Katerina Piretti was a small woman, and the dense weight of the Wagner file was commensurate with Mr. Wagner's great importance to the firm. Kat lugged it from her credenza to her desk, barely noting that the late April sky outside her office window had progressed from a pink-streaked dawn into a full-blown day. Muffled footsteps trod the carpeted hallways of Harper, Madigan and Horn. The attorneys trickled in, the earliness of their arrivals depending partly on their workloads and partly on how far down the firm's letterhead they were. Kat had beaten everyone in that morning, as she did nearly every morning. She'd been associated with the firm for only eight months, which meant she received enough plodding research projects to keep her billable hours well above the firm average.
Eight months of real-life law. She knew Harper, Madigan and Horn's law library so well that she could file away regional digests faster than the librarian could. She required daily amounts of coffee large enough to fill a small garden pond. Every other week she received a healthy paycheck. One of these days she hoped to find time to spend it.
The Wagner file. Her mentor, a junior partner named Harold Banks, had dropped it on her credenza at six the night before.
"Hit it first thing in the morning," he'd said. "It's simple research, but potentially time-consuming."
Well, it was morning. And the file was still there, waiting. Kat wrinkled her nose as an unprofessional snort lifted her dark bangs from her forehead. The Wagner file was larger than most Thanksgiving turkeys she'd seen. Her secretary, whom she shared with Hal, would need a handcart to lug it back to his office.
With a resolute flick of the wrist, she opened the manila file.
Hal's giant red scrawl met her gaze: secretary's day.
Kat blinked. Then, of its own accord, her left hand reached for the phone. Hal answered after one ring.
"What's this note in the Wagner file?" she demanded.
"A reminder. Today's Secretary's Day."
"It is? How was I supposed to know that?"
"Haven't you been in any card stores lately? This is, I believe, a Hallmark-created holiday."
"Hal, I haven't been off the seventh floor of this building lately."
She was lucky to have him as her mentor, and she knew it. Hal looked out for her. Although nine years away from his own first year as an associate, he remembered clearly the pitfalls and confusion that came with the turf.
"Okay, okay," she said with a sigh. "So I'm supposed to be extra nice to our secretary today."
"You ever want to get to an appointment on time again, you'll be extra nice to her every day."
"What should I do, Hal? I didn't get her a present. Why didn't you warn me about this yesterday?"
"You don't need a present. Take her out to lunch."
"Lunch? What is that? I've forgotten."
"Lunch with my secretary isn't billable, is it?"
"What about you? She's your secretary, too."
Hal chuckled. "I've got a deposition today. Besides, I thought ahead. My flowers should arrive by noon."
Kat slumped in her chair. Lunch. With Devon. Devon was a dynamite secretary, but Kat saw no point in trying to cultivate a friendship with her. They weren't buddies, for Pete's sake. It was hard enough maintaining a boss-secretary relationship when your secretary was only three years younger than you were. And, although Devon was twenty-four and perfectly pleasant, Kat doubted that they had anything in common.
She sighed. "Hal, couldn't I just write Devon a nice note and then get back to work on my career? That's really why I show up here every day."
He ignored the comment. She could picture him, horned-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose, right hand tapping his ever-present pen against the top of his desk calendar as he quickly checked his watch.
"You could use the break too, Kat. Look, here's what you do. Leave a nice note on Devon's desk inviting her out to lunch today. Okay?"
"Out to lunch where?"
"Oh, Kat, Kat, Kat. Must I do all the thinking for you? Where's my star associate?"
"Out to lunch," Kat replied without a trace of humor.
"Devon's easy. She talks all the time. You'd have to be deaf not to know she's dying to try Angel Café."
Deaf or buried up to your ears in legalese. But at least Kat had heard of Angel Café. It was a trendy new restaurant in South Baltimore.
"Now," Hal said, "take my little note out of the Wagner file. Rip it to shreds. Underneath is a note regarding a couple of issues I need researched. Can you turn out a cohesive memorandum by tomorrow night?"
"And do lunch with Devon?"
"The research is straightforward. I'm counting on you, kiddo. Wagner's Big Man on Campus these days." Hal hung up the phone.
Lunch with her secretary. A memo on the Wagner file. An empty coffee cup. It already felt like Monday, even though it wasn't.
