Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  He quickly scanned it, flipping the pages. Suddenly he paused, and his head came up, sharp blue eyes fastening on Sarah.

  “Miss Stevens, did you know under the terms of this will you inherit a substantial sum of money?”


  SARAH BLINKED, MORE BEMUSED THAN STUNNED. SHE WAS a little punchy and so tired that she wasn't certain she had heard him correctly. She even looked around, as if there might be another Miss Stevens in the room. Not finding anyone, she looked back at Cahill to find him still focused on her. “Do you mean me?” she asked, still not quite making the connection.

  “Judge Roberts's butler, Sarah Stevens. That's you.”

  She nodded, and in the middle of a nod brought her hand up to rub her forehead. Maybe it was lack of sleep, maybe it was too much caffeine, but she was developing a wall-banger of a headache. “He left something to me?” To her distress, her voice wavered, and she felt her lower lip begin to quiver before she sternly bit down on it. She couldn't do anything, however, to hide the bright sheen of tears in her eyes.

  “Of course he did,” Barbara said. “He told us he was going to.”

  “He . . . he never mentioned anything to me.”

  “He thought you'd argue,” Jon explained.

  “Excuse me,” Sarah said abruptly, and fled to the bathroom before she disgraced herself by breaking down and sobbing like a child. Her face crumpled as soon as she shut the bathroom door, and she grabbed a towel to hold over her mouth to muffle the sound.

  By sheer force of will she brought herself back under control, choked back the sobs, and with a tissue blotted her eyes before the tears could fall. A few deep breaths brought a small measure of calm.

  She didn't think anything had ever touched her so much as learning the Judge had left a bequest to her. She was well paid, and she had loved taking care of him. She had loved him, for his sweetness and humor, his old-fashioned manners, his basic goodness. She hadn't expected any inheritance, and in truth would indeed have argued against it. She had been with him not quite three years; how could that in any way supplant his children, his lifetime friends?

  But evidently he hadn't thought the same, and neither did his family. The thought of their generosity brought the tears welling again, and she determinedly blotted them away. She would not cry, not here and not now. The family had enough to bear without her adding her own emotional distress to the load.

  A cold wet washcloth cooled her cheeks, and felt good to her aching head when she pressed it to her forehead. She would have liked to lie down with an ice pack on her head, but, like crying, that, too, would have to be postponed.

  Feeling more in control, she rejoined them in the parlor. “I'm sorry,” she murmured, resuming her seat beside Cahill.

  “I take it you didn't know.'

  She shook her head. He either believed her or he didn't. She couldn't work up enough energy to care.

  “Daddy swore us to secrecy,” Barbara said. A tiny, sad smile wavered on her mouth. “He got a kick out of sneaking something by you. He said it was the only thing he ever got by you.”

  “He said you confiscated his Snickers bars,” Shaw put in, a real smile breaking over his face and banishing the sadness and tension. “He always gorged on them when he came to visit, because he knew he couldn't have them when he got home.”

  “And his Twinkies. I'd sneak Twinkies to him when I came,” Blair confessed.

  Sarah groaned, looking at a roomful of guilty, suddenly smiling faces. “No wonder I had such a time getting his cholesterol level down!”

  Barbara patted her knee. “He loved you for taking care of him. We love you for taking care of him. When he mentioned putting you in his will, we were all for it.”

  Cahill cleared his throat, drawing attention back to him. “Thank you for the information,” he said, getting to his feet. “I know this is a difficult time for you all, and I appreciate your help. I want you to know I'm sorry about your father, and we're doing everything we can to find the perpetrator. I'll run these names, and with any luck we'll find one of these guys in the area.”

  Like lemmings, everyone else stood, and a flurry of handshakes and thank-yous broke out as Cahill slowly but inexorably inched his way toward the door. Somehow he had Sarah by the elbow and was pulling her with him. “I'll walk you to your truck,” he said.

