Dying to Please by Linda Howard


  Dear Miss Stevens:

  I would like to offer you a position in my household, in the same capacity you now fill. My estate is large and would benefit from your competent management, but I believe the benefit would be mutual. Whatever your salary is now, I will increase it by ten thousand dollars. Please call me with your decision.

  Hmm, that was interesting. She wasn't tempted, but it was interesting all the same. She checked the return address; it was a street in Mountain Brook. Judging from the date at the top of the letter, he must have sent it right after seeing the television spot.

  Somehow she hadn't expected other offers of employment. It was flattering, but she had no intention of leaving the Judge, no matter how much money was offered.

  The offer deserved immediate attention, though, so she picked up the phone and dialed the number on the letter. After two rings an answering machine picked up and a soft masculine recorded voice said, “You've reached 6785. Please leave a message.”

  Sarah hesitated. She didn't like leaving a message, but people who had answering machines usually intended them to be used. “This is Sarah Stevens. Thank you for your offer of employment, but I'm very happy in my present position and I don't foresee myself leaving. Again, thank you.”

  She disconnected and picked up her cup of tea, then remembered her bathwater. She hurried to the bathroom to find the water level high and steaming: just right. After turning off the taps, she turned on her Bose CD player, dropped the robe to the floor, and stepped into the water, sighing as she sank down in it to the level of her chin. The hot water went to work on her tired muscles; she could almost feel the tension oozing out of them. The soft strains of the meditation CD filled the bathroom with the sound of slow, relaxing piano and strings. After another sip of tea, she leaned back and closed her eyes, happy and content.

  “This is Sarah Stevens.” He stopped the recording, hit replay, and listened again.

  “This is Sarah Stevens.”

  Her voice sounded just as it had on television, low and warm. He had been standing beside the answering machine, listening, while she left the message.

  “This is Sarah Stevens.”

  He couldn't believe she had turned down his offer. Ten thousand dollars! But that proved her loyalty, and loyalty was a precious commodity. She would be just as loyal to him, once he had her in his house.

  “This is Sarah Stevens.”

  He had a talent for changing people's minds, arranging things to his own satisfaction. So she didn't foresee leaving her current position? He'd see about that.

  CHAPTER 6

  AS SHE SERVED HIS BREAKFAST THE NEXT MORNING, SARAH told the Judge, “I got a letter yesterday offering me a job. He must have seen the television spot.”

  For some reason, Judge Roberts was regarding his French toast with definite suspicion. He had put on his glasses and leaned down to peer closely at it. “What are these red specks?” he demanded.

  “Cinnamon. That's how you get cinnamon French toast.”

  “Humph. The doctor says my cholesterol is down twenty points. Switching to fake bacon wouldn't have brought it down that much, so I know you're doing something to my food.”

  “What can you do to French toast?” she asked rhetorically.

  “Maybe it isn't the French toast. Maybe you're doctoring everything else.”

  She smiled as she placed a bowl of fresh sliced strawberries in front of him. “I'm not doing anything different,” she cheerfully lied.

  “Humph,” he said again. “Does this scum-sucking bottom-feeder who's trying to hire you away from me know he'd be bringing a tyrant into his home?”

  She stifled a laugh. “Scum-sucking bottom-feeder?” He was so old-school she wouldn't have been surprised if he had described someone as “dastardly.” Hearing slang from him was almost on a par with the idea of the Supreme Court justices doing a rap song on the steps of the Capitol.

  “Grandkids.”

  “Ah.” Barbara's two children were fifteen and nineteen; that explained everything. Sarah amused herself for a moment picturing fifteen-year-old Blair, with her pierced eyebrow, teaching the dignified old judge the top-ten teenage insults.

  “Next thing I know, you'll be feeding me tofu,” he grumbled, returning to his suspicions about his food. He began eating his French toast, red specks and all.

  Since the cook had been feeding him skillfully disguised tofu for several months now, Sarah had to hide a grin.