"I just love Federal Hill, don't you?" Devon sat in the passenger seat of Kat's car, her tall, strawberry-blond prettiness set off to perfection by the deep green suit she wore.
Kat had been born in Baltimore. The blue-collar Federal Hill she remembered from her childhood bore little resemblance to the pristine, yuppified version that now attracted touring suburbanites like Devon. This version of Federal Hill was very pretty, but the one Kat knew had been a lot more interesting.
Fortunately, Devon seldom required responses to her comments.
"I made a reservation," she said. "I was lucky to get it, too. This place is super popular."
"I hope you told them one-thirty, because it's going to take at least half an hour to find a parking place."
"I see a place over there if you think you can squeeze into it."
"I can squeeze into anything." Kat clicked on her turn signal and expertly glided into the space.
It was easier to exude confidence while both she and Devon remained seated. Devon, a leggy five foot nine, always made Kat feel like a cute little puppet. Additionally, Devon possessed an air of sophistication that harmonized with her creamy porcelain skin and well-coiffed helmet of hair. Kat was only five foot one. She needed a stool to reach the top bookshelves of the law library. Her wide brown eyes and delicate bones made her appear younger than she was, no asset where attorney-client relationships were concerned. She suspected that if she didn't possess such a big mouth, judges would simply pat her on the head whenever she appeared in court.
She watched glumly as her secretary unfolded herself from the car. Devon should have been the attorney. No way anyone would ever ignore her.
And, as usual, nobody did. Devon's elegant, smooth curves strolled languidly toward the entrance of Angel Café, oblivious to the stares of male admirers.
Angel Café, tucked between an antique shop and a film-processing store, occupied a three-story row home. Its facade was white brick, accented by mauve trim. Tied-back lace curtains framed the large front picture window. A gauzy scrim blocked a clear view of the room immediately within, but a carved, painted sign positioned above the window said it all:
NOURISHMENT FOR BOTH BODY AND SPIRIT
"How wonderful," Devon said. "So perceptive, don't you think? Somebody should have opened up a place like this years ago."
Kat ran her fingers up the brass handrail. She had nothing against angels; it was kitsch she couldn't abide. A small brass cherub sat firmly on the top of the rail. Two attached cherub heads graced the doorknocker, reminding her of some weird celestial mutant birth. True perception, she thought, might have hired a better decorator.
Devon had been smart to call ahead for reservations. The tiny lobby of the restaurant was crammed with people. The sentimental whimsy of the surrounding Victorian memorabilia made the restaurant's patrons seem larger than life-size. Business-suited professionals wedged themselves between bowls of rose petal potpourri and carved cupids. There were, not surprisingly, angel images everywhere. Kat had never seen so many lithographs and paintings together in one room. Fat little putti rolled distorted round eyes up toward heaven. Plump, dimpled angels arced well-padded arms above innocent children.
"I love angels." Devon's smile lit the room. "God, Kat, don't you love this place?"
Kat averted her gaze from a melodramatic rendering of a drippy angel leading a rejoicing soul to Heaven.
"I prefer my angels to have edges," she said.
"Victorian angels are too round. I like more fire and brimstone, a dash of medieval angst, perhaps."
Devon laughed and shook her head. "You would," she said.
They approached the hostess, who, swathed in a gauzy, ethereal dress, waited behind a burnished wood counter.
"Hi," Devon said, naturally accustomed to shielding her boss from unwanted entanglements with the outside world. "We have a one o'clock reservation. The name is Katerina Piretti."
"Pretty name," the hostess said, and Kat managed a small smile. She felt awkward, as if she blended right in with the other tiny knickknacks displayed about the room.
"Your table will be ready shortly," the hostess said. "Feel free to find yourself a stone and relax." She gestured toward a large, hand-woven basket on the end of the counter. Inside were hundreds of smooth, tiny stones. Each one sported a delicate "Angel Café" decal.
"What are we supposed to do with these?" Kat whispered to Devon as the hostess turned away.
Devon had already begun sifting through the stones, sampling individual ones with a thoughtful rub between thumb and forefinger.
"It's therapeutic. Let yourself feel each stone until you find the one that best matches your vibrations."
"What?" She knew she was on the edge, dangerously close to laughter.
