Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  He looked pleased that she remembered him. “Please call me Trevor. My dear, I've been thinking about you all day. This is terrible, what's happened. You must have been so afraid.”

  Her throat locked, and she stared at him. After the events of the day, this gentle sympathy was almost her undoing.

  “The newscasters made it sound as if the police suspect you, but that's ridiculous. You couldn't possibly have done such a thing; the very idea. Are you staying here for the time being?”

  “I—” She swallowed. “I haven't checked in yet.”

  “Then let's go in and get you a room so you can rest. Have you eaten anything today? There's a café here, I believe. I'd be honored if you'd join me for a meal.”

  He was a virtual stranger, but after only one meeting he had more faith in her than Cahill had. The difference between them slapped her in the face, sent her reeling. She didn't realize she had swayed again until Mr. Densmore reached out to touch her arm. “My dear, you're on the verge of collapse. Come with me. You'll feel better after you've had something to eat, I promise.”

  It was so easy just to let him take charge. All but the most simple actions seemed beyond her capability now; it was a relief not to make decisions, not even about what she ate. Before she knew it they were in the café and he was quietly ordering hot tea and soup for her, making soft comments that didn't require replies but nevertheless wove a sort of buffer zone around her and gave her something else to concentrate on. All day the same scenes had been replaying in her mind, all day the same horrible thoughts had chased around and around, and he offered surcease from that. She listened to him, and she allowed herself to forget, just for a little while.

  He was gentle in his insistence that she eat, but relentless. After a day of feeling battered, it was good to be taken care of. She made herself eat half the bowl of soup, and sip the hot tea. At least she began to feel a little warmer, but her mind was still in a fog and she was surprised when she suddenly focused on what Mr. Densmore was saying.

  “You still want to hire me?” she asked in dazed astonishment.

  He blushed, and fiddled with his teaspoon, unnecessarily stirring the already stirred tea, then precisely placing the spoon on the rim of the saucer. “I know this is terrible timing,” he said. “I'm sorry. This is so embarrassing.”

  “No, it isn't that,” she said quickly. “It's just—I apologize. I'm so tired I can't concentrate. Thank you very much for your offer, but, Mr. Densmore . . . it may not be safe. My employers seem to be—” She stopped, her lips suddenly trembling, unable to go on.

  “That can't have anything to do with you,” he said firmly. “It's just a horrible coincidence. It's been on the news that there's been another incident, so that proves you aren't involved in any way.”

  The media was on top of things today if it was already on the news about this latest killing, she thought tiredly. But they were in a high state of alert, monitoring the police radios and 911 calls, so it was possible they were at this latest scene almost before the cops were.

  Another person was dead. She should be horrified for the victim's sake, for the family's sake, but all she could feel was grateful that she wasn't there.

  “My offer still stands,” he said, his shy smile beginning to form. “I was impressed with your abilities when I saw you on television, and again last Saturday. Please think about it. My estate is extensive; I've been coping with part-time staff, but it would really benefit from permanent, expert supervision. It's very quiet, and I have excellent security.”

  Her mind felt filled with cotton, but one thought at least was clear: the job offers wouldn't be pouring in this time, the way they had after the Judge was killed. After what happened to the Lankfords, she would at the least be regarded as a jinx, though this last killing would at least prove she wasn't a murderer. Not many people would want someone like her in the house. Probably Mr. Densmore wouldn't have, either, if he hadn't already met her and formed his own opinion about her character.

  She should take her time finding another position. She should advertise in the papers in Atlanta and Palm Beach, maybe even New Orleans. She could stay with her parents while she searched, assuming the police would let her leave the area. Right now, even with this newest development, that was a big assumption.

  Since this job was falling into her lap, the simplest thing would be to take it. She would have somewhere to live, and something to occupy her mind. When she felt better, when she was more herself, then she could decide what to do on a permanent basis.

