To Die For by Linda Howard

  He had the wisdom to detour off that path. “Back to your high school days. You didn’t steal anyone’s boyfriend?”

  I made a scornful noise. “I had my own boyfriends, thank you.”

  “Other guys weren’t attracted to you?”

  “So what if they were? I had a steady, and I didn’t pay any attention to anyone else.”

  “Who was your steady? Jason?”

  “No, Jason was my college guy. In high school it was Patrick Haley. He got killed in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty. We didn’t keep in touch after we broke up, so I don’t know if he was dating anyone special or not.”

  “Scratch Patrick. Where’s Cleo Cleland now?”

  “In Raleigh-Durham. She’s an industrial chemist. Once a year or so we get together for lunch and a movie. She’s married and has a four-year-old.”

  He could scratch Cleo, too. Not because she was dead, but because Cleo was my pal. Besides, she was a woman, and he’d said the person trying to kill me was most likely a man.

  “There has to be someone,” he said. “Someone you maybe haven’t thought about in years.”

  He was right. This was personal, so it was someone I knew. And I was totally drawing a blank on anyone who might want to kill me.

  Then inspiration hit.

  “I know!” I crowed.

  He jerked, instantly alert. “Who?”

  “It has to be one of your girlfriends!”



  The car swerved. Wyatt brought it back into the lane and glared over at me. “How did you come up with an idea like that?”

  “Well, if it isn’t me, then it has to be you. I’m a nice person, and I don’t have any enemies that I know of. However, when was the first attempt? Right after we came back from the beach. How many people know you followed me there? After the way you acted Thursday night when Nicole was killed—”

  “The way I acted?” he echoed in outraged astonishment.

  “You told your guys that we were involved, right? Even though we weren’t. I saw the way they looked at me, and not one out of about fifty cops came to my rescue when you were manhandling me. So I figure you lied to them and said we were dating.”

  His teeth were set. “I wasn’t manhandling you.”

  “Stop latching on to insignificant details. And you were, too. But am I right so far? You told them we were seeing each other?”

  “Yeah. Because we are.”

  “That’s debatable—”

  “We’re living together. We’re sleeping together. How in hell is it debatable whether or not we’re seeing each other?”

  “Because we haven’t started dating yet and this is just temporary. Will you stop interrupting me? My point is, who were you seeing that you dropped like a hot potato to chase after me?”

  He ground his teeth for a few seconds. I know because I could hear them. Then he said, “What makes you think I was seeing anyone?”

  I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please. You know you’re to die for. You probably have women lined up.”

  “I don’t have women— You think I’m to die for, huh?”

  Now he sounded pleased. I wanted to beat my head against the dash, only it would hurt and I had enough aches and pains at the moment. “Wyatt!” I yelled. “Who were you dating?”

  “No one in particular.”

  “It doesn’t have to be ‘in particular’; it just has to be dating. Because some women have unrealistic expectations, you know. One date and they’re picking out a wedding gown. So who was the last person you dated, and who maybe thought there was something serious going on, then went totally postal when you followed me to the beach? Had you been on a date last Thursday, the night Nicole was killed?” Notice how I slipped that in, because I’d been wondering.

  By this time we had reached his house, and he slowed to turn in to the driveway. “No, that night I’d been teaching a women’s self-defense class,” he said absently, to my great satisfaction. “I don’t think your theory holds water because it’s been . . . God, almost two months since I’ve gone out with anyone. My social life hasn’t been as hot as you evidently think.”

  “This last person you were with. Did you go out with her more than once?”

  “A couple of times, yeah.” He pulled into the garage.

  “Did you sleep with her?”

  He gave me an impatient look. “I see where this little interrogation is going now. No, I didn’t sleep with her. And, trust me, we didn’t click.”

  “You didn’t, but maybe she did.”

  “No,” he repeated. “She didn’t. Instead of digging into my past, you should be thinking about your own. You’re a flirt, and some man might have thought you were serious—”

  “I’m not a flirt! Stop trying to throw this back on me.”

