“Last day of this assignment.”
Jake nodded silently, but didn’t look at Dan Shephard, the blond man at his side and his partner for this job. Instead, Jake’s eyes were busily sliding over the crowd that had gathered around the hotel entrance where their client stood answering questions. It was supposed to look like a spur of the moment thing, their client stopping to answer a few of the many questions shot at him by the press who always followed him on visits like this. It was supposed to make him seem more accessible and less the dangerous dictator he was. But it wasn’t spur of the moment. Jake, Dan, and the rest of the security team had been told that he was going to stop and answer questions and that they weren’t to rush him into his vehicle and whisk him away as would be the norm. Instead they were to let him “do his thing” and just keep an eye out for trouble. Jake was doing just that, keeping an eye out, looking for any possible threat.
“Damn good thing it’s almost over too,” Dan added grimly. “One more day of watching out for this arrogant, demanding prick and I might be tempted to kill him myself.”
That comment made Jake’s mouth twitch with amusement. Their client was definitely an annoying, arrogant, and demanding bastard. But then, what else could you expect from a foreign dictator? Besides, working as professional protection in Ottawa meant that a lot of the people they were sent to guard were arrogant, demanding, or annoying. At least on the outside. Some were a different case inside and just acting up out of fear or stress, but not all. This client was as arrogant, demanding, and annoying inside as he acted on the outside. But, they were hired to do a job and you couldn’t like every client, he thought philosophically.
“He flies out at eight, right? Then we’re done?” Dan asked.
Jake nodded, but his eyes had narrowed on a man in the crowd. The fellow wore a baseball cap and jean jacket. He was also eyeballing their client. Of course, most people there were, but there was just something about Ball-Cap Boy that was raising alarms in Jake’s head.
“Four more hours then,” Dan muttered, glancing at his wristwatch. “Four more hours . . . and counting,” he added dryly. “Want to go for a drink afterward? I know I need one after a week with this bast— Where are you going?”
Jake heard the question, but didn’t stop to answer. He was hurrying through the crowd toward Ball-Cap Boy, every muscle in his body straining to get there in time as the man pulled a gun from the waistband at the back of his jeans and began to level it at their client.
“That was one hell of a catch,” Dan said, slapping Jake on the back six hours later as they headed out of Protection One’s swanky offices and approached the elevators. Their four hours of work had turned into six thanks to Jake’s stopping and apprehending the assassin in the baseball cap. First there had been the police and all their questions to deal with and then they’d had to fill in their boss, Hank Latham, on what had taken place.
Now, they were finally leaving work, two hours later than expected.
“I don’t know how you did it,” Dan continued, shaking his head as the elevator doors opened and they stepped on board. “Hell, I didn’t even track the guy as a problem, but I sure as hell couldn’t have moved as fast as you did. You flew through that crowd.”
“Adrenaline,” Jake muttered, glancing at his watch.
“You gotta love adrenaline,” Dan commented, slapping him again as Jake pushed the button for the main floor. As the doors closed, he commented, “So we get a couple of play days before the next assignment. Want to go for a drink to celebrate?”
“Can’t. I’m meeting someone for dinner and I’m already late,” Jake said, leaning back against the elevator wall and crossing his arms. He wasn’t really sorry he had to decline. He liked Dan, he was a good guy, but Jake wasn’t much of a drinker. Alcohol did little for him.
“Someone? Like a lady?” Dan asked with a grin.
“Someone, like sort of family,” Jake said evasively.
“Sort of family?” Dan prodded.
Jake hesitated, and then said, “Yeah. You know, that older lady who isn’t really a relation but your parents make you call aunt.”
“Ah,” Dan grimaced. “Yeah. I have one of those myself, a lifelong friend of my mom’s. She and her hubby hang with my parents all the time and she’s been ‘Aunt Betty’ most of my life. Dotty old biddy now, but good-hearted.”
“Yeah, this is the same deal,” Jake said, ignoring the twinge of guilt the words caused. The lady in question was old as hell, but “dotty old biddy” didn’t exactly fit her.
“Well . . .” Dan eyed him silently, and then smiled wryly and said, “I’m kind of glad to hear about this aunt who’s not an aunt. You never mention family. I was beginning to think you were hatched or something.”
“Nah. There just isn’t much to talk about,” Jake said quietly. “Most of my family live on the West Coast or out of the country. Haven’t seen much of them the last few years or so.”
