Amelia’s eyes were closed, but flickerings of soft, warm light played across her eyelids. Fragrant wood smoke wove its way through the scents of a deliciously savory stew and fresh-baked bread. She could hear the fire crackling.
Something furry warmed her cheek. Amelia nuzzled her face into it, and it started to purr.
Homeless Heaven. She must be dreaming; she didn’t dare open her eyes. Instead she listened to the fire crackle.
What had her mother told her about the nunnery she grew up in in Switzerland? Always a crackling fire in her room, a huge “elderdown” on her bed. Amelia felt the slight weight of something similar, which smelled faintly of clean, lemon-scented laundry.
Suddenly a soft strain of piano music. Not a recording. Debussy. But even softer and dreamier than the original. And just then, when Amelia was the surest that it must all be a delicious dream, and she was really dead, a huge tongue licked her face.
Amelia’s eyes snapped open.
A Rottweiler…so big it looked like it could have swallowed her in a single gulp…cowered in front of her, darting its nervous eyes between her and the man at the piano. Vaguely it all came back to Amelia: This man had carried her home. And something about a bird…
“Q, I already tended all her wounds!”
Amelia took a peek under the duvet. It was true. Not only were all her injuries neatly dressed but she was cleaner than she’d been since she became homeless. All of her. And she was dressed in nothing but an immaculate, white terry cloth bathrobe. She wasn’t sure what sent the slight shudder up her spine, the fact that she’d managed to sleep through all this or thankfulness that she was no longer young.
He left the piano, appearing at her side to offer a brandy snifter with what smelled like a first-rate cognac. The Rottweiler Q, still seeking reassurance, whined and attempted to settle for licking a bandage covering an injury on her hand…until the man’s look sent the dog scurrying off to a corner near the fire.
The cognac slipped down Amelia’s throat like satin. The man served her some stew from a silver food warmer.
Amelia found her voice. “Thank you so very much. For everything. Your kindness…” She couldn’t find adequate words to finish her sentence.
He silenced her with a gesture. But even in a room only lit by firelight, she could see the flush of pleasure and suppressed smile in response to her few words. He adjusted the pillows behind her, which set the cat to purring again, and then sat on the floor at her side.
Amelia tasted the stew. “Delicious!”
Again, he failed to completely suppress a smile that bordered on the smug. But then his expression turned quite serious and troubled. “Oh Lady of the Melodious Voice, can I tell you something?”
“Of course!” she responded immediately, anxious to repay his kindness by listening to his woes if she could.
“At the same exact moment that I learned that my dearest friend is dead, I also learned that I betrayed him by believing he had betrayed me when, in fact, he hadn’t at all.” He looked beseechingly at Amelia.
Amelia knew she must have looked confused.
“You need to understand that we’re in business together. A…client…owes us a very large sum of money. I thought my friend had gone to his garden apartment to collect it without telling me because he was going to keep all the money for himself.” He choked up, burying his head in his hands. “How could I?”
Amelia sat up and put a hand on his shoulder.
“How could I?” he repeated. “How could I think such a thing? You see I got worried that night, when I couldn’t reach him, and tracked him. That’s how I found out he’d gone to the apartment of this guy who owes us a fortune. That’s why I thought…” He trailed off, in obvious agony.
Amelia squeezed his shoulder.
“How could I? I even went to where this guy that owes us money works, gunning for my friend. But when I finally found my friend dead, I knew the truth.”
Amelia put an arm around him. “Which was?” she queried softly.
He took her hand, squeezing it feverishly, having apparently forgotten about her injuries. “Which was that the reason my friend must have gone to collect that money alone was because he knew of the danger I did not…the danger that ended his life.”
Amelia squeezed his hand.
“But I found something else in the trash that night, too.” His sudden grin was so remarkably evil that Amelia snatched her hand back with a shudder. It was then that she spotted the little box he’d shown her, before she’d gone to sleep, and remembered about the dead bird.