A holly jolly Christmas with friends is all artist Peter Brandon and his private investigator partner Jeff Stevens expect when they visit their buddies, Andrew and David, in New York City. All that changes when a party guest ends up murdered and Andrew is considered to be the prime suspect.
The situation worsens when the murdered man's wife accuses Andrew of trying to persuade her husband to have a gay affair with him. It's up to Jeff and a sympathetic NYPD detective, Nick Fallon, to try to clear Andrew's name. They are, at times, aided and then hindered by Peter's erratic psychic abilities-or disabilities, as he calls them- that eventually lead them to a powerful and unexpected showdown when the real killer is exposed.
Along the way, new friendships are made and tested-and one is irrevocably destroyed by lies and denial. This is another fast-paced page turner from J.P. Bowie that will keep you guessing all the way to the end-and perhaps, beyond...
Some months earlier...
The driver of the Jeep Cherokee took the sharp bend in the road too quickly and, for a moment, the vehicle's tail end swung violently near the soft shoulder. With a quick intake of breath, she straightened the vehicle out and gripped the steering wheel harder, trying to take more control. She glanced at the man in her passenger seat. He had not stirred as he slept on in a drunken stupor. She looked at him again, her face twisted with dislike.
Why the hell am I the one driving the son-of-a-bitch back to the house? I should have let him try to drive himself. Serve him right if he'd gone off the road and killed himself. That would be the answer to everything-he'd be dead, and no longer a threat to her happiness.
The road in front of her was dark and winding, lined on both sides by tall trees that obscured what little light the moon could provide. She had driven this road many times before on previous visits, but tonight it appeared alien and hostile, and she was unable to make out any of the familiar landmarks that told her she would soon be at the narrow turn off that led to the house.
Had she already passed it? Had her scattered thinking made her miss the unmarked road? Muttering a curse under her breath, she slowed slightly and peered ahead looking for something she could recognize. She jumped as blinding headlights rounded the corner, seeming to be on a collision course, straight at her.
"Jesus!" She screamed and wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right. The Jeep skidded on the soft ground as it left the pavement, causing her to lose control of the vehicle. It spun into the trees and bushes and plunged over the side of the embankment, stopping only when it crashed into a pile of logs at the bottom of the incline.
The blow she felt to her chest, she realized, was the air bag wedging her between the seat and the steering wheel. She struggled free of her seatbelt and pushed the door open, crying out as an agonizing pain shot through her left arm all the way up to her shoulder. She fell out of the vehicle moaning, then staggered to her feet and looked back at her passenger. He was still asleep, or had been knocked unconscious. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she went round to open his door then jumped back as a burst of flame shot out from under the Jeep.
"Oh, my God!"
Her shriek finally stirred the man in the passenger seat. He looked around him, his eyes unfocused, as if at first he didn't comprehend the danger he was in. Then, as the flames rose around him, he started to struggle, calling to her for help. His face contorted with terror as smoke filled the vehicle and the heat from the flames engulfed his body.
She stepped back from the vehicle, her mind spinning crazily out of orbit. Here was the answer. The problem solved. She stared back at his horror stricken expression, her own face a cold and stony mask.
"Help me!" he screamed, but she turned and ran, scrambling madly up the steep incline that led to the road. The force of the blast from the explosion behind her slammed her into the soft damp earth and she lay there for a long time listening to the roar of the flames-and somewhere above that, she could swear she still heard his screams.
Peter Brandon groaned as he reached across to switch off the alarm by his bedside.
"Time to get up," he muttered without much conviction. He hated getting up when it was still dark outside, but today, he and his partner, Jeff Stevens, had an early morning plane to catch.
"C'mon, sleepy head." Jeff appeared in the bedroom doorway with two mugs of coffee. He set them down on Peter's nightstand and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Up and at 'em or we'll miss that plane."
"You showered already." Peter gazed up at him through sleepy eyes. "You smell all clean and nice. Come back to bed." He lay back on his pillow and tried to wrap his arms round Jeff's neck.
Jeff chuckled and pulled himself free. "No chance. The cab's going to be here in forty-five minutes- so move it!"
Peter groaned again, but sat up and sipped some of his coffee. "Okay; can't win this one I guess."
Jeff grinned at him. "Andrew just called to remind us to bring overcoats- he said the temperature in New York is going to be barely above freezing for the next few days."
