Dying to Please by Linda Howard


  “Are you the one who discovered the break-in?”

  “Yes, I am.”

  “Do you know approximately what time it was?”

  “No, my bedside clock is electric, but I estimate it has been about thirty minutes since I woke.”

  “What woke you? Did you hear a noise?”

  “No. My quarters are over the garage; I can't hear anything from there. When they cut the power line, my ceiling fan stopped. That's what woke me.”

  “Then what happened?”

  Sarah related the course of events as concisely as possible, though she was acutely aware of her thin pajamas and bare feet. She wished she had taken the time to put on a robe and slippers, or pull a brush through her hair. Or maybe even do a full makeup job and slip into a negligee, spray herself with perfume, and hang an “I'm available” sign around her neck. Then she could take Detective Cahill to her quarters and sit on the side of the bed while she gave him her statement.

  She smiled inwardly at her own silliness, but her heartbeat had started racing at the sight of him and was still tripping along at too fast a pace. Through whatever quirk of chemistry or biology, or maybe a combination of the two, she felt an instant physical attraction to him. It happened occasionally—this sudden little buzz that made her remember what made the world go 'round—though not for a while, and never before this strongly. She enjoyed the private thrill; it was like riding a roller coaster without having to leave the ground.

  She glanced at his left hand. It was bare, though that didn't necessarily mean he was single, or uninvolved. Men who looked like he did were seldom totally unattached. Not that he was handsome; his face was kind of rough, his beard was about eight hours past being a five-o'clock shadow, and his dark hair was too short. But he was one of those men who somehow seemed more male than the other men around him, almost as if he had testosterone oozing from his pores, and women definitely noticed that. Plus his body looked totally ripped; the jacket he wore over his black T-shirt disguised that somewhat, but she had grown up around men who made it a point to be in top physical condition, and she knew the way they moved and carried themselves. Unfortunately, he also looked as if his face would break if he smiled. She could appreciate his body, but from what she could see, his personality sucked.

  “What's your relationship with Judge Roberts?” he asked, his tone so neutral as to border on uninterested. He glanced up at her, his face delineated by harsh shadows that made it impossible to read his expression.

  “He's my employer.”

  “What do you do?”

  “I'm a butler.”

  “A butler.” He said it as if he'd never before heard the word.

  “I manage the household,” she explained.

  “And that involves . . . ?”

  “A lot, such as overseeing the rest of the staff; scheduling repairs and services; some cooking; making certain his clothes are clean and his shoes shined, his car serviced and washed regularly, bills are paid, and in general that he isn't bothered by anything that he doesn't want to bother him.”

  “Other staff?”

  “No one full-time. I count as staff the cleaning service, two women who come in twice a week; the gardener, who works three days a week; his office temp, who comes in once a week; and the cook—Monday through Friday, lunch and dinner.”

  “I see.” He consulted his notes, as if rechecking a detail. “Does being a butler also require you to study martial arts?”

  Ah. She wondered what had given her away. She had noticed, of course, that beautifully judged kick with which he had taken down the big burglar and known immediately that he did his own share of training.

  “No,” she said mildly.

  “It's an interest you pursue on your own time?”

  “Not exactly.”

  “Can you be more specific?”

  “I'm also a trained bodyguard.” She kept her voice soft, so it wouldn't carry. “The Judge doesn't like it broadcast, but he's received some death threats in the past and his family insisted he have someone trained in personal security.”

  He had been totally professional before, but now he looked at her with frank interest, and a little surprise. “Have any of those threats been recent?”

  “No. I honestly don't think he's in active danger. I've been with him for almost three years, and in that time he hasn't received any new threats. But when he was on the bench, several people did threaten to kill him, and his daughter in particular was uneasy about his safety.”

  He glanced at his notes again. “So that wasn't exactly a lucky punch you threw, was it?”

  She smiled faintly. “I hope not. Just as your kick wasn't just luck.”

  “What discipline do you practice?”

  “Karate, mainly, to stay in shape.”

  “What degree?”

  “Brown.”

  He gave a brief nod. “Anything else? You said ‘mainly.'”

  “I do kick-boxing, too. How does this pertain to the investigation?”

  “It doesn't. I was just curious.” He closed the little notebook. “And there isn't an investigation; I was getting a preliminary statement. It all goes in the report.”

  “Why isn't there an investigation?” she asked indignantly.

  “They were caught in the act, with Judge Roberts's property loaded in their pickup. There's nothing to investigate. All that's left to do is the paperwork.”

  For him, maybe; she still had to deal with the insurance company and getting the sliding glass doors in the sunroom repaired, not to mention replacing the broken television. The Judge, typical man, had loved his big screen and had already mentioned that he was thinking about getting a high-definition television this time.

  “Does the fact that I'm also the Judge's bodyguard have to go in the report?” she asked.

  He had been about to move away; he paused, looking down at her. “Why?”

  She lowered her voice even more. “The Judge prefers his friends don't know. I think it embarrasses him that his kids nagged him into hiring a bodyguard. As it is, he's the envy of his crowd because he has a female butler; you can imagine the jokes they make. Plus, if there is any sort of threat to him, it gives me an edge if no one knows I'm trained to guard him.”

