To Die For by Linda Howard

  “That works for me,” he said.

  Wrightsville Beach is actually on an island, so we drove across the bridge to Wilmington, where, in short order, he was escorting me into a crowded Mexican restaurant where the air-conditioning was cranked up on high and the menu boasted a huge margarita. I don’t know how he knew about the restaurant unless he’d been to Wilmington before, which I guess isn’t that much of a stretch. People go to beaches the way lemmings do whatever it is that lemmings do. There are a lot of beaches in North Carolina, but he’d probably been from one end of the coast to the other back in his hell-raising, college-ball-playing days. I’d been a cheerleader, and I certainly had hit almost every beach in the southeast, from North Carolina down to the Florida Keys and back up the Gulf Coast.

  A young Hispanic man brought our menus and waited to take our drink orders. Wyatt ordered a beer for himself and a frozen Cuervo Gold margarita for me. I didn’t know what Cuervo Gold was, and I didn’t care. I assumed it was a special kind of tequila, but it could have been regular tequila, for all I knew about it.

  The glass they brought it in wasn’t a glass. It was a vase. This thing was huge. It wasn’t actually a vase, but I wouldn’t call it a glass, either. It was more like a gigantic clear bowl perched on a skinny pedestal.

  “Uh-oh,” Wyatt said.

  I ignored him and gripped my margarita with both hands, which I needed to lift it. The huge bowl of the glass was frosty, and salt sparkled around the rim. Two slices of lime were perched on top, and a bright red plastic straw provided access to the contents.

  “We’d better order,” he said.

  I sucked on the straw and downed a sizable gulp of margarita. The tequila taste wasn’t very strong, which was fortunate, or I’d have been on my butt before I was halfway finished with the thing. “I like burritos rancheros. Beef.”

  It was amusing watching him watch me while he gave the order. I took another big sip through the straw.

  “If you get drunk,” he warned, “I’m going to take pictures.”

  “Why, thank you. I’ve been told I’m a very cute drunk.” I hadn’t, but he didn’t know that. I had actually never been drunk before, which probably means I had an abnormal college experience. But I’d always had cheerleading practice, or gymnastics—or something unexpected, like an exam to take—and I didn’t think any of those would be a happy experience while suffering a hangover, so I simply stopped drinking before I got drunk.

  The waiter brought a basket of hot, salty tortilla chips and two bowls of salsa, hot and mild. I resalted half the tortilla chips and dug one into the hot salsa, which was delicious and definitely hot. Three chips later I broke out into a sweat and had to reach for my margarita again.

  Wyatt reached out and moved my vase—my glass—out of reach.

  “Hey!” I said indignantly.

  “I don’t want you getting pickled.”

  “I’ll get pickled if I want.”

  “I need to ask you some more questions, which is why I didn’t want you to leave town.”

  “Nice try, Lieutenant.” I leaned forward and retrieved my margarita. “For one thing, the detectives are working the case, not you. For another, I didn’t see anything other than a man was with Nicole, and he left driving a dark sedan. That’s it. Nothing else.”

  “That you know of,” he said, snatching away my margarita just as I guided the straw to my mouth for another sip. “Sometimes details will surface days later. For instance, the car’s headlights. Or the taillights. Did you see them?”

  “I didn’t see the headlights,” I said positively, intrigued by the question. “The taillights . . . hmm. Maybe.” I closed my eyes and replayed the scene in my head. It was shockingly detailed and vivid. In my imagination I saw the dark car sliding past, and to my surprise my heartbeat picked up in response. “The street is at a right angle to me, remember, so anything will be a side view. The taillight is . . . long. It isn’t one of those round ones; it’s a long skinny one.” My eyes popped open. “I think some models of Cadillac have taillights that shape.”

  “Among others,” he said. He was writing down what I’d said, in this little notepad he’d evidently dug out of his pocket, because it was bent like a pocket dweller.

  “You could have asked me this over the phone,” I pointed out acerbically.

