The police, convinced the crime was a random mugging, are dismissive of Rae’s story of blackmail. Then a scandal from Rae’s past job comes to light, and the police start to eye her as a suspect. To clear her reputation and ensure justice for Thalia, Rae decides it’s up to her to unmask the murderer—despite her husband’s objections.
Rae’s sleuthing leads her to France, where she enlists the help of Thalia’s handsome half brother. As they collaborate to catch the killer, sparks fly between them, and Rae has to contend with these newly aroused feelings—even as she strives to outmaneuver a cold-blooded murderer who wants to silence her.
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Yoga wasn't helping. Despite forty-five minutes of stretches, contortions, and deep breathing, I was still in a foul mood. "Focus on the breath," the lithe young instructor urged the class as I sat cross-legged on my mat. Eyes closed, I tried to force my mind back to the slow, rhythmic inhalations and exhalations, but resentment was my mantra at that moment. Why had Thalia insisted on jetting off to Paris during our busiest season, leaving me to run the shop on my own? She could have easily negotiated the purchase of those quilts by email. More to the point, why had I agreed to let her go? Maybe Peter was right. I was a pushover when it came to my business partner.
"As you inhale, feel yourself filling up with light," intoned the teacher. "Now exhale, and release all negativity." Damn it. Because of Thalia's last-minute jaunt, this was the eighth straight day that I would be in the shop. And I still wasn't keeping up with everything. There were bills to be paid; there was merchandise to be ordered. And I suddenly remembered that a big estate sale that sounded promising was happening today up in Healdsburg. I'd have to miss it.
"Shit!" I said, my frustration reaching critical mass. Oops. Had I actually said that out loud? I opened my eyes to find surprised faces turned in my direction. The instructor, though, seemed unfazed. "Stay focused on the breath," she serenely reminded the class, making her way toward the back of the studio where I sat. As she leaned over me, I tried to look meditative. "Everything OK?" she asked softly.
"Sorry about that," I murmured, chagrined. Swearing in yoga class was no doubt a black mark on my karma, meted out by whatever higher power was keeping score. "I'm fine. Just a cramp in my leg," I said to the instructor. Lying, too. Another demerit. The teacher nodded, then returned to the front of the room.
I managed to make it through the rest of the class with no further outbursts. But as we were lying prone in our final meditation, my phone, stuffed in my purse in one of the wall cubbies, began to ring. Another faux pas! I'd forgotten to silence it. After what seemed like an eternity but was actually only four rings, it stopped. My cheeks burned, but at least no one knew I was the offender. The minute class ended, I grabbed my stuff and beat a hasty retreat.
Stepping outside into the sunshine, I shook my shoulder-length dark hair free of its elastic band and inhaled the scent of roasting coffee beans wafting into the street from the corner café. Although the temperature would probably reach the high nineties by the afternoon, right now the early morning weather was absolutely perfect. I checked my phone. A missed call from Thalia. Not surprisingly, there was no message. Whenever I didnt answer right away Thalia typically hung up — yet another of her annoying habits. "Why should I leave a message?" she'd said when I complained. "You always call back without listening to the message first and I have to say everything all over again." She had a point. I was in no mood to talk to her. I'd call her later.
It was a short walk from Fairfax's bustling little downtown to my house on tree-lined Hickory Street. "I'm back," I announced as I opened the front door and walked down the hall. Peter was sitting at the pine table in the high-ceilinged kitchen, sipping black coffee and reading the morning news on his tablet. Jasper lay at his feet in a puddle of sunlight. The pudgy yellow lab thumped his tail in greeting but stayed where he was, keeping his eyes focused on the bagel that Peter was lifting to his mouth. I smiled at the sight of them. Peter was definitely a creature of habit, starting every morning sitting in the same chair, drinking coffee from the same mug.
True, sometimes his adherence to order and routine was a bit much. For instance, his thing about how to fold the towels in the linen closet made me roll my eyes, although I complied just to shut him up. After all, it had been his house long before I'd moved in five years ago, and if he liked his towels folded in thirds, I could handle that. Maybe it was his fanatical attention to detail that made him such a successful architect and builder.
"Have you been feeding the dog your bagel?" I asked with suspicion.
Not true, I was sure. I opened the fridge and poured myself a glass of orange juice. "So I swore in yoga class," I announced between swallows. "And then I lied."
Peter laughed. "Come here," he said, pulling me onto his lap. "You may not be the perfect student, but you look great in the pants," he said, patting my Lycra-clad bottom. OK, maybe yoga did have its advantages. He began kissing my neck. "Want to go back upstairs?"
"Mmm. But I can't. I have to get to the shop."
"What about the fair Thalia?" Peter asked, releasing his embrace. "How come you're the one who does all the work —"
"She's on a buying trip," I said quickly, cutting him off. "Some last-minute thing. It's no big deal." I didn't need him to start one of his rants about Thalia: how she was spoiled and inconsiderate, how she took advantage of me, blah, blah, blah. "Besides, I thought you were meeting with a client this morning."