"Jeez, what we do for our friends," Peter moaned. "It's going to be in the seventies here today and we're voluntarily flying to the frozen wastes to spend Christmas-up to our asses in snow."
"This was your idea, remember? You and Andrew have talked about nothing else for the past month. â€˜Oh, it'll be so neat to have a real white Christmas this year-and spend it with you guys-we can't wait!'"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Go on, rub it in." Peter rolled out of bed, gave himself a stretch and a shake, then padded to the bathroom and turned on the shower.
Jeff had to admit that he too was looking forward to the trip. It would be good to get away for a couple of weeks, and to see their friends Andrew and David again. More than a year had passed since David had accepted a promotion at work, involving a move to New York, and Jeff knew Peter missed his buddy, Andrew.
Planning for this break had been difficult for Jeff. Peter was a talented freelance artist and could easily organize his time off, while Jeff, a self-employed private investigator, was sometimes forced to reschedule his time at a client's whim. This had led to the occasional cancellation of his and Peter's social plans. Most of the time, Peter would suffer in silence, but now and then he would get vocal about his disappointment, and that could lead to an argument, as Jeff would refuse to give in to Peter's objections. They wouldn't stay mad at each other for very long, for Jeff refused to let the sun go down on any difference of opinion they might have, and the â€˜making up' was always thrilling. Besides, one look into Peter's startlingly cobalt blue eyes and Jeff's strong resolve would turn to putty.
Not that he would ever admit to the effect they had on him.
He smiled as he heard Peter warbling "New York, New York" in the shower. The last couple of years had been a heady experience for Jeff. His business had thrived, due mostly to the notoriety he and Peter had earned from their involvement in one or two high profile cases. Despite the stress and sometimes danger of the situations, the upside of it all had been that they had made new friends along the way, and their relationship with each other had been strengthened.
Sometimes he tried to remember what his life had been before Peter, and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to imagine he had ever been happier in his entire life. His thoughts were interrupted by Peter bouncing back into the bedroom.
"Did you already pack my deodorant?" he demanded, hands on hips.
"And if I did?" Jeff's eyes raked over Peter's slim, lightly tanned body still glistening and damp from the shower.
"You will have to be punished, I think."
Peter advanced on him, eyes flashing, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as Jeff caught him in his arms and held him in a bear hug. Peter giggled and wound both his legs round Jeff's waist. Just then they heard the doorbell chime and Peter yelped as Jeff dumped him onto the bed.
"The taxi's here. Get dressed!"
"He's early." Peter dived back into the bathroom. "I'll just have to go stinky."
"There's a spare deodorant in the cabinet," Jeff yelled as he ran down the stairs to answer the door. He informed the driver they'd be a few more minutes and helped him load the suitcases into the cab.
Peter appeared in the doorway, pulling a sweater over his head.
"Got the tickets and everything?"
"Everything-don't worry. Just grab your coat and let's go."
"Right. I'm ready. New York here we come."
Jeff gave him a wry smile. "I just hope New York's ready for you."
* * * *
Andrew Connor frowned as he looked at his appointment book for the day.
"Damn," he muttered, noticing the time of his last appointment was for four in the afternoon-a sports massage for a regular client. He had meant to reschedule that one. Peter and Jeff's plane was arriving around five, and he and David were planning on being there to meet them at the airport. It would take them a good couple of hours to get there with the rush hour traffic. He'd have to call and cancel this last appointment. He ran his hand through his hair in exasperation. He hated having to do this; he always tried to avoid letting his clients down, but he had no choice today. He'd see if his client could make it early tomorrow morning. That would free him up around two-thirty. He'd meet David at his office and they'd get to the airport in time.
He was looking forward to seeing Peter again. Jeff too, but Peter was his best buddy and he had missed him more than he could have imagined. A lot of it, of course, was the fact he had made few friends in the city. David's job involved long hours, and many nights he arrived home, worn out from the stress of his new position, and in no mood to go out or socialize.
Andrew recalled the happier days in Laguna, when he and David, Peter and Jeff, and their close friends, Rob and Maggie would get together frequently for a fun evening of dinner and laughs, or the theatre in Los Angeles. They'd all had their busy lives, but always had found time for each other.
Things were different now, and though Andrew did not want to burden David with his complaints, he had to admit to himself-he wasn't crazy about living in New York. He disliked the impersonal and unfriendly attitudes he encountered almost on a daily basis. He'd tried telling himself that's the way it was in the big city, but the rudeness of some people rankled.