  “I have to be honest with you, Mr. Densmore. After what's happened, I don't think I want to stay in this area. I'm grateful for your offer, and if you're still interested in hiring me knowing that it may be temporary—”

  “I am,” he said quickly. “I understand completely how you feel. But after things have settled down and you see the arrangements at my estate, I hope you'll change your mind about leaving.”

  She took a deep breath. “In that case, I accept your offer.”


  THE VICTIM'S NAME WAS JACOB WANETTA, FIFTY-SIX YEARS old, the president and CEO of Wanetta Advertising. He lived on Cherokee Road, and he and his wife were golfing enthusiasts. He was working at home that day, and he'd been hale and hearty when his wife was picked up by a friend a little after lunch to play nine holes at the Mountain Brook Country Club, then have cocktails. He'd waved them off from the front door, so it wasn't a matter of the wife saying he was alive then, the friend had seen him, too. When the wife arrived home after a fun afternoon of golf and gin, she found her husband sprawled beside the hearth in his den, a bullet through his brain.

  The evidence technicians found the shell casing where it had rolled under the sofa, and immediate comparisons were being made to see if it matched the three found at the Lankfords. From the damage done, the bullet looked to be the same caliber as the others, though the ME would have to weigh the slug to be certain. The shot appeared to have been delivered in the same manner as two of the others. Except for Mrs. Lankford, who had been shot between the eyes, the other killing wounds had all entered from the left, indicating the killer had been standing to the left of the victim and was right-handed. That had to be sheer coincidence, where he stood, but maybe not. Maybe, being right-handed, he deliberately maneuvered so he was on the victim's left, giving himself an unencumbered shot. If he stood to the victim's right, shooting would require swiveling his body, and might give the victim time to react.

  As it was, none of the victims had stood a chance. They hadn't had time to do more than blink, if that. Except for Merilyn Lankford; she had obviously been trying to call for help.

  Jacob Wanetta had been a hefty, athletic guy. If any of them could have fought, he would have been the one. But he'd gone down just like the others, without resistance. There were no overturned chairs, no lamps knocked askew, nothing . . . just that very efficient killing.

  He had been killed while Sarah was safely at the police department. There was no question of her innocence, and since by all indications he and the Lankfords had been killed by the same person, that effectively removed the media focus from her. The chief put out a statement that they had been concerned for Miss Stevens's safety, but they had at no time considered her a suspect. That was a flat-out lie, but who cared, if it killed the media's interest in her?

  Ahern said he'd left her at the Mountain Brook Inn, with instructions to check in under Geraldine Ahern, his mother's name. Cahill wished Ahern had actually gone inside with her and seen to it himself, but he understood the urgency to get to the scene. When Mrs. Wanetta's hysterical phone call had come into 911, there in the police department, everyone had scrambled like fighter pilots racing to meet an oncoming wave of bombers.

  They were stretched thin, trying to handle the normal problems that cropped up plus three murders in one day. With this latest development, Lieutenant Wester decided there wasn't any reason to keep Cahill separate from the Lankford case; Wester had only five investi
gators to begin with, so he needed every one of them concentrating on this. As far as Cahill was concerned, that also lifted the restrictions on him involving Sarah, not that he'd intended to pay much attention to them anyway. Still, it was nice to know his ass wasn't going to get busted for doing it.

  It was close to midnight when Wester decided they were all so tired they were losing their effectiveness. They'd have to wait and see if the evidence techs came up with any new physical evidence. They had already interviewed as many friends and neighbors as they could—unless they started dragging people from their beds—and, as Nolan put it, they were starting to get “the stupids.”

  Sarah hadn't been far from Cahill's mind all day, and abruptly he remembered to ask, “Ahern, did you have anyone take Sarah's clothes to her?”

  Ahern gave him a blank look, then groaned. “Shit, I forgot.” He glanced at his watch. He had called his wife two hours ago and told her he'd be home soon.