"Once you find the stone whose rhythms suit your own, you can use it to calm yourself in times of stress. You, of all people, could use a meditation aid. Oh, look! This one practically glows pink. And it feels marvelous. It's just waiting for me!"
The words "Oh, give me a break!" pushed at the back of Kat's lips, dying to escape in a burst of derision. She bit them back.
"Ms. Piretti." The hostess tapped Devon on the arm. "Your table is ready. Please, follow me."
Kat sighed, not surprised that the hostess had chosen Devon as the one in charge. So much for psychic perception.
The cacophony of the crowded lobby faded away as they entered a serene dining room. Kat noted that Angel Café was composed of several small dining rooms, following the original floor plan of the structure's residential days. The hostess led them into one of the smaller rooms, a high-ceilinged area dominated by an intricately carved fireplace mantel.
"I bet this was a formal parlor," Devon said. "The lady of the house probably received all sorts of exciting men in here. Can't you just imagine the intrigue this room has seen?"
The room held five small tables, all filled with smiling diners. The angel motif of the lobby had been carried through here as well. Angel prints lined the walls. Papier-mâché angels descended delicately from the ceiling, attached by braided gold cords. Still more angels reclined on the mantelpiece in stone-carved splendor, sleeping, whistling, or blowing kisses. Crystals dangled in the windows, shooting the room with rainbows whenever the sun caught a facet. Tiny bowls of rose potpourri decorated each table.
"They've thought of absolutely everything." Devon shook her head. "This place is incredible."
Kat perused the menu. Incredible wasn't the word. Expensive was. She could raise her consciousness on her own at half the price.
The menu consisted mainly of salads, soups, sandwiches, and light fare. Kat noted that the café opened only for breakfast, lunch, and tea. That accounted for the lack of heavy entrées. Her eyes skimmed down a list of herbal teas.
"Welcome." Their waitress grinned. "I'm Molly, and I'll be your server today. What can I get you to drink?"
"I'll have the Orange Blossom tea," Devon said.
"Good choice!" Molly was entirely too chipper for Kat's taste. She looked as wholesome as fresh grain, apple-cheeked and blond, as if she'd just blown in from a meadow.
"Coffee, please," Kat said.
"Cappuccino, espresso, mocha..."
"Don't you have just plain coffee?"
Molly pondered her as if she were a poor, unenlightened being bused in from an underprivileged reality.
"Certainly," she conceded. "Decaf?"
"Caf. And lots of it."
Molly eyed her thoughtfully. "Sure. Did you pick out a stone while you were waiting?"
"Go choose one while I fetch the drinks. They're very soothing."
So was Valium. Everything about Angel Café rubbed Kat wrong, and she couldn't even say why. It shouldn't have been that way. Really, the room was sunny and comfortable, and some of the angel statues were very pretty. She liked the fact that none of the fine china pieces on the table matched. The patterns were beautiful and interesting, pulling the table together in a haphazardly charming way. The rose potpourri smelled pleasingly sweet. And yet, it all felt studied and contrived. Bogus.
A quick glance around the room proved she was the only one who felt that way.
"Look how relaxed everyone is." Devon leaned back in her chair. "You can bet that most of them left hectic offices to come here, too. This place is so serene."
"It's the stones. They each picked one hell of a vibrating stone."
"Maybe you're right." Though a crackerjack secretary, Devon wasn't very good with sarcasm.
Kat narrowed her eyes. "Don't you find this place the least bit commercial? You know, kind of riding the New Age wave?"
"Oh, no. This place is a welcome relief. It's like an oasis from the stress of everyday life. But I'm into self-discovery. I like exploring my potential on all levels."
"What does that mean?" Kat started to ask, but Molly had appeared tableside with a large cup of herbal tea and a ridiculously small cup of coffee.
"I'll need at least five more cups," Kat said.
Molly smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry. I'll take care of you. Will you ladies want readings today?"
"Readings?" Devon's face lit up.
"Why, yes. Nearly everybody who comes to Angel Café has a reading done. It's an additional fifteen dollars, but it's worth it. Stephen comes around to your table and speaks with your spirit guides. They've usually got a message for you."
Devon turned a pretty pink. "Let's do it, Kat."
"Fifteen dollars?" Kat's eyes widened. "For somebody to deliver a message from something I can't even verify exists?"
Molly, able to forgive a caffeine addiction, could not overcome Kat's latest breach of etiquette. She turned resolutely toward Devon.