David's promotion was an important step in his life, and Andrew knew that he would be loath to walk away from it and return to California just because Andrew was unhappy living in New York. He had tried to hide it from David as much as he could, but every now and then his exasperation would surface, leading to an awkward silence when David questioned him about it. He just didn't want David to worry about it, and he kept thinking to himself that eventually he might be able to settle down in the city and make the best of it.
Rod and â€˜A', the two Englishmen they had met in Laguna through Peter, always called when they passed through New York on their many trips to Europe. Sometimes they would get together for dinner or the theatre, and Andrew looked forward to news of his friends who seemed so far away.
It had been â€˜A' who had let it slip that Peter and Jeff were planning this Christmas trip. Andrew smiled as he remembered the look of consternation on â€˜A's face as Rod had reprimanded him for giving away the "secret."
"You and that bloody big mouth of yours. Nobody can tell you anything without you blabbing it all out at the drop of a hat!"
"Pretend you didn't hear, my darlings-it's not like me to let the cat out of the bag."
"Hah!" Rod had snorted. "You couldn't keep a secret if your life depended on it."
Andrew had called Peter that night to have him confirm the good news, and his friend had laughed when Andrew told him how he'd found out.
"I told Jeff the one sure way you'd know is if we let â€˜A' in on our plans. Yes, we want to come see you at Christmas. Are you ready for visitors?"
"Yes! For you guys, definitely. You've just made my day."
The one friend Andrew had made, Morgan Kennedy, was the only person in New York he felt he could confide in. He had met her a few months earlier when she made an appointment for some physical therapy following an accident she'd been involved in. Andrew had warmed to her immediately, and over the weeks of her treatment they had met for the occasional lunch date, indulging in long conversations and sharing their frustrations about New York living.
Morgan and her husband Jeremy lived only two blocks from Andrew and David's apartment, but it had taken some time before their mutual partners joined them socially.
"Jeremy doesn't want to hear me bitching about living here," Morgan confessed to Andrew at one of their lunches, "and he wouldn't appreciate the two of us agreeing with each other."
Andrew knew there were problems with their marriage. Morgan had mentioned her unhappiness on several occasions. The almost resigned complacence with which she spoke of it irritated Andrew.
"You shouldn't be so easily accepting of a bad marriage, Morgan. You deserve better than that."
"Andrew, you haven't known me long enough to know what I deserve. It hasn't been an easy street for Jeremy either-I can be quite the shrew when I want to be."
"Have you thought of seeing a marriage counselor?"
"My dear young Andrew, you are quite the naif, aren't you?"
"Am I?" Andrew retorted, stung and flushed with annoyance.
"Sorry, I don't mean to be patronizing. Jeremy and I have been married for twelve years. It was wonderful to begin with, but as time goes by people change, and you don't always like the things you used to in the beginning."
Morgan swept a hand through her dark red hair and her green eyes glittered. "Meaning, I have a big mouth. I'm speaking out of turn. I shouldn't be talking about this behind his back."
"Better you don't know, even though you would probably be sympathetic."
"Morgan, you are being really obtuse. What the hell are you talking about?"
"Nothing, Andrew. Forget it, I'm just rambling, that's all."
That conversation had troubled Andrew for weeks afterwards, but if he ever tried to broach the subject again, Morgan would cut him short and pick another topic. When he and David finally got to meet Jeremy Kennedy at an impromptu dinner Morgan gave for them he decided he detested Morgan's husband.
The one thing he had never imagined happening was that the man would sit and openly flirt with David, for almost the entire evening. Even though David handled the situation with his usual grace and good manners, Andrew squirmed with embarrassment for Morgan, and was more than a little relieved when David suggested they make it an early night due to an important meeting he had in the morning.
"Jeez, Andrew..." David had asked as they walked back to their apartment, "Did you know Jeremy was gay?"
Andrew shook his head. "Morgan has never mentioned it. I can't believe she wouldn't come up with that little snippet of information."
"Maybe she doesn't know."
"How can she not know? The man's a flamer."
"It is a little hard to miss."
The next time Andrew met Morgan for lunch, she went to great lengths to apologize for her husband's behavior.
