To Die For by Linda Howard

  “If we have to, we’ll take the entire family to Gatlinburg and get married in one of those little wedding chapels.”

  “You want me to get ready in a motel?” I asked, my tone letting him know I wasn’t crazy about that idea.

  “Don’t see why not. You aren’t planning on wearing one of those long, big-skirted things, are you?”

  I wasn’t, but still . . . I wanted my stuff around me when I was getting ready. What if I needed something and had forgotten to pack it? Things like that can ruin a woman’s memories of her wedding.

  “I have to call Mom,” I said, pulling away from him and going to the phone.

  “Blair . . . it’s after midnight.”

  “I know. But she’ll be hurt if I don’t tell her right away.”

  “How will she know? Call her in the morning and tell her we decided over breakfast.”

  “She’ll see through that in a heartbeat. You don’t decide to get married over breakfast; you decide to get married after a hot date with making out and stuff.”

  “Yeah, I really liked that ‘stuff’ part,” he said reminiscently. “It’s been eighteen, nineteen years since I’d done it in the backseat of a car. I’d forgotten how fucking uncomfortable it is, and vice versa.”

  I started dialing.

  “Do you want your mom to know about the ‘stuff’ part?”

  I gave him a “you’re kidding me” look. “Like there’s any way she doesn’t already know.”

  Mom answered on the first ring, sounded harassed. “Blair? Is something wrong?”

  Caller ID is a wonderful thing. It saved so much time, bypassing the need for identification. “No, I just wanted to tell you that Wyatt and I have decided to get married.”

  “What’s the big surprise about that? He told us when we first met him in the hospital, when you were shot, that y’all were getting married.”

  My head whipped around and I glared at him. “He did, huh? Funny thing, he didn’t mention it to me until tonight.”

  Wyatt shrugged and looked totally unrepentant. I could tell I was going to have my hands full with him over the years. He was way too sure of himself.

  “Well, I wondered why you hadn’t said anything,” Mom said. “I was beginning to feel hurt.”

  “He’ll pay for that,” I said grimly.

  “Oh, shit,” Wyatt said, knowing good and well I was talking about him, but without knowing exactly what his transgression was. He could probably get in the ballpark, since he knew what we were talking about, but he hadn’t yet realized what a no-no it was to hurt Mom’s feelings.

  “There are two schools of thought concerning these situations,” Mom said, meaning she had considered two angles of approach. “One is that you come down hard on him, so he’ll learn how to handle things and won’t make that mistake again. The second is that you cut him some slack because he’s new to this.”

  “ ‘Slack’? What’s that?”

  “That’s my girl,” she said approvingly.

  “Why are you still awake? You answered the phone so fast you must have been sleeping with it.” I was a tad curious, because Mom always slept with the phone when she was anxious about any of us. It was a habit she developed when I started dating at the age of fifteen.

  “I haven’t slept with the phone since Jenni graduated high school. No, I’m still working on these damn quarterly taxes, and this stupid computer keeps freezing on me, then losing touch with its parts. Now it’s typing gibberish. I’d love to send in the taxes typed in code, since the IRS instructions and rules are so clear even they don’t know what they’re doing. How do you think that would fly?”

  “It wouldn’t. The IRS has no sense of humor.”

  “I know,” she said glumly. “I could have done this by hand much faster if I’d known this stupid machine was going to go bananas, but all of my files are in the computer. From now on I’m going to keep a paper copy.”

  “Don’t you have a backup disk?”

  “Well, of course. Ask me if it’ll work.”

  “I think you’ve got a major problem.”

  “I know I do, and I’m just about fed up with the whole mess. But it’s become a point of honor now not to let this demented monster win.”

  Meaning she would keep at it way past the point where any normal person would have thrown in the towel and taken the thing to a computer hospital.

  Then I thought of something, and looked at Wyatt. “Is it okay if I tell Mom about the hair y’all found?”

  He briefly thought about it, then nodded.

  “What hair?” Mom asked.

