Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  “You think I killed the Judge,” she said, “but you don't have any evidence, so you think if you get close to me, I might let something incriminating slip.”

  “Good try.” He looked up at her, his hard cop's gaze very blue, very direct. “Look, my ex-wife would tell you in a heartbeat that I'm an asshole, and, hell, she may be right. I'll tell you, up front, that I haven't been fit company since the divorce. It was vicious, and getting over something like that takes awhile. I haven't wanted to get involved with anyone, other than—”

  He stopped, and she said, “For sex,” filling in the blank.

  “I wasn't going to be that blunt, but, yeah.”

  So he was divorced, and the process had been nasty. Healing from a split like that was like healing from any other trauma; it took time, and it wasn't easy. That made him a bad risk right now, not that she was in the market for a relationship, either. “How long has it been?”

  “Two years since I caught her cheating on me, a year since the divorce was final.”

  “Ouch. Very nasty.” What kind of idiot would cheat on a man like him? Not that she had any way of judging, but if her feminine instincts had been cats, they'd all have been purring right now in response to the testosterone she could practically smell on him.

  “Yeah, it was. But it's over, maybe more over than I realized. I'm attracted to you, I tried to ignore it, and it didn't work. By the way, I've already seen your bank statement and investment portfolio; you don't need Judge Roberts's money.”

  “So I'm not a suspect now?”

  “Let's just say as far as I'm concerned, you're in the clear.”

  That called for another bite or two of hamburger, chased by a french fry. “Some people might think you're after me because of the money. The timing is a tad suspicious.”

  “A tad,” he agreed. “You make almost three times as much money as I do, and Mountain Brook cops are well paid. But I'd say you usually make more than anyone you date, so you're used to it.”

  “My dates don't usually see my bank statement first,” she said dryly.

  “Look, money's nice, but I'm not hurting. My ego isn't hurt by a woman making more than I do, either.”

  “I know, you told me; it's enormous.”

  There it was again, that flush of color on his cheekbones. Fascinated, she watched it fade as he devoted himself to his second hamburger. Despite the circumstances, she was really beginning to enjoy herself.

  He wiped his mouth. “Okay, you've accused me of trying to get close to you so I can get enough evidence to convict you of murder—a little undercover work, I guess—and of wanting your money. Anything else?”

  “I'll let you know if anything comes to mind.”

  “You do that. In the meantime, on my side of the table is a lot of attraction. How about your side?”

  He definitely had the finesse of a tank. On the other hand, that blunt honesty was somehow reassuring. A woman would always know where she stood with this man, for good or ill.

  The big question was, what did she want to do about it?

  His honesty forced her to be at least as straightforward as he was. “My side looks pretty much like your side. That doesn't mean getting involved would be a good idea.”

  A very male smile of satisfaction curved his mouth. “Getting involved is what it's all about. Millions of people work hard to get involved, actively search for it. Think of all the hours of hard labor put in in singles' bars.”

  “I've never been to a singles' bar. That should tell you something.”

  “That you've never needed to. I figure any time you don't have a man, it's because you don't want one.”

  She didn't say anything, staring down at the table. She saw that she'd eaten half of the burger, and all of the fries. His method of distracting her had certainly worked. On the other hand, she definitely felt better with some food in her stomach, even fast food. She could almost feel her energy level rising.

  “We can take this as slow as you want,” he said. “This isn't a good time for you, and I have a couple of speed bumps in my way, too. I just wanted you to know I'm interested.” He shrugged. “You don't have to get through this alone, unless that's the way you want it.”

  Oh, damn. She'd been doing so well, pushing her grief to the background for a little while. Just like that her eyes began swimming, and she blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears.

  “Ah, hell, I didn't mean to— Let's get out of here.” He began gathering paper and napkins, dumping the trash into a bin and placing the tray on top. Blindly she followed him out of the restaurant, and as they walked to his truck, he put his arm around her.

  “I'm sorry,” he said, thrusting a handkerchief into her hands.

  She wiped her eyes, leaning into the strength and warmth of his body. His arm felt good around her. She wanted to put her head on his shoulder and weep; instead she took a deep breath. “He was a sweet man. I'll cry a lot for him before this is over.”

  He unlocked the door and she climbed inside, reaching for the seat belt. He stopped her, his hand over hers, and he leaned inside.

  She made no move to evade the kiss. She didn't want to evade it. She wanted to know how he kissed, how he tasted. His mouth was warm, the contact light, almost gentle, as if his intent was more to comfort than arouse.

  That lasted about two seconds. Then he slanted his head, his lips parted, and he deepened the kiss until his tongue was in her mouth and her arms were around his neck. The bottom dropped out of her stomach and her entire body clenched, and she knew her purring instincts hadn't been wrong. Good Lord, the man could kiss.

  He lifted his head, running his tongue along his lower lip as if savoring the taste of her. “That was good.” His tone was so low it almost rumbled.

  “Yes, it was.” Her own tone was a tad . . . breathy. Where had that come from? She had never sounded breathy before in her life.

  “Do you want to do it again?”

