Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  “I don't think Merilyn Lankford's a terrorist or a money launderer for the mob,” she said, relieved he wasn't trying to talk her out of taking the job.

  “You never know. People have all kinds of dirty laundry in their closets. For my peace of mind, okay?” He reached behind him where he'd hung his jacket on the back of the chair and took out his notebook. “Give me their full names again, and address.”

  Sighing, she did.

  “Sonny's his real name? Not a nickname?”

  “I suppose.”

  “Never mind, I can find out. If they've ever even had a traffic ticket, I'll know about it.” He slipped the notebook back into his pocket and resumed eating.

  A disruption in his domestic arrangements wasn't enough to kill his appetite, she noticed with amusement and made herself begin eating again, too.

  Inevitably her mind slipped back to the Judge; how could it not, when what had happened to him was the reason Cahill wanted to check out the Lankfords? Tomorrow would be four weeks since the murder; every Wednesday was a sad anniversary. She didn't know if she would ever be able to live through another Wednesday without remembering.

  “There's nothing new on the case, is there?” she asked, though she thought he'd tell her if there was. But maybe not; he kept most things about his work pretty close to his chest.

  “No. We're not giving up, though. There had to be a reason, and sooner or later we'll find out what it was. Someone will talk, let something slip, and it'll get back to us. Or someone will get pissed and give us a call, tell what they know. We're still talking to people, showing that picture around, trying to shake some memories. It'll come. Sooner or later, it'll come.”


  HE COULDN'T BELIEVE IT, WHEN HE HEARD, AND OF COURSE he did hear; Mountain Brook was a small town, and people knew people; someone always talked. She had gone to work for those nouveau riche Lankfords, with the ghastly house that proved just how nouveau their riches truly were. He received a nice little letter from her, politely telling him she had taken another position, but by the time the letter arrived, he had already heard the news.

  He held the letter in his hand, staring at her neat, firm signature. He had read it over dozens of times since receiving it, though the words never changed. He thought he could almost smell her on the paper, a light, fresh scent that hit him with a shaft of pain, because she should be here. She should be with him. Every day the pain of her absence became more acute, as if something vital in his life was lacking. It was intolerable.

  He rubbed the sheet of paper over his face, seeking comfort in knowing that she had touched this, had sent it personally to him.

  How could she do this to him? Didn't she know—? No, of course not. She couldn't know, he reminded himself. He mustn't get angry with her, because, after all, she hadn't yet met him. As soon as she did, she would know how perfect their lives would be together. She probably felt sorry for those nasty Lankfords and would try to bring a touch of class to their tacky lives. It was a useless effort, but his Sarah was a valiant creature. She would try, and keep trying, until her heart broke at the futility of it.

  He actually knew the Lankfords, because, after all, business was business. He'd never been to their house, though; perhaps it was time he visited. Getting an invitation wouldn't be difficult; they entertained with vaudevillian gusto, as if they had no idea of the pleasure of solitude, or quiet.

  What a wonderful idea, visiting the Lankfords; he would be able to see Sarah close at hand, because obviously she would be overseeing everything. Perhaps she would even be introduced to him. One didn't normally introduce the servants to the guests, but Merilyn Lankford was just gauche enough to do it. Not that Sarah was an ordinary servant; in her own way she was queen, but the world she ruled was always behind-the-scenes. She deserved to have his world to rule, rather than that monument to tackiness.

  For Sarah's own sake, not to mention his, he had to get her out of there. He had to act, the sooner the better. He mustn't be careless, though. This would require planning and thought, and no small degree of skill. He looked forward to the challenge.

  People were creatures of habit; they wore their little rut of routine in the fabric of their lives; then they stayed in the rut because it was easier than climbing out. According to psychologists, it was fact that most people preferred what they knew, even if it was horrible, to the uncertainty of the unknown. Women stayed with abusive husbands, not out of hope, but out of fear of being on their own. It was the great unknown. Only daring souls, or desperate ones, broke out of their ruts.