  “What exactly is tofu?”

  “Curds and whey, minus the whey. Soy curds, to be specific.”

  “That sounds revolting.” He studied his fake bacon. “My bacon isn't made from tofu, is it?”

  “I don't think so. I think it's just fake meat.”

  “Well, that's all right, then.”

  She would have kissed him on top of his white head if that hadn't been totally against all her training. He was such a dear, dutifully eating his fake meat while keeping a sharp eye out for encroaching tofu.

  “What did you tell the bottom-feeder?”

  “I thanked him for his offer, but told him I'm very happy in my present position.”

  His bright eyes twinkled through the lenses of his glasses. “You said he saw you on television?”

  “He must have, unless one of your friends told him my name.”

  “It wasn't one of them, was it?” he asked suspiciously.

  “No, I didn't recognize the name.”

  “Maybe he's a handsome young man who fell in love as soon as he saw you.”

  She barely restrained a snort of disbelief. “People who make job offers to someone without knowing her qualifications or getting references are idiots.”

  “Don't hold back, Sarah; tell me how you really feel.”

  This time she did laugh, because that line had to have come from Blair, too.

  “You should at least interview,” he surprised her by saying.

  She stopped in her tracks and stared at him. “Why?”

  “Because I'm old and won't be here many more years. This might be a good opportunity for you, and he might offer a higher salary.”

  “He did, but that doesn't matter. Unless you fire me, I intend to be here as long as you are.”

  “But more money would help you with your Plan.” She had told him of her intentions to take a sabbatical and travel the world, and he had been enthused by the idea, studying the world atlas and researching different countries for things he thought would interest her.

  “My Plan is in good shape, and people are more important than plans, anyway.”

  “Pardon an old man for getting personal, but you're a lovely young woman. What about marriage, a family?”

  “I hope to have those, too, just not yet. And if I never get married, I still enjoy my life and I'm pleased with my career choice. I'm happy with myself, which isn't a bad thing.”

  “No, it isn't. In fact, it's a rare gift.” His smile was gentle as he studied her. “When you do get married—and notice I say when, not if, because one day you'll meet a man who's too smart to let you get away—he should get down on his knees every day and thank God for his good luck.”

  She wanted to hug him. Instead she smiled and said, “That's a lovely compliment. Thank you. Do you suppose he'd still feel that way if I fed him tofu?”

  “He'll know you're doing it for his own good.” Despite that gallant reply, he eyed his empty plate again.

  “I promise: no tofu in your French toast.”

  He sighed in relief and began eating his bowl of strawberries, without pressing for a more extensive promise. He was sharp enough that the omission told her he suspected he had already been tofu-contaminated, and was submitting with good grace so long as his beloved French toast was safe.

  After lunch she received the half-expected call from one of her brothers. It was Daniel, calling from Texas. “Hey, sweetie. That was a nice piece of tape; showed you to advantage. None of the guys can believe you're my sister, and they all want me to fix them up
with you.”

  “Fat chance,” she said, smiling.

  “Why not? Some of them, I admit, I wouldn't set up with a two-bit hooker, but a couple are okay guys.”

  “Have I mentioned how proud I am of my Susan B. Anthony medallion?” she asked sweetly.

  “You wouldn't.”

  “I believe the subject crops up every time I have a date.”

  “Moving right along here,” he said hastily. “In her note with the tape Mom said you stopped a burglary with a fancy punch.”

  “It wasn't fancy. Straight to the temple.”

  “Ouch. Way to go, short stuff.”

  “Thank you.” From an Army Ranger, that was high praise. “I was expecting either you or Noel to call, maybe both, when you saw the tape.”

  “Noel probably hasn't seen it yet. He isn't in-country.”

  That was enough said. She had grown up in a military family, and she knew what it meant. Noel was Force Recon; he had been in Afghanistan, then back in California, and only God and the Pentagon knew where he was now. Well, Daniel probably knew; he and Noel had their ways of communicating.

  “What about you?” she asked.