  “We'd better not.”

  “Okay,” he said, and kissed her again.

  This man was dangerous. If she wasn't careful, she'd be involved in a full-fledged affair with him before she knew it—maybe even before morning. Now was definitely not the time, and she had to get herself under control while she still could. After giving her the cold shoulder, now he was moving at light speed in the opposite direction, and she was a little shell-shocked.

  It took some effort, but she pulled her mouth away, gasping for air. “Red light, Detective. Stop.”

  He was breathing hard, too, but he stepped back. “Permanently?” The word was raw with disbelief.

  “No!” Her answer was embarrassingly forceful. “Just . . . for now.” She took a deep breath. “There are more important things to talk about.”

  “Such as?”

  “Such as, I think the Judge knew the killer.”

  His face went blank. He closed her door and went around to the driver's side, getting behind the wheel and starting the truck. A light drizzle had started again, and he turned on the windshield wipers.

  “I know he did,” he said. “But what makes you think so?”


  MAYBE HE WASN'T SO CONVINCED OF HER INNOCENCE, after all. The thought cooled her down, gave her a bit of much needed mental distance from him. “I know the Judge. . . . knew him,” she corrected herself. “He never, never left the doors unlocked. I checked the house every night before going to bed and not once did he leave any door unsecured. It was automatic for him; when he came inside, he locked the door behind him. I guess he got in the habit after he got the first death threat, when Mrs. Roberts was still alive. But last night”—God, was it only last night, it felt like a week—“the front door was unlocked.”

  “Could be coincidence.”

  “That he'd leave the door unlocked on the one night a killer came looking for him?” She threw Cahill a derisive glance. “I don't think so. I think this person came to the door, and the Judge knew him and let him in. When I found him, the J
udge was sitting in his recliner, with the footrest up. He was relaxed. He didn't feel he was in any danger. So he knew the guy.”

  “Why are you so certain it was a man?”

  That question gave her pause. “I suppose I'm thinking in general terms. It's easier than saying ‘the killer' every time. And the cons who made the death threats were all men, so the idea stuck. Plus the weirdo who sent me the pendant is most likely a man, and my first thought was that he had done it.”

  “Hmm.” Cahill scratched his jaw, as if considering that possibility. “Has he contacted you again? Sent anything else? Have you had any hang-ups on the phone, or any other kind of strange call?”

  “No, nothing else at all. Just the pendant. One incident doesn't establish a pattern, does it?”

  “You know the saying. Once in a row doesn't mean shit.”

  “That's what I figured.”

  Deftly he steered through the traffic on 280. “Last night, you said you went to the movie so he'd have a chance to approach you, if he was watching.”

  She'd been in shock the night before, but she thought that was pretty much verbatim what she'd said. Cahill was sharp, very sharp. “That's right.”

  He glanced at her. “What made you think he'd be watching?”

  “Nothing, except the gift made me feel so uneasy. I hadn't been able to put it out of my mind. Something like that is . . . It put me on edge. That's the only way I can describe it.” She shuddered. “Just the thought that he might be following me, watching me, gives me the creeps. And not knowing who he is made it worse, so I thought I'd give him the opportunity to introduce himself. At least then I'd know what he looks like.”

  “But no one approached?”

  “No one tried to sit next to me, no one spoke to me, no one even looked at me a second time that I could tell.”

  “You know, if someone was fixated on you, and crazy enough to start following you around, giving him an opportunity like that wasn't a great idea.”

  “Probably not,” she agreed. “But if he tried anything, I thought I'd be able to take him by surprise.”

  “The karate, you mean? What if he'd had training, too?”

  “Then I'd be in trouble. I thought the odds were in my favor, though.”

  He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “I don't like the idea of you trying to draw anyone out like that. That's my personal reaction. My reaction as a cop is, don't ask for trouble.”

  “That's basically the same thing,” she said, amused.

  “How about that. Look, if anything strange happens, if you think you're being followed, if you get another gift, or a funny phone call, let me know. Immediately. Day or night.”

  “I don't think you'd be very thrilled if I called you at three A.M. to tell you some drunk had just called the wrong number.”

  “I said to call me, and I meant it. Who knows? Maybe all you'll need to do will be to roll over and punch me.”

  She rubbed her forehead. Light speed? He was moving at warp speed now. The biggest problem she had was that it didn't turn her off. No matter how fast he moved, her hormones were keeping pace. For her own sanity, she needed him to again suspect her of murder, so she could pull back. Otherwise . . . she didn't want to think about otherwise.

  She had always been cautious about dating, about serious relationships. Part of it was because being tied down didn't fit in with her life plans right now, but another big part of it was something inside herself that was intensely private and self-sufficient. Letting someone in on a romantic level wasn't easy, because that meant letting go of some of her personal control. She could and did make friends easily, she loved the Judge, liked his family, but there had always been another level of intimacy that she hadn't let anyone reach. Cahill, she thought, might reach that level.

