Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  “I'll be glad to. Do you want a suite?”

  “Just a room will do, since I'll be alone. Sarah, you know how long it takes a will to go through probate. I've talked to Randall and Jon about this, and we all agree. If you need the money Daddy left you, we'll go ahead and give it to you now out of our accounts, and take it back out of the estate when everything is settled.”

  “Oh, no, don't do that,” Sarah said, shocked. “I don't need the money, and I really wish you wouldn't—”

  “Don't argue,” Barbara said firmly. “Daddy left you the money, and that's that.”

  There was nothing Sarah could do but say, “Thank you. Truly, though, I don't need the money now.”

  “All right, but if you change your mind, all you have to do is tell me. Oh, by the way, I've written a letter of recommendation for you, too; I'm bringing it with me, so don't let me forget to give it to you. You've been wonderful; I don't know what we would have done without you.”

  “It's been my pleasure,” Sarah said sadly, because it truly had been a pleasure to serve the Judge and his family.

  There was another job offer in the mail that day. She read it and put it with the others. This one didn't require her to start immediately, so it was a possibility. She made a mental note to call later, to set up an appointment for an interview.

  To her astonishment, every day there was another job offer in the mail, and a couple of offers were made by phone. She disregarded those immediately, preferring the more formal approach. Still, she was amazed at the number of offers coming in; her salary wasn't cheap, so she hadn't expected what was almost a cornucopia of opportunities.

  “It's that television spot,” Cahill said when she told him about it Thursday night. They were watching television, sitting together in his big recliner with her in his lap. She was proud they were actually watching television; this was the first night they hadn't gone straight to bed after eating dinner. “You're a celebrity, of sorts, so some people will want to hire you whether they really need you or not.”

  “That isn't the type of job I want, just to be someone's status symbol. Judge Roberts needed someone to organize and run the household for him. He was elderly, he lived alone, he had some health problems, and he simply didn't want to be bothered by the details.”

  “Plus he needed your bodyguard skills.”

  Sarah fell silent, because her skills hadn't done any good. When the Judge had needed her, she hadn't been there.

  “Hey,” Cahill said softly. “It wasn't your fault. You couldn't have stopped it. There would have been no reason for you to be suspicious of this guy, whoever he is, because the Judge knew him, asked him to come in. Would you have stayed in the room with them while they talked?”

  “No, of course not.”

  “Then how could you have stopped it? The guy probably used a silencer; you wouldn't even have heard the shot.”

  “At least I could have identified him—” She stopped, thinking it through. “He'd have killed me, too.”

  Cahill's arms tightened around her. “He'd have to, because you'd know his name, what he looked like. Thank God you went to a movie.” He kissed her forehead, then tilted her head back and kissed her mouth, lingering until she began to think they wouldn't be watching television much longer.

  “When did you say Mrs. Pearson is flying in?” he asked, lifting his head.

  “Tomorrow night.”

  “Does this mean you won't be sleeping here?”

  “I can't,” she said, regretfully.

  “Then why are we wasting time?”

  Later, when he'd turned out the light and they were lying drowsily together, he said, “If you don't mind, let me check out the people who sent you those job offers.”

  “Why?” she asked, startled into lifting her head. “Do you think something's wrong?” She didn't see how anything could be.

  “No, nothing in particular. It's just a precaution. Humor me.”

  “Okay, if you want.”

  “I do,” he said firmly.


  “WE DO A LOT OF ENTERTAINING.” MERILYN LANKFORD TOOK A sip of coffee from a cup of translucent bone china, the huge yellow diamond on her hand glittering as it caught the sunlight. “And we travel, so we need someone to look after the house while we're gone.” She suddenly smiled, her eyes twinkling. “I've always told Sonny I need a wife. Miss Stevens, will you marry me?”