  People tended to follow the same patterns day after day, week after week. The same people would be at the same place at roughly the same time. Cahill didn't expect the man in the photograph to show up and use the same pay phone at the same time of night; but maybe, just maybe, someone would be in the Galleria who was in the habit of being there then and had been there the night Judge Roberts was killed, and had noticed . . . what? Something. Anything.

  None of the store clerks had noticed anything, but then they were trained to watch what went on in their stores, not out in the mall concourse. But what about the people sitting on the benches, strolling around, the clutch of teenagers giggling and trying to act cool, the young woman slowly pushing a baby stroller back and forth with her foot while she ate a cinnamon roll? Were they there every night? Every Wednesday night? What was their routine?

  At about the same time of night the call had been made, on a hunch Cahill went to the Galleria and stopped every shopper he met in the area of that particular pay phone and showed them the photograph. Did anything about this man ring any bells? Did they know someone who resembled him? Was it possible they'd seen him before, here in the Galleria?

  He got a lot of funny looks, no's, and shakes of the head. Some people merely glanced at the photograph before saying, “Naw,” and walking on. Some people took the time to study it before handing it back. No, he didn't look familiar. Sorry.

  Cahill kept at it. Nothing was breaking in the case; there were no rumors, no one was dropping a dime to get back at someone—nothing. The wall they'd hit was high and wide. They had the slug that killed the Judge, but not the cartridge. They didn't have any prints that scored a hit on AFIS; they didn't have the murder weapon; they didn't have a witness; they didn't have a motive. They didn't have shit.

  He was getting angry. No one should be able to commit murder and walk away. It happened, but it offended him on a deep level, in that part of him that made him a cop.

  He stopped a twenty-something guy who had a black- lipsticked girl hanging on him like a window-unit air conditioner. They both had attitude, but they looked at the photograph anyway. “I dunno,” the guy said, frowning a little. “He reminds me of somebody, but I can't place him, y'know?”

  Cahill kept his own demeanor and voice neutral. He could be a badass when he needed to be, but tonight he'd deliberately been very low-key so if anyone had anything to say, he or she would feel comfortable talking to him. “Is it someone you've seen here in the Galleria before?”

  “Naw, it ain't that. Hey, I know! He looks like my banker!”

  “Your banker?”

  “Yeah—William Teller!”

  They walked away laughing. “Cute,” Cahill said under his breath, turning away and not letting himself respond to the smart-ass, but the guy had better hope they never crossed paths if he was doing something he shouldn't—and he looked like the type who would.

  Cahill worked the shoppers until the announcement came that the mall was closing. This had been another dead end, but if he kept coming back, kept showing the photograph, maybe sooner or later something would pop.

  The house was dark when he got home. He sat in the driveway for a minute staring at the windows. “Shit,” he muttered. Coming home to a dark house had never bothered him before, but now he wanted to punch something because he didn't like this worth a damn. In just a couple of weeks he'd gotten so accustomed to having Sarah there that not havi
ng her there felt almost as bad as when he'd first broken up with Shannon.

  Hell, in a way it was worse. He hadn't missed Shannon. Finding out she was screwing around had killed everything he felt for her except anger. He missed Sarah, though; it was a constant ache. He could forget about it while he was working, but the knowledge that she wouldn't be there when he got home was always there in the back of his mind, waiting for a moment when he wasn't occupied to punch him in the gut.

  He finally got out of the truck and went inside, flipping on lights, turning on the television, getting himself something to drink. It was his normal routine, and it wasn't enough. The emptiness of the house made him furious.

  Sarah had spent Saturday night with him, and the sex had been so hot he'd thought his head would explode. He couldn't get enough of her, and that was damn scary. She was openly, honestly sensual, giving freely of herself and delighting in his body as fiercely as he delighted in hers. It almost scared him sometimes, the way they were in such perfect sync, in bed and out.

