Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  Sarah knew her own worth, her own strength; she was neither a Kleenex to be used and casually tossed away, nor a butterfly who would gaily flit away on her own. Cahill wanted her, but he was wary of anything except a sexual, superficial relationship with anyone, and he wasn't certain exactly how serious he wanted to get with her. They had fun together, but on a certain level they were like two heavyweight boxers, circling, each testing the other's strength, not committing until they knew whether or not they were going to get hammered.

  She liked him more than anyone she had dated before—but then how could she not like someone who would take her to both a bowling alley and a symphony? She had known from the beginning that the physical chemistry was great; overwhelming was a better word. Still, she could resist physical attraction if that was all there was. In Cahill's case, the total package was as seductive as a Lorelei, pulling her to him.

  Lunch was a sandwich and a glass of water, eaten in her quarters. The silence beat at her, until she thought she could hear her own heartbeat. She washed the knife she had used, and the glass, and put them away. Then she burst into tears.

  Half an hour later she found herself sitting on the steps leading from the portico to the flower garden. The bright sunshine beat down on her upturned face, her bare arms, and the air was redolent with the sweet freshness of spring. Birds chirped madly in the trees, their colors flashing as they darted about. Bees zipped from bloom to bloom, drunk on nectar. Inside the house was sadness, but out here was life and warmth.

  Footsteps sounded on the stones behind her, and she turned her head to see Cahill. “Hi,” he said, dropping down to sit beside her. “You didn't answer the doorbell, so I walked around to see if your truck was here.”

  “I'm here,” she said, unnecessarily. “I'm just . . . taking a break.”

  He studied her taut face and swollen eyes, then gently eased her into his arms and cradled her head against his shoulder. “Bad day, huh?”

  “So far, it sucks.” God, being held felt so good. He was solid and strong, and she turned her face against his neck so she could inhale the heated aroma of his body. She put her arms around him, one arm looped around his neck and the other pressed to his back; her fingers dug into the layered muscles there, traced the indentation of his spine.

  He tilted her head back and kissed her, and his palm settled warmly over her right breast. She allowed the caress, leaning into him and surrendering to the kiss. Just now she needed cuddling, needed the physical comfort of his presence, so she didn't protest when he unbuttoned her sleeveless blouse and unhooked the front closure of her bra, pushing it aside. Fresh air gently brushed over her bare flesh, puckering her nipples; then they were covered by the hot slide of his callus-roughened palm. “God, you're pretty,” he said, his tone low and rough. “Look at this.”

  She opened her eyes and looked. Her breasts were the color of warm cream, with small, pinkish brown nipples. She wasn't overly endowed, but her breasts plumped in his palm, his hard, tanned fingers in sharp male contrast to the very womanly curves. He stroked his thumb over one nipple and it beaded more tightly, flushing with color.

  A sound like far-off thunder rumbled in his throat, and she looked up to see a sheen of sweat on his forehead. “I'm working,” he said hoarsely.

  “You couldn't prove it by me,” she murmured. She thought she could sit here in the sunshine for hours, letting him fondle her. Except she wouldn't be sitting here for hours, she would very shortly find herself on her back, on the stones of the portico; not exactly a comfortable place for lovemaking.

  “I just stopped by to check on you. I can't stay.” He kissed her again, his hand still working its warm magic on her breasts; then he reluctantly released her. Actually, he released her as if it tore his skin off to separate from her. “Just remember where we were, and we'll pick up there tonight.”

  Feeling much better, she rehooked her bra and began buttoning her blouse. “Sorry, it doesn't work that way. You'll have to start over.”

  “Not a problem,” he said, smiling.

  She snorted. “I didn't think it would be.” Then she smiled, too, a little mistily. “Thanks for stopping by. I was feeling blue.”

  “I noticed. Six-thirty again?”

  She nodded. “I'll be ready.”

  “So will I.”

  “That wasn't what I meant.”

  “Well, hell,” he said in disgust.

  Already she could feel her smile edging into a grin, feel laughter beginning to bubble. “Go back to work, Cahill, and remember: Never take anything for granted.”

