me forever."
True. She'd slept with him that one time, two weeks ago. Since then, he'd been acting as if it had been a fast way to ruin a perfectly good friendship. Maybe she had, too. They'd known each other since her days at the police academy, when O'Malley had assisted with firearms training. He was only two years out of the academy himself, but even then everyone knew he was born to be a detective. She'd been attracted to him. What woman wasn't? They'd become friends, stayed friends when she went to law school nights and then took her job as a prosecutor. She'd never even considered dating himnever mind sleeping with himuntil two months ago.
She could feel the first twinges of a headache. "Some crazy fairy with a sick sense of humor must have whacked me with her magic fairy wand to make me want to date you."
"Honey, we haven't just dated"
"Don't remind me."
"Best night of your life."
He was kidding, but she knew what had happened that night. Brendan O'Malley, stud of studs, had gone too far. He'd been tender and sexy and intimate in a way that had scared the hell out of him. Now he was backpedaling. Pretending it was her chasing him and it was all a game.
"I'm losing the connection. I'm up here somewhere in moose country. Quit worrying, okay? I'll call you when I get back."
"I might never make it out of this damn apartment of yours. I'll need a compass to navigate through all your stuff."
But he wasn't making up the bad connection, and his cell phone suddenly blanked out altogether, leaving Jess standing there in his bedroom, his phone dead in her hand.
She cradled it with more force than was necessary.
Bravado. That was all this was about.
O'Malley was shaken by yesterday's close call. He and his partner had entered a seedy hotel to question a possible witness in a murder, only to have the guy throw down his backpack, turn and run. An ancient .38 fell out of the backpack, hit the floor and went off.
The bullet just barely grazed O'Malley's forehead.
It could have killed him. It could have killed anyone in the vicinity.
O'Malley was treated on the scene. He wasn't admitted or even transported to the hospital. As he'd said, he was fine.
It was his third close call that year. The sheer randomness of this latest one had gotten to him. He wasn't a target. The witness wasn't a suspect in the murder, wasn't trying to kill him or anyone else, said he had the .38 for his own protectionnever mind that he was now charged with carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a weapon in violation of his probation, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Over dinner with Jess last night, after he'd been debriefed, Brendan had admitted he didn't think he'd get this one out of his mind that easily. He kept seeing the gun fall out of the backpack. He kept feeling himself yell, "Gun!" and jump back, an act that had saved his life. The heat of the bullet, the reaction of his partner, the paramedicshe remembered everything, and it played like a movie in his head, over and over.
"In the blink of an eye," he said, "that would have been all she wrote on the life of Brendan O'Malley."
He'd wanted to be alone that night.
When Jess called to check on him in the morning, he blamed his moroseness the evening before on the shrinks and too much wine and said he was heading off on his own for the weekend.