  “Forensics found some dark hair, about ten inches long, stuck under my car. Can you think of anyone with dark hair about that length who might want to kill me?”

  “Hmmm.” That was Mom’s thinking sound. “Is it black hair, or just dark?”

  I relayed the question to Wyatt. He got that expression that said he wanted to ask what the difference was, but then he thought about it and realized the difference. “I’d say black,” he said.

  “Black,” I relayed.

  “Natural or dyed?”

  Mom was on a roll here. I said to him, “Natural or dyed?”

  “We don’t know yet. The evidence will have to be analyzed.”

  “The jury’s still out on that,” I said to Mom. “Have you thought of someone?”

  “Well, there’s Malinda Connors.”

  “That was thirteen years ago, when I beat her out for Homecoming Queen. Surely she’s over it by now.”

  “I don’t know about that; she always struck me as a vindictive girl.”

  “But too impatient. She couldn’t have waited this long.”

  “That’s true. Hmmm. It has to be someone who’s jealous of you about something. Ask Wyatt who he was dating before y’all started going together.”

  “I’ve already thought of that. He says there aren’t any candidates.”

  “Unless he lived like a monk, there are candidates.”

  “I know, but he won’t even give me their names for me to check out on my own.”

  He came to sit beside me on the bed, looking worried. “What are y’all talking about?”

  “You and your women,” I said, turning my shoulder to him and scooting farther away so he couldn’t eavesdrop.

  “I don’t have any women,” he said in exasperation.

  “Did you hear that?” I asked Mom.

  “I heard it; I just don’t believe it. Ask him how long he was celibate before he met you.”

  Notice my mother assumed he was no longer celibate. The fact that she was so unconcerned about my current love life told me that she thoroughly approved of him, which is a big thing. Having Mom’s approval goes a long way toward keeping our family life smooth and happy.

  I looked over my shoulder at him. “Mom wants to know how long it had been since you’d had any, prior to our engagement.”

  He looked deeply alarmed. “She does not. She didn’t say that.”

  “Yes, she did. Here. She’ll tell you herself.”

  I extended the phone to him, and warily he took it. “Hello,” he said; then he listened. I watched two spots of color start to burn on his cheekbones. He put his hand over his eyes as if he wanted to hide from the question. “Uh . . . six weeks?” he said sheepishly. “Maybe. Could be a little longer. Here’s Blair.”

  He couldn’t hand the phone back to me fast enough. I took it and asked, “What do you think?”

  “Six weeks is a long time to wait if you’re crazy and fixated on someone,” Mom said. “He’s probably in the clear. What about you? Have you had any former semi-boyfriends who have since hooked up with some nutcase who may have developed intense jealousy over his former relationships?”

  Semi-boyfriend means a couple of dates, maybe several, but nothing serious developed and we both sort of drifted out of each other’s orbit. Since Wyatt, I’d had a few of those, and at the moment I wasn’t certain I could even remember their names.

??I haven’t kept in touch, but I guess I can find out,” I said. If I could remember their names, that is.

  “That’s the only other possibility I can think of,” Mom said. “Tell Wyatt he’d better get this settled in a hurry, because your grandmother’s birthday is coming up and we can’t celebrate if you’re still hiding out.”

  After I hung up the phone, I relayed that message to him and he nodded his head as if he got it, but I’m pretty sure he was still in the dark about Grammy. He had no idea of the wrath that would come down on our heads if she felt the least slighted. She said that at her age she didn’t have many more birthdays left, so if we loved her, we’d better make the most of them. Grammy is Mom’s mother, if you haven’t already guessed. She’ll be seventy-four on her birthday, so she isn’t even all that old, but she plays on her age to get what she wants.

  Huh. Genetics is a funny thing, isn’t it?

  I gave him the beady eye. “So. What’s her name?”

  He knew exactly whom I was talking about. “I knew it,” he said, shaking his head. “I knew you’d latch onto that like a leech. It was nothing. I ran into an old acquaintance at a conference and—it was nothing.”