  He came around and opened the car door for me, leaning in to scoop me up in his arms so my stiff and sore muscles wouldn’t have to go to the effort of climbing out of the car, then gently setting me on my feet. “You’re a flirt,” he said grimly. “You can’t help it. It’s in your genes.”

  He had a lot of “f” words to describe me, and I was getting tired of hearing them. Yes, I flirt occasionally, but that doesn’t make me a flirt. Nor am I fluffy. I don’t think of myself as a lightweight person, and Wyatt was making me sound like the most frivolous—another “f” word—nitwit walking.

  “And now you’re pouting,” he said, rubbing his thumb over my lower lip, which might have started to stick out just the tiniest bit. Then he bent and kissed me, a slow, warm kiss that for some reason really melted me, maybe because I knew there was no way he was going anywhere with it, and he knew it, too, so that meant he was kissing me just to kiss me, not to get me into bed.

  “What was that for?” I asked a tad peevishly, to hide the fact that I’d melted, when he lifted his mouth.

  “Because you’ve had a bad day,” he said, and did it again. I sighed and relaxed against him, because, yes, I’d had a very bad day. This time when the kiss was over, he held me close for a moment, his cheek resting on top of my head. “Leave the police work to us,” he said. “Unless you all of a sudden remember a deadly enemy who’s been threatening to kill you, in which case, I definitely want to hear about it.”

  I pulled back and scowled at him. “Meaning I’m such a dumb blond I wouldn’t remember something like that right away?”

  He sighed. “I didn’t say that. I wouldn’t say it, because you aren’t dumb. You’re a lot of things, but dumb isn’t one of them.”

  “Oh, yeah? Just what ‘things’ am I?” I was feeling truculent, because I was hurt and scared and I had to take it out on someone, didn’t I? Wyatt was a big boy; he could handle it.

  “Frustrating,” he said, and I almost kicked him, because he’d come up with another “f” word. “Annoying. Stubborn. Slick, because you use the dumb-blond routine when you think it’ll get you what you want, and I figure it usually does. Your thought processes scare the hell out of me. Reckless. Funny. Sexy. Adorable.” He touched my cheek, his hand gentle. “Definitely adorable. And this is not temporary.”

  Man, I wasn’t the only slick one around, was I? I’d been on the verge of a major snit; then he’d undercut me with the last three items. So he found me adorable, huh? That’s a good thing to know, so I decided to ignore that part about this not being temporary. He leaned down and kissed me again, then added, “To die for.”

  I blinked at him. “That’s a girl thing to say. Guys shouldn’t say it.”

  He straightened. “Why not?”

  “It’s too girlie. You should say something macho, like ‘I’d take a bullet for you.’ See the difference?”

  He was fighting a grin. “Got it. C’mon, let’s go inside.”

  I sighed. I had two bread puddings to make, and I didn’t really feel like it, but a promise is a promise. No, the people at the police department didn’t know I was making it, but I had mentally promised it to them, so there you go.

  Wyatt got the doughnuts and condensed milk from the backseat, then unlocked his trunk and took out a burlap bag with green strings hanging from it. He closed the trunk, frowning at the burlap bag.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “I told you I’d get you a bush. Here it is.”

  I stared at the poor bedraggled plant. The green strings had to be its limp little limbs. “What will I do with a bush?”

  “You said the house didn’t have a single plant in it, like that somehow made it unlivable or something. So here’s your plant.”

  “That isn’t a houseplant! That’s shrubbery. You bought shrubbery for me?”

  “A plant’s a plant. Put it in the house and it’s a houseplant.”

  “You are so clueless,” I snapped, reaching to take the poor thing from him. “You’ve had it in your trunk all day in this heat? You’ve cooked it. It may not live. Maybe I can revive it, though, with some TLC. Open the door, will you? You bought some food for it, didn’t you?”

  He unlocked the door before he answered with a cautious, “Plants eat?”