“Ah.” Dan nodded. “So . . . ? Siblings? Parents still alive? Kissing cousins around?”
Much to Jake’s relief he was saved from answering the probing questions when they reached the main floor and the doors began to open. Moving forward, he said, “See you in a couple days,” over his shoulder.
“Yeah.” Dan said, following him off the elevator.
Jake hurried for the building’s exit, but his expression was tight. He knew damned right well that wouldn’t be the end of the questions. Dan would repeat them at the first opportunity, and have a dozen more.
Putting away that worry for now, Jake pushed through the front doors and turned right, moving quickly. He was supposed to have been at the restaurant ten minutes ago. Fortunately, the Protection One offices were downtown, just around the corner and down the street from where he was headed. A three- or four-minute walk if he moved fast.
Of course, it was possible he was rushing for nothing. His dinner companion may already have given up and left. He couldn’t say he’d be sorry if she had. He wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. He had no doubt his “aunt” was trying to arrange a family reunion , and while it may have been more than half a dozen years since he’d left the bosom of his family, he wasn’t ready to return. Not yet anyway.
Worrying about how to politely say as much, Jake reached the restaurant and hurried inside, only to pause abruptly, his gaze searching the patrons.
“Hi. Did you want a table or are you meeting someone?”
Jake glanced to the young woman who had spoken. Dressed all in black, she was blond, beaming, and perky as hell. She waited wide-eyed and head tilted for his answer.
“Meeting someone,” he assured her, and then turned his attention back to the room, his eye immediately caught by the auburn-haired beauty waving at him from a table in the back corner. She hadn’t left. Damn, he thought wearily and headed for the table. She was on her feet by the time he reached her, and immediately stepped forward to hug him.
“Sorry I’m late,” Jake apologized as he self-consciously returned the embrace. “I just got out of work.”
“No need to apologize, Stephano. I’m just glad you agreed to meet me,” Marguerite Argeneau said, leaning back in his arms to smile at him warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too,” Jake said stiffly as he released her. Voice gentle, he added, “I don’t go by Stephano anymore.”
“Oh, yes, of course, I’m sorry,” she said apologetically. “You go by your second name now. Jacob.”
“Call me Jake,” he suggested, urging her back to her seat, before settling in the one across from her as another woman all in black approached with menus in hand. This one was a brunette, but she wore a beaming smile as perky as the blonde’s at the door as she stopped at the table.
“Good evening!” she said gaily as she set a menu in front of each of them. “Would you like something to drink while you look at the menu?”
“Water,” Jake said quietly.
Nodding, the girl then turned to Marguerite. “How is your tea? Would you like fresh tea, or something else to drink?”
“Another tea, please, and a glass of water,” Marguerite said, her smile just as wide as the girl’s.
Nodding, their waitress beamed again and rushed off.
Marguerite immediately turned to him with a more natural smile. “Jake. The name suits you. And I understand now you use Colson, your father’s last name, rather than Notte?”
He shifted uncomfortably as he nodded, and then waited for her to give him hell for being an ungrateful wretch and dropping the name of the man who had been a father to him since he was five.
Instead, Marguerite smiled with understanding and said, “A new name for a new life.”
Jake’s surprise at her comment must have shown on his face, because she smiled and shrugged.
“I know you didn’t want to be immortal, Steph— Jake,” She grimaced apologetically for the slip and Jake shrugged it away. No he hadn’t wanted to be immortal. His mother had explained everything to him and offered to turn him on his eighteenth birthday, but he’d refused. He was born mortal and had wanted to stay that way. But then some skinny little bitch immortal had stabbed him in the chest while pursuing a vendetta against his boss, Vincent Argeneau, Marguerite’s nephew. Vincent had found him dying on the office floor and had used his one turn to make Jake an immortal. It had been the only way Vincent could save him and Jake understood why he’d done it. He even knew intellectually that he should be grateful for it. But he wasn’t. Or maybe he was. He just didn’t know it. Mostly he’d spent his time since then trying to ignore it and pretend it hadn’t happened, that he was normal and not a freak who had to feed on blood to survive.
“I know you’ve been struggling with the change,” Marguerite continued. “And I respect that. I haven’t come here to judge you, or try to get you to see your mother, or guilt you with comments about her loving and worrying about you.”
Jake’s mouth twitched with amusement at the words. Just saying them was enough to inspire some guilt . . . and Marguerite knew that, but he suspected she just couldn’t resist. She was a mother too, after all. But he let her get away with it and simply asked, “So how long has everyone known where I was and what I was doing?”
