I didn’t know whether to jerk him into my apartment or slam the door in his face. I’d been looking after him since he gave me half his PB&J the second day of kindergarten, so I opted for option number one.
Using both hands, I grabbed one of his biceps and tugged. His arm shook. Hell, his entire body shook.
“What’s wrong?” Why had I asked? Zander possessed the sweetest of natures, but the man skirted on the wrong side of too many things. How could any response from a trembling, naked man be anything I wanted to hear?
He stared, his big brown eyes filled with obvious adoration. If only I could conjure a single ounce of chemistry in return, life would be perfect. Well, I’d also have to pretend my best friend wasn’t bat-dung crazy.
“Bad news, Fin-Fin.” Zander pulled me into his arms, holding me tight against his bare chest. “He’s dead.”
Uh-oh. I tried to back away, wondering if anything Zander held against me could be held against me. “Who’s dead?”
Double uh-oh. Which technically translates to “uh-oh. uh-oh.” Which I’d never say. Stupid thoughts sprout in my head when I’m scared. Actually, my brain activity is pretty bizarre when I’m perfectly calm, but the weird seems to multiply when stress is added to the mix. “Artie? My Artie?”
Zander nodded, his eyes jerking like percolating coffee. “Yeah. I mean no. Cause he wasn’t your Artie anymore. Dumb ass dumped you. ‘Member? ”
Alrighty then. Zander was clearly confused and I didn’t need that little reminder about my heartache.
I shoved against his chest. Zander stumbled backward, his irises glazed over. Maybe his expression didn’t equate to adoration. The man who not-so-secretly lusted after me was stoned. Again.
Which meant Artie probably wasn’t dead. Good news or bad, depending on one’s perspective.
The big lug leaned against the doorjamb, pressing his head into his forearm. “Don’t feel so hot.”
“Z-Man, You can’t stay here.” Technically, he could, but I didn’t want him in my place. Our friendship slid down a bumpy slope, especially since Asshole Artie no longer served as the buffer that kept our relationship platonic. “Go home.”
“Can’t find the keys to my car.”
Bugger. Finding Big Foot would be easier than finding a cab at 4:00 a.m. in our part of town. I’d let him stay. Despite his obsession, Zander had always been there for me. Always.
I needed to cover up his sexy parts because all that smooth muscle interfered with my thought processes. I actually considered a Friends with Benefits scenario. And who could blame me? Zander’s body would tempt a lesbian nun.
My little fantasy lasted only a fraction of a second. I’d regret any lapse. Big time. Probably more than I regretted wasting five years of my life on the lying, cheating dung-heap, also known as Arthur Fonzarelli Patterson. Yep, his real name. I might be a pile of crap, too, if my mom shackled me with a name synonymous with “Heeeyyyy.”
“Let’s get you something to wear.” Could I re-design a king-sized sheet to cover Zander’s king-sized frame? Yep, all his parts were king-sized–I peeked.
I turned toward the small hallway and my linen closet, but Zander stumbled forward. He needed to sober-up. And I needed him out of my living room before he did some projectile upchucking. “Let’s get some fresh air.”
I led him outside to my tiny fourth-floor balcony, hoping the cool morning air would do the trick. “Make yourself…”
Zander had already flopped into my only lounge chair. He answered me with a loud snore.
Shaking my head, I went in search of my coffee pot, needing a jumper cable for my brain as much as I needed to dilute Zander’s high. I was having some strange thoughts. Sure, I’d never obsessed over Zander the way I had over Artie during the honeypot phase of our relationship, but Zander’s hotness was exceeded only by his goodness—a goodness Artie didn’t possess. Would hooking up with Zander really be so bad?
A pounding on my door knocked the ridiculous notion out of my brain. What the hell?
Probably Artie. Turd probably thought I’d been playing hard to get. Wrong.
Or maybe Zander had made another threat to Artie’s person. Hard to remember the guys had been good friends once. Zander actually introduced me to Artie at his college graduation. Artie had dropped out, but had gone to cheer on his pal—or given what I learned later—probably for the subsequent kegger. The bro-mance died when Artie decided to cheat on me—six different times with six different women.
