Dying to Please by Linda Howard

  On Wednesday Sarah had left the house in the morning and hadn't returned until early evening; he had tried to follow her, but she cut over to Highway 31 and he lost her in the traffic when he was caught by a red light. Rather than drive around fruitlessly, he stopped at a pay phone and called Judge Roberts's house. The number was unlisted, but he had attained the number soon after seeing Sarah on television. He knew people who knew people, and who were always eager to do favors for him. Really, all he had to do was ask, and within a few hours he had the number.

  A woman answered the phone, and he asked for “Sarah,” thinking that using her first name would imply a familiarity that wasn't there. Or rather, that wasn't there yet. He felt as if he knew her already, knew her dedication and loyalty and the utter perfection of how she looked, how she acted, even the way she sounded.

  “Sarah isn't in today,” the woman said cheerfully.

  “Oh, that's right. Wait—I'm confused. Is today her off day?” He deliberately used a more casual tone and speech pattern than normal.

  “Yes, it is.”

  “Is today Wednesday? I've lost track of the days, I've been thinking all day that it's Thursday.”

  She laughed. “Sorry, but it's Wednesday.”

  “Okay, I'll call her tonight, then. Thanks.” He hung up before she could ask his name and number, and wrote down the information in tiny, precise letters: WEDNESDAY—DAY OFF.

  He felt a thrill of excitement. For his purposes she would have to be away from the house. He thought he already had most of the information he needed, but he would continue watching to be certain. That was the key to success: leave nothing to chance.

  He would have liked to have followed her around all day and seen what she did, what interests she had or what hobbies she pursued, but perhaps this was better.

  He thought of the way she had looked when she drove out of the driveway, her dark hair loose, classic dark sunglasses shielding her eyes. She gave the impression of being aloof, mysterious, and slightly exotic. She drove her SUV with quick competence, as he had known she would; that was another measure of her dedication, that she had taken defensive-driving courses. She had put herself totally at the service of that old man, who had never done anything to deserve such devotion. Why, he hadn't even earned his money, but had inherited it. Which wasn't the same as his own receipt of an inheritance, because he had saved it from his father's stupid decisions. Judge Lowell had never done anything but sit on a bench and dispense opinions as if they were Pez.

  His Sarah deserved more than that old man.

  She deserved . . . everything.

  He wanted to give her a gift, something that would make her think of him every time she saw it. And he wanted it to be something she wore, so he could imagine her wearing it every day, touching it, treasuring it. He couldn't give her clothing; that was too crass. Flowers faded and died, then were discarded.

  Jewelry, then. Wasn't that what gentlemen had given their special ladies all through history? Special pieces of jewelry had been imbued with mystery, intrigue, even curses, though of course there wouldn't be anything cursed about his gift. He couldn't even make it as special as he wanted, because there wasn't time for him to have a piece made; he would have to buy something commercially produced, but even with that handicap he would find something out of the ordinary.

  He would have to buy it from a store he hadn't patronized before, so there wouldn't be a chance of anyone recognizing him. And paying by check or credit card was out of the question; he didn't want anyone to be able to trace the gift back to him. In time, she would know, but that knowledge was for the two of them alone.

  He drove to his bank and withdrew five thousand dollars, and left annoyed because the drive-through teller had asked to see his driver's license. On reflection, though, he decided she had done the correct thing. He hated to be delayed or questioned, but sometimes one had to accept the burdens of society.

  From there he went to the Galleria, where he could be certain he would be merely one face among many, even on a weekday. There were several jewelry stores, and he browsed through all of them before making his selection. Sarah needed something simple and classic; she would be as appalled as he by gaudiness, but anything paltry would be an insult.

  He finally settled on a teardrop pendant, a lovely ruby surrounded by diamonds, and suspended from a gossamer chain. The combination of ruby and diamonds captured her essence, he thought, exotic warmth surrounded by perfect coolness.

  He paid in cash, to the clerk's astonishment. With the square, flat box in his pocket he went into another jewelry store and bought a simple chain, secured in a box much like the one that contained the ruby pendant. That chain was a paltry hundred dollars, but it was the box he wanted, not the contents.

  Next he had stopped at an office supply store and bought a small shipping box, filler paper to buffer the contents, and a roll of tape. He even remembered to buy scissors to cut the tape. Ordinarily it would have annoyed him no end to be put to so much trouble, but this time he was patient about all the steps he had to take. After all, this was for Sarah.

  Once back in his car, he removed the cheap chain from its box and carefully replaced it with the pendant. There. Now if Sarah called the jewelry store whose name was on the box, she would find that no one there remembered selling a ruby-and- diamond pendant, that in fact they had no such item in stock. He pictured her lying in bed, tenderly touching the pendant around her neck and wondering who had sent her such a lovely gift.

  He put the jeweler's box inside the shipping box, dropped in a small note to let her know how special she was, packed in the filler paper, and sealed the box. Too late he realized he hadn't bought a cheap pen for addressing the box. Scowling, he took his gold fountain pen back out of his jacket pocket. What would the rough cardboard do to the nib?