"I am, but not for a few hours," Peter said, stroking my back. "And they've already seen preliminary drawings, so this meeting is just to sign the contract. We'll have no trouble getting it approved. I'm making the space a lot more usable, but I'm hardly increasing the footprint of the house. Even the town tree-huggers will be happy with it."
Fairfax, our little town twenty miles north of San Francisco, was decidedly anti-development. The locals — an amiable assortment of hippies, yuppies, and everything in between — were not eager for change. And I was of a similar mind, although Peter and I sometimes locked horns over it. As the San Francisco Bay Area sprawled ever onward, Fairfax, nestled at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, remained an oasis of green.
"I need to shower and get out of here," I said, extricating myself from Peter's embrace and heading upstairs. Climbing back into bed with my husband was certainly tempting, but I had to get going.
By the time I came back down to the kitchen, Peter was on his cell phone immersed in business. I gave him a quick kiss, threw some fruit and a yogurt into my bag, and grabbed the dog's leash from its hook by the front door. "Come on Jasper, let's go."
The tall butterfly bush next to the porch steps was in full bloom, and I leaned into it to inhale its fragrance while Jasper found a spot to pee in. The front yard, now at its midsummer peak, was a happy mélange of colors and shapes, more suited perhaps to a cottage in the Cotswolds than a 1920s craftsman bungalow, as Peter liked to point out. If he had his way, it would be all geometric beds, with perfectly manicured boxwood. But while I might humor him on towel-folding, one area where I refused to budge was the garden. Growing up in a Brooklyn apartment, Id long coveted a garden of my own. Now that I had one, I wasn't about to forgo my shrub roses and lilacs. I led Jasper through the gate to the Volvo parked out front.
It was only an eight-minute drive from our house in Fairfax to Le Jardin, the shop Thalia and I ran in the quaint neighboring town of San Anselmo. The small store, sandwiched between two pricey antique shops, sold home and garden decor, some new, some vintage, most of it from France. The economic downturn appeared to have had no impact in Marin County, where people willingly paid high prices for the perfect treasure.
I unlocked the door, turned on the lights, and started a pot of coffee in the small back room that served as both office and supply room. While it was brewing, I checked the phone messages, then opened the back door to let Jasper out. The tiny shop had a correspondingly tiny concrete patio out back, but I had spruced it up with dozens of containers overflowing with flowers and herbs. Chairs, obelisks, and other merchandise were sprinkled among them, creating a setting that invited customers to sit and linger on warm days. Morning glories climbed a trellis in a wide metal planter that was previously a Victorian laundry tub. I gave all the plants a drenching, then filled Jasper's water bowl, snipped a few sweet pea stems, and put them in an antique mustard jar on the counter. At ten o'clock, I turned the hand-lettered sign from "closed" to "open."
A steady stream of customers kept me and my part-time employee Susan busy all morning. Well, I told myself as I turned to help another customer, being too busy was preferable to the alternative. Still, I was thankful that Thalia was flying home tonight. I was wrapping up a galvanized French flower bucket for a young couple when my friend Sonia came in.
"Hi, Rae." She greeted me with a hug. "I just got a call for a photo shoot tomorrow. Can I borrow a few props?"
"Of course, help yourself."
Sonia worked as a prop stylist, setting up locations for magazine and catalog photo shoots. She was known for her airy, pared-down interiors, which amused me because her own funky cottage was an eclectic hodgepodge. She lived high up in the hills of Fairfax, along with two dogs, numerous cats, and a goat. I was pretty sure she let the goat in the house when no one was looking. Sonia's wardrobe blended multiple decades, usually worn all at once. Today she sported a long flouncy skirt with a beaded vintage sweater, hiking boots, and clip-on rhinestone earrings. She scooped up a few antique kitchen canisters and an enamel sign from an old tobacco shop. "This stuff is perfect," she said. "Can I borrow it until Tuesday?"
"Hi Jasper, you lump." Sonia stooped down to scratch the dog behind the ears. "So how's Thalia?" she asked me.
"Fine. She's flying back tonight."
"Hey, didn't she do the last two buying trips? I thought you were supposed to go to France next month."
"That was the plan, but she had some friend she really wanted to see over there ..." I waved my hand dismissively.
"'Friend,' huh? Is he young and tasty?"
"Oh, come on. She's very happy with Garrett."
"Why wouldn't she be? The guy's a successful attorney and they live in a ten-room house in Ross. But that doesn't mean she can't have a lover in Paris."
I dismissed Sonia's theory with a laugh, although it was true that Thalia had been extremely vague about why she, rather than me, needed to go to Paris so urgently.
"Let's have dinner with her when she's back and we'll worm it out of her," Sonia suggested. "Since my own sex life is nonexistent right now, I can at least hear about hers. How about next Tuesday?" "Sounds good. I'll check with her."
"OK. Bye, sweetie."
Susan and I had our hands full until shortly after noon. Finally there was a lull, and Susan stepped out to grab some lunch for the two of us. I was tidying the shelves when the shop phone rang. Thalia's familiar husky voice had a tense edge. "Rae, it's me. I'm on a layover at JFK. My flight gets in around six this evening. Let's have a drink afterward."