  “I'll do it,” Cahill said. Wester was listening to them and when he didn't say anything, Cahill knew he was cleared.

  “Are you sure about that?” Ahern asked, giving him a shrewd look. “You might want to stay out of reach for a few days.”

  “No, that's exactly what I don't need to do.”

  He was as short on sleep as everyone else—probably shorter, considering what he and Sarah had done with the chocolate syrup the night before—but he had no interest in going home without seeing her first. She, on the other hand, probably wouldn't be glad to see him at any time, much less in the wee hours of the morning.

  Tough shit.

  He picked up her clothes first, figuring she wouldn't refuse to see him if he had her things. He got everything, digging out her suitcases and cleaning out the closet, because he assumed she wouldn't be coming back here to stay anyway. In just the short time she'd been here, though, she had already put her personal touches on the bungalow, with her books and photographs, and her music collection. He thought about packing those up, too, but she wouldn't have room for them in a hotel room, and he didn't want to take the time right now. She needed her clothes; the other things could wait.

  He was fast, but thorough, remembering to get all her toiletries and makeup from the tiled bathroom, and her underwear from the built-in drawers in the closet. Packing her things was easy; she was very neat, which made things go faster. Maybe she hadn't been here long enough for her things to have developed a life of their own. He had a stubborn hope that one day her clothes would push his out of the closet, and he'd complain about needing a bigger house just for the closet space. He had a stubborn hope for a lot of things, and they all revolved around Sarah.

  Finally he had everything packed in his truck, and as he wound his way over to 280, he called Sarah's cell phone number, but the recording came on immediately informing him that the customer was not in service at this time. He was used to her keeping it on the entire time she was at his house, putting it on the charger every night, but now there was no reason for her to make it easy for anyone to get in touch with her. Growling, he got the number of the Mountain Brook Inn from Information, was put through, and asked for Geraldine Ahern.

  Sarah was one of those people who woke instantly when disturbed, springing from bed ready to do battle, thwart burglars, or cook breakfast. He began to worry when she hadn't answered by the fourth ring. She did answer on the sixth one, though, and her voice sounded dull. “Hello.”

  “I'm bringing your clothes over,” he said. “What's your room number?”

  She paused. “Just leave them at the front desk.”



  There, that was better; there was a little life in her voice. “If you want your clothes, you'll have to see me.”

  “Are you holding my clothes hostage?” More life. It was outrage, but at least it was life.

  “If you don't want them now, I'll take them home with me and you can pick them up there.”

  “Damn you, Cahill—” She stopped, and he could hear her exhaling through her nose in exasperation. “All right.” She told him her room number and slammed down the phone.

  Progress was being made.

  He didn't mind arguing. It was not talking at all that drove him crazy. As long as she was talking to him, even if by dint of coercion, then he had a chance.

  At the inn, he got a luggage cart and loaded all of her things on it, then wheeled it to the elevator past the watchful eye of the clerk manning the desk. Cahill opened his jacket a little, flashing the tin on his belt, and the clerk became interested in other things.

  Sarah must have been standing at the door, because she jerked it open before he could even knock. The squeaking of the luggage cart must have alerted her. She already had a hand extended to take one bag when she registered the load on the luggage cart.

  “I brought everything,” he said, keeping his voice down because of the other guests sleeping on this floor. It was a wonder he remembered the courtesy, because Sarah was naked, clutching a sheet around her. “I didn't figure you'd be staying there again.”

  “No,” she said, shuddering. “But what about my—”

  “You can get the rest of your stuff later.” He wasn't above using his size to get what he wanted; he grabbed two of the suitcases and moved forward, and she was forced to step back from the door. He set down the suitcases, planting himself in the doorway, and swiveled to get the other bags. Before she could get the two suitcases hauled to the side, he had the others inside and he stepped forward, closing the door behind him. She had turned on every light in the place, making certain the room was as far from intimate as she could make it, even smoothing the bedspread back over the bed after she'd removed the sheet that was now wrapped around her.