  He could go to another store and buy a pen, but his patience was abruptly at an end. Unscrewing the cap from the expensive pen, he quickly printed her name and address on the box, in his irritation digging the nib into the cardboard. If necessary, he would buy another pen, but this box was going in the mail without any further delay.

  The post office was busy, and despite the security concerns, the rushed postal clerk didn't notice that there wasn't a return address on the box. Besides, he knew his appearance inspired confidence. Mad bombers never looked distinguished and dignified; hairy and disgusting was more like it, from what he had seen. He was prepared even if the postal clerk had noticed the omission, having thought of a fictitious address, but he would rather the package be a total mystery when she received it.

  He had noticed that Judge Roberts walked about the neighborhood every day at the same time and retrieved the mail from the mailbox when he returned home. Driving by at precisely the right time was difficult, and in fact he missed it by a few seconds, and short of stopping in the street to watch, he had to be content with what he could see through his rearview mirror. The old man took out the box and stood holding it in his hands, abruptly staring up and down the street.

  The street curved and he lost sight of the old bastard. Damn him, why did he just stand there? What was he doing? Was he jealous that someone had sent a package to Sarah?

  That was it. Of course he was jealous. He was old, but it had to stroke his ego to have a woman like her living with him, taking care of him. He probably told all of his cronies that he was sleeping with her.

  The thought made him clench his hands in rage, until he was gripping the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles were white. He could almost hear those cronies, cackling and sniggering like filthy-minded teenagers.

  He had to free her from all that.

  Sarah had placed the box on the kitchen counter, and as she ate dinner, her gaze kept straying to it. The pendant was undeniably lovely, but she didn't want to touch it. A gift was one thing; an anonymous gift was something else entirely. It was somehow . . . ominous, as if someone had sent her a snake in disguise. She thought the Judge was right and the tel
evision spot had attracted a weirdo who had fixated on her.

  She would certainly never wear the thing. She seldom wore much jewelry anyway, usually just a pair of small gold hoop earrings and her wristwatch. Not only would a lot of jewelry be inappropriate for the job, it wasn't to her personal taste. She didn't like feeling weighted down, and she particularly disliked necklaces.

  In addition to that, she had no way of knowing who had sent the pendant. It could have been anyone, someone she would pass in the grocery store or who could be standing beside her in the bookstore. If she only knew who he was, she could avoid him. But, not knowing, if she wore it and he saw her, he might take it as some kind of signal. A signal for what, she didn't want to imagine.

  She was trained to spot anyone following her vehicle, and when she was driving the Judge, she was always vigilant. When she was alone was when she was able to relax, and now this bastard had stolen that from her. She would have to be on alert, watchful of everyone who came near her, and she hated that.

  But maybe nothing else would happen. Some weirdos backed off when the object of their obsession didn't display the expected reaction. Or, if she spotted someone following her, maybe she wouldn't try to shake him; maybe she would lead him to the pistol range and let him watch her practice. That should cool his ardor.

  All things considered, she would have rather he had sent her a death threat; at least she could take that to the police. A diamond-and- ruby pendant and a card saying A small token of my esteem couldn't be considered threatening. Weird, but not threatening. He had broken no laws, and, since he had chosen to remain anonymous, she couldn't even return the gift and tell him to leave her alone.

  The jewelry store hadn't been any help. The first thing she'd done was call the store whose name was printed on the box. No one there had any recollection of selling the piece of jewelry; none of them remembered even having a pendant of that description. She thanked them and hung up, frustrated. He must have had an empty jewelry box lying around and put the pendant in it. That was a dead end; there were a lot of jewelry stores in the Birmingham area, plus pawn shops, where he could have bought it. He could have bought it anywhere. Tuscaloosa was just half an hour down Interstate 59; Montgomery was only about an hour away; even Atlanta could be reached in a couple of hours. Those were just the major towns; small towns had jewelry stores, too.

  So there was nothing she could do, no way of finding this guy unless he walked up to her and asked why she wasn't wearing his present. She didn't know if she wanted that to happen, even if it would give her a chance to tell him to leave her alone. Since she was dealing with a weirdo, she didn't know what to do. Who knew what would trigger him to greater weirdness?

  She didn't consider herself a martial arts expert, but she was better able to take care of herself, and protect her employer, than most people. She was in good physical condition; she was an excellent shot and a pretty good driver. That said, she didn't want to have to use those particular skills. She wanted to run the Judge's household and take care of him, period. But martial arts were useful only to a certain degree, and she was human enough to feel uneasy, even a little frightened, about this development. One episode, without any threat attached, did not mean she was being stalked, but now her mind was open to the possibility and it was all she could think about.

  Damn him, for stealing her peace of mind.

  There was nothing she could do, other than take precautions and be on guard, and she hated that helplessness more than anything else. She wanted to do something, but what? By nature and training, she was geared to go on the offensive, and in this case all her options were defensive.