"Um, sure. Want to come over?"
"No, no, let's go out. I need to talk to you. I'll phone you on my way home from the airport."
"OK. How did the buying go? Did you get a good deal on the quilts?"
"Quilts?" She sounded distracted. I heard her take a long drag on a cigarette.
"Is anything wrong?" I asked.
"No ..." Thalia paused. "Actually, yes. I'll tell you when I see you."
* * *
That evening I strolled the ten blocks from my house to Fairfax's local brew pub, enjoying the balmy weather. I gazed up at Mount Tam, which towered above the leafy streets, and marveled at how lucky I was to live in this slice of paradise.
I was sipping a Lagunitas pale ale at a back table when Thalia walked in. Heads turned: the men's because she had honey-blond hair and legs a mile long, the women's because her cashmere sweater, silk skirt, and custom-made Italian boots deserved a second look. I was used to Thalia commanding all the attention. It's not that I thought I was unattractive. But at five foot three with a mane of curly dark hair, being next to pale, willowy Thalia sometimes made me feel like a swarthy dwarf.
Thalia ordered a martini and frowned when the server told her that the only alcohol available was beer. "Fine, I'll have a mineral water with lime," she said with impatience, and then she turned her attention back to me. "Look at this." She took a folded piece of paper out of her purse and passed it across the table. I read the typed words: I know about your affair. Prepare to pay.
"It was left at my hotel yesterday morning in an envelope." Her mineral water arrived, and she took several sips as I looked at the note again. She set the glass down and brushed her hair back off her forehead. I saw fine lines around her gray eyes, lines that I'd never noticed before. I sat in silence waiting for further explanation. None came.
"So just who does this person think you're having an affair with?" I asked.
"Who the hell is Etienne?" Why couldn't Thalia simply get to the point, without making me interrogate her?
"I met him at the beginning of last year. We've been together the past three times I was in France."
"You mean you're cheating on Garrett?" I asked accusingly.
Thalia gave me an amused smile. "Sweetie, wake up and smell the roses. It's not unheard of to have an affair."
"Coffee," I said sharply.
"Coffee. It's 'Wake up and smell the coffee,' 'Stop and smell the roses,'" I snapped. "You're mixing metaphors."
"You're angry at me," Thalia said, stating the obvious. "I know I should have told you about him a long time ago." She reached into her leather bag and pulled out a charcoal-gray box. "I brought you a present."
I recognized the box instantly — it was from Laduree, and no doubt filled with the patisserie's irresistible macarons. Thalia was still talking. "He's marvelous. You'll understand when you meet him."
"And when would that be?" I said coldly, nowhere near ready to forgive Thalia for withholding such a bombshell, pastries notwithstanding.
"At Garrett's birthday party in a few weeks. Etienne is coming to San Francisco with his wife and son. They're —"
"Wife?" I interrupted, raising my eyebrows.
I made my voice as icy as possible. "It wasn't her name I was asking about."
"All right, all right, yes, he's married. I can't help that, can I?"
"No, but presumably you could help screwing him." I opened the box and broke off half a rose-petal macaron. Heavenly. Mouth full, I glared at Thalia, who sat in silence, looking utterly serene. Finally my curiosity got the better of me. "OK," I sighed. "Tell me."
"We met at the flea market. We both had our eye on the same candelabra, and he very gallantly allowed me to have it. We ended up walking all over town together. We had dinner. And, well, what can I say? There was an instant connection." There often was. Although many men found Thalia too frosty and intimidating, I remembered from our college days that those who were attracted to her fell in love in about five minutes.
"Is it serious?" I asked.
"Yes." Thalia's face took on a dreamy expression that I found disconcerting — this was an entirely new side of my levelheaded business partner.
"So what about Garrett? Are you going to leave him?"
"God, no," Thalia said quickly. "At least not now." She paused. "Of course, we've talked about it. Etienne and I. But we're not ready. Renata could make things difficult."
No kidding, I thought, since you're stealing her husband. "So what's the deal with the note?" I asked.
"Oh, I have some ideas about that. There's someone who works with Etienne — Marcel. He doesn't like my being around. That's because I caught him going through Etienne's papers and I confronted him. Poor Etienne is so trusting." The dreamy look returned, but I nipped that in the bud.
"How would he know which hotel to leave the note at?" I asked. "Do you think he followed you?"
"Maybe. But he could easily have heard Etienne mention it."
"So he's threatening to reveal the affair to ... what's her name, Renata," I prompted.
"I guess. But I'm not too concerned about that." She took a sip of her water. "After all, it's France. It's not unusual to have a lover. I'm more worried about Garrett finding out. It could get really ugly. He's about to be made partner in his law firm. The other two partners are devoted family men. One even leads a youth ministry group. Garrett can't have any sordid secrets."
"It's not really Garrett's sordid secret," I pointed out. "It's yours." Nor was I convinced that Etienne's wife would be so open-minded about her husband's extramarital romance. "Do you think Renata knows?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Sleeping Lady"
Copyright © 2018 Bonnie C. Monte.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
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