Jake had responded to waking up to find himself a vampire much like a wounded animal, crawling away to a corner to lick his wounds. Only his corner was Ottawa, which was hell and gone from California, where he’d lived at the time. And rather than lick his wounds, he did his best to pretend there wasn’t anything different. Other than sending his mother and brother short notes in birthday and Christmas e-cards, he’d broken all contact with the family while he dealt with it. But since he wasn’t really dealing with it, this had gone on for seven years. But then, what the hell? Time was irrelevant now. He could take as long as he wanted to deal with it.
“No one else knows,” Marguerite assured him, and when he arched one dubious eyebrow, she added, “Well, aside from myself and Bastien, of course.”
Jake’s mouth tightened. He’d had to let Bastien, the president of Argeneau Enterprises, know. He needed blood to survive and while he might now be a fricking vampire, he’d be damned if he was going to go around attacking and biting mortals to survive. Which meant he needed blood delivered, and Argeneau Enterprises had a blood bank that supplied blood to immortals. Jake was sure there were other suppliers with similar setups, but Argeneau was the only one he knew about, and it wasn’t like vampire blood banks advertised in the damned yellow pages. So, he’d had to arrange for delivery of a steady supply. But he’d called Bastien personally, asking him to keep his whereabouts and new name a secret. It seemed he’d trusted the wrong person.
“Bastien didn’t tell me,” Marguerite assured him solemnly. “He has kept your secret as he promised.”
“I’m his mother,” she said simply. “I can read all my children as easily as reading a book. He can’t keep secrets from me. Although he tries,” she added with a grin.
Jake smiled wryly and sank back in his seat. He should have suspected as much. His own mother was the same way and had been since she’d met Roberto Conti Notte and been turned when Jake was a boy. He had never been able to keep a secret from her after that, which was damned dismaying to a teenage boy full of hormones. Knowing your mother would know what you were doing was pretty inhibiting sexually.
“I’ve known from the beginning where you were and respected your need for privacy while you adjusted.”
“Until now,” he said quietly.
“Until now,” Marguerite agreed solemnly. “Because I need you.”
That brought him upright in his seat, his eyebrows high. “You need me?”
“Yes.” She nodded solemnly, but then sat back and peered past him.
Jake wasn’t surprised to look around and see the waitress returning with their drinks.
“Are you ready to order, or do you need a few more minutes?” the girl asked as she set down their drinks.
Jake glanced at Marguerite as she looked down at her menu. She had opened it, but he didn’t think she’d really got a chance to check it out before this. On the other hand, he hadn’t even opened his, but didn’t need to. He had eaten here many times. The workers were always annoyingly perky, but the food was also always great. It was why he’d suggested it as the meeting spot.
“I know what I want,” Jake said now, “but Marguerite might need—”
“Ooh, the quail sounds lovely,” Marguerite interrupted.
The waitress chuckled and nodded as she took her menu, and then turned to Jake in question. “The grilled hanger steak for you?”
Jake blinked in surprise. “I—yes,” he said slowly, a little concerned that she knew that.
“It’s what you’ve ordered the last three times you’ve come here,” the waitress said gently as she took his menu. “At least the last three times I’ve been working.”
“Right,” Jake said, and felt a moment’s guilt that he hadn’t recognized the girl. Before the turn he’d always made sure to remember details like that, making note of people who served him, showing his appreciation for good service. He’d changed since the turn though. His thoughts now were usually turned inward, and he rarely paid attention to his surroundings or even the people around him unless he was at work, where that was a necessary part of the job.
Clearing his throat, he offered her an apologetic smile and nod. “Thank you . . . Melanie,” he added, glancing to her name tag. He would make sure to remember her in future.
“My pleasure,” she assured him, beaming again before whirling away.
“She likes you and thinks you’re attractive,” Marguerite said with a grin the moment the girl was out of earshot.
“Yeah, that happens a lot since the turn,” he said dryly. “I’m guessing this immortal business includes some kind of chick magnet deal or something?”
“Not exactly,” she said solemnly. “Although the scientists at Argeneau Enterprises have noted that we secrete higher levels of certain hormones and pheromones that might affect mortals, both male and female.”
“Of course,” he said bitterly. “It would make us better hunters.”
Marguerite raised her tea for a sip. As she swallowed and set the cup down, she said carefully, “You must have a lot of questions about how you are different now.”