"Are you interested?"
"Yes," Devon said firmly. "I'd love a reading. I've wanted to meet my spirit guides for ages."
"I'll sign you up, then. And I'll take your lunch order now, if you're ready."
Devon ordered the Sunshine Sprout salad, a rabbit-happy concoction that clocked in at $8.75. Out of pure peevishness, Kat ordered a slice of chocolate cake. She stared down the disapproval in Molly's eyes until the server was forced to retreat toward the kitchen.
"Kat," Devon said once Molly had gone, "I want to learn more about you. We work together, but we don't talk."
Great. Now her secretary wanted to be her confidante. Kat instinctively pressed herself against the back of her chair.
"I worry about you," Devon continued earnestly. "You work all the time. You're behind your desk when I get to the office every morning, and you're still there when I leave at night."
"Not so." Kat set her jaw. "Sometimes I'm in the law library, and occasionally I even make an appearance in court."
Her secretary plowed right on. "I can tell from my pile of dictation that you spend hours in the office on weekends, too."
"It goes with the territory, Devon. Big firms don't hire associates based on their ability to relax."
"But you work harder than all the other new associates put together. It's like you've got some sort of death wish. I was just telling my husband the other night, ¿Kat's such a sweetheart, such a regular little doll-baby, I wonder why she pushes herself so
hard?' You don't even leave yourself time for a social life."
Kat's heart slammed against her chest. She couldn't afford to become Devon's pet project. Her mind cast frantically about for a diversion.
"Tell me about spirit guides," she said abruptly. "I've never heard of them."
Devon's gray eyes observed her reproachfully. "Okay, but don't think I don't know you're trying to change the subject. I don't get it. You're beautiful, you're smart, and you want to spend the rest of your life up to your ears in paperwork."
"If you don't tell me about spirit guides this minute, I'll mumble incomprehensibly through every dictation tape I give you for the rest of our lives."
Devon leaned back and lifted her teacup to pearly mauve lips. "Each of us has at least five spirit guides to help us through our daily lives. There's a high teacher, a doctor, a chemist, a saint, and an Indian guide."
"An Indian guide?" Once again, Kat stifled a desperate urge to laugh. "What's that for?"
"The Indian guide balances you with the forces of nature. That helps center you."
"Devon, there's not much nature in my background. My grandparents came over on a boat from Italy and settled in the city. As far as I know, no American Indians came with them."
Devon sighed and shook her head. "There you go again. You get defensive the minute anyone talks about anything other than work. Honestly, you won't open yourself to anything."
Kat glanced up, unnaturally grateful to see Molly bearing down on them with their lunches. The conversation was getting too personal for comfort.
"Here we go," Molly said in her perkier-than-thou voice. "A salad for you, a piece of cake for you. Stephen will be over in a few minutes to do your reading. Enjoy!"
Devon mournfully shook her head as Kat sunk her fork into the velvety chocolate icing of her cake. "You don't eat right, either. If you don't take care of your body, it won't take care of you."
That was probably true. It dawned on Kat that her father would love to have a conscientious, health-oriented daughter like Devon. Devon, neat and organized, efficient in a ladylike job...Devon, who'd fulfilled parental dreams by marrying young. Due to Devon's habit of chatting throughout the workday, Kat even knew that her secretary had been trying for at least a year to get pregnant.
A grandchild. Her father would swoon with delight.
She swallowed hard.
"Look, Devon, let's not talk about me anymore. It's a boring topic. I appreciate your concern, but it's not necessary. I'm fine, really."
"It's just that I like you, Kat. Most attorneys cop attitudes, but you're different. I think of you as a friend."
That was probably because she totally lacked authority.
Kat and Devon turned as one to the man who stood beside their table.
"Stephen Carmichael." He extended a hand. "Welcome." He pulled an empty chair from a neighboring table and placed it deftly beneath him. "Which one of you requested a reading?"
"Me." Devon stared dreamily at Stephen Carmichael. Kat had to admit he was worth staring at. His hair was black and his eyes, the palest of greens, commanded attention in an evenly tanned face.
"No reading for you?" he asked her.
"No, thank you." She took another determined forkful of cake.
Devon leaned forward in excited expectation as Stephen turned her way. He reached across the table and, with a charming smile, grasped both her hands in his.