  “Yes, if you were answering your phone,” he replied in the same tone.

  “You hung up on me.”

  “I was busy. Yesterday was a ballbuster. I didn’t have time to worry about your car, which, by the way, I couldn’t get anyway because you didn’t bother giving your keys to me.”

  “I know. I mean, I didn’t know then. I found them a little later. But the paper only identified me as a witness and that made me feel uneasy, and Tiffany was whining, so I rented wheels and came to the beach.”

  He paused. “Tiffany?”

  “My inner beach bunny. I haven’t had a vacation in a long time.”

  He looked at me as if I’d grown two heads, or had admitted to having multiple personalities or something. Finally he asked, “Is there anyone besides Tiffany living inside you?”

  “Well, I don’t have a snow bunny, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve been snow skiing once. Almost. I tried on those boots and they’re so uncomfortable I can’t believe people actually wear them without having a gun held to their heads.” I drummed my fingers. “I used to have Black Bart, but he hasn’t shown up in a while, so maybe that was just a kid thing.”

  “Black Bart? He was your inner . . . gunfighter?” He’d started grinning.

  “No, he was my inner maniac who would go berserk and try to kill you if you hurt one of my Barbies.”

  “You must have been hell on the playground.”

  “You don’t mess with a girl’s Barbies.”

  “I’ll remember that the next time I have the urge to grab a Barbie and stomp it.”

  I stared at him, aghast. “You’d actually do that?”

  “Haven’t in a long time. I must have gotten the Barbie-stomping out of my system by the time I was five.”

  “Black Bart would have hurt you bad.”

  He seemed to notice his little notebook on the table and got a puzzled expression on his face, as if he couldn’t figure out how the conversation had devolved from headlights to Barbies. Before he could reroute, however, the waiter brought our plates and set them down in front of us with the admonition to be careful because the plates were hot.

  The tortilla chips had kept me from total starvation, but I was still mega-hungry, so I dug into the burritos with one hand while I took advantage of his distraction to retrieve my margarita with the other. Being ambidextrous has its uses. Not that I can write or anything with my left hand, but I can definitely retrieve kidnapped margaritas.

  Like I said, the drink wasn’t strong. There was a lot of it, though. By the time I finished my burritos, I’d downed about half the drink, and I was feeling very happy. Wyatt paid for the meal and kept his arm around me as we walked to the truck. I don’t know why; I wasn’t staggering or anything. I wasn’t even singing.

  He lifted me into the truck as though I wasn’t capable of sliding in on my own. I gave him a bright smile and hooked one leg around his. “Want to get it on, big boy?”

  He choked on a laugh. “Can you hold that thought until we get back to the cottage?”

  “I may be sober by then, and remember why I shouldn’t.”

  “I’ll take my chances.” He gave me a lingering kiss. “I think I can get around that.”

  Oh, right. My neck. He knew about my neck. I could see I’d have to invest in some turtleneck sweaters.

  By the time we got back across the bridge to Wrightsville Beach, the happy glow had indeed faded, leaving me sleepy. I slid out of the truck under my own steam, however, and was walking toward the front door of the cottage when Wyatt scooped me up. “Does that offer still stand?”

  “Sorry. The glow has faded. Alcohol-induced lust is a transient thi
ng.” He carried me as if he barely noticed my weight, which, by the way, since I’m toned and muscled, is more than you’d think. But he was ten inches taller and muscled himself, which meant he outweighed me by at least eighty pounds or more.

  “Good. I’d rather you want me for reasons other than being looped.”

  “My brain is back in control, and my earlier reasoning still stands. I don’t want to have sex with you.” Boy, was that a lie. I wanted him like crazy, which didn’t mean I should have him or that things would work out between us. Our little talk hadn’t reassured me in any way, because actions matter way more than talk and one afternoon together didn’t amount to much.

  “I bet I can change your mind,” he said as he opened the door, which was unlocked because I’d been in a hurry to escape and he’d been in a hurry to catch me.

