Dying to Please by Linda Howard


  “How long were you in?”

  “Eight years.”

  She digested that as she placed another target in the clip and sent it on its way. Eight years. Why had he left the service? She knew he had not been booted out, because he wouldn't be on the Mountain Brook force if he had a dishonorable discharge. Could he have received some injury, as her dad had, that made it too difficult to continue? She glanced at him, at that hard, fit body. Nope, she doubted that was the answer.

  She didn't know him well enough to ask, nor was she certain she wanted to get to know him that well. No, she was lying to herself; she definitely wanted to get to know him better, find out if there was any humor at all behind that sourpuss face and cop's eyes; but in this case, she would be better off not knowing. Something about him—and not just his body, though that was mouthwatering—elicited too strong a response from her. It was those darn chemicals, or hormones, or something, but she knew this man could get to her. He could suck her into a relationship, against her better judgment, that would interfere with both her job and her plans.

  That said, maybe she was a fool not to go after him. Maybe, sour disposition and all, he was a man she could love. Should she stick to her Plan, or go for the hunk?

  Decisions, decisions.

  She smothered a private laugh. Here she was going through all these mental gymnastics, and for all she knew, he didn't feel the tiniest scintilla of attraction for her. For all she knew, he was married with five kids.

  Just leave it alone, she advised herself. If he was single, and if he was interested enough to make a move, then she would decide what to do.

  At peace with that, she slipped her ear protectors into place, and he did the same. Taking the pistol in her left hand, she wrapped her right hand around her wrist to brace it, and calmly, methodically emptied the clip at the target. She was accustomed to a critical audience—namely her father and brothers—so Cahill's presence didn't bother her.

  He removed the protectors again as the automatic return sailed the target toward them. “You shot left-handed that time.”

  God, he noticed everything. “I practice left-handed at least half the time.”

  “Why?”

  “Because I take my job seriously. In a crisis, if my right hand is injured, I should still be able to protect my charge.”

  He waited until the target reached them, and studied the pattern. She was almost as good with her left hand as she was her right. “You train hard for a threat that you don't really think will materialize.”

  She shrugged. “I'm not paid to play the percentages; I'm paid to be ready. Period.”

  “Hey, Doc!”

  He shifted his gaze down the line of shooters and lifted a hand in acknowledgment. “I think my buddy's ready to leave.”

  “‘Doc?'” She was startled by the nickname.

  “Long story.” And one he didn't seem inclined to relate. “Miss Stevens.” He nodded at her in good-bye and walked away before she could reply. He joined a husky guy in jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap, who showed him a sheaf of paper targets, shaking his head in evident disgust. Detective Cahill examined the pistol, deftly reloaded it, then walked to the line and clipped on a new target.

  Sarah didn't let herself watch. She had her own practicing to accomplish, so she burned three more clips left-handed, at different distances, before calling it a day. When she looked around, Detective Cahill and his buddy were gone.

  CHAPTER 5

  HAVING ESTABLISHED THAT RICK'S NEW PISTOL WAS INDEED a piece of shit, Cahill and his pal went to the gun shop where Rick had bought the pistol. Rick harangued the owner for almost an hour with no results: he had bought the pistol, it was registered in his name, the paperwork had been sent in the day he bought it, so his only recourse was with the manufacturer unless he wanted to resell the pistol to some other unsuspecting fool.

  They repaired to a bar and grill for an early supper and some liquid comfort. “Order me a beer, will you?” Rick said, and took off for the bathroom. Cahill slid onto a barstool and placed the orders. He was already sipping his coffee when Rick returned.

  “That was a sharp-looking woman you were talking to at the range.” Rick plopped onto the barstool beside him. “You banging her?”

  Cahill slowly turned his head and regarded his friend as coolly as if he had never before seen him. “Who the hell are you, and why the fuck would I care?”

  Rick grinned in appreciation. “That was good. Very good. You almost scared me. Mind if I use it sometimes?”

  “Feel free.”

  “So, are you banging her or not?”

  “Not.”

  “Why not? She married or something?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  “Then I repeat: Why not?”

  “I haven't tried.”

  Rick shook his head and reached for his beer. “You gotta get over this, son. So you had a rough divorce; it's over. You're free now and you have to move on to the next flower.”

  Since Rick was a veteran of two divorces and was now looking for wife number three, Cahill sort of doubted the worth of any advice he gave concerning women. Rick was good at attracting them, but not at keeping them. But because he was also a good friend, Cahill didn't point out any of that. “Give me time,” he said mildly.

  “Hell, it's been a year!”

  “So maybe I need a year and a half. Besides, I date.”

  Rick snorted. “Yeah, and they go nowhere.”

  “I don't want them to go anywhere. I just want sex.” He stared morosely into his coffee. He definitely wanted sex, but getting it was a problem. The women who offered one-night, no-strings sex weren't the type of women he wanted. Sleaze had never appealed to him. The women who really attracted him were long-term types, and long term was exactly what he didn't need right now.

