Remembrance, p.24
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       Remembrance, p.24
 

         Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot

  “What did you say?” Jesse asked. The wind rushing past us from behind the windshield was noisy, making it hard to hear.

  “Nothing. Look, how long is your shift this weekend?”

  “I’m on call starting at five tonight. I’m not off again until tomorrow afternoon.”

  “Okay,” I said, shouting to be heard above the wind. “Great. I’ll get in touch with CeeCee and see what she can find out about where Jimmy Delgado lives.” I made a big show of pulling my phone from my purse. “Then maybe we can hit him—and Father Francisco, assuming he’s back from his alleged conference—tomorrow night.”

  By tomorrow night, if things worked out the way I was planning, the Delgado Photography Studio and possibly even Sacred Trinity would be in ashes.

  The only thing still standing would be 99 Pine Crest Road. I hoped.

  “We?” Jesse threw me a suspicious glance as we headed through the gate that said THANK FOR YOU VISITING 17-MILE DRIVE. PLEASE COME AGAIN. “Not we.”

  “Yes, we,” I said. “I’m your fiancée. I understand you’re not entirely up on twenty-first-century social mores, Jesse, but it’s considered rude these days not to invite your fiancée to your vigilante party.”

  His lips twisted into a cynical smile. “Not this time, Susannah.”

  “What do you mean, not this time? What kind of sexist bullsh—?”

  “I’m well acquainted with your feelings about my nineteenth-century macho-man ways, Susannah, and I’ll be the first to admit many of those ways were wrong. But some of them aren’t. Some of them work better than your twenty-first-century ways, which seem to allow child murderers to go unpunished and”—he held up a hand to silence me when I began to protest—“young girls to needlessly suffer. So perhaps just this once you’ll allow me to do things my way.”

  “Oh,” I said. “Oh, okay, Sheriff de Silva. I’ll just go decorate some bonnets while you execute a few criminals without due process.”

  His smile became even more infuriatingly cynical. “You don’t even know how to sew.”

  “Yeah, well, I do know how to shoot a gun. I’ve been taking target lessons with Jake over at the range in Monterey. But if you don’t want me around, fine. I’ll just sit quietly at home like a good little bride-to-be while you’re out fighting the bad guys.”

  His lifted his gaze from the road to glance at me.

  “I do want you around, Susannah,” he said. “That’s why I want you at home. I’ve lost too many people—all the people—I love. I can’t lose you, too. Do you understand? That’s why you have to let me take Delgado myself, alone. I want you around forever.”

  “Oh.” Now I felt like a jerk for having called him a macho man so many times. Not, of course, that it made a difference. If anything, his admission only strengthened my resolve not to change a single thing I was planning to do. “Well, when you put it that way. Okay. Okay, sure.”

  Even through the dark lenses of his sunglasses, I could see that his gaze hadn’t strayed from mine. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re hiding something from me, querida?”

  “Me?” I asked in an innocent voice as I texted rapidly. “I would never hide anything from you.”

  Drinks sound good. See you at 5. Can’t wait.

  NOV 18 4:15 PM

  veinticinco

  “Simon, you came. I have to admit, I didn’t think you—” Paul jerked back, apparently regretting his decision to kiss me hello. “When did you start wearing glasses?”

  “Hello, Paul. You haven’t changed a bit. Still rude as ever.”

  “No, really, what’s with the glasses? And why is your hair up like that?” He looked slightly horrified. “I instantly recognized your amazing ass, of course, as soon as I came in, but then when you turned around—” He heaved a mock shudder. “Ever heard of contacts?”

  “They’re not prescription. And you’re late. You said five. This place turns into a meat market after five thirty. You’re lucky I didn’t run off with one of these other nice gentlemen who don’t mind my glasses at all.”

  Paul may not have found my glasses alluring, but plenty of other patrons at the Carmel Inn hotel bar had found them no deterrent to asking if they could buy me a drink. The diamond on my left finger didn’t seem to bother them, either. Finally I’d put my bag on the seat beside me and said it was occupied: I was saving it for my husband, B. A. Baracus.