  “Well, hell,” he said again.


  ON WEDNESDAY, A WEEK AFTER THE MURDER, SARAH FOUND herself following her old schedule. She had forgotten to reschedule her karate and kick-boxing sessions anyway, so she worked in the house until it was time for the classes, then devoted herself to the hardest workouts she had put herself through in a long time. It's exactly a week today, she kept thinking. Exactly a week. A week ago, the most important thing in her life had been finding out who'd sent her that pendant. Today, she couldn't remember exactly how the pendant looked. It had been relegated to unimportance by what had happened later that night.

  She was supposed to go to a movie with Cahill that night. Remembering that she'd gone to a movie last Wednesday, too, she knew she couldn't do it. She called the number Cahill had given her, and he answered immediately.

  “This is Sarah. I'm sorry, but I can't do a movie tonight.”

  He paused. “Has something come up?”

  “No, it's just . . . it was a week ago today, and I went to a movie then, too.”

  “Okay.” His tone was gentle. “We'll do something else.”

  “No, I—” She wanted to be with him, but maybe after last night a cooling-down period was in order. She had managed to keep things from getting out of hand, or even progressing any further than they already had, but he was making serious inroads in her resolve. The cooling-down period was for her. “Not tonight. We're still on for tomorrow night, but I won't be good company tonight.”

  “Are you getting cold feet?”

  Trust him to bypass sympathy and politeness, and go straight to the heart of the matter! “Trust me,” she said wryly. “If my feet are cold, it's the only part of me that is.”

  He blew out a short, sharp breath. “You just made it impossible for me to sit down.”

  “I hope no one can overhear you.”

  He ignored that. “I'll be at home if you change your mind, or if you decide you want company.”

  “Thanks, Cahill.” Her voice was soft. “You're a sweetheart.”

  “Told you you'd be calling me that,” he said smugly.

  No matter what, he could lift her spirits. She hung up feeling slightly elated, the way she always felt around him. The fizz saw her through the rest of that difficult day.

  On Thursday night, on the way to the symphony, he said, “I have a friend who's dying to meet you. He's lowlife scum who thinks he can charm you away from me, but if you don't mind feeling dirty by association, he really, really wants to do some target practice with you. I have an extra weapon you can use, since we still have yours.”

  She laughed. “He's a lowlife scum who makes you feel dirty by association? Sure, I'd like to meet him.”

  “Thought so. How about tomorrow afternoon, about two o'clock, at that range you were at before.”

  “Two o'clock? Don't you have to work? Or are you sending me out to get dirty by association all on my own?”

  “I'm off half a day tomorrow, and all of the weekend.” He slanted an appraising glance at her. “Wear that dress.”

  If that wasn't just like a man. “To target practice? In your dreams.”

  “You have no idea about my dreams,” he said feelingly. In one of those swings of temperature so common to spring, the day had seen the mid-eighties and hadn't cooled down much with sunset. Sarah had dressed accordingly, in an sleeveless aqua sheath that made her warm coloring
glow, and brought along a shawl to drape over her arms if she became chilled. The sheath clung in all the right places and skimmed others, and was cut low enough in front to show a hint of cleavage. Cahill had been eyeing that hint since he picked her up.

  Prudently she didn't ask him about his dreams, because she was fairly certain he'd tell her. If Cahill had a shy bone in his body, she hadn't found it yet.

  The symphony was wonderful; she loved classical music, and Cahill talked knowledgeably about the program, proving that he hadn't picked the symphony just to impress her. “Do you come to the symphony often?” she asked.

  “Not as often as I'd like, but a couple of times a year, at least. I have to work it into my schedule.”

  “I can see how it would be tough making time for the symphony, what with all the ball games and the bowling.”

  He grinned. “Admit it. You liked cosmic bowling.”

  “I'd never bowled in the dark before.” In fact, she'd had a ball Tuesday night; cosmic bowling was a hoot. The balls and pins were painted with glow-in-the-dark paint; the regular lights were turned off and the black lights turned on. Anything white, such as teeth or shoes, or a shirt, had taken on an unearthly glow. It was a little disconcerting to suddenly see teeth flashing at you in the darkness. The next time they went, though, she would make Cahill wear a white shirt so she could keep track of him.