  He was suspicious when something seemed perfect, but the way he and Sarah fit together was . . . perfect. Even when they argued, he knew he didn't intimidate her—hell, he wasn't certain she could be intimidated. And that was perfect. He didn't have to handle her with kid gloves. The sex was hot and raunchy: perfect. They made each other laugh: perfect. Maybe it was because she was from a military family, but she seemed to get him in a way no other woman had: perfect.

  What wasn't perfect was that she wasn't with him.

  He hated her living in that damn bungalow. He hated it with a savagery that he tried hard to keep hidden. He'd been reasonable about her career; hell, he'd even been sensitive. When she told him she'd taken the job and would live on-site, he hadn't roared, “Fuck that! Over my dead body!” Which was exactly what he'd felt like saying. Being reasonable was a pain in the ass.

  What really pissed him off, though, was he didn't have any right to argue with her about it.

  They were lovers, nothing more. He'd never said anything other than something along the lines of, “Let's see where this goes.” He hadn't made any commitment, hadn't asked her for one, though he thought it was mutually understood neither of them would see anyone else. That lack of commitment gnawed at him now. He should have said something before, and he didn't know if speaking up now would do any good. She had agreed to terms and signed a contract, and, knowing Sarah, she wouldn't even try to amend the terms—not for just a live-in lover.

  That chapped his ass, too. He didn't want to be “just” anything to her. He wanted to be her center.

  She was a very easy person to live with, but he'd always been aware that she had an ironclad set of personal standards. That was part of what so attracted him to her. If she said she would do something, she'd either do it or try everything humanly possible to keep her word. If Sarah made a commitment, she kept it. When she married, her husband would never have to worry about Sarah sleeping around. She might kick his ass out and divorce him, but she wouldn't cheat on him—and only a fool would cheat on her.

  The two weeks of intense, no-commitment sex had been great, but he'd been a fool to think it would hold her. She had never allowed herself to lose focus on her job with the Roberts family, or on interviewing for another job. He'd just assumed she wasn't in any hurry to find another job, that they'd have more time together.

  To what end? The conclusion would have been the same. Whether she was here two weeks or two months, she'd still been looking for another job. He guessed he should be grateful she'd found one fast, because if she'd kept looking, she might have gone farther afield and ended up working in Atlanta or some place even farther away, which would really suck.

  If he'd wanted to keep her here, he should have raised the bar—the commitment bar. But, God, the only thing that would have held her would have been a marriage proposal and just the thought of getting married again made him break out in a cold sweat. Maybe they could have a long engagement.

  No, she'd see through that in a heartbeat. And that was assuming she'd say yes to a proposal, anyway. She had her big plan for traveling the world, and she was actively working to achieve that ambition. She really wanted to do it, and she'd structured her life to achieve that goal, keeping herself free and unencumbered. He didn't know how the plan would work within the structure of a marriage, if it could work, if she'd be willing to get married beforehand or if she'd insist on waiting until afterward.

  She'd all but told him she loved him. Hell, he knew she loved him. But he hadn't done anything about it, hadn't solidified or formalized their relationship; he'd been happily coasting along, seeing “where this thing goes,” and it had cost him. Big time.

  Sarah wasn't a woman to take lightly, or for granted. He didn't think he'd committed either of those crimes, but neither had he shown how her how deeply important to him she'd become.

  He could let things rock on as they were now; they'd have the weekends together, which was as much as a lot of couples had. He could talk to her on the phone, maybe even grab lunch together sometimes if their schedules meshed. And he'd have the weekends.

  It wasn't enough. He wanted to be with her every night. He wanted to sit at the table and talk about their days while they ate. He wanted to share the morning newspaper with her, and fight over who got the front-page section first. He wanted those sparring sessions they'd had; she wasn't up to his weight, but she was fast enough to almost make up for the difference. And whether it had been karate, kick-boxing—or his favorite, naked wrestling—the session had always ended in grinding, explosive sex. He couldn't work out now without getting a hard-on. The basement gym was permeated with the scent of her, the smell of sex, the memories of what they'd done and how often they'd done it.

