For the Sake of their Baby
For the Sake of their Baby
“I knew you’d come for me,” she whispered
“I’ll always come for you.”
Their lips met in a soft kiss that mingled tears and fog and brine. It was a moment Alex wished he could freeze and lock away, because it was pure, untainted by anything but need.
Casting him a look he would never forget, Liz murmured, “You saved me.”
He couldn’t think of an answer, so he kissed her again.
Alex stared at her tearstained face and said, “Are you okay? How about the baby?”
“I feel okay. The fall doesn’t seem to have affected either one of us.”
Knowing the situation could have been much worse, Alex was relieved to hear Liz’s words. His love for her was overwhelming in its intensity.
But the questions remained—who had tried to kill his very pregnant wife and what would happen when the culprit discovered she was still alive…?
Dear Harlequin Intrigue Reader,
The holidays are upon us! We have six dazzling stories of intrigue that will make terrific stocking stuffers—not to mention a well-deserved reward for getting all your shopping done early….
Take a breather from the party planning and unwrap Rita Herron’s latest offering, A Warrior’s Mission—the next exciting installment of COLORADO CONFIDENTIAL, featuring a hot-blooded Cheyenne secret agent! Also this month, watch for The Third Twin—the conclusion of Dani Sinclair’s HEARTSKEEP trilogy that features an identical triplet heiress marked for murder who seeks refuge in the arms of a rugged lawman.
The joyride continues with Under Surveillance by highly acclaimed author Gayle Wilson. This second book in the PHOENIX BROTHERHOOD series has an undercover agent discovering that his simple surveillance job of a beautiful woman-in-jeopardy is filled with complications. Be there from the start when B.J. Daniels launches her brand-new miniseries, CASCADES CONCEALED, about a close-knit northwest community that’s visited by evil. Don’t miss the first unforgettable title, Mountain Sheriff.
As a special gift-wrapped treat, three terrific stories in one volume. Look for Boys in Blue by reader favorites Rebecca York, Ann Voss Peterson and Patricia Rosemoor about three long-lost New Orleans cop brothers who unite to reel in a killer. And rounding off a month of nonstop thrills and chills, a pregnant woman and her wrongly incarcerated husband must set aside their stormy past to bring the real culprit to justice in For the Sake of Their Baby by Alice Sharpe.
Best wishes to all of our loyal readers for a joyous holiday season!
For the Sake of Their Baby Alice Sharpe
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alice Sharpe met her husband-to-be on a cold, foggy beach in Northern California. One year later they were married. Their union has survived the rearing of two children, a handful of earthquakes registering over 6.5, numerous cats and a few special dogs, the latest of which is a yellow Lab named Annie Rose. Alice and her husband now live in a small rural town in Oregon, where she devotes the majority of her time to pursuing her second love, writing.
Alice loves to hear from readers. You can write her at P.O. Box 755, Brownsville, OR 97327. SASE for reply is appreciated.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Liz Chase—The heiress and businesswoman resigns herself to a divorce in order to move into the future and find peace before her baby is born. Then her imprisoned husband walks back into her life….
Alex Chase—The former fireman and confessed killer of Liz’s uncle has limited time—before his new trial—to discover the truth, protect his wife and reclaim his freedom.
Devon Hiller—The wealthy, manipulative autocrat had so many enemies it’s a toss-up who wanted him dead the most.
Sheriff Roger Kapp—His hatred of Alex Chase leads to a slipshod investigation and a hung jury, but he won’t rest until he gets Alex behind bars for good.
Ron Boxer—The leasing agent at the Harbor Lights Mall, he’s the big brother Liz never had, as well as a trusted friend and confidant.
Emily Watts—Ron’s prickly sister and Liz’s friend, she has secrets of her own.
Harry Idle—The former shopkeeper blames the late Devon Hiller for all his problems.
Dave Sullivan—The one man at the fire station who never loses faith in Alex.
Battalion Chief Montgomery—The chief holds a crucial piece of information about Kapp’s scheming.
Sinbad—The ever hungry, ever loyal Siamese cat is yet another victim.
This book is dedicated to my newest darling,
Carmen Amelia Sharpe,
with enduring love.