I know, I know. What kind of dodo tolerates repetitive adultery? Well, sometimes a woman just can’t stay away from a train wreck—especially when the locomotive engine fires megawatts of pure sex and the caboose is a sight to behold.
In my defense, the sextuplet of strumpets happened one at a time during a period covering five years. Each time, Artie swore he’d never stray again. After six degrees of separation our split became permanent.
Or so I’d thought. Artie’d cornered me last night, trying for lucky number seven.
I so couldn’t deal with him at the moment. “Go away.”
The pounding resumed. Louder and more insistent.
Bugger times two. “All right, all right. I’m coming.”
I flung open the door, a slew of expletives ready to fire at my ex.
Only Artie didn’t stand there.
A very large, very angry cop narrowed his eyes. “Sarafina Schaeffer?”
I swallowed. My mouth opened but words ran for cover. I nodded—or at least I think I did.
The officer reached for my arm. “You’re under arrest for the murder of Arthur Patterson.”
Eight hours later, I left the police station, taking the walk of shame in my pajamas. Damn cops hadn’t even let me change clothes. Not that I pushed the issue with Zander passed out on my balcony with who knew what in his system. During my brief incarceration, I worried about him more than my own pending predicament. I really needed to show Zander the leftover chili in my fridge—I’m a really bad cook. I should show him that mess and have the “this is your brain on drugs” conversation. But fear had delayed the tough love too long. What if I made the ultimatum and Zander didn’t quit? I wasn’t quite ready to give up the only person I trusted.
Zander sat on the bench by the police station exit. I blinked, and then blinked again. Believing he’d still be zonked out from the aftereffects of whatever he’d snorted, puffed, or inhaled, I hadn’t made my one phone call. I’d been nothing short of stunned when the lead detective unlocked my cell and said bail had been posted.
Not that I would have called Zander anyway. During my interrogation, I’d gone mute, but the detective still pummeled me with questions. What I’d gleaned from the interview was Zander shouldn’t be within ten miles of the police station. When the cops realized I wouldn’t cooperate, they’d booked me on a second-degree murder charge. I’d thought maybe Zander should’ve been in the cell instead.
“Zander? Why are you here?”
“Nice to see you too, Fin-Fin. Why the hell didn’t you call me?”
“Last time I saw you, you were face down in your birthday suit.”
Zander looked divine in the noonday glare. He sure cleaned up well for someone who’d passed out in the nude a few hours earlier. He definitely didn’t look like someone who’d bludgeoned a former friend to death with a Little League batting trophy.
Did you cover my bail?”
“Fin-Fin, the bail bondsman covers the bail.”
I nodded, having been blissfully unaware of police procedural before my little stay in the county facilities. “Yeah, but you have to pay the bondsman a percentage.”
You didn’t have to be good at math to know any percentage of $250,000 was more than I could afford and still cover rent. I didn’t think Zander was any more liquid. Sure, he had a good job—some IT thingy—but he’d just bought a house and a new car and I suspected he spent quite a bit on recreational pharmaceuticals.
“Don’t worry about it.”
I frowned at him, worried. Where the hell did he get all that money? I hoped to God his involvement with recreational drugs was limited to consumption.
He shrugged, somehow managing to make the goofy gesture look sexy. “I got you a lawyer, too. He got you released with a phone call. So why didn’t you call me?”
I jerked my head around, not wanting to have any conversation in the police parking lot. “Because you were stoned out of your mind, Dumb Shit.” There. I’d said it. “You’ve really got to stop doing that crap.” I made a beeline for the parking lot, wondering, of all stupid things, where he’d found his keys.
He jerked my arm, forcing me to face him. “I told you I’m clean. Before Artie… You used to ask questions before you accused me.”
Before Artie pushed you. His unfinished sentence erected a row of bars between us. I’d never once lied to Zander, but did he believe I’d simply fallen down the stairs? Not likely.
The police didn’t believe me either, but my ex had been nowhere near me when I blacked out and toppled down a flight of stairs. Catching Artie’s doing the downward facing dog with my yoga instructor, a.k.a. Bimbette Number Six, had surely affected my state of mind, but he didn’t even know I’d fallen. He didn’t check on me, either, which is why I lost so much blood and had to be hospitalized after I miscarried.