  I gave him an incredulous look. “Of course plants eat. If anything’s alive, it eats.” Then I looked at the plant I held and shook my head. “This poor thing may never eat again, though.”

  My injured arm was protesting holding the weight of the plant, even though I was using my right arm to do most of the work and was mostly balancing the thing with my left hand. I could have given it to Wyatt, but I didn’t trust him with it. He’d already proven himself capable of major plant brutality.

  While he was bringing in my bags, I had the plant in the sink, gently spraying it with cool water in an attempt to revive it. “I need a bucket,” I told him. “Something you won’t miss, because I’m going to poke holes in the bottom.”

  He was in the process of fetching a blue plastic mop bucket from the laundry, but he paused at my last words. “Why are you going to ruin a perfectly good bucket?”

  “Because you have abused this plant to the point that it may not live. It needs water, but the roots don’t need to stand in water. So—it needs to drain. Unless you have a nice planter with drain holes in it, which I doubt because you don’t have any houseplants, then I’ll have to poke holes in a container.”

  “See, this is why men don’t have houseplants. They’re too much trouble, and too damn complicated.”

  “They make a house look nice, feel nice, and they keep the air fresh. I don’t think I could ever live in a house without plants.”

  He sighed. “All right, all right. I’ll punch holes in the bucket.”

  My hero.

  He used a long screwdriver to stab through the plastic, and in short order the bedraggled plant was sitting in the bucket in the laundry room sink, the root-ball soaked and draining. I hoped by morning it would have perked up some. Then I turned on his double ovens and started assembling what I would need to make the bread puddings.

  He clasped my shoulders and gently forced me down onto a chair. “Sit,” he said, which was totally unnecessary, since he’d already made certain I was. “I’ll make the bread pudding. Just tell me what to do.”

  “Why? You never listen.” Now, is there any way I could have resisted saying that?

  “I’ll make an effort,” he said drily. “This one time.”

  Big of him, wasn’t it? The least he could have done, considering the day I’d had, was solemnly promise that from then on he’d pay attention to what I was saying.

  So I supervised the making of the bread pudding, which is really simple, and while he was tearing the doughnuts into chunks, he said, “Explain something to me. Those people your mother was talking about: the man tried to do something nice for his wife, and she tried to kill him, so why were y’all on her side?”

  “Something nice?” I echoed, staring at him in horror.

  “He had their bedroom professionally decorated as a present for her. Even if she didn’t like the style, why didn’t she thank him for the thought?”

  “You think it’s nice that, even though they’ve been married thirty-five years, he paid so little attention to her that he didn’t know how long and hard she worked to get their bedroom just right, and how much she loved it just the way it was? Some of the antique pieces she had, and which were sold before she could retrieve them, were heirloom quality and can’t be replaced.”

  “Regardless of how much she loved it, it was just furniture. He’s her husband; don’t you think he deserved better than her trying to hit him with her car?”

  “She’s his wife,” I returned. “Don’t you think she deserved better than to have something she loved destroyed, and replaced with something she absolutely hates? After thirty-five years, don’t you think he should at least have been able to tell the decorator that Sally didn’t like metal and glass?”

  The look on his face said he didn’t care for the ultramodern look himself, though he wouldn’t have phrased it that way. “So she’s mad because he hadn’t noticed what style she likes?”

  “No, she’s hurt because she’s realized he doesn’t pay any real attention to her. She’s mad because he sold her things.”

  “Weren’t they his things, too?”

  “Did he spend months searching for each piece? Did he refinish each one by hand? I’d say they were hers.”

  “Okay. That still doesn’t justify trying to kill him.”

  “Well, you see, she wasn’t trying to kill him. She just wanted him to hurt a fraction as much as she’s hurting.”

  “Then, like you said, she should have used a riding lawn mower instead of a car. Regardless of how hurt she is, if she’d killed him I’d have arrested her for murder.”