  Inwardly she sighed. He probably had some more questions to ask her. Since she was included in the will, in his mind she was probably that much more suspect. But he was doing his job, so she grabbed her bag and sunglasses and managed a quick good-bye to everyone, with instructions to call her if they needed anything, before he had her out the door.

  There was a couple in the elevator, so he didn't say anything on the ride down to the lobby. They stepped outside, and the cold, damp wind slapped her in the face, making her shiver. The temperature seemed to be dropping, and the drizzle had progressed to a steady light rain. She hugged her arms and said, “I didn't kill him.”

  “I'm fairly sure of that myself,” he said mildly.

  Startled, she looked up at him. “Then why all the suspicious questions?”

  “Because it's my job. You'll be checked out, you'll be looked at, and you'll be questioned.”

  “Cross every t and dot every i.”

  “You got it.” He took off his jacket and held it over her head. “Come on.”

  She shivered and hurried her steps as he strode across the parking lot, with her huddled under his jacket like a chick under his wing. The first thing she was going to do when she got into the TrailBlazer was turn on the seat heater.

  “What's your room number?” he asked. “I'll have someone bring a jacket to you. That's if you're going back to the inn now, that is.”

  She gave him her room number and added wryly, “I hope I make it back there without falling asleep.”

  His hand abruptly tightened on her elbow, hauling her to a stop. “I'll drive you.”

  “And then I'd be stranded. Thanks, but I'll make it. I'm punchy and I have a killer headache, but the coffee will keep me awake for a little while.”

  “You need to eat.”

  “I ate,” she said, startled by all this concern. “You watched me.”

  “You ate four bites. I counted.”

  “And it was all I could do to swallow those. Don't push, Cahill.”

  He had shifted so that he was between her and the truck, the breadth of his shoulders blocking some of the wind from her. The rain was soaking his back, but he ignored it as he stared silently down at her, his expression unreadable. Even through her fatigue, she felt something uneasy begin to stir. “What?” she demanded, moving back half a step.

  He shook his head. “Nothing. You're out on your feet. Go get some sleep.”

  “That sounds like a plan.” He moved out of the way, and Sarah hit the remote to unlock the door, hurrying to get out of the wind and rain.

  “Sarah,” he said as she put the key in the ignition. He still held his jacket, rather than putting it back on.


  “I probably don't have to say this, but don't leave town.”

  Cahill followed her to the Mountain Brook Inn, just to make certain she got there, and that she didn't endanger herself or any other motorist. When she turned left into the inn's parking lot, he tapped his horn lightly in good-bye, and she lifted one hand in acknowledgment but she didn't turn her head to look.

  She was holding up okay, but the stunned, desolate expression in her dark eyes was arousing his protective instincts. Not cop instincts, but man-woman instincts, exactly what he didn't need.

  For one thing, he'd been telling the truth when he said he was fairly certain she hadn't killed the Judge. Fairly certain, though, was a long way from completely certain. She hadn't even asked how much money she would inherit, which wasn't normal. Maybe she would have held off in front of the family, but when they were alone, she should have asked . . . unless she already knew. And if she knew she stood to inherit a h
undred grand, that could be a motive to off the old guy; God knows a lot of people had been killed for a lot less money.

  Balanced against that, her grief and shock seemed genuine. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying; either that, or she had sprayed herself in the eyes with something to make it look as if she'd been crying. She was either a smart killer and a very good actress, or she was grieving.

  His gut said she was genuinely grieving. But since his gut was also insisting he try to get her into bed, he had to take into consideration the lust factor, which had clouded his judgment before. Shannon, Sarah. Both names started with S; that couldn't be good.

  He'd tried to ignore his attraction to Sarah, but it hadn't gone away. Her face had an annoying habit of popping into his mind whenever he tried to relax. He was fine when he was at work, but let him sit down in the evening to watch the news or read the paper and Bam!—there she was. He'd see her sitting on the stairs in her thin cotton pajamas, or standing on the pistol range with her concentration totally focused on the target, the sunshine picking out red and gold glints in her hair. A man knew he was in trouble when he noticed the glints in a woman's hair. Boobs, yeah; he was supposed to notice boobs. But hair glints?