  Only one guy got the joke. He’d bought me a vodka tonic in appreciation.

  “Poor baby,” Paul said as he handed me my bag and slid onto the stool, giving my new friend the evil eye. “I feel sorry for any guy who tried to hit on you. Did you knee him in the balls?”

  “That’s an extra special move that I reserve for extra special guys like you. Where were you? Buying the Vatican so you can knock it down to put in a strip mall?”

  “I’m glad you got your sense of humor back. I was worried you were going to be pissy about all this.” He made eye contact with the busy bartender. “What she’s having.” Then he eyed my drink. “That better not be something nonalcoholic, like club soda. I want your defenses down tonight for when I take full and total advantage of you.”

  “Wow, you really are still just as in love with yourself as you were in high school, aren’t you?” I made a slashing motion beneath my chin to the bartender. “He won’t be having anything, sorry. We have to go.”

  “What do you mean?” Paul’s face fell. “I just got here. Look, I apologize for being late, I had a conference call about the properties—you can’t believe how nasty people are being about my tearing down that house of yours. I thought you were a bitch about it, but that damned historical society, shit. And I’m sorry I made the crack about your glasses. I thought I left instructions to dress sexy, but with your hair like that, and the glasses, you look more like a schoolmarm than a sex kitten.”

  “Schoolmarm?” I laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment. You don’t know what that means to me, truly.” I took him by the arm, then almost dropped it in surprise. He’d been working out, maybe even more than I had. I could feel his bicep through the expensive Italian wool of his suit. It wasn’t as big as Jesse’s, but it was rock solid, which was a little daunting, considering what I had planned. “But we have an appointment elsewhere.”

  “Appointment? What kind of appointment? Oooh, is it here in the hotel, for a couples’ massage? I hear they have outstanding sea-salt scrubs, really rough, the way I like it.” His dark eyebrows furrowed. “Suze, I like the initiative, but you’re making this too easy. It’s way more fun when you play hard to get.”

  “Then you’re in for the time of your life tonight.” I dropped the keys to the BMW in his hand. “Here, you’re driving.”

  He stared down at the keys. “Where are we going?”

  “Not far. A photography studio over on Ocean.”

  A slow grin spread over face. “Wait. Are we picking up naughty portraits you had made of yourself for me?”

  I couldn’t believe it. Then again, I could. Maybe he was the child in Aunt Pru’s prediction after all—so lost, all he could think of were ways to hurt me for not loving him.

  Well, tonight he was going to get what he wanted: my full and uninterrupted attention.

  “Yeah, Paul. That’s exactly what we’re doing. Picking up naughty portraits I had made of myself for you. Now come on, we have to hurry, since you were so late. He closes up shop at six.”

  Paul was so excited he practically skipped through the bar. I couldn’t help noticing how much female attention he attracted (and not because he was practically skipping). He was even taller than I remembered, his neatly trimmed dark hair curling crisply against the back of his tanned neck. Either the shoulders of the suit jacket were padded, or he’d bulked up there, too, in the muscle department.

  Well, I suppose being a multimillionaire, he could afford a couple of personal trainers, along with a chef and a nutritionist. He certainly seemed to have found a good stylist. His pale blue tie perfectly matched his pale
blue pocket square, which in turn matched his pale blue eyes.

  “Your attitude toward all this has certainly improved,” he remarked as we headed out the revolving lobby doors to stand beneath the porte cochere, waiting with the other guests for the valets to bring their cars. “What happened to change your mind from the other day? I mean, aside from the obvious—that I hold your boyfriend’s life . . . or rather, afterlife—in my hands.”

  “Well.” I affected the bored demeanor of Mrs. Baracus, tired of her jet-set life. “We did have some good times, I suppose, you and I.”

  He grinned. “We did, didn’t we? Remember when we shifted back to the Old West and that lady kicked you out of your own house because she thought you were a whore? That was the best.”

  I kept a smile plastered on my face, even though I noticed an older couple standing near us, also waiting for their car, the wife pretending to be concentrating on reapplying her lipstick, but clearly eavesdropping.

