The door opened. The detective stomped in, shoulders rigid. Behind him, tall, confident, and looking better than any man had a right to was none other than Special Agent Alex MacGregor. A mixture of relief and something else best left unacknowledged flooded through Bette. Breathing came easier. Now that Double-O was here, everything would be all right.
“This federal agent here says you called him in on the case. Why’s that?”
“Maybe because he’s her brother.” Okay, her tone that time was a little on the snarky side. Not counting summer tourists, Canandaigua was a smallish town. Curious he didn’t already know Alex.
“What’s your connection to Agent MacGregor?”
“We met…once.” Irritated, she shot Alex a look. Why wasn’t he explaining their connection himself? “He helped me out of a bad situation and got me a job in Jackie’s office.”
“If it’s all right with you, the agent wants to sit in on this interview.”
“Of course.” She glanced up at Alex’s tall figure. He wasn’t acting like they had any connection at all. In fact, he was doing a superb job of avoiding her gaze. His stance was rigid, as if he had a poker up his back passage. “No objections. I want to help anyway I can. And I wouldn’t have called him in the first place if it hadn’t been an emergency.”
There, chew on that.
Alex’s eyebrow twitched, but beyond that, he didn’t react to her sarcastic tone.
Then his stance relaxed. He went so far as to fold his arms across his chest and lean against the wall, but no hint of his smile played about his mouth. His icy-blue gaze caught hers. “Start from the beginning, Bette.” His voice was deep and resonant. Her body shuddered a bit, but she clenched her jaw. Not like an uptight and upright feeb and a runaway Mafia princess would ever have any kind of relationship beyond a booty call. And the chances for that were growing less likely by the second.
“I’ll handle the interview.” The detective bristled and assumed his previous position across the table. “You’re just here to observe, Agent MacGregor.” He smiled, smoothed his mustache somewhat self-consciously, then said, “Start from the beginning, Miss Smithson.”
She gave an eye roll but started the story for what seemed like the fifth or sixth time. “It was a little after closing. Jackie was due to head over to the twenty-four-hour emergency vet clinic. The other employees had already left. I’d just finished the accounts for the week. We locked up and walked out into the parking lot together when a big SUV pulled in and parked. I’d already opened my car door, but I heard him say his cat was sick. I asked Jackie if she wanted me to stay and give her a hand, but she said she could handle it, and I should go on home and have a great weekend. I left, and that’s the last I saw of her.”
“What about the man? Can you describe him?”
She shook her head. “Not his face. He was wearing a black hoodie. But he was tall—about Alex’s—Agent MacGregor’s height but heavier. Not so trim, I mean.” She shot a quick glance in his direction. He frowned, head cocked to the side. Yes, indeed he was lean-muscled and trim, like one of those soap opera stars with six-pack abs.
Strong. Capable. And, dammit, even more handsome than she remembered.
“What about his voice? Any accent?”
“Definitely an Upstater. Nothing else distinctive about it.”
“Weren’t you concerned about leaving your boss alone with a stranger?”
“In Canandaigua? No. In fact, when they went inside, she turned on the lights and I heard her laugh. So, I figured it was someone she knew.”
“Where did you go after that?”
“Home. I live in Jackie and Brad’s basement apartment.”
“And when did you discover she was missing?”
“I kept hearing the upstairs house phone ring. Finally, my cell phone rang. It was the assistant at the emergency clinic wanting to know where Jackie was. That’s when I really got worried. I tried calling her husband—he was in New York City for a seminar—but all I got was his voice mail.”
She met Alex’s gaze. Tried to read his expression. Failed. “I called the—uh, 911. After that, I called Alex—uh, Agent MacGregor, early this morning. Around five, our time.” She spread her hands on the table. “That’s it. That’s all I know.”
“Could Dr. Stinnett be having an affair and just took off with the gentleman and his alleged sick cat?”
“No.” She shook her head vigorously. The very idea. “She’s devoted to her family. She’d never do anything like that.”
“And Mr. Stinnett? Off in New York.” The detective wagged his head. “Couldn’t be reached.”
“Still?” That didn’t sound too good. She shot a surreptitious glance at Alex. No reaction.
“Oh, we got hold of him this morning.” The detective nodded with a smirk. “He’s on his way home.”
“Good.” She started to rise. “Is that all, Detective?”
“Not so fast. I have another question or two.”
Wasn’t it Columbo who always had another question or two? She sat, an uneasy sensation crawling along the pit of her stomach. “Okay?”
“What about you and Mr. Stinnett? Maybe you’d like to move upstairs and play house with your boss’s husband?”
“What? No!” Appalled, she rose halfway, hovered, then sat back down. “And that’s a totally asinine suggestion.” She cut her gaze to Alex. Surely he wouldn’t believe she’d be so conniving.
“Wouldn’t be the first time a hot little number like yourself thought she could better her situation by getting rid of her rival.”
She shot the detective a fake smile, then batted her lashes. “Thank you so much for saying I’m a ‘hot little number,’ but you’re an ass-hat.” This time, she stood and set her hands on her hips. “If you’re arresting me, do it. Otherwise, I’ve told you all I know, and I’m out of here. If you need me again, I’ll be at The Villager eating breakfast.”
“Have your breakfast, but don’t—”
“Leave town? Yeah, I know the drill. Let me tell you something. Leaving town while the kindest woman I’ve ever known, not counting my mother, is missing. Well, that’s the last thing I’d ever do.”
She turned to Alex. “I don’t know about you, but I’m blowing this joint. Detective Shepherd or Spitz, or whatever the hell his name is, has managed in the space of five minutes to smear your sister, her husband, and me. I’ve had enough. If I’m not under arrest, I’m out of here.”
Heading for the door and holding her breath, she hesitated long enough to make sure the long arm of the law wasn’t bent on stopping her…at least for the moment.
To hell with Double-O and his stuck-up attitude. What had she expected anyway? Roses and champagne—not.