  But she hadn't put on her clothes, and she'd had time to do so. Instead she was wrapped in a sheet, and she was naked beneath it. He wondered if she even realized what that revealed about her emotions. Normally he would have said yes, but after the day she'd had, she probably didn't realize.

  She clutched the sheet tighter, lifting her chin. “Thank you. Now get out.”

  “You look like a Victorian maiden protecting her virtue,” he said, shifting the suitcases himself.

  She had still been pale, her features pinched, but now her eyes narrowed and color washed into her cheeks. She was a good strategist, though; she must have sensed that a good fight to clear the air was just what he wanted, because she bit back whatever she had been about to say and moved several feet away. “Leave.”

  He moved closer. Maybe he could make her mad enough to swing at him; she'd have to let go of that sheet then. “Make me,” he invited.

  “I'm not doing this,” she said, briefly closing her eyes and shaking her head. “If I have to, I'll call your supervisor and make a harassment charge against you. It's over. We didn't work out. End of story.”

  “No,” he said. Shannon had once said he could give stubborn lessons to a jackass, and he intended to live up to his reputation. “Sarah, I love you.”

  Her head snapped up, and the expression in her eyes was furious. “No you don't.”

  His eyes narrowed. “The hell I don't.”

  Then she was advancing on him, holding the sheet with one hand and poking at him with a stiffened finger with the other. “You don't even know who I am,” she snapped, breathing fire. “If you did, if you had paid the slightest amount of attention to me other than when you wanted to screw me, you'd never, not for one damn second, have thought I murdered anyone, much less someone I liked as much as I did M-Merilyn.” Her chin wobbled, and her face began to crumple. “And—and I loved the Judge,” she said in a trembling voice, trying hard not to cry. “You can't love someone you don't know, and you don't k-know me.”

  It wasn't just her voice trembling; she was shaking all over. Cahill felt something clench in his chest. Damn it, he hadn't liked it when she said he screwed her. He didn't like the term, didn't like what it implied. Fucking, yeah; when they made love, it was eart
hy and hot and sweaty, and that was fucking. But it had always been making love, too. It had never been just screwing.

  She was falling apart in front of him. Cahill breathed a curse and pulled her into his arms, easily subduing the feeble girly-pounding she did on his chest; then she sort of crumpled against him and began to cry as she had earlier, in great, heaving sobs.

  He picked her up and sat down on the bed, holding her on his lap and murmuring soft things to her, doing the things he should have done this morning. She wasn't holding the sheet now, her hands were fisted on his jacket, and the sheet began to loosen around her slender body. Ruthlessly he helped it along, pulling his jacket out of her grip and shrugging out of it at the same time as he tugged on the sheet, exposing more and more of her warm skin.

  He fell back on the bed, twisting so she was on her back and he was leaning over her as he pulled the sheet completely free. She was still crying and she made a weak grab for the sheet, but he caught her hand and held it as he bent his head to kiss her, at the same time stroking his free hand over her smooth breasts, down her flat belly, then finally to the ultrasoft folds between her legs.

  Her mouth was salty from her tears. She whimpered a protest, but she was arching toward him, and when he released her hand, it slid around his neck. He moved fast, opening his pants and shifting on top of her, parting her legs and settling between them. He guided his penis to her, and pushed. She wasn't wet but she was moist enough, though he had to rock several times to get all the way inside her.

  She whimpered again, and went still, staring up at him with drenched, heartbreaking eyes.

  “Shhh,” he murmured, moving gently inside her. Usually she gave as good as she got, standing toe-to-toe with him whether they were sparring or making love, and this vulnerability hurt him deep inside. Maybe this was wrong, loving her now when her defenses were down, but it was the fastest way he knew to reestablish the connection between them. The bonds of the flesh . . . not just sex but the linking of two bodies, the most primitive way of seeking comfort and not feeling alone.

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