  An hour later, a thought surfaced just as I drifted off to sleep. Forget turtlenecks. To hold him at bay, I needed full body armor.



  I woke during the night, cold and disoriented. The cold wasn’t surprising, because Wyatt had the window air conditioner in the bedroom turned on the “Frost” setting. I must have been dreaming, because a loud noise like a gunshot startled me awake, and for a moment I didn’t know where I was.

  Maybe I made a sound, or jerked the way you do when you’re startled. Wyatt said, “Are you all right?” in an instantly alert voice as he sat up in bed, and the question jerked me out of the weird moment. I stared at him in the darkness, able to make out only the outline of his body framed against the slightly lighter background of the window. I reached out and touched him, my hand finding the warmth of his bare stomach just above the sheet pooled around his hips. Touching him was automatic, an instinctive need for contact.

  “I’m cold,” I muttered, and he lay back down, pulling me against him and tucking the covers up around my shoulders. I cradled my head on his shoulder and put my hand on his chest, comforted by the warmth and hardness of his body, the substantial presence of him beside me. I hadn’t wanted to sleep with him—I mean in the literal sense, because I was still desperately trying to preserve my boundaries—but I’d fallen asleep in the middle of the argument and he’d obviously taken advantage of my unconscious state. I suspected it was a deliberate tactic: exhaust me with sex, so I couldn’t stay awake. But now I was glad he was here beside me in the night, snuggling me close and keeping the chill away. This was exactly what I had wanted from him before, this intimacy, the companionship, the link. The depth of my contentment now, in his arms, was frightening.

  “What were you dreaming?” he asked, rubbing my back with a slow, soothing stroke. His deep voice was roughened by sleep, and the sweetness of lying there like that with him wrapped itself around me like a quilt.

  “I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. I woke up, and it was one of those creepy times when I didn’t know where I was, plus I was cold. Did I say something?”

  “No, you just made a funny sound, like you were scared.”

  “I think I heard a loud noise, but it may have been in my dream. If I was dreaming.”

  “I didn’t hear anything. What kind of loud noise?”

  “Like a gunshot.”

  “No, there definitely wasn’t anything like that.” He sounded absolutely certain. I supposed, since he was a cop, he was attuned to things like that.

  “Then I must have been dreaming about the murder. I don’t remember.” I yawned and cuddled closer, and as I did a wisp of memory floated back. I hadn’t been dreaming about Nicole’s murder, but about mine, because before the cops found Nicole’s body, I’d thought the shot had been aimed at me. For about ten minutes, until the cops arrived, I’d been terrified.

  “Wait, I do remember a little. I dreamed I was being shot at, which at first I thought was what had happened. I guess my subconscious is working that out.”

  His arms tightened around me. “What did you do? That night.”

  “Stayed down, duck-walked back to the door and got inside the building, then locked the door and called nine-one-one.”

  “Good girl. That was exactly the right thing to do.”

  “I left out the panicking part. I was scared to death.”

  “Which proves you aren’t an idiot.”

  “And it also proved I didn’t shoot Nicole myself, because I didn’t go out into the rain to check things out. I was completely dry. I asked them to do a gunpowder residue test, though, because I was tired and didn’t want to be taken in for questioning, which as it turned out was a wasted effort because you dragged me in anyway.” That was still a sore point with me.

  “Yeah, I heard about the ‘thingie’ test.” His tone was dry. Evidently he thought I’d played like a dumb blond to allay the detectives’ suspicions. I can’t imagine where he got an idea like that.

  “I couldn’t think of the name right then,” I said innocently. “I was rattled.” Half of that was the truth.


  I think he didn’t believe me. Moving right along, I said, “I don’t know why I’d dream about being shot now. Why not the first night? That was when I was so shaken up.”

  “You were exhausted. You probably did dream, but you didn’t wake up enough to remember them.”

  “Then what about last night? I didn’t dream then, either.”

  “Same theory. You’d had a long drive on not much sleep. You were tired.”