  Sarah had to laugh. Mrs. Lankford was a petite, energetic brunette with artfully done highlights to hide the growing gray in her hair, bright green eyes that invited the world to laugh with her, and a nonstop schedule. Her two daughters were grown, the older one married and the younger one a senior in college. She had a job in real estate, an interest in several charities, and a husband who ran two thriving businesses that depended on contacts for sales, hence the entertaining. Judge Roberts had been old money; the Lankfords were unabashedly new money, and they were enjoying every penny.

  Two years before, they had built a rambling, ostentatious Spanish-style house, with nooks and crannies everywhere, arched alcoves, bricked courtyards, a center fountain, and anything else they could think of. The pool was Olympic size. Mr. Lankford had what he called a media room, crammed with whatever he could think of in the way of electronics, from computer to stereo, including the big-screen television that all men seemed to need to feel complete—and this was in addition to the home theater, with the drop-down projection screen, the ten reclining theater seats upholstered in lush velvet, and the wraparound stereo sound system. The Lankfords had his-and-her marble bathrooms, closets the size of most people's houses, ten bathrooms, eight bedrooms, and what was obviously more money than they knew what to do with.

  The whole setup made Sarah want to laugh, it was so over-the- top. It was also obvious that Merilyn enjoyed everything about her new house, from the silly to the luxurious. She knew it was ostentatious, and she didn't care. She had wanted the sunken marble tub, she could afford it, so she got one; it was that simple.

  Sarah liked the Lankfords, Merilyn especially. From her point of view, the setup was good; there were separate quarters for her use, an actual little Spanish-style, fully furnished bungalow set back behind the pool and half hidden from view by a lush wall of trailing ivy. Merilyn must have paid the earth to have the mature ivy transplanted, but the effect was wonderful.

  Even more important, Sarah thought, Merilyn truly needed her. The other prospective employers had, she sensed, wanted her more as a trophy or a status symbol than anything else. She had even received a second offer from the man who had tried to hire her after seeing her on television. People like that didn't really need her. Attitude went a long way in her consideration.

  The entire process had become a little weird. She was supposed to be the one being interviewed, not the other way around, but she kept getting the feeling that people were almost auditioning for her. This certainly hadn't been addressed in training, so she pretended not to notice. Regardless of which job she took, after a while things would adjust to their natural state and her employers would become accustomed to treating her as they should.

  The Lankfords were the fourth interview she'd had, and she thought they might be the last. Matters had progressed with the Judge's estate faster than the family had anticipated; only a week after listing the house for sale, the realtor had a serious offer on the table, and the buyers wanted to close immediately. In order to get the house ready for them, on Barbara's instructions, Sarah had brought in extra labor to help with packing and moving. The house was almost empty; all that was left was what was in her own quarters.

  The furniture wasn't hers; neither were the dishes or cookware. She did have her own bed linens, because she preferred silky sheets, but for the most part, all she had to move were her personal effects—her clothes and toiletries and books, a music system, and her collection of cassettes and CDs. Cahill had told her she didn't have to rush into a job, she could always move in with him and take her time looking, but sh
e didn't feel right doing that. She wanted a bit more independence than that, regardless of how much time she had been spending at his house.

  After she and Merilyn discussed salary, duties, benefits, and off-days, Merilyn beamed a high-wattage, cheerleader smile at her. “So, when can you start?”

  Sarah made the decision right then. “Two days. If you don't mind, I'll move my things into the bungalow tomorrow. I'll need to sit down with you and Mr. Lankford to go over your schedules and needs, and if possible, I'd like a diagram of the house.”

  “It's awful, isn't it? I'll just give you a set of the blueprints; we have at least ten, fifteen copies left,” Merilyn said cheerfully. “We built this house, and I still sometimes get turned around and have to look out a window to see where I am. You know, if it's Tuesday this must be the den, that type of thing. Only in the movies it was Belgium, not the den, but you know what I mean.”

  “It must be fun,” Sarah said, smiling.