“No,” he said gruffly, and then pointed out, “While mother and Roberto made sure I was in the dark as a child, I’ve known about immortals since I was eighteen. I learned a lot in the thirty-some years before I left California. I know most things, I think. I just never realized that my brother, Neil, was such a chick magnet because of what he was, not because of his natural charm and wit.”
“Well, see, there’s one benefit at least,” she said cheerfully. “You’re a chick magnet now.”
Jake didn’t argue the point, but simply said, “You said you need my help?”
Marguerite looked like she wanted to say more on the benefits he’d gained when he’d been turned, but she let it go with a sigh and then asked, “I understand you work as a bodyguard now?”
Jake nodded. Before being turned he’d been a vice president at V.A. Inc. in California, a company with diversified interests. Vincent Argeneau had been the president, but the man had been little more than a figurehead, leaving the actual running of the company to Jake and his younger brother, Neil. Jake had been the daytime president. Neil had taken over at night. But after the turn . . . well, Neil already had the nighttime gig, and most companies didn’t need day and night V.P.s. It was only immortal-owned companies that did that, catering to both mortals by day and immortals by night. But Jake hadn’t wanted to deal with immortals at that point. If anything, he’d wanted to get as far away from them as possible, but a similar position in a mortal company was impossible. Vampires didn’t work days.
Jake had needed a new career to go with his name change, one he could do at night and one that needed minimal training. He’d always been interested in martial arts and had trained at it since he was six. The bodyguard shtick had seemed a good deal: interesting, exciting even. Boy, had he got that wrong. Mostly it was standing around, eyeballing crowds for hours on end. But it was a reason to get up every morning.
Night, he corrected himself. It was a reason to get up every night. After seven years he still had trouble with a lot of the changes to his life. He had never been a night person. Now he was whether he wanted to be or not.
“Well, I have someone who needs guarding.”
Jake was pulled from his thoughts by that announcement. He stared at Marguerite with surprise. “Surely Lucian would arrange for Rogue Hunters to protect any immortal who needs—”
“No,” Marguerite interrupted. “This situation has nothing to do with immortals. She’s mortal and so is the person who is a threat to her.”
Jake sat back in his seat and merely quirked an eyebrow, inviting her to explain. Marguerite was an immortal, and an old one. At least seven hundred or something, he thought, though he wasn’t positive. He was pretty sure she’d been born in medieval days. As far as he knew, everyone she knew was immortal. He couldn’t think what mortal she would be concerning herself with.
“Her name is Nicole Phillips. Her mother, Zaira, is the sister of my housekeeper, Maria,” Marguerite said and then explained, “Zaira married and moved north with her husband just before Maria started working for me. But her husband had a heart attack when Nicole was fifteen and they moved back this way to be closer to family. From fifteen until she finished university, Nicole, and Maria’s daughter, Pierina, used to help out Maria with spring cleaning of my home, and preparing the house for the rare big parties I threw.” She smiled. “They were both good girls, very polite and hardworking.”
Jake could hear the affection in her voice, and when she paused, he nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“The two girls grew to be very close, more like sisters than cousins. Pierina really enjoyed cooking. She was also the little organizer, deciding where things should be and who should do what.” Marguerite’s mouth curved up with affectionate amusement. “Nicole, though, was more interested in artistic endeavors. She grew up to be an amazing artist, and she’s now a very successful portraitist. Her work is well respected and much sought after.”
Jake couldn’t help noticing the pride and affection in her voice. It was obvious she had taken great interest in and had a lot of affection for both girls. He found himself smiling faintly in return.
“And then a couple years back she met a charming Italian while on vacation in Europe. By all accounts, he seemed to adore her. It was very romantic, a whirlwind affair. He was suave, promising to show her the world and proclaiming his love in the most passionate terms . . . and she was smitten. Then they married.”
Jake’s mouth quirked at her change of tone on those last three words. They sounded flat and grim. “I gather things changed once they were married?”
“Oh yes,” she said on a sigh. “Nicole tried to hide it, but—”
“There is no hiding it from you,” Jake suggested quietly.
“It wasn’t me who figured it out first,” she corrected. “As I mentioned, Nicole was always very close to Pierina, but she moved to Italy briefly to be with Rodolfo—”
“That’s the suave Italian?”