  I snorted. “Hah! You think I wasn’t tired tonight?”

  “Different kind of tired.” He sounded amused now. “The other was stress. Tonight was pleasure.”

  That was for certain. Even fighting with him was pleasure on some level, because I got so much enjoyment out of it. I was alarmed because he seemed to be winning all the battles, but I was still exhilarated by the fight. I imagine moths are happy while they’re flying right into the fire, too. If Wyatt burned me again, I didn’t know what I’d do. He’d already gotten to me way more than he had before, witness the fact that I was in bed with him.

  I pinched him. Just because.

  He jumped. “Ow! What was that for?”

  “For not even courting me before you got me into bed,” I said indignantly. “You make me feel as if I’m easy.”

  “Honey, nothing about you is easy. Trust me.” His tone was wry.

  “I must be.” I managed to put some tears into my voice. Hey, if I can’t win the battles, at least I can mess with him, right?

  “Are you crying?” He definitely sounded suspicious.

  “No.” That was the truth. Can I help it if the word quivered a little?

  His big hand touched my face. “You are not.”

  “I said I wasn’t.” Damn, did he accept nothing on face value? We definitely had an issue with trust here. How was I supposed to get away with anything?

  “Yeah, but you were doing that little guilt-trip act. You know damn good and well that all you had to say at any time was ‘no’ if you really didn’t want it.”

  “You sabotaged me with the neck thing. That has to stop.”

  “What are you going to do, get rid of your neck?”

  “Does that mean you won’t promise to leave my neck alone?”

  “Are you kidding? Have I ever struck you as the type to cut my own throat?” He sounded lazily amused.

  “I’m serious about not having sex. I think it’s the wrong thing to do this soon. We should have waited to see if a relationship gets going between us.”

  “ ‘Gets going’?” he echoed. “Seems to me we’re halfway around the track already.”

  “Not really. We haven’t left the starting line yet. We haven’t even been out on a date. This time, I mean. Two years ago doesn’t count.”

  “We had dinner tonight.”

  “That doesn’t count, either. You used your physical strength against me, then coerced me with threats.”

  He snorted. “Like that would have stopped you from screaming your head off if you hadn’t decided you were hung
ry and I might as well pay for it.”

  There was that, of course. Plus I was never in the least worried that he might actually hurt me. I felt remarkably safe and secure when I was with him—from everything except him, of course.

  “So here’s the deal. I go out with you the way I would if we were starting all over again. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Another chance? That means no sex, because sex clouds the issue.”

  “The hell it does.”

  “Okay, it clouds my issues. Maybe when I get to know you better, and you get to know me, we’ll decide we don’t like each other that much, after all. Or maybe you decide you don’t like me nearly as much as I like you, because like I said, sex clouds the issue for me. Maybe men aren’t that influenced by having sex with someone, but women are. You’ll be saving me a lot of possible heartbreak if we back off and take our time with this.”

  “You’re asking me to close the barn door after the horse is already out.”

  “So round it up and put it back in your pants—barn, I mean.”

  “That’s your point of view. In mine, it goes against every instinct to not make love to you as often as possible, because that’s how a man makes sure a woman is his.”

  From his voice I could tell he was getting testy now. I sort of wished a light were on so I could read his expression, but that would have meant he’d be able to read mine, too, so I left well enough alone. “If we were that far along in our relationship, I’d agree with you.”

  “From the evidence at hand, I’d say we are.”

  So we were both naked and in bed together. So what?

  “But we aren’t. We’re very much physically attracted to each other, but we don’t know each other. For instance, what’s my favorite color?”

  “Hell, I was married for three years and I never knew her favorite color. Men don’t think about colors.”

  “You don’t have to think about something to just kind of notice it.” I glossed over the fact that he’d been married before. I’d known it, of course, because his mother had told me before she ever introduced us, but I didn’t like thinking about it any more than I liked thinking about my own failed marriage. In Wyatt’s case, however, I was just plain jealous.

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