  I thought about it, then said, “Some things are worth being arrested for.” Personally, I wouldn’t have gone as far as Sally, but no way would I tell Wyatt that. Women have to stick together, and I thought this would be a good object lesson for him: you don’t mess with a woman’s things. If he could just get past his tendency to categorize things according to what laws were broken, I was sure he’d see reason. “A woman’s stuff is important to her, like a man’s toys are important to him. Is there anything you really treasure, like something that belonged to your father, or maybe a car—” It struck me. I stared at him, aghast. “You don’t have a car!” The only car in the garage was the Crown Vic, which was city-owned and practically yelled, Cop!

  “Of course I have a car,” he said mildly, looking down at the two big bowls in which he had divided the four-dozen doughnuts, pinched into bite-size chunks. “What do I do now?”

  “Beat the eggs. I’m not talking about the city car,” I said. “What happened to your Tahoe?” When I’d gone out with him two years ago, he’d been driving a big black Tahoe.

  “Traded it in.” He swiftly beat two eggs, then broke two more into a separate little bowl and beat them, too.

  “For what? There’s nothing in the garage.”

  “An Avalanche. I got it three months ago. It’s black, too.”

  “But where is it?”

  “My sister, Lisa, borrowed it two weeks ago while hers was in the shop.” He frowned. “I expected to have it back before now.” He picked up the cordless phone, dialed a number, and tucked the phone between his chin and shoulder. “Hey, Lise. I just remembered you have my truck. Is your car still in the shop? What’s the holdup?” He listened for a moment. “Okay, no problem. Like I said, I just remembered.” He paused, and I could hear a woman’s voice, but I couldn’t tell what she was saying. “She did, huh? Could be.” Then he laughed. “Yeah, it’s true. I’ll give you the details when we get them ironed out. Okay. Yeah. See ya.”

  He punched the off button and put the phone back on the table, then surveyed what he’d done so far. “What comes next?”

  “A can of condensed milk for each batch.” I stared suspiciously at him. “What’s ‘true’?”

  “Just a problem I’m working on.”

  I had a hunch I was the problem he was workin
g on, but I needed to be at full speed to win an argument with him, so I let it go. “When will her car be ready?”

  “She hopes by Friday. I suspect she likes driving my truck, though. It has all the bells and whistles.” He winked at me. “Since you like driving pickups, too, you’ll love my truck. You’ll be cute as hell in it.”

  If I wasn’t, then I seriously needed to work on my image. Because I was fading fast, I directed the addition of the remaining ingredients: salt, cinnamon, more milk, and a touch of vanilla flavoring. He mixed it all together, then poured each bowlful out into a baking pan. The ovens had already preheated, so he put both pans in to cook and set the timer for thirty minutes. “That’s it?” he asked, looking surprised because it was so simple.

  “That’s it. If you don’t mind, I’m going to brush my teeth and go to bed. When the timer dings, take the pans out and cover them with foil and put them in the refrigerator. I’ll do the butter sauce icing in the morning.” Tiredly I got to my feet. I was almost at the end of my physical rope.

  His expression softened and without a word he lifted me in his arms.

  I laid my head on his shoulder. “You’re doing this a lot,” I said as he carried me upstairs. “Carrying me around, I mean.”

  “It’s a pleasure. I just wish it wasn’t under these circumstances.” The soft expression faded from his face, leaving his expression grim. “It makes me sick that you’re hurt. I want to kill the son of a bitch who did this to you.”

  “Ah-ha! Now you know how Sally feels,” I said triumphantly. Anything to score a point, though I don’t generally recommend getting shot and having a car accident to do it. On the other hand, since those things had happened, why not use them? It’s silly to throw away a trump card, no matter how it got in your hand.

  I brushed my teeth; then he helped me undress and actually tucked me into bed. I was asleep before he left the room.

  I slept all night, not even waking when he came to bed. I woke when his alarm went off, and sleepily reached out to stroke his side as he stretched to shut off the clock. “How do you feel this morning?” he asked, rolling onto his back and turning his head toward me.

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