  He tapped the notebook against his palm, his expression still unreadable, but then he shrugged and said, “It isn't relevant to the case. As I said, I was just curious.”

  He might never smile, but she did; she gave him a big, relieved one. “Thank you.”

  He nodded and walked away, and Sarah sighed in regret. The packaging was fine, but the contents were blah.

  The morning was beyond hectic. Getting any more sleep was impossible, of course, but getting anything accomplished was equally so. Without electricity she couldn't prepare the Judge's preferred breakfast, cinnamon French toast, or do laundry or even iron his morning newspaper so the ink didn't rub off on his fingers. She served him cold cereal, fat-free yogurt, and fresh fruit, which made him grumble about healthy food being the death of him. Nor was there hot coffee, which made them both very unhappy.

  An enterprising idea sent her next door to the Cheatwoods' house, where she made a trade with the cook, Martha: the inside skinny on the night's happenings for a thermos of fresh coffee. Armed with caffeine, she returned home and calmed the troubled waters. After her own second cup, she was ready to tackle the day's problems again.

  She didn't mind making a pest of herself, if she got the desired results. Two more phone calls to the power company produced a repair truck and a lanky man who without haste set to work. Half an hour later, the house hummed to life and he moseyed away.

  Harassing the phone company was more trouble; they—the unknown “they” in charge—had so arranged things that either one could leave a voice mail message, forgoing the comfort of speaking to a real human in favor of saving time, or one could tolerate being put on hold for an obscene amount of time waiting for said real human to become available for haranguing. Sarah was stubb
orn; her cell phone weighed only a few ounces, and she had unlimited minutes. She waited; but eventually her persistence was rewarded, right before noon, by another repair truck bearing that most precious of human beings, Someone Who Could Fix Things.

  Of course, as soon as the phone line was restored, the phone began ringing off the hook. All of the Judge's friends had heard about the night's adventure and they wanted a blow-by-blow description. Some busybody called the Judge's oldest son, Randall, who called his two siblings, Jon and Barbara. The Judge didn't mind so much his sons knowing, but he wrinkled his nose in dismay when the Caller ID flashed his daughter's number. Not only did Barbara worry excessively about her father, but she had by far the most forceful personality of his three children. In Sarah's opinion, Barbara was more forceful than an armored tank. For all that, Sarah really liked the woman; Barbara was good-hearted and good-tempered, just relentless.

  The insurance agent arrived while the Judge was still talking to his daughter, so Sarah showed him the damage and was in the process of giving him the pertinent information for filing the claim—she even had the Judge's receipt for the purchase of the television, which impressed the hell out of the insurance agent—when Judge Roberts came wandering into Sarah's tiny office, looking pleased with himself.

  “Guess who called,” he said.

  “Barbara,” Sarah said.

  “After that. The call beeped in, thank God, or I'd still be talking to her. Some television reporter wants to come out and do a feature on us.”

  “Us?” Sarah asked blankly.

  “You, mostly.”

  She stared at him, startled. “Why?”

  “Because you foiled a robbery, you're a young woman, and you're a butler. He wants to know all about butlering. He said it would be a wonderful human-interest piece. Silly phrase, isn't it? ‘Human-interest.' As if monkeys or giraffes would be remotely interested.”

  “That's wonderful,” said the insurance agent enthusiastically. “Which station is it?”

  The Judge pursed his lips. “I forget,” he said after a moment. “Does it matter? But they'll be here tomorrow morning at eight.”

  Sarah hid her dismay. Her daily routine would be totally destroyed for the second day in a row. The Judge, however, was clearly excited about the prospect of his butler being interviewed. He and his friends were all retired, so they had no outlets for their natural competitiveness other than themselves. They played poker and chess, they swapped tall tales, and they tried to one-up each other. This would be a major coup for him. And even if it wasn't, she could scarcely refuse; as much as she adored him, she never forgot he was her employer.

  “I'll be ready,” she said, already mentally reshuffling her day so everything would be as perfect as she could make it.

  CHAPTER 3

  HE ALWAYS WATCHED ONE OF THE LOCAL STATIONS IN THE mornings, while he drank his hot tea and read the financial section of the Birmingham News. He liked to keep abreast of community happenings and politics so he could discuss them with his associates. He was actually very interested in what happened in and around Birmingham. This was his home; he had a vested interest in how the area fared.

  Mountain Brook was faring very well, indeed. He took immense pride in the fact that the small town just south of Birmingham had one of the highest per capita income levels in the nation. Part of the reason for that was all the doctors who lived there and practiced in and around Birmingham, which had morphed from a steel city into an important medical center, with a disproportionate number of hospitals for its population. People came from all over the country, indeed, from all over the world, to be treated in Birmingham hospitals.

  But it wasn't just doctors who lived in Mountain Brook. Professional people of all trades made their homes here. There was old money and there was new money. There were small starter houses, for young couples who wanted to live in Mountain Brook for the prestige and also for the school system for their children. There were mansions, and there were massive estates that made visitors gawk as they drove past.