  “I'm still in Texas.”

  “I know that.” She rolled her eyes, exasperated, and knew he'd heard that tone of voice from her often enough to visualize the eye roll.

  “I'll be here until the cows come home. I'm getting rusty from lack of use.”

  When the cows come home was family code for shipping out that day, since the cows came home every afternoon. She didn't bother asking where he was going, not that he would tell her anyway.

  “Have you talked to Mom and Dad?”

  “Last night. They're doing fine.”

  Meaning he had also told them he was shipping out. She sighed, rubbing her forehead. Worry had become a permanent fixture in all military families since September 11, but Daniel and Noel were both lifers, and both good at their jobs. Fighting terrorists wasn't like fighting a regular war, with ground lost and gained by foot soldiers. This particular war required the stealth and skill of the special forces, hitting with quick, devastating force and then vanishing.

  “Take care, and don't trip over your own big feet.” That was sister code for I love you, and be careful.

  “You too, Annie.”

  Despite her worry, as she hung up she smiled at his reference to her shooting skills. They had mercilessly called her Annie Oakley since the first time she won the competition. She couldn't have had two better brothers, even though when they were growing up, both of them had driven her nuts. She had been the tomboy of the family—their sister, Jennifer, had looked on roughhousing with disdain—and even though Sarah had been much smaller, that hadn't stopped her from inserting herself into their football games, sneaking along on their fishing trips, or wading in with her little fists whenever they tried to bully and tease her. In short, she had been a pest, and they loved her anyway.

  She heard the little chime that signaled a door had opened, and glanced at the clock: straight up two o'clock. Right on schedule, the Judge was going out for his afternoon walk. On the way back he would stop at the mailbox and collect the mail; then he would want fresh coffee while he sat in his library and went through the day's haul. He loved mail, even junk mail, and leafed through all the catalogs. Retirement was good for one thing, he said: it gave him time to read things that weren't important.

  She put on the coffee and readied the tray. The cook, Leona Barksdale, looked up from the tomato aspic she was making. “Is it that time?”

  “On the button.” She paused. “He asked about tofu today.”

  “Then he'll be looking for it, won't he? I'll be creative today, and not serve any. Let's see, dinner will be grilled asparagus, roasted baby potatoes and carrots, and a lamb chop. Nothing there even remotely resembling tofu.” Leona checked on the rolls she had baking in the oven. “How was his cholesterol?”

  “Down twenty points.”

  They gave each other satisfied smiles. Working in collusion to sneak healthy meals into someone who resisted the very idea was a lot more fun than feeding such food to someone who actually wanted to eat healthfully.

  When she heard the door chime signaling his return, Sarah poured the coffee and filled a small four-cup carafe so he could refill his cup if he liked. Also on the tray was a plate with thin slices of Granny Smith apples, a wonderful fat-free caramel dip, and a few whole-wheat crackers, just in case he was feeling peckish. Before Sarah's arrival, his afternoon snack had often been a chocolate snack cake or a couple of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Getting him to give up the doughnuts had been a battle, and that was one in which she sympathized with him. Giving up Krispy Kreme was truly a hardship.

  “Sarah?”

  Instead of going into his library, he was coming toward the kitchen. She and Leona exchanged puzzled looks; then she said, “Here, sir,” and stepped to the door.

  Besides his usual bundle of magazines, catalogs, bills, and letters, he carried a small package. “This came for you.”

  He usually put her mail, if she had any, on the small table in the hall. “That's odd,” she said, picking up the tray. “I haven't ordered anything.”

  “There's no return address. I don't like this. It could be a letter bomb.”

  Several years ago, a judge in the Birmingham area had been killed by a letter bomb; that would make any judge cautious around suspicious packages; the anthrax-laced letters in Florida and then New York and Washington areas hadn't helped.

  “Why would anyone send me a letter bomb?” she asked as she carried the tray down the hall, him trailing behind her with his mail and the package.