  It was a case of good chemistry, but bad timing. She wasn't ready to settle down, and Cahill was recovering from a rocky divorce. He might be looking for a relationship, but she seriously doubted he put the word “permanent” in front of it. Rebound romances weren't a good idea at any time. In another year or so . . . maybe he'd be a better risk. As for where she would be in another year or so, that was anyone's guess.

  So letting this thing go any further wasn't a good idea.

  He waved a hand in front of her face. “Are you in there?”

  She batted his hand away. “I'm thinking.”

  “That's a relief. I was afraid the idea of sleeping with me put you in a catatonic state.”

  She was surprised into laughing, an actual, honest laugh. “That happens often, does it?”

  “I hadn't thought so, but looking back, there may have been one or two times—” He grinned and shrugged, and Sarah laughed again.

  “It must be your enormous charm.”

  “I thought that was my ego.”

  “That, too.” It was on the tip of her tongue to ask what other enormous qualities he had, but she stopped herself in time. Sexy banter was always fun, but with him she sensed the situation could get out of control before she knew it, as fast as he moved. He could take a quip and move her right into bed with it, if she wasn't on her guard. She was too damned susceptible to him, but at least she knew it.


  “My name's Thompson. Some people call me Tom, some call me Doc. You can call me sweetheart.”

  A sound dangerously close to a giggle bubbled in her throat. “Are you always this sure of yourself?”

  “Faint hearts, and all that. If you don't like me, you'll slap me down, or just plain slap me. You said the attraction is mutual, so I'm taking you at your word.” He turned into the parking lot and slotted the truck into an empty space, turning off the engine and headlights. The drizzle immediately began to dot the windshield, distorting the lights and images.

  “I don't rush into any relationship, especially not one with a man who's newly divorced and still carrying around a lot of baggage.”

  He shifted, angling his upper body toward her, his left arm draped over the steering wheel and the right one stretched out along the back of the seat, inviting her to slide closer. Why couldn't the truck have nice, safe bucket seats, instead of a bench seat? She could have sworn the truck tilted to the left, too, because staying on her own side was more difficult than it should have been.

  “Baggage is normal,” he said. “It's what makes us who we are. Granted, I'd rather not be an embittered woman-hater, but—”

  He stopped, because she was definitely giggling. “Good,” he said, his expression softening as he used one finger to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “You sounded as if you were convincing yourself of something with that baggage argument. Don't think too much, Sarah. Let's just see where this goes. We may bore each other to tears within a week.”

  She snorted. “Yeah, right.”

  “Stranger things have happened.” That one finger touched her cheek, lightly stroked. Without thinking she turned her face and nestled it against his hand, and just that simple touch made her nipples harden. He smiled, as if he knew the effect he had on her. “Once you get over this weird hang-up you have about having wild monkey sex with a man you barely know, we can have a lot of fun.”

  She bailed out of the truck, and was still laughing as she strode into the hotel lobby, sending him off with a backward wave. Laughing felt strange, with everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours, but it also felt good. Laughter didn't stop the grief, but it made the weight of it a little easier to bear.

  In one fell swoop, Cahill had fed her, distracted her, aroused her, and amused her. Not many men were that versatile, she thought as she rode the elevator upward. His sly sense of humor was astonishing when she remembered how dour he'd seemed the night he interviewed her about the robbery.

  Which left her . . . where?

  She really, really wanted to forget caution and common sense, and have a flaming hot affair with him. The sex would be . . . She couldn't even begin to imagine the sex, because she'd never before had such a s
trong physical reaction to anyone. And therein was the big problem. Not the sex, but the way she felt. She could get in over her head before she knew it, and letting herself care too much about him was just asking for a heartache.

  The smart thing to do would be to start hunting for a job in another state. Florida, maybe, on one of those huge Palm Beach estates. She'd be closer to her parents, too. There was always California, or the Hamptons; she wasn't worried about finding another job. She had to update her résumé anyway; she no longer had a job, or a place to live. She hadn't really absorbed that before, with all her attention focused on what had happened, but the shock had lessened a little and she was beginning to think of all the ramifications.

  She probably wouldn't have the option of having a flaming hot affair with him, unless it was a short one—or a long-distance one. Cahill didn't strike her as a long-distance-type man. So all of this angst and indecision was a waste of time; she had to deal with reality, and reality dictated she get a job. She had chosen a very specialized field in which to make her living, so that meant she couldn't find a position just anywhere; she was limited to the moneyed communities, such as Beverly Hills, Buckhead, Mountain Brook.

  It was possible she would stay on in Mountain Brook; she'd already had the one job offer, though she doubted it was still open now, after she had so definitely turned it down. That was assuming she would take the position, anyway; the interview process was a two-way street. The employer had to feel comfortable with her, but she also had to feel comfortable with the employer. After all, she would be fitting herself into the home, forming the structure of routine and comfort. If she didn't like the employer, then the level of dedication she demanded of herself would be difficult to maintain, and she would be miserable.

  She felt better now that she was focused on the hard facts, rather than the tantalizing possibilities of a relationship with Cahill; the ground beneath her had solidified. She could deal with him, so long as she kept her head. For the next few days, anyway, she had more serious things to consider.

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