  When he was lifting weights in his basement, he'd think about lifting Sarah, up and down, astride him, and he'd get a hard-on while he was bench-pressing. Or when he was doing push-ups, he'd think about having Sarah beneath him, with the same result.

  The truth was, he couldn't think about much else. It was a miracle he'd managed to keep his distance from her, because he hadn't been this obsessed with sex since he was sixteen. Naw, it wasn't a miracle; it was plain fear. He wanted her too much. He didn't think he'd been this desperate to fuck Shannon even in those first falling-in-love days. Of course, he'd already been fucking Shannon, so maybe that wasn't a good comparison.

  The investigation was all that kept him from turning the car around and heading back to the Mountain Brook Inn. Until Sarah was cleared, she was off-limits. She had the sales receipts, she had the merchandise to match the sales receipts, the signature on her credit card matched the ones on the charge slips, and she had the movie ticket. A little more verification, some checking into her financial status, and she would be in the clear. Hell, Judge Roberts's kids stood to inherit a hell of a lot more than Sarah did; they all had alibis, too, but killers could be hired.

  Cahill didn't have a good feeling about this one. Most murders were committed by someone close to the victim, a family member, a neighbor, a friend. This felt like the toughest of all cases, a killing by a stranger. What was the link? What had brought the killer to the house? Was it someone Judge Roberts had sentenced? On the surface that made the most sense, except for the fact there was no sign of forced entry or of a struggle. It was as if he had opened the door to the killer, invited him in, and chatted with him in the library.

  As if he knew him.

  So maybe they were back to the neighbor, family member, or friend scenario.

  Cahill tried to mentally walk through it. None of the neighbors had noticed a car in the driveway, but it was dark. Sarah had arrived home just before ten and found the body shortly afterward; she had called 911 at 10:03, the patrol cars had gotten there within five minutes, and he himself had arrived about fifteen minutes after her call. Rigor had just been starting in the body, which roughly placed the time of death, say, between six and eight, maybe eight-thirty. He thought it would be later rather than sooner, because it wasn't dark at six P.M.

  Judge Roberts had opened the door to his killer. No shots had been fired right then, which would have been the most likely time and place for the shooting if the killer was someone who had done prison time because of the Judge and was out for vengeance. Instead they had walked into the library and sat down, or at least the Judge sat. He hadn't been alarmed; he'd been relaxed, the footrest of his recliner up.

  The killer wasn't a stranger, wasn't someone who had threatened the Judge in the past.

  It would be interesting to see what fingerprints the technicians had collected. The Judge's, Sarah's, possibly the cook's, definitely the cleaning ladies': those should be there. Sarah had given her fingerprints in the wee hours, for comparison. The cook, Leona Barksdale, had been scheduled to come in this morning to be printed, though she'd tearfully said she hadn't been inside that room in a few weeks. The cleaning ladies were set for this afternoon. Who else? The house was cleaned regularly, so any prints should be new ones.

  The neighborhood would have to be canvassed; anyone could have walked over under cover of darkness, shot Judge Roberts, and calmly walked back home. Again, he ran into the question of motive. From what he'd found out so far, the old judge had been well liked. There weren't any skeletons hanging in his closet, no nastiness that surfaced in private. He didn't cheat, in either cards or business. He didn't gamble, didn't drink to excess, and so far as Cahill had been able to find out, hadn't romanced anyone since his wife died eight years before.

  So why would someone who hadn't run afoul of him in his court want to kill him?

  If the motive wasn't revenge, sex, or money, what was left?

  Nothing, that was what was left. So the motive still had to be one of the three. He doubted it was revenge, because the Judge had known his killer, invited him in. Sex? The man was eighty-five, hadn't dated, and from what everyone said, had been completely faithful to his wife while she was alive. That left money.

  Somehow, it always came back to money.