  It wasn't that he hadn't gotten over Shannon; he'd gotten over her the minute he found out she was screwing a doctor from the hospital where she worked. But the divorce had been a bitch, with her fighting for everything she could get, as if she had to punish him for daring to not want her any longer. He didn't understand women, or at least he didn't understand women like Shannon; if she hadn't wanted out, then why screw around? Had she really thought he wouldn't kick her ass out if he found out? He did, he had, and she had reacted with an almost insane sense of vengeance.

  He had tried to be fair. That said, he wasn't dumb; the first thing he'd done after finding out about her affair was take out half the money in their joint bank account and open an account in another bank under his name only. He had also removed her name from all his credit card accounts, which wasn't a hardship on her because she had her own credit cards, but damn if she hadn't gone ballistic when she found out. He figured she'd found out when she tried to charge something on one of his cards— after he kicked her out—so he'd made the right call on that.

  He'd beat her to the punch in filing for divorce, but she had counterfiled and asked for everything: house, car, furniture, for him to pay all the bills for said house, car, and furniture, even though she made more at her job in hospital administration than he did as a cop, and she wanted alimony.

  The attorney Shannon hired was a divorce shark known for his scorched-earth tactics. The only thing that had saved Cahill's ass was a sharp attorney and an even sharper female judge who had seen through Shannon like glass. He had thought he was sunk when he heard the judge was a woman, but his attorney had smiled and said, “This is going to be fun.”

  Cahill wouldn't classify divorce proceedings as fun, but in his case the results had been a relief. Since no children were involved, the judge had divided everything in direct proportion to their incomes. Neither of them wanted the house, so she ruled it would be sold, the mortgage paid off, and the profits, if any, split between them. Since Shannon made twice what he did, he would get twice as much of the profit as she because she was better able to afford another house. Cahill had glanced at Shannon when that decree came down, and saw her flush with rag
e and disbelief. Whatever she had expected, that wasn't it. She had begun whispering furiously to her lawyer, causing the judge to bang her gavel and order her to shut up.

  Shannon got her car, Cahill got his truck, and they split the household furnishings. He didn't want the bed, because he suspected her doctor had been in it with her. But when he bought another house and moved into it, at least he'd had chairs to sit in, a table to eat at and dishes to use, a television to watch, and a brand-new bed to sleep in. After the money from the sale of the house came in, he had systematically gotten rid of everything he and Shannon had owned together. Not a single glass remained from his marriage, not a fork or a towel.

  He just wished he could get rid of the bad taste in his mouth as easily as he had gotten rid of their possessions.

  The worst aftereffect was that Shannon had made him doubt his own judgment. He had loved her and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. They'd had it all mapped out: though he had a good job with the Mountain Brook Police Department—Mountain Brook officers were the highest paid in the state—after she had received her degree in hospital administration and landed a position with a hefty salary, which she had done with astonishing speed, the plan was for him to quit the force and enter medical school. Looking back, he wondered if Shannon just had a thing for doctors. He had received some medical training in the Army and loved the challenge of it, but after a couple of years on the job in Mountain Brook, he had realized he loved being a cop more than he would ever enjoy being a doctor.

  Maybe that was when Shannon had started wandering, when he changed ambitions. Maybe she'd had her heart set on big bucks and glittering social events, and when he didn't come through with either one, she felt free to look for them elsewhere. But he'd thought she loved him, regardless of which object he held in his hand, a scalpel or a gun. Why hadn't he seen that something was missing? And what if he made that kind of mistake again? He had a knack for sizing up suspects immediately, but when it came to figuring out his own wife, forget it. Now he couldn't trust himself not to pick someone else just like Shannon, and be just as blind to it until he was smacked in the face with infidelity.

  “You're brooding again,” Rick said.

  “I'm good at it,” Cahill muttered.

  “Well, practice does make perfect. Hell, no wonder; you didn't even order yourself a beer. I'd be brooding, too, if I had to stick to coffee.”

  “I'll have a beer when we eat. I'm driving, remember?”

  “Speaking of eating, I'm hungry.” Rick looked around and spotted an empty booth. “Let's move over there and get some food.” He grabbed his beer and slid from the barstool. Cahill got his coffee, signaled to the bartender where they were going, and joined Rick in the booth.

  “Where did you meet her?” Rick asked.

  “Who?”

  “Who?” he mimicked. “The woman at the range. The one with the pistol and the great ass, which, by the way, nearly stopped my heart the way it was packed in those jeans.”

  “The house where she works was robbed last week. I took her statement.”

  “You just met her last week? There's still hope, then. You gonna ask her out?”

  “Nope.”

  “Why the hell not?” Rick demanded, his voice rising. The waitress approached, and he broke off to grab the menu and open it. Cahill ordered a burger, fries, and a beer. After careful deliberation, Rick ordered the same thing. As soon as the waitress left, he leaned over and repeated, “Why the hell not?”

  “God, you're like a broken record,” Cahill said irritably.

  “Don't you think she's hot?”

  He sighed. “Yeah, I think she's hot.” In fact, he thought she was hotter than hot; she was scorching. The problem was, he'd already suffered third-degree burns in the relationship wars, and he didn't have any skin to spare in another losing round. Not yet, anyway. He knew that, being human, he would eventually grow enough new skin to risk another flame, but not yet.