"What's your name?" The relaxed, intimate tone of his voice told Kat that most people were more than happy to put their faith in Stephen Carmichael.
"Devon. Devon Alexander."
"Pretty. Devon, I'm going to take a few quiet seconds to get a sense of you, and of your guides."
He closed his eyes. Kat watched as his strong, slender fingers rhythmically traced Devon's hand. An unexpected image of those fingers caressing her own hand flashed across her mind, sending an odd flutter through her chest. She brushed the image away. It made her angry, somehow. Besides, she had no intention of becoming involved with anyone, least of all someone who claimed to be in touch with invisible entities.
"You're married," Stephen said, eyes still closed.
"Yes, that's why she wears that ring on her finger," Kat blurted out. Her hand flew to her mouth. She thought she detected a look of annoyance flicker across Stephen's handsome, even features, but he continued as if she hadn't said a word. "You haven't been married all that long, though."
This time Kat managed to keep her thoughts to herself. Of course Devon hadn't been married long. She was only in her mid-twenties. How long could she possibly have been married?
Stephen opened his eyes and fixed Devon with his steady, green gaze. "There have been discussions about children within your household."
Devon's mouth dropped. "How did you know?"
Kat stifled a groan. He knew because Devon was a young, married woman. Of course she and her husband discussed children, whether pro, con, present or future.
Stephen once again stroked Devon's hand. "Two of your guides are here with messages for you. One is a tall woman dressed in flowing violet robes. She has long blond hair."
"Well, that counts her out as your Indian guide," Kat said. This time she was certain that Stephen was not pleased.
"Who is she?" Devon asked, intrigued.
Stephen closed his eyes. "She says her name is Sapphire. Her message concerns children. She wants you to know that all is happening as it should."
Devon let out a long, relieved breath. "Ask her why I can't get pregnant."
Kat studied the confident set of Stephen's mouth and abandoned all hope of tact. "Can't she hear you, Devon? Where is she, Mr. Carmichael? Levitating above the table? Sitting on the mantel?"
Stephen threw her a barely perceptible glare from beneath lowered lids. "She says to relax," he said, and for a moment Kat wondered if that message was more for her than for Devon. "Drink chamomile tea. Dream. Drink of yourself."
"Oh!" Devon cried, clearly impressed.
"What does that mean?" Kat demanded.
Devon rested her chin on her hand. "It means that I should listen to my inner voice. I should like myself for who I am and stop measuring my worth by whether or not I get pregnant. It's truly profound, Kat."
Kat let out an exasperated sigh. "I'm sorry, Devon. I'm trying to be open-minded, here, but I just don't get it."
Devon blushed a lovely pink, unsure how to tactfully counter her boss.
Stephen Carmichael waded into the fray. "Your other guide is a very old soul, possessed of great depths. He stands behind you with the golden ring of knowledge balanced over your head."
An impish expression crossed Kat's face. "Why, Devon, his help must have gotten you through law school."
Devon looked confused, but Stephen Carmichael snatched up the clue and ran with it.
"Oh, are you an attorney?"
"She is," Kat said, unable to stop herself. "A damn good one, too. I should know. I'm her secretary."
"Kat!" Devon's jaw dropped.
"She works for Harper, Madigan and Horn," Kat continued. "Perhaps Mr. Golden Ring has a message regarding her law career stashed away in his little bag of tricks."
Devon nailed her with an angry glare, but Stephen had already closed his eyes in concentration, and she dared not break his communication with her guide.
"Yes," Stephen said, "he does. He did indeed help you through school. He helped provide that extra push you needed during long nights of study. And he is still available to you now that you are practicing law."
"Good thing," Kat said. "You're going to need him."
"You have a fine legal mind," Stephen said, "and you are undoubtedly effective in court."
"Undoubtedly," Kat echoed.
"Your secretary is very supportive." Stephen passed Kat a puzzled glance. "I'm sure, Devon, that you have a question or two to ask your guides. Please, feel free..."
"Kat!" a voice called from across the room. Kat jerked her head up sharply to see Joe Turner, opposing counsel on the Haggerty case, striding her way.
Why was the timing in her personal life always so impeccably off? And this was going to be even worse than usual because Joe, stopping smack at their table, leaned over to greet Stephen as well.