"I guess I should have warned you-Jeremy can be a real tease at times. He really doesn't mean anything by it. It's just his silly sense of humor."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, he was just pretending to be gay, Andrew. He's really not, and it's not done to embarrass anyone or put you down. He just gets a kick out of it."
Andrew looked at Morgan incredulously. "You mean, you think that's all an act?"
"I know it is. He does it all the time-even in front of our straight friends. They get quite a charge out of it."
Andrew grimaced. I just bet they do.
Remembering this, he wondered if he'd made a mistake by inviting Morgan and Jeremy to the party he and David were throwing to welcome Peter and Jeff to New York.
What if Jeremy behaved as crassly in front of them? God, Peter would have a fit-and probably deck Jeremy if he got too close to Jeff. For a moment, Andrew grinned happily at the thought.
He'd just have to be on his toes to make sure there were no altercations.
I'm probably being paranoid. In front of a bunch of people, Jeremy might behave himself impeccably-right?
Oh well, he'd just have to deal with it when, and if, it happened.
* * * *
Morgan Kennedy sat in front of her dressing table mirror and gazed grimly at her reflection.
God, I'm looking old.
She grimaced at the dark smudges under her eyes and the creases on either side of her mouth. Her skillful application of make-up would take care of this, but it depressed her that her once smooth and supple skin was giving in to the march of time that suddenly seemed to speed up with every passing day.
Another year almost over and her forty-sixth birthday loomed on the horizon. She shuddered at the thought as she picked up a sponge and began applying a smooth coat of foundation.
Hearing her husband enter the room behind her, she glared at his reflection in her mirror.
"Finally pulled yourself away?" she asked between clenched teeth.
"Am I late?"
Jeremy Kennedy ambled over to where his wife sat and kissed her shoulder. Despite herself, she shivered with pleasure at his touch. After all the years, and the knowledge of his infidelities, she still could not resist him physically. She gazed at him, taking in his smooth good looks, the tanned skin stretched over his chiseled bone structure, the smoldering dark brown eyes, and the curly black hair given him by his Greek heritage.
She wanted him, even while she hated him.
"You know we're having dinner with Bruce and Jennifer at eight o'clock," she said, tugging her fingers through his hair, forcing him to keep his lips on her bare skin.
"Boring." Jeremy sighed, straightening up and stepping away toward the bathroom. Morgan stopped herself from asking him why he was so late; he would only lie anyway, and what difference did it make? He had come home-to her. With all his faults, she still felt lucky to have him. Any woman would. He was amazingly handsome and attentive to her almost every need. At thirty-three, twelve years her junior, he still exuded enough sex appeal to turn every head in a room, man and woman alike.
Jeremy stood in front of the bathroom mirror and stripped off his shirt and tie, throwing them carelessly on the ground. He stepped out of his pants, briefs, and socks then turned on the shower. With languorous strokes, he soaped the hard muscles of his chest and arms, his mind slipping back to an hour before, when he'd had one of the most overwhelming sexual experiences of his life.
He closed his eyes and massaged his growing erection as his fantasy took control. Now, in his imagining, he could feel the silky smooth skin beneath his fingers, the full soft lips pressed against his own...
"Are you nearly ready?"
He winced as Morgan's voice cut through his fantasy and brought him down to earth in a hurry. Cursing under his breath, he turned off the shower, grabbed a towel, and began drying himself vigorously.
"Be right there, sugar," he called, then muttered, "Oh, I'll be right there-bitch." He splashed on some cologne and pulled on a pair of clean briefs. Morgan stood in the bathroom doorway watching him.
He smiled at her. "Pick me out a shirt sweetheart, please?"
Returning his smile, she walked to the closet and pulled out a shirt she had recently bought for him. Ice blue silk designed by Armani.
"Good choice." He kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"Now hurry," Morgan cajoled. "We are way late."
"Oh, don't fuss. They'll forgive us. You know they live for a night out with us."
"With you, maybe. They think you're such a riot."
Jeremy looked with admiration at his reflection in the mirror then he smirked.
"That's because they have no life. All that money and not a clue how to enjoy themselves, unless someone else is showing them how." He knotted his tie expertly then pulled on a dark blue silk blazer. "What's on the agenda for tomorrow night?"
"Andrew's throwing a party for his friends from California. One of them is an artist and the other a private investigator."
Jeremy arched a carefully waxed eyebrow. "Quite a combo. Well, at least it should be more interesting than tonight."