  She set the coffee service on his desk where he liked it, but instead of sitting down, he put his own mail on the desk and stood holding the package, staring dubiously at it. Normally she would never open her mail until she was in her quarters for the night, but she sensed he wouldn't relax until he knew the package didn't contain anything lethal.

  “Shall we see?” she asked, reaching for it.

  To her surprise, he didn't hand the package to her. “Maybe we should call the bomb squad.”

  She didn't laugh. If he was that worried, then it wasn't a laughing matter. “If it was a bomb, wouldn't it have gone off when you picked it up?”

  “No, because if it was motion sensitive, it would never make it through the mail system. Mail bombs use pressure or friction devices.”

  “Then let's think this through. Who knows me and would send something to me here?”

  “We never should have done that television spot,” he said, shaking his head. “It's brought the crazies out.”

  “First someone trying to hire me, and now someone sending me packages. Should we put it in water?”

  Maybe it was that question, and a vision of them dunking the package in the tub and calling out the bomb squad, but he suddenly relaxed and smiled a little. “I'm being paranoid, aren't I? If anyone got a mail bomb, it would be me.”

  “It pays to be careful these days.”

  He sighed. “May I open it for you?”

  She bit her lip. It was her duty to protect him, not the other way around. But he was of the generation that had been taught men protected women, and she could see this was important to him.

  “Please,” he said.

  She nodded, moved more than she could say. “Yes, of course.”

  He stepped away from her, took a letter opener, and carefully slit the packing tape that sealed the seams of the small box. She found herself holding her breath as he opened the flaps, but nothing happened.

  There was some brown wrapping paper concealing the contents. He pulled out the paper and looked inside, a faintly puzzled expression crossing his face.

  “What is it?”

  “A jewelry store box.”

  He set down the package and lifted out a small, flat box, about four inches square. It was white, with the store's name stamped on it in gold. He shook it, but there wasn't any noise.

/>   “I think it's safe to say it definitely isn't a bomb,” he said, handing the box to her.

  She lifted the lid, and peeled back a thin layer of packed cotton. There, lying on another layer of packed cotton, was a gold teardrop pendant, with small diamonds circling a pigeon blood ruby. The gold chain was secured so it wouldn't rattle.

  They both stared at the pendant. It was lovely, but disturbing. Who would send her such an exquisite piece of jewelry?

  “That looks expensive.”

  Judge Roberts assessed it. “I'd place it at a couple of thousand dollars. Just a guess, of course, but the ruby is a good one.”

  “Who on earth would send me expensive jewelry?” Perplexed, she picked up the brown shipping box and pulled out the bottom layer of paper. A small white card fluttered to the floor.

  “Aha.” She bent and picked up the card, turning it over to read what had been written on one side. She flipped it and looked again at the other side, but it was blank.

  “Does it say who sent it?”

  She shook her head. “This gives me the willies.”

  He could see there was something written on the card. “What does it say?”

  She looked up, her dark eyes plainly revealing how puzzled and disturbed she was, and handed him the card. “It says, ‘A small token of my esteem.' But who sent it?”

  CHAPTER 7

  IT HAD REALLY BEEN SO EASY, FINDING OUT HER SCHEDULE. He could have hired a private detective to watch the house, but he didn't want to involve a third party who might later make inconvenient connections. He drove down the street several times, looking for a place where he could park and watch; the traffic, while not heavy, was still busy enough that he knew he wouldn't be noticed. The problem was that there wasn't any place where he could park. It was a residential street, with houses on both sides, and people coming and going from those houses throughout the day.

  But all it took was time, and perseverance. Over the following days, during his hourly drive-bys, he noted when the gardeners came, and carefully jotted it down in a little notebook he'd bought especially for this; it had a buttery-soft leather cover, much more tasteful than those brightly colored cardboard covers schoolkids seemed to prefer. An older woman, whom he presumed to be the cook, came every day around ten o'clock and left at five. The arrival and departure of a maid service was also carefully noted.

 
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