"Stephen, buddy. Great place. I love it."
"Thanks, Joe. I'm glad you stopped by. I'll be with you in a minute, I promise."
"Take your time. I can understand being bumped for Katerina Piretti."
"You?" Stephen asked Kat.
She nodded her acknowledgment.
"Watch your words, though," Joe said. "She looks small and innocent, but she's a killer. Kat, no chance your client will reconsider our last offer?"
Kat shook her head. "We're still laughing about it."
"Didn't think so. Oh, well, we'll duke it out in court next week, then. Stephen, you've done wonders. I bet you make loads of money with this place."
Kat's eyes widened. "You own Angel Café?" she demanded, staring at Stephen.
"You're an attorney?" he countered coldly.
"Gotta go." Joe lowered his voice. "I brought my secretary for Secretary's Day. I don't want to leave her hanging out alone in the lobby."
"What a coincidence," Kat said, throwing Stephen a challenging glance. "I brought my secretary, too."
"See you next week, Kat." Joe took off, unaware of the tempest he'd left behind.
"Well," Stephen said, icicles dripping from that one word, "I suppose I'd better be moving on."
Kat nodded her agreement. "Yes, I suppose you'd better."
"But I have questions for my spirit guides!" Devon protested.
Both Stephen and Kat stared at her, amazed by her singular lack of perception.
"I'm sorry to cut our session short, Ms. Alexander," Stephen finally said. He delivered a gracious smile. "I won't charge you for it."
"As well you shouldn't." Kat could seldom leave well enough alone.
Stephen, who'd already begun to stand, froze midway.
"Ms. Piretti, was it? I'm sorry if I've offended you. Please, feel free to dine elsewhere in the future."
"No problem, Mr. Carmichael. No problem at all."
He stood and, still glaring, turned toward the lobby. Suddenly he clutched his midsection and paled. He reached frantically for the edge of the table, his eyes fixed on Kat in disbelief.
"Mr. Carmichael, are you all right?" Kat leaped to her feet.
He opened his mouth, then shut it again. He seemed struggling to keep it closed, but words poured forth, almost as if they had a life of their own.
"Ms. Piretti, I apologize...but I have a message for you."
Kat sank into her chair. "From what sort of being, Mr. Carmichael? Casper the Friendly Ghost?"
He shook his head violently. "I don't know who it's from," he said in a low voice. "Believe me, if I had the choice, I'd never talk to you again."
She rolled her eyes and reached for her coffee. "Sure. You just can't help it. The stars are configured just so, and you've got a Ouija board stashed under the table."
"You're right about Peter's death," Stephen said tonelessly.
The coffee cup dropped from her grasp, cracking both itself and the saucer on which it landed. Kat began to tremble so violently that Stephen instinctively reached out to hold her.
"Let go of me," she managed to say in a hoarse voice. "Let go of me."
"I'm sorry. Whatever I said,...."
But Kat had wrenched herself free and now stood, a deep flush of scarlet flooding her cheeks.
"Here." She reached into her wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. "Devon, I'll meet you at the car." She turned and fairly flew through the lobby door.
"What just happened?" Devon jumped to her feet.
"I don't know." Stephen stared into space, absently fingering the bill Kat had pressed into his hand.
Devon laid a comforting hand on his arm. "Don't worry. Kat just doesn't believe in angels yet."
But Stephen remained staring straight ahead as Devon gathered her belongings and left the table.
Copyright © 2003 by Jill Morrow
South Baltimore's Angel Café is a trendy new eatery where patrons can enjoy exotic tea, aromatic coffee, and the psychic readings of clairvoyant Tia Melody. The star and main attraction of the restaurant, Tia claims to channel an otherworldly guide, Valentine, and somehow knows all there is to know about her expanding list of patrons.
Kat Valenti is a workaholic attorney still coming to grips with the death of her fiancé, Peter, who died two years ago. Although drawn to the Angel Café, she is skeptical of Tia's readings -- until her late fiancé 'contacts' her to shed new light on how he died.
Kat's wariness only grows as more clues turn up about Peter's death -- and all of them lead back to the Angel Café. Tia Melody is no simple fortune-teller, and Valentine is no benevolent spirit. Valentine's true power may be almost limitless -- and he doesn't want to tell the future anymore...
He wants Kat.