  “Except you slept with her,” I said accusingly.

  “She has red hair,” he said. “And she’s a detective in—no, hell no, I’m not saying where she works. I know better than that. You’d be on the phone with her tomorrow, either accusing her of attempted murder or comparing notes on me.”

  “If she’s a cop, she knows how to shoot.”

  “Blair, trust me in this. Please. If I thought there was the slightest possibility she would do something like that, do you think I’d hesitate for a second before hauling her in for questioning?”

  I sighed. He had a real knack for phrasing things in a way that left me little wiggle room, and he’d picked it up fast.

  “But it’s someone who’s jealous of me,” I said. “Mom’s right. I’m right. It’s something personal.”

  “I agree.” He stood up and began stripping off his clothes. “But it’s after midnight, I’m tired, you’re tired, and we can talk about this after we get the analysis on the hair. Then we’ll know if we’re dealing with a real brunette or someone who may have dyed her hair as a disguise before acting.”

  He was right about the tired part, so I decided he was right about that, too. I pulled off my clothes and crawled naked between the cool sheets. He turned the thermostat down to Stage Two Hypothermia, turned out the lights, and got under the covers with me, which is when I found out he’d been lying about the tired part.



  I dreamed about my red Mercedes again that night. There wasn’t a bridge in this dream, just a woman standing in front of the car pointing a pistol at me. She didn’t have black hair, though. Her hair was a light brown, the shade that is almost blond but doesn’t quite get there. The weird thing was, I was parked at the curb in front of the apartment where Jason and I had lived when we first got married. We hadn’t lived there long, maybe a year, before buying a house. When we divorced, I was happy to let Jason have the house and the attendant payments, in exchange for the capital to start Great Bods.

  Even though the woman was pointing a pistol at me, in my dream I wasn’t very frightened. I was more exasperated with her for being so stupid than I was scared. Finally I just got out of the car and walked away, which shows you how silly dreams can be, because I would never have abandoned my Mercedes.

  I woke up feeling puzzled, which is a strange way to feel when you just wake up. I was still in bed—obviously—so nothing had happened yet to puzzle me.

  The room was so cold I was afraid my butt would get frostbite if I got out of bed. I don’t know why Wyatt liked to turn the air-conditioning so cold at night, unless he was part Eskimo. I lifted my head so I could see the clock: five oh five. The alarm wouldn’t go off for another twenty-five minutes, but if I was awake, I saw no reason why he shouldn’t be awake, too. I poked him in the side.

  “Uh. Ouch,” he said groggily, and rolled over. His big hand rubbed my stomach. “Are you okay? Another bad dream?”

  “No, I had a dream, but it wasn’t a nightmare. I’m awake and the room feels like a meat locker. I’m afraid to get up.”

  He made a half-grunting, half-yawning noise, then got a look at the clock. “It isn’t time to get up yet,” he said, and burrowed back into the pillow.

  I poked him again. “Yes, it is. I need to think about something.”

  “Can’t you think while I sleep?”

  “I could, if you didn’t insist on putting a layer of frost on everything at night, and if I had a cup of coffee. I think you should turn the thermostat up to, say, forty, so I can start thawing out, and while you’re up, you could get one of your flannel shirts or something for me to wear.”

  He groaned again, and flopped over on his back. “Okay, okay.” Muttering something under his breath, he got out of bed and walked out into the hall where the upstairs thermostat was located. Within seconds, the blower stopped. The air was still cold, but at least it wasn’t moving around. Then he came back into the bedroom and reached deep into his closet, coming out with something long and dark. He tossed it across the bed, then crawled back under the covers. “See you in twenty minutes,” he mumbled, and just that easily went back to sleep.

  I grabbed the long dark thing and pulled it around me. It was a robe, nice and thick. When I got out of bed and stood up, the heavy folds of fabric fell to my ankles. I belted it around me as I tiptoed out of the bedroom—I didn’t want to disturb him—and turned on the light over the stairs so I wouldn’t break my neck on the way down.

