VALENTINE’S DAY IS supposed to be for romance not roaming. That’s why it’s so suited to February. When the winter cold adds extra incentive to hibernate at home and cuddle, instead of venturing out looking for trouble.
This was especially true in Montreal this year when snow still fell three days out of seven and it was colder than the ice cream waiting for me in my freezer at home. The ice cream I could be feasting on at this very moment if Mélanie Gauthier hadn’t hired the PI agency I worked for to shadow her husband, Martin Singleton, and find out who was getting all the attention he used to bestow on Mélanie and their two kids.
Apparently, Martin wasn’t hibernating at home like he should be. Martin was thumbing his nose at the cold and roaming far and wide to find his trouble. That’s how I got stuck spending my Valentine’s in Sainte-Adèle, about 85 kilometers from the city, sans boyfriend, dining in a ski resort restaurant that had a view of a mountain to my right and to my left, a view of Martin Singleton and a woman I was guessing was his new lady friend.
I leaned down, pretending to get something from the purse I’d set on the floor beside my chair, and I risked a look at Martin, sitting three tables away, in the darkest corner of the restaurant. He was fortyish, slim, and decked out in a tailored gray suit over a patterned blue shirt, tie loose at his neck, brown hair cut tidy and trimmed around his ears. His focus held steady on the woman sitting with him, at least ten years his junior. A redhead with cascades of curls, freckled cheeks, and sparkly eye shadow. She wore a red pencil skirt fitted to slope in at her tiny waist and a crisp white blouse buttoned barely high enough to conceal her bra.
“What is this guy thinking?” I murmured to myself as I sat up and went back to hiding behind my menu. “Nobody cheats on Valentine’s day.”
Warm fingers slid over my hands and gently directed them downwards, menu and all, and infiltrating eyes bore into mine. Dark eyes set off by wild dark hair and dark scruff. Eyes that left me feeling like I’d forgotten to dress. Eyes that belonged to my boss, Laurent Caron—ex-cop, ex-hockey leaguer, and expert investigator.
“Vraiment, Lora. In your fairy tale world does anyone ever cheat?” he said, his usual throaty, French accent made deeper by his hushed tone.
I eased my hands out of his and moved my menu back up to camouflage height, my eyes peeking out just enough to keep watch on Martin. “I don’t live in a fairy tale world,” I told Laurent. Although I had to admit, it had felt a bit like it lately. After all, I had moved from New York to Montreal to live with my boyfriend Adam, my very own Prince Charming. And I was living in a beautiful house made of sturdy bricks the big bad wolf could never blow down. And I was granted my wish of starting a new career as a PI, well PI in training. A job I loved even more than my old one as a social worker.
Too bad Mélanie Gauthier wasn’t having the same luck as I was. I grimaced on her behalf as I spotted Martin playing footsie under the table with his lady friend, her stockinged foot making its way up past his ankle and disappearing into his pant leg.
“But fair is fair,” I went on to say. “If a relationship’s over, fine, couples should move on. But they should pack it in first before anyone starts storing their goods in someone else’s boxes.”
Laurent smiled at me across our table and leaned forward, lowering his voice even more. “Maybe we should wait to have evidence before we decide where Monsieur Martin Singleton is storing his goods, no?”
Laurent was right, of course. We didn’t have actual proof of any wrongdoing. And maybe I was wrong about Martin. Maybe he was totally on the up and up. Maybe the redhead would turn out to be an old friend. A friend who played footsie with Martin for old time’s sake, like it was hopscotch.
After all, appearances could be deceiving. If my boyfriend Adam saw me now for instance, spending the dinner hour with Laurent in a posh restaurant in a swanky resort with ski hills, fine food, and roaring fires everywhere I looked, he may not have been so understanding about postponing our own Valentine’s night until after I got off work. Adam had been jealous enough when I’d pretended to be Laurent’s fiancée on a previous case. He would not be happy to know I was passing the better part of the most romantic day of the year once again pretending to be hooked to Laurent. Probably it wouldn’t soothe Adam much to know at least I wasn’t faux engaged this time.
And it didn’t soothe me either. I wasn’t so thrilled about spending Valentine’s working the night shift. I was itching to leave. I had added a few extra waves to my auburn mane of hair and a dash of mascara to my blue eyes. And I was already wearing the pink, slinky dress I’d bought especially for the occasion, with matching kitten-heeled shoes that lengthened my legs and added almost two inches to all five foot two of me. I even had my gift for Adam tucked away in my handbag. The minute we were done here, I was ready to hightail it back to the city to be with my Valentine. I had no plans to leave Adam all alone like Martin Singleton was doing to poor Mélanie Gauthier.
