The Collector, Page 2Nora Roberts
“Anytime, you know that. I only wish I’d been there.”
“How was the wedding?”
“I definitely need wine before I get started on Cousin Melly’s Hamptons Wedding Week From Hell, and why I’ve officially retired as a bridesmaid.”
“Your texts were fun for me. I especially liked the one . . . ‘Crazy Bride Bitch says rose petals wrong shade of pink. Hysteria ensues. Must destroy CBB for the good of womankind.’”
“It almost came to that. Oh no! Sobs, tremors, despair. The petals are pink-pink! They have to be rose-pink. Julie! Fix it, Julie! I came close to fixing her.”
“Did she really have a half-ton truckload of petals?”
“You should have buried her in them. Bride smothered by rose petals. Everyone would think it was an ironic, if tragic, mishap.”
“If only I’d thought of it. I really missed you. I like it better when you’re working in New York, and I can come see your digs and hang out with you.”
Lila studied her friend as she opened the wine. “You should come with me sometime—when it’s someplace fabulous.”
“I know, you keep saying.” Julie wandered as she spoke. “I’m just not sure I wouldn’t feel weird, actually staying in— Oh my God, look at this china. It has to be antique, and just amazing.”
“Her great-grandmother’s. And you don’t feel weird coming over and spending an evening with me wherever, you wouldn’t feel weird staying. You stay in hotels.”
“People don’t live there.”
“Some people do. Eloise and Nanny did.”
Julie gave Lila’s long tail of hair a tug. “Eloise and Nanny are fictional.”
“Fictional people are people, too, otherwise why would we care what happens to them? Here, let’s have this on the little terrace. Wait until you see Macey’s container garden. Her family started in France—vineyards.”
Lila scooped up the tray with the ease of the waitress she’d once been. “They met five years ago when she was over there visiting her grandparents—like they are now—and he was on vacation and came to their winery. Love at first sight, they both claim.”
“It’s the best. First sight.”
“I’d say fictional, but I just made a case for fictional.” She led the way to the terrace. “Turned out they both lived in New York. He called her, they went out. And were exchanging ‘I dos’ about eighteen months later.”
“Like a fairy tale.”
“Which I’d also say fictional, except I love fairy tales. And they look really happy together. And as you’ll see, she’s got a seriously green thumb.”
Julie tapped the binoculars as they started out. “Still spying?”
Lila’s wide, top-heavy mouth moved into a pout. “It’s not spying. It’s observing. If people don’t want you looking in, they should close the curtains, pull down the shades.”
“Uh-huh. Wow.” Julie set her hands on her hips as she scanned the terrace. “You’re right about the green thumb.”
Everything lush and colorful and thriving in simple terra-cotta pots made the urban space a creative oasis. “She’s growing tomatoes?”
“They’re wonderful, and the herbs? She started them from seeds.”
“Can you do that?”
“Macey can. I—as they told me I could and should—harvested some. I had a big, beautiful salad for dinner last night. Ate it out here, with a glass of wine, and watched the window show.”
“You have the oddest life. Tell me about the window people.”
Lila poured wine, then reached inside for the binoculars—just in case.
“We have the family on the tenth floor—they just got the little boy a puppy. The kid and the pup are both incredibly pretty and adorable. It’s true love, and fun to watch. There’s a sexy blonde on fourteen who lives with a very hot guy—both could be models. He comes and goes, and they have very intense conversations, bitter arguments with flying crockery, followed by major sex.”
“You watch them have sex? Lila, give me those binoculars.”
“No!” Laughing, Lila shook her head. “I don’t watch them have sex. But I can tell that’s what’s going on. They talk, fight, pace around with lots of arm waving from her, then grab each other and start pulling off clothes. In the bedroom, in the living room. They don’t have a terrace like this, but that little balcony deal off the bedroom. They barely made it back in once before they were both naked.
“And speaking of naked, there’s a guy on twelve. Wait, maybe he’s around.”
Now she did get the glasses, checked. “Oh yeah, baby. Check this out. Twelfth floor, three windows from the left.”
Curious enough, Julie took the binoculars, finally found the window. “Oh my. Mmmm, mmmm. He does have some moves. We should call him, invite him over.”
“I don’t think we’re his type.”
“Between us we’re every man’s type.”