  The coffeemaker was set to come on automatically at five twenty-five, but I didn’t intend to wait that long. I flipped the switch, the little red light came on, and the thing began the hissing and popping sounds that signal help is on the way.

  I got a cup from the cabinet and stood there waiting. The floor was cold beneath my bare feet, making my toes curl. When we had kids, I thought, Wyatt would have to get out of the habit of turning the air-conditioning so low at night.

  The bottom dropped out of my stomach, just the way it happens when you go over that first steep hill in a roller coaster, and a sense of unreality seized me. I felt as if I were occupying two planes of existence at the same time: the real world, and the dream world. My dream was Wyatt, had been from the moment I met him, but I had accepted that I’d lost my chance. Now, all of a sudden, the dream world was also the real world, and I was having a hard time taking it all in.

  In a little over a week’s time, everything had reversed. He said he loved me. He said we were getting married. I believed him on both counts, because he’d told my parents the same thing, and his mother, and the whole police force. Not only that, if his feelings for me were anything like my feelings for him, I could understand getting cold feet at first, because how do you deal with something like that?

  Women can handle those things more easily than men, because we’re tougher. After all, most of us grow up expecting to get pregnant and have kids, and when you think about what that really means to the female body, it’s a wonder any woman ever lets a man within a country mile of her.

  Men feel put upon because they have to shave their faces every day. Now, I ask you: In comparison to what women go through, is that wussy, or what?

  Wyatt had wasted two years because he thought I was high maintenance. I’m not high maintenance. Grammy is high maintenance. Of course, she’s had a lot more practice. I hope I’m just like her when I’m that age. What I am now is a reasonable, logical, adult woman who runs her own business and believes in a fifty-fifty relationship. It just so happens there’ll be times when I’ll have both fifties, such as when I’m shot or when I’m pregnant. But those are special occasions, right?

  Enough coffee had dripped into the carafe to fill my cup. Thank heavens for the automatic cutoff on coffeemakers today. I pulled out the carafe, and only one little
drop escaped to sizzle on the hot pad. After pouring the coffee, I slid the carafe back into place and leaned against the cabinets while I began to mentally worry at what had been puzzling me in my dream.

  My feet were freezing, so after a moment I went into the family room and got the notebook in which I’d been listing Wyatt’s transgressions, then curled up in his recliner with the robe tucked around my feet.

  What Mom had said last night—well, a few hours ago—had triggered some chain of thought. The problem was, the links weren’t connected yet; so technically, I guess, there wasn’t a chain, because they have to be linked to make a chain, but the individual little chunks were lying there waiting for someone to put them together.

  The thing was, she had said pretty much what I’d already been thinking, but phrased it just a little differently. And she had gone way back, all the way to my senior year in high school when Malinda Connors threw a screaming hissy fit because I was voted Homecoming Queen even though I was already Head Cheerleader and she thought it wasn’t fair for me to be both. Not that Malinda would have gotten Homecoming Queen anyway, because she was, like, the poster girl for Skanks Unlimited, but she had a real high opinion of herself and thought I was the only obstacle in her path.

  She hadn’t tried to kill me, however. Malinda had married some moron and moved to Minneapolis. There’s a song in there somewhere.

  But Mom had started me thinking that the roots of this could go back quite a while. I’d been trying to think of something recent, such as Wyatt’s last girlfriend, or my last boyfriend, which didn’t make sense at all because Wyatt had been the last one who mattered and he hadn’t even technically been a boyfriend, because he got cold feet so fast.

  I started writing items down in the notebook. They were still the individual links, but sooner or later I’d hit on the one thing that turned them into a chain.

  I heard the shower running upstairs and knew Wyatt was up. I turned on the television to check the local weather—hot, fancy that—then stared at the notebook some more while I pondered what I was going to do that day. I’d had enough of sitting in the house. The first day had been great; yesterday had been not so great. If I had to stay here all day again, I might get into all sorts of trouble, out of sheer boredom.

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