  She worked that night after he took her home and got up early the next morning to get in some extra time packing so that she could take off early to meet Cahill's friend. If anything, she was putting in more hours now than she had while the Judge was alive, but she was so wary of short-timing the family that she was doing the opposite. Cahill had a way of consuming time—witness this afternoon—so she wanted to have extra hours built up during the week as a cushion.

  It was another warm day, eighty-seven degrees. She wore a pair of tan knit slacks with an elastic waistband for comfort, since she would be sweating on the practice range, a short-sleeved, V-necked T, and sandals, with heavy-duty sunscreen slathered on all exposed skin. “Damn,” Cahill said when he picked her up. “I hoped you'd change your mind about the dress.”

  “Yeah, I could just see me bending over to pick up cartridges in that dress.”

  “Man, so could I,” he said, sighing.

  His friend, Rick Mancil, was the stocky man she'd seen him with at the range before. Rick had black hair, pale green eyes, and was as irrepressible as the Energizer Bunny. His opening line to her was, “If you get tired of putting up with this jackass, just give me a call and I'll have you at the altar before you can say ‘Mrs. Mancil.'”

  “Believe him,” Cahill drawled. “He's done it twice already.”

  Sarah blinked. “Married women you've dated?”

  “Just married,” Rick corrected. “But we won't talk about that.”

  She sensed that Cahill wanted her to show off her marksmanship for Rick, so she obliged. She and Rick got side-by-side targets; he exclaimed at length about his pistol, how accurate it was, how it had never jammed, and so on; she glanced at Cahill, who was leaning negligently against a post with his ankles crossed, and he shrugged, smiling. “He never runs down,” he said.

  “That's a good thing in a man,” Rick said, winking at her.

  Sarah looked back at Cahill. “Aren't you going to shoot?”

  He gave a brief shake of his head. Rick said, “We won't bring him into this. He beats me every time, the damn show-off. It's that military training of his, gives him an unfair advantage.”

  As far as that went, so did her own military training. Hers had been private, courtesy of her father, but training was training.

  They began with the targets fairly close, moving them back after every clip. Sarah fired steadily, concentrating as she did when she was competing against her brothers. The buck of the pistol in her hand was as familiar to her as driving a car; she almost didn't have to think about what she was doing, the habit was so ingrained.

  “I can't believe this,” Rick complained good-naturedly. “Doc said you were good, but I'm good, and you're beating me on every target.”

  “Shoot left-handed,” Cahill said to Sarah, and Rick gawked at him.

  “Left-handed? She shoots both ways?”

  Sarah simply switched hands and proceeded to empty the clip at the target. As usual, you could have covered all the holes in the target with a playing card.

  “You son of a bitch,” Rick said to Cahill, his tone disbelieving. “You brought in a ringer! She's a professional, isn't she?”

  “I'm a butler,” Sarah corrected. She had to admit she was enjoying herself, especially the byplay between the two men.

  “Pay up,” Cahill said, holding out his hand.

  Growling, Rick pulled out his wallet and laid five twenties in Cahill's palm.

  “Wait a minute,” she said indignantly. “You made a side bet and didn't cut me in on the action?”

  “What did I tell you?” Rick asked. “He's a jackass.”

  “You didn't cut me in, either,” she pointed out, carefully putting down her weapon and crossing her arms, glaring at them.

  “Uh . . .”

  “Say, ‘I'm a jackass, too,'” Cahill prompted in an almost- whisper.

  “I'm a jackass, too!” Rick repeated loudly. His pale eyes sparkled with laughter.

  “Were you two in high school together?” she asked. “Just wondering.”

  “God, no. Can you imagine?” Cahill grinned as he put the money in his pocket.

  “Not without shuddering, no.”

  Cahill clapped Rick on the shoulder. “Well, buddy, it's been fun. We'll do this again when I need extra money, okay? We're going to leave you now; I have steaks marinating at home. We'll think of you with every bite.”