“You can’t tell from here.” Julie lowered the glasses, frowned, then lifted them again for another look. “Your gaydar can’t leap over buildings in a single bound like Superman.”
“He’s wearing a thong. Enough said.”
“It’s for ease of movement.”
“Thong,” Lila repeated.
“Does he dance nightly?”
“Pretty much. I figure he’s a struggling actor, working part-time in a strip club until he gets his break.”
“He’s got a great body. David had a great body.”
Julie set down the glasses, mimed breaking a twig in half.
“Right after the Hamptons Wedding Week From Hell. It had to be done, but I didn’t want to do it at the wedding, which was bad enough.”
“Thanks, but you didn’t like David anyway.”
“I didn’t not like him.”
“Amounts to the same. And though he was so nice to look at, he’d just gotten too clingy. Where are you going, how long will you be, blah blah. Always texting me, or leaving messages on my machine. If I had work stuff, or made plans with you and other friends, he’d get upset or sulky. God, it was like having a wife—in the worst way. No dis meant to wives, as I used to be one. I’d only been seeing him for a couple months, and he was pushing to move in. I don’t want a live-in.”
“You don’t want the wrong live-in,” Lila corrected.
“I’m not ready for the right live-in yet. It’s too soon after Maxim.”
“It’s been five years.”
Julie shook her head, patted Lila’s hand. “Too soon. Cheating bastard still pisses me off. I have to get that down to mild amusement, I think. I hate breakups,” she added. “They either make you feel sad—you’ve been dumped—or mean—you’ve done the dumping.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever dumped anyone, but I’ll take your word.”
“That’s because you make them think it’s their idea—plus you really don’t let it get serious enough to earn the term ‘dump.’”
Lila just smiled. “It’s too soon after Maxim,” she said, and made Julie laugh. “We can order in. There’s a Greek place the clients recommended. I haven’t tried it yet.”
“As long as there’s baklava for after.”
“I have cupcakes.”
“Even better. I now have it all. Swank apartment, good wine, Greek food coming, my best pal. And a sexy . . . oh, and sweaty,” she added as she lifted the glasses again. “Sexy, sweating dancing man—sexual orientation not confirmed.”
“Gay,” Lila repeated, and rose to get the takeout menu.
They polished off most of the wine with lamb kabobs—then dug into the cupcakes around midnight. Maybe not the best combination, Lila decided, considering her mildly queasy stomach, but just the right thing for a friend who was more upset about a breakup than she admitted.
Not the guy, Lila thought as she did the rounds to check security, but the act itse
lf, and all the questions that dogged the mind and heart after it was done.
Is it me? Why couldn’t I make it work? Who will I have dinner with?
When you lived in a culture of couples, it could make you feel less when you were flying solo.
“I don’t,” Lila assured the cat, who’d curled up in his own little bed sometime between the last kabob and the first cupcake. “I’m okay being single. It means I can go where I want when I want, take any job that works for me. I’m seeing the world, Thomas, and okay, talking to cats, but I’m okay with that, too.”
Still, she wished she’d been able to talk Julie into staying over. Not just for the company, but to help deal with the hangover her friend was bound to have come morning.
Mini cupcakes were Satan, she decided as she readied for bed. So cute and tiny, oh, they’re like eating nothing, that’s what you tell yourself, until you’ve eaten half a dozen.
Now she was wired up on alcohol and sugar, and she’d never get to sleep.
She picked up the binoculars. Still some lights on, she noted. She wasn’t the only one still up at . . . Jesus, one-forty in the morning.
Sweaty Naked Guy was still up, and in the company of an equally hot-looking guy. Smug, Lila made a mental note to tell Julie her gaydar was like Superman.
Party couple hadn’t made it to bed yet; in fact it looked as though they’d just gotten in. Another swank deal from their attire. Lila admired the woman’s shimmery orange dress, and wished she could see the shoes. Then was rewarded when the woman reached down, balancing a hand on the man’s shoulder, and removed one strappy, sky-high gold sandal with a red sole.
Lila scanned down.
Blondie hadn’t turned in yet either. She wore black again—snug and short—with her hair tumbling out of an updo. Been out on the town, Lila speculated, and it didn’t go very well.
She’s crying, Lila realized, catching the way the woman swiped at her face as she spoke. Talking fast. Urgently. Big fight with the boyfriend.