  His own home was his pride and joy, a three-story beauty fashioned of gray stone, lovingly furnished and maintained. It was eighteen thousand square feet, with six bedrooms and eight and a half baths. The four fireplaces were real, the marble was Italian, the two-inch-thick Berber carpeting the best money could buy. The pool was landscaped so it resembled a lovely grotto, with subtle underwater lighting and silver water trickling over stones before gently falling into the pool.

  Five acres of land surrounded his home; five acres was a lot in Mountain Brook, with its astronomical land values. His property was completely walled in by a ten-foot gray stone wall. Huge wrought-iron gates guarded the entrance to his domain, and he was protected by the best security system available: motion sensors, cameras, and heat detectors, as well as the standard contact and breaking-glass alarms.

  If he wanted to greet the world, he went to it; the world was not allowed to come to him.

  A lawn service tended the grounds, and a pool service kept the pool sparkling. He employed a cook who came in at three P.M. and prepared dinner for him, then promptly left. He preferred to be alone in the mornings, with his tea and newspaper, and an English muffin. Muffins were civilized food, unlike the messy bacon, eggs, and biscuits so many people here seemed to prefer. Pop a muffin into the toaster and there was no mess afterward to be cleaned up, nor anyone required to prepare it for him.

  All in all, he was very pleased with his world. He always got an extra measure of satisfaction from the secret knowledge of how he had acquired all this. If he had simply let things run their course, none of this would belong to him; but he had been insightful enough to realize that, left unchecked, his father would have made bad decision after bad decision until nothing of the business was left. He had had no choice but to intervene. His mother had grieved at first, but ultimately she had been better off; she had lived in cushioned comfort until heart disease ended her life seven years later.

  It was extremely comforting to know that one could do what one must. The only limits he recognized were those he imposed on himself.

  The television was background noise while he perused the newspaper. He had the ability to concentrate on several things at once; if anything interesting was reported, he would notice. Every morning the station did a fluff piece, which he usually ignored, but occasionally there was something marginally original on, so he was always aware of what was being said.

  “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a butler?” droned the morning anchor's smooth voice. “You don't have to be royalty. In fact, there's a butler employed at a home in Mountain Brook, and the butler is . . . a woman. Meet Super Butler, coming up next, after these messages.”

  His attention caught, he looked up. A butler? Well, that was . . . interesting. He had never considered live-in staff because such intrusions into his privacy were intolerable, but the idea of a female butler was intriguing. People would be certain to be talking about this, so he needed to watch the segment.

  The commercials over, the anchor began the lead-in, and the screen changed to a shot of a large, Tudor-style home with lush grounds and an elaborate flower garden. The next shot was of a dark-haired young woman, trim in black trousers, white shirt, and a close-fitting black vest, ironing a . . . newspaper? “Her name is Sarah Stevens,” said the reporter, “and her day is not your average workday.”

  “The heat sets the ink, so it doesn't smudge your fingers or dirty your clothes,” she explained in a brisk, low-pitched voice as she smoothed the iron over the paper, sparing a brief glance for the reporter.

  He straightened as if stung, his gaze unblinking as he stared at the screen. Sarah. Her name was Sarah. It was as perfect as she was, classic instead of flashy or trendy.

  Her eyes were very dark, her skin pale and smooth. Her sleek dark hair was pulled back from her face and secured in a neat roll at the back of her neck. Electrified, he couldn't take his eyes from the televised image. She was . . . perfect
. He had seldom seen such perfection in his life, and when he did, he made it a point to acquire it. For all the darkness of her hair and eyes, she wasn't Hispanic or any other ethnic group he could recognize. She was simply a little exotic; not flashy, not voluptuous, just . . . perfect.

  His heart was beating fast, and he had to swallow the saliva that pooled in his mouth. She was so neat and trim, her movements brisk and economical. He doubted anything as inane as a giggle had ever passed her lips.

  The next shot was of her employer, a tall, thin, elderly man with white hair, glasses, and a narrow, lively face dominated by a large hooked nose. “I couldn't function without her,” he said cheerfully. “Sarah handles all the household details. No matter what happens, she has it under control.”

  “She certainly had things under control earlier this week when there was a break-in here at the home,” the reporter continued. “By herself, Sarah thwarted the robbery by tripping one of the thieves as they carried out a big-screen television.”

  The shot returned to her. “The television was very heavy, and they were off-balance,” she said with simple modesty.

  Chills of excitement ran down his back as he watched and listened, waiting for her to speak again. He wanted to hear more of her voice. The next shot was of her opening the back door of an S-Class Mercedes for her elderly employer, then going around to slide under the steering wheel.

  “She is also a trained driver,” the reporter intoned, “and has taken several defensive-driving courses.”

  “She takes care of me,” said the old man, smiling from ear to ear. “She even cooks occasionally.”

  Back to her. “My job is to make my employer's life as comfortable as possible,” she explained. “If he wants his newspaper at a certain time, then I'll have it there for him even if I have to get up at three A.M. and drive somewhere to collect it.”

  He had never envied anyone before in his life, but he envied that old man. Why should he have someone like her looking after him? He would be better off with a live-in nurse named Bruce, or Helga. How could he possibly appreciate the treasure of her, the sheer perfection?

 
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