  “Then ask her out! All she can say is no.”

  “She's not a one-nighter.”

  “So go for two.”

  “One night is no-strings-attached. Two is a relationship, and that's exactly what I don't want.”

  “Maybe not, but it's exactly what you need. When you fall off a horse, you get right back on, you don't brood about it. Get on that horse, pal, and ride.”

  Cahill groaned. “Give it a rest.”

  “Okay, okay.” Rick drew lines in the condensation on his glass, then glanced up at Cahill. “You mind if I ask her out?”

  He wanted to bang his head on the table. “Hell, no, I don't mind.” He suspected this was where Rick had been heading all along, trying to make certain the way was clear.

  “Okay. I just wanted to be sure. What's her name?”

  “Sarah Stevens.”

  “Is she in the book? You have her number?”

  “I don't know, and no.”

  “You didn't get her number? I thought you had to have that for your files, or something.”

  “She has private quarters in the house where she works. I don't know if she has a private number as well, but she probably does.”

  “She works in the house? Whose house? Where? What does she do?”

  Sometimes talking with Rick was like conversing with a machine gun, the way he spat out questions. “She's a butler, and she works for a retired federal judge.”

  “I thought you said her name is ‘Stevens,' not ‘Butler.'”

  “Rick. Pay attention. She's a butler, like in an English mansion. With a napkin folded over her arm, and things like that.”

  “No shit.” Rick sat back, amazed. “I didn't know we had butlers in Alabama. Oh, wait, we're talking about Mountain Brook.”

  “Right.”

  “A butler. Is that cool, or what? I didn't know women could be butlers. Wouldn't she be, like, a butleress?”

  Despite himself, Cahill grinned. “I don't think so. I don't think butler has a gender, kind of like pilot.”

  Rick's jackrabbit brain had already moved on. “So I could call her at this old judge's number. What's his name?”

  “Lowell Roberts.”

  “Is his number listed?”

  “I don't know, and if it isn't, no, I won't get it out of the files for you.”

  “Some friend you are. Why the hell not?”

  “Because if it's unlisted, then it's because he wants his privacy, and I won't get her in trouble by giving the number to men who call her asking for dates.”

  “Aha!”

  “Aha, what?”

  “You are interested in her!”

  Cahill stared at him. “Your brain scans,” he said, “must be scary.” The waitress slid the beers in front of them and he took a fortifying gulp.

  “That's what makes me so good with computers, pal; I think outside the box.”

  “In this case, there's no box.”

  “The hell there isn't. You think she's hot, and you won't give me her number. The evidence is in, and the prosecution rests.”

  “You're not harassing me into getting that number for you. Hell, for all I know, it's in the book. You haven't even looked yet.”

  “What good is having a friend who's a cop if he won't give me inside information?”

  “So you can ask him to look at a piece of shit pistol after you've already bought it, and pronounce it a piece of shit.”

  Rick's quick grin flashed. “Well, there is that, but don't get me sidetracked. I'm on a roll here. You're attracted to this woman. You went over to talk to her, even though, in your own words, you know she isn't a one-nighter. My friend, you may not realize it yet, but you're on the road to recovery. Before you know it, you'll be smiling at her across the breakfast table.”

  “I don't smile,” Cahill said, though he was having to fight his amusement.

  “So you'll be scowling at her across the breakfast table. That isn't my point.”

  Cahill gave up on convincing Rick of anything. “Okay, you're right; s
he's so hot I could walk on three legs every time I see her.”

  “Now you're talkin'.”

  “I'll break your back and chop off your legs if you call her.”

  “That's my boy!”

  “Now, what's taking so long on those burgers?” He looked around and, right on cue, there came the waitress carrying two plates almost smothered with spicy fries.

  Rick stared at him, then mournfully shook his head. “You're hopeless, Doc. Hopeless.”

  “So I've heard.”

  Sarah arrived back at the house feeling both tired and jazzed after a hard workout with her karate instructor. Judge Roberts was having dinner out, as he usually did on Wednesday so she wouldn't feel any need to check on him, as she would if he was anywhere in the house. She did a quick tour of the house to check that all the windows were closed and the doors locked, then headed upstairs to her quarters.

  The Judge had put her mail on the small table beside the door to the stairs. She leafed through it as she climbed the stairs: a Consumer Reports magazine, a couple of catalogs, and a letter.

  She placed the mail on her small two-person kitchen table, put a cup of water in the microwave, then went to the bedroom and stripped off her clothes. She had showered after her workout, but her clothes still felt sticky; she sighed in relief as the ceiling fan sent cool air washing over her naked skin. She'd had two hard workouts today, and tonight she was going to pamper herself. A facial was on her agenda, as was a long, relaxing soak in lavender-scented water.

  She turned on the water to fill the tub, dumped in a pack of bath salts, then pulled on a robe and returned to the kitchen to dunk a tea bag of Salada green tea in the cup of hot water. While it was steeping, she flipped through the mail-order catalogs, then dumped them in the trash. The first sip of tea was heavenly; sighing, she sat down and opened the letter.

 
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