  “It's more fun than you can imagine. Building the house was like an adventure; we drove the builder crazy, because we'd come up with new ideas for what we wanted almost every day, but we kept paying him bonuses, so he made out okay. This is probably the only house we'll ever build, unless, God forbid, it burns down or something, so we went all out. The first night we lived here, we played hide-and-seek like two kids. I can't wait until we have grandchildren so I can play hide-and-seek with them, there are so many good places to hide.” Suddenly she smacked herself in the head. “What am I saying? I'm too young to be a grandmother! I don't know what's wrong with me; comments like that have been popping out of my mouth for the last year or so. Do you think I need estrogen, or something?”

  Sarah laughed. “Or grandchildren.”

  “Bethany, my oldest, is just twenty-four, and that seems so young, too young to start a family, so I hope she'll wait another few years. But I was just twenty when I had her, and I didn't think I was too young.”

  “We never do,” Sarah murmured.

  They agreed on the terms of a very simple contract; then Merilyn gave her a set of keys for both the bungalow and the house, the codes for the gate and security systems, and a copy of the blueprints, which was a huge roll consisting of at least thirty pages, and weighed about five pounds. Feeling a bit bemused by the speed with which Merilyn accomplished things, Sarah drove home and called Barbara to let her know that, unless something unforeseen had come up, she was finished clearing and packing and would be moving out tomorrow, clearing the way for the new owners.

  “Where will you be?” Barbara asked. “I don't want to lose track of you, Sarah. You've been a part of our family for almost three years, and I can't imagine not knowing where you are or how to get in touch with you.”

  “I've taken a position with Sonny and Merilyn Lankford, on Brookwood.”

  “Oh,” said Barbara. “New money.” Location, location, location; it told everything.

  “Very new, and having a lot of fun with it.”

  “Then God bless them. Do you have their number handy?”

  “Actually, I'll have a private line, so let me give you that number.” She had already memorized it, so she rattled it off. “And you still have my cell phone number, don't you?”

  “In my address book. I'll call the bank and have the balance of this month's salary paid into your account tomorrow. You take care of yourself, you hear?”

  “You, too.”

  After hanging up, Sarah allowed herself a moment to look around the two cozy rooms that had been hers, then shook off the sadness and nostalgia and briskly began packing up her books. As she packed, she called her mom and gave her the details of her new job, as well as the telephone number and address. Dad was well; Jennifer thought she might be pregnant—big surprise there, she'd been trying for, what, a whole month?—and Daniel was back on his home base in Kentucky. Everyone was safe and accounted for.

  She worked steadily, her mind already going over what she had seen of the Lankfords' house, working out schedules for having the hundreds of windows washed and cleaning what had to be hundreds of miles of grout. The cleaning itself was the job of the housekeeper, or the cleaning service, but arranging and overseeing was Sarah's job. The house was easily twice as large as Judge Roberts's house, so she'd have her hands full just with domestic responsibilities.

  Her cell phone rang, startling her. She grabbed it out of her bag. “Hello.”

  “Just checking to see when you'll be home,” Cahill said, his deep voice easy and relaxed.

  Sarah glanced at her watch and grimaced. The time had gotten away from her; it was almost seven o'clock. “I'm sorry; I was packing my things and didn't pay attention to the time. Are you at home?”

  “On my way; I'm running late, too. Do you want to meet me somewhere for dinner?”

  She looked down at her clothes; she'd changed into jeans before she started packing, and they were stained and dusty. “I'm too dirty to eat out. Do you want me to pick up something on the way home?”

  “I can do that. How about a plate from Jimmie's?”

  Jimmie's was a mom-and-pop restaurant that served plate lunches—a meat and three vegetables for five-ninety-five, or four veggies for four-eighty-five; your choice of dinner roll or corn bread. The weekly menu never varied. This was Tuesday, but it wasn't Belgium; it was meat loaf day at Jimmie's.

  “That sounds good. Just vegetables for me, and corn bread. You know which veggies I like.” He should; they had been there something like seven times in the past two weeks.