  There was nothing she could do but play with the hand dealt to her, no matter how she disliked it. She had the skills to handle this; she just had to be on her toes. Maybe this was a one-shot deal. Maybe whoever it was would call tomorrow to see if she had received his gift, and she would be able to discourage him. By training she was courteous, but she was the daughter of one military man and the sister of two others, and she knew the art of forceful discouragement. If necessary, she could be nasty.

  Okay, essentially this was up to her, unless he did something overtly threatening. She would be stupid, however, not to at least alert the police department and get their input.

  Their input? She snorted. His input, was more like it.

  She had his card, or rather, the Judge had his card. She went down the stairs and wound her way through the house to the library, where the Judge was kicked back in his leather recliner, blissfully watching his new wide-screen, high-definition television. He looked up at her polite knock.

  “I'm sorry to bother you, but do you have Detective Cahill's card? I think it would be smart to notify the police about this gift, even if they can't do anything about it.”

  “Good idea. The card is in the file on my desk.” He started to get up, but Sarah waved him back down. Bless his heart, he simply couldn't accustom himself to the idea that he shouldn't do things for her, that she was there to do for him. It was all right for her to serve his meals and take care of his clothes—to people of his generation, that was women's work—but if it involved anything else, she continually had to be on her toes or he would be doing things like opening doors for her.

  “I'll get it. Please don't get up.” There was only one file on his desk, a manila folder marked ROBBERY ATTEMPT. She smiled as she opened it. The file contained the police report, the newspaper clipping of the report, some photographs he'd made himself, and a copy of the insurance claim. Detective Cahill's card was paper-clipped to the police report, along with two other cards.

  She wrote down his number and closed the file. “Thank you. May I get anything else for you this evening?”

  “No, no, I'm fine.” He waved her away, engrossed in a police chase on Court TV. It must be a guy thing, she thought, sighing. Her dad liked that show, too.

  She returned to her quarters and punched in Cahill's number on her cordless phone, then abruptly disconnected before it could even ring. People with receivers could pick up conversations on cordless phones. She didn't have anything private to say, but the idea that the weirdo might be listening to her calls was revolting.

  And the idea that he had so invaded her life with one gesture made her even angrier. She shouldn't have to worry about talking on a cordless phone. She should be able to go about her life as normal, damn it.

  She went into her bedroom and picked up the receiver on the land-line phone. While she punched the numbers again, she pulled a pillow out from under the cover, wadded it into a ball, and shoved it behind her back as she made herself comfortable on the bed.

  Cahill answered on the third ring, his voice a little surly. “Cahill.” Okay, a lot surly.

  “Detective Cahill, this is Sarah Stevens.”

  There was a slight pause, as if he was trying to place the name. “Yeah, what can I do for you?”

  She could hear a television in the background, but no other voices. No kids playing, no low murmur of a wife asking, “Who is it?” He sounded alone, which was a relief. Too much of a relief, when she thought about it.

  “I know there isn't anything the department can do, but I received an anonymous gift in the mail this afternoon that makes me uneasy.”


  “There wasn't a return address on the box, or anything inside with a name.”

  “What was it, a dead cat?”

  She was silent, and he sighed. “Sorry. You'd be surprised how many people used to get dead cats in the mail. That stopped when the post offices quit accepting boxes without return addresses.”

  “Well, they did this time. It's postmarked, but there's no return address.”

  “What was in the box?”

  “An expensive diamond-and-ruby pendant.”

  “How expensive?”

  “Judge Roberts says at least a couple of thousand. The card said, A small token of my esteem, but it wasn't signed. There was nothing threatening, but . . . it made
me uneasy. The Judge was alarmed; he thinks the television spot attracted a crazy guy who's fixated on me.”

  “That's possible, but are you certain it isn't from your boyfriend?”

  “No boyfriend.” She could have simply said she was positive it wasn't from a boyfriend, but she didn't. No boyfriend. She couldn't be any plainer. If he was at all interested, he would call.

  There was another little pause. Then he said, “Look, you're right, there's nothing we can do—”

  “I know that. I just want to know what I should do, or be doing, in case this turns into something serious.”

  “Keep everything you get that's relevant. Keep a record of any weird phone calls, such as hang-ups or heavy breathing. Do you have Caller ID?”

  “No, not on my private line.”

  “Then get it. And if you don't already have a cell phone, get one. Don't go anywhere without it, and I mean anywhere.”

  “I have a cell phone. It's always in my truck.”

  “Don't leave it in your truck, or in your purse. Have it in your pocket, so you can get to it immediately if you need to. Ordinarily I'd say you probably don't have anything to worry about, but an expensive gift is . . . unusual.”

  “That's what I thought, too.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I hate this. Nothing really has happened, but I feel as if something awful is about to happen.”

  “Don't let it get to you. Use common sense, be careful, and call if anything else happens.”

  “Okay. Thanks for your advice.”

  “You're welcome.” He hung up, and Sarah gave a little laugh as she disconnected, too. Okay, she had her answer about one thing, at least: Detective Cahill might be single, but he was definitely not interested. His manner couldn't have been less personal, so that was that.

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