Everybody loved easy-going Artie but overnight, he became persona non grata. Everyone thought he’d freaked because of the baby, but he didn’t know. I hadn’t known.
Artie blamed me for his leper status, even suggesting I’d thrown myself down the stairs. A horrible thing for him to say, but his accusation freed me—permanently—from the lure of Arthur Fonzarelli Patterson
“Geez, Z-Man. You passed out on the floor. A girl doesn’t need to ask a lot of questions.”
He let go of my arm so fast you’d think I contracted some form of rare cooties. “Damn, Sarafina. I didn’t take or smoke anything. I haven’t done drugs in six months—not that you’d notice with your head so far up Artie’s cheating arse.”
“Don’t make this about, Artie. He’s…” Something almost physical rammed into my midsection. Artie was dead. I’d moved on, but… Dead?
Zander pulled my head against his chest. “Ah, shit, Fin-Fin. I’m so sorry, Sweetums. I wanted to kill him for what he did to you, but I didn’t want him dead.”
I pulled away, trying to keep the floodgate on my tears. I’d lost Artie. I could live with that, but in that instant, I knew I couldn’t lose Zander. The cops believed I’d killed Artie because he killed my baby. With a good lawyer, I could plead self-defense, maybe temporary insanity. If the police knew I’d left my cell with Zander—the same phone they found next to Artie’s body—my BFF would look like a first-degree murderer. I’d do whatever it took to protect him. “Let’s get out of here.”
He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and we walked to the car. I looked at the ground, keeping my hand on my forehead in case anyone I knew happened to be out and about. Thank Providence, the cops released me before church let out.
I didn’t see the woman until her pointed shoes almost collided with my Grecian sandals.
Before I could respond, she shot me. With a spitball. Eww. Eww, eww, eww.
Worse, I recognized her voice. Artie’s mom.
The woman had given me a serious eww, but I couldn’t work up any anger. Artie might be last week’s fish on my grocery list, but the stink wad was the strawberry of his mommy’s eye. Rather, he had been.
Mrs. Patterson had never been a fan, but she’d always been polite to me. She’d even visited me in the hospital after the fall. As an RN, she was at the hospital anyway, but I still appreciated her gesture.
“You! This is all your fault.”
Wiping the saliva off my face, I could only wince. She’d never said anything, but losing her grandchild must have devastated her. Losing Artie would finish her off.
Zander stepped between us. “That’s enough, Mrs. P.”
The barracuda woman morphed into a guppy. She turned and fishtailed away.
Zander guided me to his car. I wasn’t sure how long I sat in the passenger seat with my head between my legs. Breathing in. Breathing out.
“Sarafina, are you okay?”
Seriously? “What do you think? I’ve been up for thirty hours, and, oh yeah, I’m facing a murder charge. By the way, where the hell did you go last night?”
He turned to face me, looking at my eyes the way I looked at his when I suspected he was doing more than inhaling a little weed. “You think I killed him?”
I crossed my arms across my chest, not keen on answering that question. “I believe you’d never intentionally hurt anyone.”
“What the hell does that mean?
“Zander, how did you know Artie was dead?”
“Before you passed out, you said Artie was dead. How’d you know?”
He rubbed his temple, scrunching his face into the same expression he wore when doing a crossword puzzle. “I don’t… My memory’s pretty hazy.”
And he hadn’t done any drugs? Yeah, right.
Still, a bubble of hope popped into my hopelessness. If he had no recollection, maybe we could get him off with the temporary insanity thingy. “Maybe you’d better tell me what happened. Start with how you ended up in my apartment wearing nothing but my pirate hat.”
“Ah, shit.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple straining against his throat. “Then it was real?”
I couldn’t answer that. We’d gone to Kelly Davidson’s party. I’d actually become friends with the first object of Artie’s transgression right after I’d discovered Bimbette Number Two. Kelly decided to host a costume party to usher in her big three-zero. I’d gone as a pirate, Zander a ghost—wearing a sheet and probably nothing else.