“Yes, Rodolfo Rossi. She lived with him in Italy for a bit and then they married and moved back to Canada, but to Ottawa rather than the Toronto area where her family is . . . at his insistence,” she added grimly. “He claimed he could better find a job in his field in Ottawa. But I realize now that he wanted to isolate her from her family.”
Jake nodded silently. That was usually what happened with an abusive mate: lasso the woman and move her away from family and friends and any kind of support or interference they might offer.
“Fortunately, Pierina came out to Ottawa to visit Nicole,” Marguerite continued. “She wasn’t happy with what she found. At first, Pierina just thought Nicole was working herself too hard, working her way into the grave in fact. She insisted Nicole come to Toronto for a girls’ weekend to relax and I invited the two of them and their mothers for dinner. I wanted to ask Nicole about doing a portrait of my son, Christian, and his fiancée, Carolyn, for me,” she explained.
“And you read her mind and quickly realized work wasn’t the problem,” Jake suggested.
“I realized it wasn’t the only problem.” Marguerite corrected. “She was taking on too many commissions and working too hard . . . at Rodolfo’s insistence. She’s much sought after with clients from all over the world. She usually has to refuse a good many of them, or book them years in advance she is so busy, but Rodolfo was insisting she could do more and should accept them all. He insisted she should “strike while the iron was hot”; the commissions might dry up one day and she should make all the money she could before that happened. He had her working around the clock . . . and all the while he wasn’t working at all.”
“Nice,” Jake murmured.
“Yes, well, while that was helping to sap her energy, the real problem, and what she was trying to hide was that he was terribly controlling and hypercritical. While he was insisting she should do all these commissions, he would then complain that she spent no time with him. He was also tearing at her self-esteem and independence and basically making her miserable. By the time she came to Toronto, he had demoralized her to the point that I don’t think she could have left him on her own, so . . .” She paused and avoided his gaze briefly, and then admitted, “I gave her a mental nudge to make her leave him.”
“Ah,” Jake murmured. It was all he could say. He’d never thought much of the way immortals tended to control the minds of mortals and make them do things they might not otherwise have done. The truth was, he didn’t like it. But in this instance, Marguerite’s heart had been in the right place at least.
“Here we are.”
Jake glanced to the side and sat back to get out of the way as their waitress arrived with their meals.
“Thank you,” he murmured as she set his plate in front of him.
“You’re more than welcome,” she said brightly, beamed at him, and then slipped away.
They were both silent for a moment as they tasted their food. As Jake had expected, his steak was amazing. But then it always was. It was the first thing he’d tried here and the last. He tended to stick with things when he liked them. Although, glancing at Marguerite’s quail, he now wondered if he shouldn’t try some of the other dishes here. It looked delicious too.
“It is delicious,” she assured him, and Jake grimaced, aware that she was reading his mind. While he too was immortal now, it was a new state for him and he knew most older immortals could read him as easily as if he were mortal.
“Sorry,” she muttered.
He shrugged with a wry smile. Swallowing the steak in his mouth, he asked, “So you prodded this Nicole and she left her Rodolfo?”
Marguerite nodded as she took a sip of her water, and then said, “It all seemed good at first. She left him and started divorce proceedings. She also started to see a counselor to try to undo the damage he’d done.” Marguerite smiled. “It’s working. Nicole’s becoming the happy, strong young woman she was before the marriage again.”
“But?” Jake prompted. If everything were going so rosy, Marguerite wouldn’t need his help.
“But there have been some incidents,” Marguerite said on a sigh, cutting viciously into her quail.
“Incidents?” Jake queried.
“Three gas explosions narrowly avoided.”
His eyebrows rose. “You think Rodolfo’s trying to kill her?”
Marguerite’s mouth tightened and rather than answer outright, she said, “He’s going after her money, hard. He’s claiming he left his country, friends, family, et cetera, to marry her and move to Canada and she is now abandoning him. No one’s buying it,” she added grimly. “He was actually let go before the marriage and suggested the move back to Canada himself. Besides, Nicole had arranged interviews for him with companies in his field here before he even landed in Canada. He refused to go though, claiming he wanted a career change. But then he didn’t look for work in any field, but lived off of her.”
Marguerite shook her head with disgust. “Her lawyer doesn’t think he’ll get much at all. However, if she dies before the divorce is final . . .”
“He gets it all,” Jake finished for her and she nodded solemnly. “And you think he’s thinking that way?”
“Yes,” Marguerite said on a sigh.
Jake nodded, but asked, “So, why doesn’t she have a will made up leaving everything to someone else?”