  “You do that,” Rick said, managing a forlorn look. He even gave them a sad wave as they left, like a little kid being left behind while the other kids go off to play.

  “God, he's exhausting!” Sarah said when they were in the truck. “Fun, but exhausting.”

  “Two ex-wives said the same thing. If there's such a thing as a manic-depressive who's always manic, that's Rick.”

  “What does he say about you? Other than that you're a jackass?”

  “That I'm sneaky. And stubborn.”

  “I agree; they're good traits in a cop.”

  “Mmm. So you think I'm sneaky?”

  Sarah looked at him, at ease behind the wheel, long legs encased in boots and tight jeans, a crisp white T-shirt molded to his torso. His lips were slightly curled in amusement, as if he knew where this was going. Oh, yes, he was sneaky.

  “What's this about ‘steaks marinating at home'? That's the first I've heard about these steaks, much less their location.”

  “I have a built-in grill, it's Friday, the weather's warm. What else does a red-blooded southern boy do but cook out? Besides, I know where you live; don't you want to know where I live?”

  She did, damn it. She wanted to know if he was a slob, if he had one chair and a huge television, if his refrigerator had nothing but frozen dinners, cheese, and beer in it. She wanted to know if he left whiskers in the sink when he shaved, if he made his bed in the mornings or left the covers tossed on the floor. She definitely had it bad, so bad she wanted to groan.

  “Where exactly do you live?” she asked, and he smiled at her capitulation.

  “Down 280, in Shelby County.”

  The Birmingham metro area was spreading fast to the south; Shelby was the fastest growing county in Alabama, with businesses and subdivisions springing up almost overnight, which was why traffic on 280, the main artery into Birmingham, was such a nightmare. Property values in Shelby were soaring.

  “How long have you lived there?”

  “Just a year, since the divorce was final. I lucked out finding this house; actually, it belonged to a cousin who was transferred to Tucson. The house Shannon and I lived in sold almost immediately, so I had my split of the money from that as a hefty down payment
and that got the mortgage payments down into the reasonable range.”

  “I suppose I thought you'd have an apartment, or live in a condo.”

  “I like the privacy of my own house. It's not a new house; it was built in the late seventies and needed some work done on it. I'm pretty good with my hands, so I've been doing the repairs, fixing it up.”

  She could see him as a handyman; he had that air of capability that said he could do pretty much whatever interested him. Maybe it was just her, but she thought men with hammers were sexy.

  She didn't know what she'd expected, but it wasn't a traditional brick house, with a yard that sloped away at the back, and a neat sidewalk bordered by trimmed hedges. The brick was a soft red, and the shutters were dark blue, the front door painted a shade or two lighter. The driveway curved around to the back of the house. “There's a full basement,” he said. “The garage used to be there, but my cousin turned it into a playroom for his kids. Actually, it's a lot of house for just one person, but I like the room.”

  He parked beside the walkway, and let her in the front door. Either he'd just had in a cleaning service, she thought, or he wasn't a slob. The hardwood in the entry gleamed, and there was a fresh, lemony smell in the air.

  His hand was a warm weight in the small of her back. “The living room,” he said, gesturing to the left. The room was completely empty, the carpet spotless, and the curtains drawn. “I don't have any use for it, so I haven't bothered with furniture. Same with the dining room. The kitchen has a breakfast nook, and that's where I eat. The den is here.”

  The den was cozy, with a large fireplace, big windows looking out over the backyard, and an entertainment center with a big television. She felt gratified at that evidence of his guy-ness. He had furniture, though: an overstuffed sofa and two big recliners, plus the requisite number of end tables and lamps. All in all, it looked fairly civilized. The den was separated from the kitchen by a half-wall topped off with a row of white wooden spindles. “The kitchen needed work,” he said. “I refinished the cabinets, put in that island.” The wood cabinets had a natural finish that glowed with a soft golden color. The island was made of the same wood, with a smooth-surface cooktop surrounded by ceramic tile.

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