He narrowed his eyes. “Let’s see. When Ass-Wipe insisted on talking to you, outside, Gloria parked her skinny butt on your vacated stool.” Zander had been highly pissed when I agreed to talk to Artie. “You took him back, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t. I only went outside because Artie would have said whatever he was going to say in front of God and the entire bar. You know that.” To preclude my ex from embarrassing both me and Gloria—his current—I’d followed him to the exit.
“And once I got outside, I kept walking.” That was a partial truth. As soon as the cool air hit my face, Artie took my pirate hat. When I whirled to get it back, he planted a sloppy kiss on my face. I gave him a shove and took off.
Artie followed, spouting his worn out song-and-dong. “I’ve changed, Baby. Let’s give it another go.”
I didn’t listen. “I called you as soon as I got home, Zander.”
“You knew I didn’t have my phone.” He had no pockets in his ghostly sheet, so he’d left his cell at home.
“My phone was on the bar, Z-Man. I figured you’d be smart enough to answer it, but you didn’t.”
“Fin-Fin, we swore we’d never lie to each other.”
“I found your hat, Sarafina.” The color had vanished from his face. “In Artie’s apartment. On his dead body. I took your hat so… I just took it.”
Whoa. If he’d found my hat on Artie’s corpse, maybe Zander didn’t commit the crime. Which meant we sure as heck needed to figure out who did. “Why were you in Artie’s apartment.”
“I…I was pretty ticked at you. Gloria bought me a beer—or I think she did. Maybe it was Macie. I chugged the sucker, and… I don’t know what happened after that.”
“Macie?” A flare of jealousy shot though my psyche at the mention of Zander’s coworker. He’d gone out with her a couple of times and refused to give me details. I should have been happy for him. I wasn’t.
Zander nodded. “I think she was mad but… Shit, I just can’t remember. “
I touched his cheek. “Please tell me the truth. Did you snort anything?”
He glared. “I’ve already told you. No.”
We sat in silence for several seconds.
“Z-Man, I know this sounds crazy, but is it possible someone doctored your beer?”
He snorted. “Why the hell would anyone drug me?”
Maybe I wasn’t the only one who’d experienced Zander-jealousy. I kept that opinion to myself. “How’d you end up in Artie’s place?”
His Adam’s apple did another dance. “I woke up in the alley—behind the bar. Someone took my sheet. I can’t…eh, couldn’t stand the sight of Artie, but hell, Fin-Fin, I was butt-naked.”
And Artie’s place was across the street. “So you wanted to flash Artie? Show him you have a bigger dick?” I winced—I hadn’t meant to sound so crude.
Zander grinned. “Nah, but I do. I figured the Ass-Wipe owed me some clothes. He didn’t answer his door, but I know where he hides his key.”
So did I. Artie hid the key in the space beneath the fire extinguisher.
“He was dead, Fin-Fin. Staring into space like a frozen fish.”
“And you took my hat and left?”
He nodded. “You know what’s sick? I was just glad you hadn’t slept with him.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “You didn’t, did you?”
I reached for his arm. “I didn’t have sex with Artie. I didn’t go to his place. And I sure as hell didn’t kill him.”
His head jerked up. “Really?” He looked way too happy for someone whose best friend had just been charged with murder. “Good. Then let’s figure this out so we can clear your name and get on with our lives.”
Our lives? I couldn’t deal with “us” and a pending trial at the same time. “I need a lawyer… Or maybe a private investigator.”
“Didn’t you hear me say I’d hired one for you—the best criminal attorney in Charlotte. Addison Aimes has an investigator on his staff.”
The next two days passed in a blur. When we met with the lawyer, Mr. Aimes did most of the talking.
When the attorney paused, I chimed in, “What about Macie Gray and Gloria Williamson? Do they have alibis?”
Bugger. I’d banked on Macie being the killer. Sounds mean, for sure, but better her than Zander. I’d been pissed when Zander disagreed. He believed Gloria committed the murder, insisting she’d been livid when Artie walked outside with me.
Mr. Aimes reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “Ms. Gray says you left these on the bar. She also admits she stole your sheet. Said it annoyed her when you brought Ms. Schaeffer to the party, but the woman denies putting anything in your beverage, Son. She’s lying, but we’ll have a hard time proving anything.”