  Hell, even his breakfast table carried memories.

  He missed her.

  He did a quick check of the time, then picked up the phone and dialed her number.

  “Hi,” he said when she answered.

  “Hi, yourself.” He could almost hear the smile in her voice.

  “Did I wake you?” Sarah wasn't a night owl; she was often up early, so she was usually in bed by ten at the latest, and sometimes by nine. He'd been taking a chance by calling her.

  “No. I'm in bed, but I've been reading.”

  “What are you wearing?”

  She laughed. “Is this one of those heavy-breathing calls?”

  “It could be.”

  “I'm wearing cotton pajamas. You've seen them.”

  “I have?” He couldn't remember her wearing anything at all to bed, not even one of his T-shirts.

  “The first time we met. You may remember the occasion. I was sitting on the stairs, the electricity was off, two bad guys were lying on the floor.”

  “Oh, yeah, I vaguely remember that. I thought you were Judge Roberts's bed warmer.”

  “What?” She sounded outraged.

  “Gorgeous young hottie living with an old guy; what else was a cop to think?”

  “Umm, maybe that she was a butler just as she said?”

  “Cops don't believe anything right off the bat. By the time I talked to you a few minutes, I knew the score.”

  “It's a good thing you didn't mention this to me at the time.”

  “I'm smart that way. I miss you, Sarah.”

  She paused. “I miss you, too. Can't be helped.”

  “Not right now, no. But there has to be some fine-tuning we can do to this situation, some way of working things out so we have more time together. We'll talk about it this weekend.”

  “I can't spend Saturday with you; the Lankfords are having a party, so I'll have to be here. I'll be off on Sunday and Monday instead.”

  He ground his teeth together. That robbed them of a day, because he had to work Monday. But at least he'd get to wake up with her. “Okay, I'll see you Sunday, then—unless you want to come over Saturday night after the party.”

  “It'll be late. Really late. Early Sunday morning, probably.”

  “I don't care. Wake me up.”

  “I'll do that,” she said.


  THE DRIVEWAY WAS LINED WITH CARS, AND EVERY LIGHT IN the huge house seemed to be on. Guests milled through the rooms, on the patios, around the pool. Merilyn had a favorite caterer, so Sarah had arranged everything with the owner, a slim, sixtyish woman named Brenda Nelson who handled the behind-the-scenes madness with aplomb. Waiters circulated among the guests, carrying trays of drinks and hors d'oeuvres. A huge buffet table had been set up by the pool, and it groaned under the weight of food; two bars had been set up, one by the pool and one inside.

  There were the inevitable spills and splashes. Sarah circulated unobtrusively, trying to spot the accidents as soon as they occurred so they could be wiped up. The real cleaning would have to wait until Monday morning, when she already had a cleaning service set to come in and do the heavy stuff, but liquids and food had to be wiped up immediately before someone slipped in the mess and fell.

  Brenda made certain there were plates and glasses aplenty; but there were myriad other details for Sarah to check, such as ashtrays in abundance for the smokers, who didn't number that many and went outside anyway, despite Merilyn's cheery, “Oh, pooh, go ahead and smoke; it doesn't bother me.” The ashtrays had to be emptied, cleaned, and put out for reuse. The supply of monogrammed paper hand towels in the bathrooms had to be watched, the guests' personal belongings monitored, a tryst between a drunken lady and her not-so-drunken would-be lover interrupted before it reached an embarrassing stage, lost car keys found—and when, inevitably, a woman tottered on her high heels and fell into the pool, Sarah made certain she had suffered no harm and was dried off, provided with makeup and hair dryer if she wished to repair things and rejoin the party, and found clothes to wear. Luckily the lady was good-natured, normal-sized, and having too much fun to leave.

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