I glanced back at Martin and watched as he slowly slid locks of his companion’s hair from her bosom to her shoulders, then sat back, held up his phone, and took a picture of her. She smiled, her cheeks growing rounder, and it took me a moment to realize there was something different about her from the last time I’d looked over. Her cleavage now nestled a gold necklace weighed down by a hefty emerald.
“You don’t think that’s evidence?” I whispered to Laurent. “The guy just gave her a stone pricey enough to cover a down payment on a car, and now they’re all over each other.”
To underscore my second point, my eyes darted to the current liplock connecting Martin to the redhead, and Laurent turned his head to follow my eyes then set his gaze back on me. “Surely, Lora, you don’t mean that kiss? An innocent kiss between friends maybe. Nothing wrong with that. Even you would have to agree one little kiss is not cheating.” He raised an eyebrow on that last bit, nearly daring me to disagree.
I couldn’t of course. I knew he was baiting me. Not so long ago, the two of us had shared a kiss. Purely in the line of work, on the undercover case when we’d been pretend engaged. And the kiss was completely harmless. So harmless, I’d almost forgotten about the feel of Laurent’s lips on mine, the taste of wine on his breath, the grip of his strong hands on my back. And I’d do an even better job of forgetting if he’d stop bringing it up to tease me.
I lowered my menu. “That kiss was completely different and you know it,” I said. “That was work.”
He shrugged in that way that only the French can. “Maybe Martin is at work too.”
“As what? A tonsil inspector?”
Truth was, I hated working infidelity cases. I would have loved to believe Martin Singleton was innocent so we could go back to Mélanie Gauthier and assure her that her suspicions were for naught and her marriage was hunky dory. But if Martin was guilty, Mélanie deserved to know. At least then she’d know her instincts were spot on and she wasn’t imagining things.
Our waitress came over—college age, streaked blonde hair worn up in a messy bun, cute dimple in one cheek when she smiled. She deposited drinks and appetizers on our table then lingered, coyly tapping her pen, and asked Laurent in French if there was anything else she could get for him. Not us, but him. I got nothing but a cold stare as she left. I got that a lot from women when I was with Laurent. Especially when we were posing as a couple. Some women seemed to resent the idea of another woman taking Laurent off the market before they’d had their chance to sample the goods. Probably it didn’t help that he currently wore a suit that likely debuted on an Italian runway. Or that it formed to his toned body, advertising his good genes and good workout regime. Not to mention that Laurent and I were on the set of romance central, sitting at a table complete with fine white linen, sparkling dinnerware, crystal goblets, two lit candles, a single red rose cloaked in a glass jar, and a giant chocolate cupid—naked except for a red candy crown of flowers on his head.
When the waitress had cleared earshot, Laurent slid the candles aside and filled our glasses from the bottle the waitress had left in a standing canister lined with ice.
I brought my glass up to my nose and took a whiff. “Is that champagne?”
Laurent nodded. “Évidement.It’s better for our cover, no?”
I sat back and eyed the hors d’oeuvres the waitress had brought. Lots of vegetables sculpted into hearts along with some crackers and cheese.
I skimmed the tables around me for onlookers, sure now that if they’d known I had a boyfriend, I wouldn’t look any better than Martin Singleton. Maybe Laurent was right. Maybe I was jumping to conclusions about Martin.
I checked in with Martin again. This time, he was passing his dinner companion a gift bag decorated with white hearts on a red background, loads of gold ribbon attached to the bag’s handles. She smiled and let out a slight laugh as she pulled out the contents, something black and lacy that looked like moths had gotten to it and that disappeared back into the bag faster than it had been fished out.
Okay, that didn’t look good. At least Laurent wasn’t passing me any gift bags with hearts. I reached for a cracker and popped it in my mouth, which is when I noticed the small pink box set in front of me. A box with a tiny silver bow on top.
I raised my eyes to meet Laurent’s. “For me?” I asked him, caught off guard, my voice dipping.
He waggled his eyebrows at me. “I think we have seen enough of Martin Singleton. You open your gift now.”
I grabbed my champagne glass and took a swig then stared down at the box. I had to open it, right? It would be rude to just ignore it. I guzzled the rest of my champagne and took the lid off the box. Inside was a beautiful vintage key. A hotel key to be exact, for a room upstairs.
I looked up, about to ask Laurent what he was thinking giving me the key, only to see my boyfriend Adam standing three feet away. The look on his face and the fisted hand by his side telling me he was probably about to ask Laurent the same question.