  “I do remember that. Then you stuck a gag in my mouth and left me tied up in a barn while you tried to kill Jesse. Even then, you had a one-track mind.”

  The wife smeared her lipstick, then elbowed her husband, hard, in the ribs.

  Fortunately the valet roared up in Jake’s car, which I’d convinced Jesse I should use for the weekend, as he didn’t need to be parking a BMW with a trunk full of weapons in the hospital parking lot.

  “What if it gets broken into?” I’d asked him. “Some lunatic could find Brad’s rifle and next thing you know, he’ll come running into the ER, shooting up the place. Do you want that on your conscience?”

  Jesse had admitted that no, he did not want that on his conscience, but mentioned that I watch too much television and have a tendency to catastrophize things. If only he knew.

  “Nice ride,” Paul said as he slid behind the wheel of the convertible. He adjusted the seat to accommodate his longer legs. “I guess people with graduate degrees in counseling make more scratch than I’ve been led to believe.”

  I buckled my seat belt. “Just drive.”

  He did as I asked, taking us up Ocean Avenue, downtown Carmel’s main drag, at a breakneck speed. Even though there was still a little less than a week to Thanksgiving, the town council had decided it was never too early to start decorating for Christmas, so tasteful white fairy lights wrapped the trunks of the palm trees up and down the street.

  “Ah, Suze.” Paul sighed happily. “Being back in your company is like having a refreshing breeze in my hair. Or maybe that’s the actual breeze. I forgot how freaking cold it gets around here when the sun goes down. Where are we going again?”

  I told him the address and pointed. “It’s that way.”

  “I’m aware of that, Suze. I used to live here, remember? And once principal construction begins on the new development—well, it’s probably better not to bring that up. You sure you’re not still pissed at me, Suze?”

  “Not now that I’ve become more accustomed to the idea,” I lied.

  “Well, I just want you to know that you don’t have to worry. If things don’t go the way I’m hoping tonight—but I’m feeling very optimistic that they will—I will do everything in my power to protect you from that boyfriend of yours once he goes all savage beast on you. There’s a safe room on my new jet, you know.”

  It was extremely hard to summon up a smile, but I managed. “That’s so sweet of you, Paul. Pull over. We’re here.”

  We were lucky to find a parking space. The art galleries and shops tended to stay open late, especially on weekends and holidays, when there were more tourists in town. The owners hoped the window displays would catch the eye of couples strolling down the street after dinner, and that they’d enter the store and buy a coffee table shaped like a couple of leaping gray whales for a mere $40,000.

  Delgado Photography Studio was a picturesque little place tucked between a jewelry store and a shop that sold handcrafted women’s clothing made of all-natural materials that even Aunt Pru wouldn’t be caught dead in, if she could afford it, which she couldn’t because the cheapest thing was a scarf for $200.

  Delgado’s had a black-and-white theme. All brick, it was painted black to look more avant-garde, with some blown-up black-and-white photos in the window of the sweeping cliffs of Big Sur and crashing surf of Monterey Bay, surrounded by smaller black-and-white headshots of children—mostly girls—staring with intense energy into the camera, their hair windswept or stuck to their round cheeks from sea spray.

  I felt the bile rise once again in my throat. Fortunately I still had plenty of antacids in my purse. Among other things.

  “This is the place?” Paul asked, looking at the photos in the display window. “These don’t look very sexy. They’re all of kids.” There was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in his voice.

  “Just wait. May I have the keys?”

  “Sure.” Paul surrendered the car keys, then watched as I went to the back of the convertible.

  “What’s in there?” he asked, pointing at the large sports bag I drew from the trunk.

  I winked at him. “Supplies.”

  Paul grinned. “Whoa. I get it. So this whole thing”—he waved a hand over my outfit—“with the glasses and the suit is a getup for the photo session, and you’re going to change once you get in there? Go from schoolmarm to sex kitten?”

  “Something like that,” I said, walking to the studio door.