“Because she doesn’t believe he would do anything like that,” Marguerite said unhappily.
He was silent for a moment and then guessed, “And you feel guilty because you are the one who nudged her into leaving him.”
She nodded again and then said firmly, “I am not sorry I did it. As I say, she’s regaining her self-esteem and returning to the cheerful, strong woman she was before the marriage. She’s much happier. But—”
“But she’s also under threat now, which she wouldn’t have been had you not interfered,” he suggested quietly and Marguerite sighed and nodded again.
Jake considered her briefly as she took a bite of her quail and then said, “I’m surprised you haven’t just taken care of the husband yourself. Wiped his mind and sent him back to Europe or something.”
Marguerite bit her lip and then grimaced and admitted, “That’s why I’m in Ottawa. Julius thinks I came to go over photos for the portrait Nicole’s doing of Christian and Carolyn, and so does she, but really I intended to take care of Rodolfo and send him back to Europe. Unfortunately, I can’t locate him. Nicole moved out and left him the house at first, the understanding being that she pay the bills and he live there and act as caretaker until it sold . . . at which point they would split the proceeds. But he was apparently enjoying the free rent and making sure it wouldn’t sell, so she had to buy him out of the house. Nicole has no idea where he moved to after that.”
Marguerite scowled and shook her head. “I thought, no problem, I’d get Rodolfo’s address from his divorce lawyer. So I got his name from Nicole and then paid him a visit, but even his divorce lawyer doesn’t know Rodolfo’s actual address. His contact with him is a P.O. box and a cell-phone number that is still registered to the marital house address.” She scowled. “It’s like he’s hiding out. Nicole says when she asked him where he’d moved to, he refused to say, joking that she might send a hit man after him.”
Jake’s eyebrows rose. He was a firm believer in that old saying, a skunk smells its own hole first. In this case, Rodolfo’s thinking she might try to bump him off suggested he was thinking that way himself. He probably was trying to inherit rather than divorce, but . . . “Why me?”
Marguerite paused with a forkful of rutabaga halfway to her mouth, and cast him an uncertain look. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I mean, why me?” he repeated. “Why has Nicole not hired a company for protection? And why are you coming to me? I work for an agency, I don’t run it, Marguerite.”
“Oh, yes, I see.”
She slid the rutabaga into her mouth and chewed, her expression thoughtful, and Jake guessed she was gathering her thoughts, so turned his attention to his own meal, surprised to find that he’d eaten half of it while they’d talked. That was a damned shame. The steak was good enough it should be savored, not eaten absently and without really tasting it while you were distracted by conversation. He took a bite of steak now, savoring the delicious flavors.
“Well,” Marguerite said finally, “The problem is that Nicole is in total denial and refuses to believe she’s under threat.”
His eyebrows rose and he swallowed before saying, “This doesn’t sound like something easy to deny. You did say there were three narrowly escaped explosions.”
“Yes.” She set her fork down, obviously preparing for a long explanation, and said, “Nicole bought Rodolfo out of the house last month and moved back in herself. Pierina came up to help her unpack. She says they were sitting talking after the move, exhausted and achy and Pierina suggested a glass of wine and a dip in the hot tub would be nice. So, they went to open the sliding glass doors to check and be sure that the hot tub was on, but couldn’t get the door open. Wood was jammed in the door, which was keeping it from opening.”
“Many people do that to prevent thieves breaking in,” Jake commented with a shrug.
“The house is about twenty-five years old, and so are the sliding glass doors. They’re a reverse set. The glass door that opens is outside the screen, and the wood was jammed in the track outside,” Marguerite said dryly. “A thief could have plucked it out. It was stopping the door from opening from the inside.”
“Oh,” he said quietly.
Marguerite nodded. “So they went around to her studio to go out that way and it was the same thing. Every sliding glass door on the main floor of the house was blocked shut from the outside.”
“Interesting,” Jake murmured.
Marguerite nodded. “Pierina says they just thought Rodolfo was an idiot at that point and actually laughed about it.”
“But something changed their minds?” Jake guessed.