  “How much longer are you going to stay?”

  “I'll stop now. I'm almost finished, anyway.”

  “See you in about half an hour, then. If you get home before I do, leave the things in the truck and I'll take them in for you when I get home.”

  He hung up, and Sarah made a wry face at the phone. “Damn,” she muttered. He thought she would be staying with him, though every time he'd mentioned her moving in, she had resisted the idea.

  Maybe it was old-fashioned, even silly of her, but she didn't like the idea of living with him. A sleep-over was one thing; in fact, she had slept over with him almost every night since they became lovers. But the only way she would consider actually living with a man was if they were married or at least engaged. Cahill had asked her to do a lot of things, but marry him wasn't one of them. Until then—

  Until then?

  She jerked herself up short. Was her subconscious planning to marry him? Had it not listened to all her lectures about the dangers of getting involved with a man who had gone through a vicious divorce in his recent past? Despite everything, was she so in love with him that she was already dreaming of happily-ever-after?

  Hell, yes, she was.

  Her stupidity was surpassed only by her optimism. She closed her eyes, a little amused at herself, a little despairing. Hope sprang eternal, all right, and there was nothing she could do but play out the hand and see what happened.

  She loaded some of the boxes in the SUV, then washed her face and hands and locked up, as usual checking all the doors and windows in the house and making certain the alarm was set. That would be her duty only one more time; then she would focus solely on the Lankfords and their comfort, their routine.

  Jimmie's must have been busy, because Cahill still wasn't home when she got there. She let herself in with the spare key he'd given her, and jumped into the shower to rinse off the rest of the grime from the boxes. She wrapped herself in the terry-cloth robe she'd left there and walked out of the bedroom just as she heard the back door open.

  “Honey, I'm home!” he called, making her grin as she entered the kitchen. He had set the takeout plates on the table and was getting the jug of tea from the fridge. “And I'm starving,” he added.

  “So am I. Why were you so late?”

  “A woman took her three-year-old to his pediatrician, and the doc noticed the kid was covered with bruises. She said he fell down the stairs. The doc was suspicious and called it in, we investigated, and they d
on't have stairs. Bastards. Plus we were going over some old cases.”

  Meaning they were still sifting through the evidence taken from the Judge's house, going over it again and again, trying to spot something they'd missed. The case was cold, and getting colder by the minute, but they were still trying. He looked tired, but who wouldn't be after dealing with people who would beat up a three-year-old?

  “I had another interview today,” she said as they sat down. “Sonny and Merilyn Lankford, on Brookwood; big Spanish-type house.”

  “Yeah, I know the place. How did it go?”

  “I took the job.”

  He paused with his fork on the way to his mouth, his gaze sharpening as he studied her. “Same setup you had with Judge Roberts? On-site quarters?”

  “Yes, a separate little bungalow. I have the weekends off unless they have a party planned, in which case I'll substitute one of the other days.”

  “When do you start?”

  He had on his cop face, and that was his cop voice, cool and dispassionate. He'd been expecting her to move in with him, and he didn't like it that things weren't going his way.

  “Day after tomorrow.”

  “So tomorrow night is the last night you'll be spending here.”

  Her appetite was fading fast. “Tomorrow is the last night I'll be spending every night with you. Whether or not it's the last night, period, is up to you.”


  “Meaning I have a job to do, and I won't short-time them. But when I'm free, if you want me, I'll be here.”

  “Oh, yeah,” he said softly. “I want you.”

  “But you're angry because I took the job.”

  “No, I know you had to find another job. I don't like it because you won't be here. That's two different things.”

  “I've loved being here with you, Cahill.” Love being the operative word. “But we both knew it was temporary. My staying here at night, I mean.”

  “Okay, okay.” He looked frustrated. “We'll manage. I just don't like it. And before you stay a single night at this place, I want to check these people out. Remember our agreement?”

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