  “Kinky,” Paul said appreciatively. “You know, I like how into this you’re getting, Simon. You’re making me feel kind of bad for what’s going to happen to Jesse when we—” He made a slashing motion under his neck, the same one I’d made to the bartender to cancel Paul’s drink order. Only Paul made it to show how casually he planned to cancel Jesse’s life plans. “Especially since I heard what happened to Father Dominic. I know I said I don’t read the Alumni Newsletter, but I glanced at today’s update, and saw he had a fall.”

  “He did.” I joined him at the door, standing only a half foot away from him, my high heels making me tall enough to lift my chin and look him in the eye.

  “I’m sorry about that,” Paul said, his face only inches from mine. “I know how much you like that old man. I sent him some flowers, and a donation to the school, since I figured that’s what a decent person would do, and that’s what he’d really like—you, too. And God knows, I can spare the money.”

  “That was sweet of you, Paul.” My gaze dropped to his lips. “Thank you.”

  “I’m not all bad, you know, Suze,” he whispered. His gaze was on my lips, too. “I mean, I am, of course, but not really. I’m not dark. Not like that boyfriend of yours. I like you, and that has to count for something, right?”

  “Does it, Paul?” I asked. “I’m not sure it’s enough, exactly. But you know what I do know?”

  “What?” he asked, his hands going to my hips.

  “You’re not the only one.”

  His lips had begun dipping down toward mine, but now he pulled away slightly, looking confused. “What do you mean?”

  “Who’s bad. I’m bad, too. Much worse than you.”

  “Oh, yeah?”

  He grinned, liking the sound of that, leaning forward so that he was pressing me into the doorway. I could feel every inch of him through the Italian wool of his suit. It wasn’t lined. That must be itchy, I thought, in the distant part of my brain that wasn’t extremely alarmed at feeling another man’s private parts against me. Was he even wearing underwear? It didn’t feel like it. Trust Paul to go commando. Quicker access.

  “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for you to admit that, Simon.” His breath was warm on my cheek. “But now that you have, we can finally—”

  I reached up to lay a finger over his lips. “Not that kind of bad, Paul,” I said. “I mean your-worst-nightmare bad. You thought tearing down my house was going to release the darkness inside of Jesse? Wait until you see the darkness it’s released in me. Come here. I’ll show you.”

  I grabbed hi
s tie, opened the door to the photography studio, and pulled him inside after me.

  veintiseis

  “You must be Mr. and Mrs. Maitland,” the man behind the desk said, beaming, as we walked in. “I’d almost given up hope.”

  “Sorry we’re so late.” I smiled at him. “My husband had a business meeting. Do you mind if I set this down over here?” I indicated the sports bag over my shoulder. “It’s heavy.”

  “Oh, please, allow me.” The man—taller than I’d expected, even though Becca had warned me—hurried out from behind the shiny black lacquer desk to relieve me of the bag. He set it where I’d been meaning to, next to a black plaster statue of a young female ballerina, standing in third position. Her tutu was of real black tulle.

  “You must work out,” the man said to me, laughingly, because the bag weighed so much.

  “I do. Are you Mr. Delgado?”

  “I am.” He extended his right hand. He had short-cropped graying hair that looked as if it had probably been dirty blond at one time, and a sizeable gut. “James Delgado. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Maitland.”

  I tried not to let my nausea show as I slipped my fingers into his. “Same here.” His hand felt like any other hand, even though it had killed Lucia Martinez, one horse, and for all I knew, many other innocent creatures as well.

  He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had the large, raw-knuckled hands of someone who’d worked, at least for a while, outdoors—or possibly in a stable. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, as the beard, glasses, and belly had prematurely aged him. According to the small business owner’s license CeeCee had found for him online—after much complaining—James Delgado was thirty-five years old.

  Looking at him, it would be impossible to guess he was a child killer.

  Paul, it was clear, had no idea.

  “This guy’s the photographer?” he asked in a loud whisper, directly in my ear. Even though I’d let go of his tie as soon as we’d walked in, he was still sticking to me like glue. He seemed confused, probably because of the bit just before we’d come in, where I said he’d released something in me. He still didn’t understand that what he’d released in me wasn’t anything flattering.

 
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