“The next morning they woke up to find the furnace had died. There was no heat, and the house was going cold fast. Nicole called in a heating guy and apparently something had been removed from the furnace. Pierina explained it, but—” Marguerite shrugged. “I can’t recall what it was. However, it was preventing the pilot light from relighting. Well, remembering the doors being blocked shut, Pierina got suspicious and asked if that missing piece could have caused a buildup of gas in the house and a possible explosion. The man assured her that, no, it couldn’t because newer furnaces have an automatic shutoff, but if it had been an older furnace it could have caused a gas fire if the gas had been ignited, or anyone in the house could have been overcome by gas and died. Still, he was bewildered that someone had removed the piece. He said it had to have been physically removed. It couldn’t just fall out, and, even had that been possible, the piece had been taken away. It wasn’t lying there anywhere as if it had fallen out.”
Jake was silent for a moment, and then said, “I don’t see—”
“Someone removed that piece,” Marguerite pointed out. “Why? Apparently the furnace in Rodolfo’s home back in Europe was old and probably wouldn’t have had that new automatic shutoff. An explosion would have been more than possible with his furnace back in Europe had the same thing happened there and Pierina suspects he thought this would act the same way . . . And the doors were blocked,” she reminded him. “Nicole would have been trapped in the house if a fire had ignited, or if she’d been overcome by gas.”
“Surely there are other doors in the house,” Jake said with a frown. “They aren’t all sliding glass doors. Her front door for instance—”
“It’s a keyed entrance. There are three proper doors on the ground floor and all three are keyed entrances. There is no way to unlock them from the outside or the inside without a key. If the house had burst into flames in the middle of the night, she wouldn’t have crawled out of bed with her keys in hand. She would have stumbled downstairs through the smoke, only to find she couldn’t open the doors without keys and then tried the sliding doors to find those were blocked. Then she would have had to find her way back upstairs in the smoke and find her keys, and then make her way back down to use a door.”
“I see,” Jake murmured, and he did. In that situation, chances were the smoke would have overcome Nicole before she got out. “And the other two near misses?”
“There’s an indoor gas grill in the kitchen. Nicole planned to make grilled steak for dinner on the second day of Pierina’s visit, but when she turned it on, instead of the grill lighting up, flames exploded out of the base by the dials and shot right up into her face. It took her eyebrows off. Fortunately, she was quick to shut it off, and that was all that happened.
“They called in another gas guy to see what was wrong. Apparently there was a layer of foil between where the flames come out and the grill on top. He asked why it was there. Nicole shrugged. She hadn’t put it there. When she saw it, she’d thought her ex had done it to catch any drippings so he didn’t have to clean the base of the grill. She hadn’t thought anything of it.
“But the flames wouldn’t have been able to get to the food through the foil,” Jake said with a frown.
“Exactly,” Marguerite said grimly. “That didn’t occur to her though until he pointed it out. Apparently, Rodolfo had always put foil in the oven under the elements, and she hadn’t really noticed that the foil would hamper the flames.”
Jake nodded. He supposed if she’d been distracted, chatting with Pierina, that wouldn’t have occurred to her.
Marguerite took a sip of tea, and then continued, “The gas man removed the foil and right away saw the problem. The gas tubing had been pulled out of its housing, the gas was coming out of the pipe itself, lit up by the pilot and shooting straight up through the dials. He said they were lucky. It could have been much worse than her losing her eyebrows. Pierina says he then asked Nicole if there was anyone who didn’t like her. Pierina told him Nicole was in the middle of a divorce. He apparently nodded slowly, and then said it was a two-minute fix, just put the tubing back where it belonged, but he thought he should check anything else gas-related in the house.”
“And he found something else,” Jake said quietly, beginning to agree that Rodolfo wanted his wife dead. He didn’t know if the guy was inept, or Nicole was just lucky, but this was two “accidents” that could have been deadly.
“The gas fireplace in the master bedroom,” Marguerite said on a sigh. “Pierina didn’t know what the issue there was, but he took one look, muttered under his breath, and then started telling Nicole she needed to get a state-of-the-art security system with cameras. He said people went a little crazy in divorce and she needed cameras, lots of security, maybe a couple of guard dogs too, et cetera, and the whole time he was taking her fireplace apart and then putting it back together, so Pierina thinks there was something wrong with it.”
“Nicole didn’t ask what it was?” Jake asked with a frown.
Marguerite shook her head. “Pierina was the one who was suspicious, but even though she was so shocked, she didn’t ask. Nicole was just dead silent, a troubled look on her face. Besides, Pierina said he was really lecturing the whole time. But she knew he was serious when he refused to charge Nicole for the visit after being there all day. I mean who does that?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “And she says he kept giving Nicole these worried, pitying looks, and repeating she should get security right away. He actually hugged Nicole on the way out. Pierina said it was like he thought it would be the last time he saw her alive.”