“Forget it,” Zander replied. “Let’s keep our focus on getting Sarafina cleared.”
I could almost love Zander.
“The good news, Ms. Schaeffer, is the police didn’t find your fanger-prints on the murder weapon. Or on anything else in that boy’s apartment.”
The murder weapon? Bugger.
Mr. Aimes’ assistant stuck her head into the conference room before I could say anything. “The mayor is on line one. He insists it’s urgent.”
The Colonel Sanders look-alike grimaced. The taste in his mouth apparently didn’t taste like chicken.
As soon as he closed the door, I grabbed the sleeve of Zander’s shirt. “How did your little league trophy end up in Artie’s apartment?”
He frowned. “My trophy? That wasn’t my…” He stared at me for a couple seconds before he laughed. “Hell, Fin-Fin. No wonder you thought I off’ed Artie.”
“Zander,” I hissed, not appreciating his chuckles at my expense—especially since the only people roaming around with motive, means, and opportunity currently sat in Mr. Aimes’ conference room.
“Chill, Sweetums. The trophy that… Well, my trophy is still on my mantle. Which you’d know if you had the decency to come see my new house.”
He laughed again, the dip-stick. “Fin-Fin, everyone on our team got the same trophy. Mine is not the murder weapon.”
I swallowed. Then swallowed again. “Everyone?”
“So Artie also has one ?”
“I’ve never seen Artie’s trophy. Only yours.”
I jumped up and raced toward the door.
“Fin-Fin, where are you going?”
“I have to find Mr. Aimes. I know who killed Artie. I just hope we can prove it.”
As things turned out, I didn’t have to prove anything. Once Addison and his minions descended on the real killer, she couldn’t seem to confess fast enough. I won’t lie, I felt immensely relieved, but my exoneration didn’t keep the sadness away.
I drove to Zander’s house to tell him the news, hoping he would do what he did best—cheer me up.
He answered the door without a shirt. “Sorry, was working out.”
Yeah, right. I’d called ahead so he should have been expecting me. I swear he wanted to tempt me.
His plan was succeeding. Exposure to all that delicious Zander skin took a chink out of my depression.
“The charges have been dropped.”
Before I could explain further, Zander grabbed me. He whirled me around as if we starred in some jewelry commercial. “Really.”
When I managed to release my breath, I nodded. “Yes. Poor Mrs. Patterson.”
He hugged me against his chest. He didn’t smell like a man who’d been working out. “How’d you know?”
“Since Artie didn’t have his little league trophy, it only made sense his mother would have it.”
Zander nodded. “I still can’t believe it. Artie was the only apple in her orchard.”
“It’s so sad. She didn’t believe I fell down the stairs, but like you said, Artie’s her everything, so she pretended she did.”
“So what made her snap?”
I leaned back so I could look at Zander’s face. “Gloria.”
I nodded. “She had an abortion.”
Shit was a serious understatement. “The poor woman had cleared out Artie’s old room and dropped by with a box of his stuff. She also knew about the hidden key. Letting herself in, she overheard Artie tell Gloria he hadn’t wanted the baby because he didn’t want her. When Gloria stormed out, Mrs. P. stormed in.
“Double shit.” Which is technically “shit, shit.” Which Zander would—and did—say.
“You know what I’ve learned from all this, Fin-Fin?”
I didn’t want to know—maybe because I already knew. And didn’t want to hear it. I was scared tastes-like-chicken shitless.
“Life’s short. I’m not wasting any more time waiting for you.”
Double uh-oh. And I truly meant uh-oh, uh-oh. I was going to lose Zander.
Just when I’d figured out we might have a little chemistry after all. “Z-Man, I’m…”
“I love you, Fin-Fin.”
He grinned. “I said I love you. The way I see it, you have two choices. Either tell me to go away or embrace me. Embrace us.”
I don’t know about chemistry, but we definitely had electricity. Everything tingled.
I didn’t speak. Instead, I embraced him.
And a whole lot more.
ROBIN WEAVER, Author of Blue Ridge Fear, Artifact of Death
ROBIN WEAVER, Author of Blue Ridge Fear, Artifact of Death