  And that brought him full circle, back to Sarah.

  His kids had grown up rich. They had always known the money was there. So why kill him now? Why not ten years ago, or last year? Why not wait a few years more and let him die of natural causes? Unless one of them was in financial difficulty—which he would find out—there was no reason for any of them to set up his murder. One of the adult grandchildren, perhaps? That bore looking into.

  But Sarah was the most likely suspect.


  Sarah woke at three, disoriented and groggy. She lay there listening to the muted rumble of the air-conditioning, blinking at the thick curtains pulled over the window, and trying to remember where she was. Her head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton; it was an effort to think, much less move.

  Then she remembered, and for a long moment the grief clawed at her throat, her chest. She squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn't help. She still saw the Judge sitting so peacefully in his leather recliner, with his blood and parts of his brain splattered across the room. She still smelled the awful, mingled smell of blood and body waste, and with a smothered sound, she opened her eyes.

  Slowly, every muscle aching, she sat up. She was naked, pajamas not having been on the list of clothes she'd given Cahill. She had cried herself to sleep, and her eyelids felt gritty and raw. All in all, she thought, she didn't look very much like an ultracapable butler—or even an incompetent one.

  The room was cold. Despite the chilly day, she'd turned on the air when she got back to the room, because her nose was stuffy and heat would have made breathing even more difficult. All she had wanted to do was fall into bed, so she had put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door and unplugged the phone. She'd placed her cell phone on the table beside the bed, so the family could get in touch with her if she was needed, but other than that, she hadn't want to talk to anyone.

  The room was too cold. Actually, it was freezing. Sarah darted out of the warm nest of covers, swiftly switched the thermostat over to Heat, then dived back into bed and huddled under the covers, shivering.

  There was something white on the floor just inside the door. Message slips. Sighing, she retrieved them—there were two—and once more retreated to the bed. This time, though, she switched on the lamp and stuffed the pillow behind her back so she could read the messages.

  One was from the front desk. A jacket had been delivered for her, and they were holding it at the desk. The other was from Cahill, and was brief: “Call me.” The time was listed as two-thirt

  Sighing, she picked up her cell phone and called the number listed.

  He answered almost immediately. “Cahill.” His deep voice was alert; he was probably buzzed on caffeine.

  “This is Sarah Stevens. I got your message.”

  “Were you asleep?”

  “Mmm. I slept about four hours. By the way, thanks for sending the jacket over.”

  “You're welcome. Listen, do you by any chance know if anyone owed Judge Roberts some money? Was he worried about any of his investments?”

  Sarah rubbed her hand over her face. “He loaned money on a regular basis, but they were more like gifts, because if anyone tried to repay him, he'd just wave it away.”

  “Did anyone in the neighborhood borrow money from him?”

  “Not that I know of. In that neighborhood? Who would need a loan?”

  “Depends on whether or not anyone has a gambling problem, or is into drugs. Maybe someone wants to hide the money he spends on his honey. There are all sorts of possibilities. What about his family? Any of them having financial difficulty?”

  “He never mentioned it if they were. I don't think there's a bad apple in the bunch.” She paused, synapses firing as she followed this line of questioning and saw where it was leading. Coolly she said, “I'll get a copy of my own bank statement to you, and my investment portfolio. Do you want canceled checks, too?”

  “Please.” His tone remained brisk and professional.

  “Actually, you'll have to get them. They're at the house.”


  “There's a fire safe in the closet. Everything is in there.”

  “Thank you.” He disconnected, and Sarah growled as she disconnected her own phone. For a while this morning he had seemed a bit warmer, more human, but he was back to his old brusque self. To her dismay, it didn't matter whether he was friendly or not; there was something about him that made her want to lean on him. It didn't even matter that he was checking into her finances, trying to find a motive for her to have killed the Judge; the same process would clear her. He was doing his job. She wouldn't have felt nearly as confident if he'd blown off the possibility that she was guilty. He had to consider everyone, or something crucial might slip through the cracks.

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