“So the fireplace was probably rigged somehow and was the third narrow escape,” Jake murmured thoughtfully.
Marguerite nodded unhappily. “But Nicole laughed it off. She’s sure it’s all just coincidence or accidents, and the closest she’ll come to admitting that Rodolfo might prefer inheriting everything to getting half the money in the divorce, is to say that if he did do any of those things, then he was terribly inept and she isn’t worried.”
“Major denial,” Jake said dryly.
Marguerite grimaced and then sighed and said, “I supposed it’s hard enough to have to admit that you made a mistake in your marriage. But it would be positively humiliating to have to acknowledge that not only was your husband not the man you thought, but he’s just a gold-digging bastard who cares so little he’d kill you for the money he was really after all along.”
She was silent for a moment and then added sadly, “But those thoughts are there under the surface. That he never loved her. That she’s so worthless that her only value is money. That he is willing to kill her to get it. But she won’t admit it consciously. She can’t. Her self-esteem was almost completely demolished by his actions during the marriage. Admitting this now would undo all the work the counselor has done and destroy her.”
“And hiring protection would be admitting all of that, which she can’t do,” Jake said with understanding.
“Exactly,” Marguerite nodded firmly. “So, I can’t hire a company and send them over there. She’d just send them away, saying she didn’t need it.”
Jake nodded, but asked, “So what do you expect me to do? She’ll do the same with me.”
“Not if you didn’t tell her you were a bodyguard,” she pointed out.
Jake sat back and frowned. “If her husband is trying to kill her, and I will agree that it sounds like he is—”
“I’m sure he is,” Marguerite said firmly. “And now that the accidents he set up have failed, he’ll have to try something else.”
“Then she needs around-the-clock protection until the divorce is finalized. Once it’s done, there should be no reason for him to continue to go after her,” Jake pointed out.
“The divorce will be final in two weeks,” Marguerite said at once.
“Two weeks, huh?” he muttered, but frowned and shook his head. “Still, if she won’t accept a bodyguard, what do you expect me to do?”
“She won’t accept a bodyguard, but she does need a cook/housekeeper and yard guy . . . well, snow guy this time of year,” she added wryly, and then said, “And I told her I knew just the man who could do all three jobs for the price of one.”
Jake’s jaw dropped. He took a moment to absorb that stunning news and then closed his mouth, shook his head and said, “Cook/housekeeper?”
“Your mother brags about you, Steph—Jake. I know you’re a very good cook.”
“I’m her son. My mother is biased,” he said dryly. “I can make spaghetti, and that’s just frying up some hamburger, throwing in a can of sauce and boiling noodles. To her that’s amazing. But that’s not actually cooking.”
“You’re smart, you can read a cookbook and wing it, at least enough to get by for two weeks,” Marguerite said determinedly and then added, “I’d never forgive myself for not interfering if Rodolfo killed her, Jake. She’s a very sweet, genuinely nice person. There are few enough of those in the world. And it’s only two weeks.”
Jake slumped back in his seat again, knowing he’d already lost this argument. Finally, he sighed and said, “I suppose I could take a couple weeks off. They owe me about five weeks vacation now anyway and have been nagging at me to take it.”
“I’ll pay you what a company would demand for your time,” she said firmly and then added brightly, “It will be a working vacation. You can putter around the kitchen, try new recipes—”
“Shovel snow, clean house, and watch out for murder attempts,” he added dryly.
“I really appreciate this,” Marguerite said solemnly, digging through her purse on the table and retrieving her checkbook.
Jake rolled his eyes and put his hand on hers to stop her. “You don’t have to pay me, Marguerite,” he said dryly. “I got a hell of a severance package from Vincent when I left, and that’s on top of making a lot of money there for a lot of years that I invested successfully. I don’t need money. I really don’t even need to work anymore, but it’s better than staying home and twiddling my thumbs.”
“No, I insist on paying,” Marguerite said firmly, slipping her hands out from under his and setting the checkbook on the table. “I already did my homework and found out how much companies charge for two weeks of around-the-clock protection and this is a service I appreciate.”
Jake just shrugged and sat back, leaving her to it. She could write it if she wanted. It didn’t mean he had to cash it. He accepted the check when she handed it over, slipped it in his pocket, and then crossed his arms and said, “All right, tell me everything you know about Nicole and Rodolfo.”