Praying the rubies were in the storeroom, Birdie hung up with Delia and slipped out of the apartment.
Hurrying down the stairwell, she recalled the clue found in the bunting draped across the restaurant’s picture window. Brick by brick, my love. My life built alone without you. The building was built of bricks. For days, she’d tapped on bricks in the dining room searching for loose spots and chipped at mortar in the kitchen when Finney went on break. She’d thought she’d checked every blasted one.
But she hadn’t checked the storeroom.
Excitement quickened her stride, and she reached the first floor in record time. And to think she’d had to pick the lock the night she’d entered the restaurant on the sly. Who knew the key was hidden in plain sight? Giddy, she looked up.
Just as Delia had described, the heavy molding around the door was loose. On tiptoes, Birdie removed the sliver of wood. The key tumbled into her palm.
She opened the door to the kitchen and flicked on the lights. According to Delia, the second key, used to unlock the storeroom, was in a silverware drawer near the grill, where Finney usually stood cooking and barking orders. She wrenched open the drawer. A large, old-fashioned brass key clattered forward.
It was pretty, really, with a heart-shaped head and large gleaming teeth.
Drawing it close, she gasped.
The clue, the one hidden in the bunting, spoke of building a life alone without the one you loved. And the head of the key was shaped like a heart.
Would it lead directly to the rubies?
Retracing her steps, she reentered the hallway. The storeroom lay at the end, past the stairwell. She unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The musty scent of dust peppered the air. On an involuntary sneeze, she found the light switch.
Spellbound, she blinked. The storeroom was huge.
The place brimmed with a treasure trove of boxes and furniture and plastic-wrapped dishes. Aisles cut through the heirlooms in a sensible grid fashion that made perusing the antiques a simple task. Absently, she ran her fingers across the smooth mahogany of an antique sideboard. The furniture alone was worth thousands, and it was hard to imagine the wealth tucked away in the hundreds of boxes. Clearly nothing of worth had ever been thrown out in the restaurant’s history.
She was itching to investigate all of it when the sound of footfalls on the stairwell brought her up short.
“Birdie? Where are you?”
Hugh appeared in the hallway with a dishtowel flung over his shoulder, his black hair mussed. Despite her irritation at the interruption, she laughed at the orange glop speckling his blue oxford shirt.
“What did you get all over yourself?” she asked. He approached, and she instinctively blocked the door like a pirate protecting her booty. “You have some of it on your shoes, too.”
“I do?” Bending, he swiped a finger through the orange muck on the toe of his loafer. She cringed when he stuck his finger in his mouth. Noticing her disgust, he added, “What? You got something against pumpkin pie? It’s Thanksgiving. Everyone has pie after they chow down on the bird.”
“A man doesn’t have the skill set needed to bake a pie. It’s a multi-task event. Men aren’t multi-taskers.”
“For the record, I baked two pies.”
It was clearly the truth. Spots of flour dusted his all-too attractive features. “So we both get a pie? We don’t have to share?” The urge to push him from the doorway competed with her penchant for home-baked goods. “When do they come out of the oven?”
“You have to eat dinner before you have dessert.” He angled his head to peer over her shoulder. “What are you doing down here, cupcake?”
“Vegetable names, Hugh. If you want to call up sweeter memories from my childhood, stick to vegetables. Don’t forget to lay on the affection when you do.”
“Whatever you say, Tomato.”
“Shouldn’t you be upstairs basting the turkey?”
“Probably.” He pushed her aside and strolled into the room. Pausing beside an oblong table draped in plastic, he added, “I heard you on the phone with Delia.”
“You mean you were eavesdropping.”
Shrugging, he lifted the edge of the plastic. He let go and it fluttered downward in a puff of dust. “Do you need help moving the Christmas decorations or not?”
Covering her nose, Birdie shoved past him. “Don’t do that again. I hate dust.” She made a beeline through a clump of furniture and headed toward the nearest wall—which was, naturally, made of brick. “I can manage on my own.”
“I’ll wager some of the boxes weigh fifty pounds. Think crystal and ceramics. Lots of the holiday decorations are from the 1800s. They aren’t made of plastic.”
“Delia said there’s a dolly in here.” Birdie noticed the contraption beside a stack of boxes. She wheeled it toward the center of the room in a hasty, zig-zag route. If he didn’t leave, she wouldn’t be able to search for the gems. “See? I can manage. Now go away.”
He stood fast, but there wasn’t time to argue. She caught something out of the corner of her eye and abruptly surveyed the walls. The bricks were different here. They weren’t all of the same fire red color used in the rest of the building. Some were a muddy brown. Others were a bright orange like the pumpkin Hugh had spattered all over himself. She remembered something Ethel Lynn had said: the storeroom was part of the original building, which had been added onto several times.
Excitement tripped up her spine. Brick by brick, my love. My life built alone without you. Bricks of many colors…she must be close.
“What are you up to?” Hugh joined her at the wall, his intelligent gaze traversing the bricks like a hound pursuing quarry. “You don’t care about getting the Christmas stuff out of storage. You agreed to do the dirty work for something else.”
“Stop sweet-talking me. You know how it goes to my head.”
“Then let me lay on more sugar. I’ll help if you’ll tell me what’s going on.”
Dragging her attention from the wall was nearly impossible, but she managed to glare at him. Help her? Was he kidding? The rubies were her ticket to a better life. She wasn’t sharing them, least of all with a reporter who was as irritating as he was sexy. She had to find the boxes of holiday decorations, start moving them, and get him off her tail.
“I mean it,” he said softly. “Let me help you.”
The entreaty in his voice was sudden and sincere. His expression was infused with a gentleness she hadn’t thought him capable of. For a reckless moment, she wondered if maybe he wasn’t trying to horn in on the loot at all. He wanted her.
Impulsively, she brushed the lock of hair falling across his brow. “I’m fine on my own,” she replied. He took her by the wrist to stop her from moving off, and her emotions cartwheeled. “Go back upstairs. I have work to do.”
“And I shouldn’t watch you in the commission of a crime?”
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