And where is he?
But even changing angles she couldn’t bring him into view.
Dump him, Lila advised. Nobody should be allowed to make you so unhappy. You’re gorgeous, and I bet you’re smart, and certainly worth more than—
Lila jerked as the woman’s head snapped back from a blow.
“Oh my God. He hit her. You bastard. Don’t—”
She cried out herself as the woman tried to cover her face, cringed back as she was struck again.
And the woman wept, begged.
Lila made one leap to the bedside table and her phone, grabbed it, leaped back.
She couldn’t see him, just couldn’t see him in the dim light, but now the woman was plastered back against the window.
“That’s enough, that’s enough,” Lila murmured, preparing to call 911.
Then everything froze.
The glass shattered. The woman exploded out. Arms spread wide, legs kicking, hair flying like golden wings, she dropped fourteen stories to the brutal sidewalk.
“Oh God, God, God.” Shaking, Lila fumbled with the phone.
“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”
“He pushed her. He pushed her, and she fell out the window.”
“Wait. Wait.” She closed her eyes a moment, forced herself to breathe in and out three times. Be clear, she ordered herself, give the details.
“This is Lila Emerson. I just witnessed a murder. A woman was pushed out a fourteenth-story window. I’m staying at . . .” It took her a moment to remember before she came to the Kilderbrands’ address. “It’s the building across from me. Ah, to the, to the west of me. I think. I’m sorry, I can’t think. She’s dead. She has to be dead.”
“I’m dispatching a unit now. Will you hold the line?”
“Yes. Yes. I’ll stay here.”
Shuddering, she looked out again, but now the room beyond the broken window was dark.
She dressed, caught herself actually debating over jeans or capris. Shock, she told herself. She was in a little bit of shock, but it was all right. She’d be all right.
She was alive.
She pulled on jeans, a T-shirt, then paced around the apartment carrying a confused but willing Thomas.
She’d seen the police arrive, and the small crowd that gathered even at nearly two in the morning. But she couldn’t watch.
It wasn’t like CSI or SVU or NCIS or any of the initial shows on TV. It was real. The beautiful blonde who favored short black dresses lay broken and bloodied on the sidewalk. The man with wavy brown hair, the man she’d lived with, had sex with, talked with, laughed with, fought with, had pushed her to her death.
So she needed to be calm. To get calm and stay calm so she could tell the police just what she’d seen. Coherently. Though she hated reliving it, she made herself see it again. The tear-streaked face, the tumbling hair, the blows. She made herself see the man as she’d seen him through the window—laughing, ducking, arguing. In her mind, she sketched that face, etched it there so she could describe him to the police.
The police were coming, she reminded herself. Then jumped at the sound of the buzzer.
“It’s okay,” she murmured to Thomas. “Everything’s okay.”
She checked the security peep, saw the two uniformed officers, read their name plates carefully.
Fitzhugh and Morelli, she repeated to herself as she opened the door.
“Yes. Yes. Come in.” She stepped back, trying to think of what to do, what to say. “The woman, she . . . she couldn’t have survived the fall.”
“No, ma’am.” Fitzhugh—older, more seasoned to her eye, took the lead. “Can you tell us what you saw?”
“Yes. I . . . We should sit down. Can we sit down? I should’ve made coffee. I could make coffee.”
“Don’t worry about that. This is a nice apartment,” he said conversationally. “Are you staying with the Kilderbrands?”
“What? Oh, no. No, they’re away. In France. I’m the house-sitter. I’m staying here while they’re away. I don’t live here. Should I call them? It’s . . .” She stared blankly at her watch. “What time is it there? I can’t think.”
“Don’t worry about that,” he repeated, and led her to a chair.
“I’m sorry. It was so awful. He was hitting her, then he must’ve pushed her because the window broke, and she just—just flew out.”
“You witnessed someone strike the victim?”
“Yes. I . . .” She clutched at Thomas another moment, then put him down. Instantly he jogged over to the younger cop, jumped straight into his lap.
“Sorry. I can put him in the other room.”
“It’s okay. Nice cat.”
“He is. He’s really sweet. Sometimes a client will have a cat who’s aloof or just plain nasty, and then . . . sorry.” She caught herself, took a shaky breath. “Let me start at the top. I was getting ready for bed.”
She told them what she’d seen, took them into the bedroom to