A huge thanks to Tom Hanky and Station 14
of the Albany Fire Department for their generosity
in helping me with this book. Thanks also to
Donna Beamer of the Heritage Mall, and
Jennifer Jones for her spiffy ideas and
Devon Hiller lit a hand-rolled Cuban cigar and leaned back in his chair. Under strict doctor’s orders not to smoke, drink or become unduly stressed, he amused himself by blithely indulging in all three. Hell, he wasn’t dead yet.
It was good to have the house to himself again. A cleaning crew would come in the morning and pick up after the party, but for now he was just glad to be rid of that crowd of brown-nosers. And that included his niece, Elizabeth, though he had to admit issuing ultimatums to her had been the high point of his evening. Never mind her husband, a ticking bomb if there ever was one. What could he do about anything? Nothing, that’s what!
As Devon took a generous sip of cognac, he thought he heard a noise in the foyer and straightened in his chair. Parking the cigar in a heavy crystal ashtray, he peered into the gloom as the door to his study silently drifted open.
“Who’s there?” he barked.
A figure moved in the shadows.
“That you, Elizabeth?” he chuckled as he set aside the snifter. “Back again, are you? Changed your mind? Good, good. I knew you’d see it my way.”
The figure stepped into the light. Not Elizabeth.
“How did you get in here?” Devon demanded. The look on the intruder’s face caused an alarm to go off in Devon’s brandy soaked brain. His gun was in the wall safe. Palming the antique letter opener he always kept on his desk, he slowly got to his feet.
“I thought I made it clear I wasn’t going to do business with you,” he growled as he rounded his desk. A show of strength, that’s what was called for. Just as he decided to throw in a few words of warning, he finally noticed a long green cord stretched between the two gloved hands.
The intruder’s lips curled into a smile that sent Devon stumbling back, groping for the phone. His attacker moved swiftly, pulling Devon away from the desk, slamming him onto the Persian carpet. The impact caused the letter opener to tumble free.
Still Devon struggled, gratified as he felt his fingers wrap around the green fiber, then gasping as a sharp pain drove all other thoughts from his brain. He was conscious just long enough to glimpse the hilt of the letter opener erupting from his chest.
He died knowing that, in the strictest sense, his bad habits had finally caught up with him.
Seven Months Later
The jarring ring of the doorbell startled Liz Chase awake. She sat very still for a moment, trying to remember what she’d been dreaming, but the images dissolved without ever taking form.
The bell rang again. Setting aside the paperback novel that had lulled her to sleep in the first place, she heaved her very pregnant body from an aging rocker and mumbled, “I’m coming.” Curled up by the cold fireplace, Sinbad, her Siamese cat, opened one blue eye and yowled.
Through the parted drapes she saw a light-colored truck pull away from the house and a jolt of uneasiness rocked her. It had to be close to ten o’clock. Who would plan an unannounced visit at this hour? Who would apparently send his or her ride away before making sure Liz was home?
Wishing she’d gotten around to installing a chain on the door, she cautiously pulled it open as she switched on the outside light.
For a moment, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Was this one of those dreams within a dream where you thought you were awake but you weren’t? She whispered, “Alex?”
He blinked at the sudden influx of light just as she shivered from the gust of cold wind that blew a handful of fallen leaves around her feet. He was dressed in jeans and a heavy jacket and looked far better than he had a right to look.
“Liz,” he said at last, running a hand through his thick, dark hair. “My God, if you aren’t a sight for sore eyes.”
She managed to mumble, “I thought…how…”
“In a minute, sweetheart. Just give me a minute.”
Heart racing, she glanced over his shoulder. Across the narrow country road, she caught a glimpse of her only neighbor’s lights. She searched her own heavily shadowed yard for—
For what? Sheriff Kapp and a posse of deputies?
She found nothing but the forbidding shapes of denuded fruit trees twisting in the wind, dancing to the mournful sound of ocean breakers hitting the base of the cliff below.
Alex cleared his throat. “May I come in?”
A death grip on the door kept her on her feet while she considered his question. Her instinct was to say no.
“Dave Sullivan gave me a ride,” he explained as though giving her time to gather her wits. “I didn’t want you running around at night,” he continued. “Not with the baby coming.”
As her free hand flew to her midsection, her indecision fled. “I think you should leave,” she said, pushing on the door.
He blocked it with his hand. “Honey, wait. I need to talk to you. It’s important.”
Except for a few glimpses of him in the courtroom when she’d testified at his trial, she hadn’t seen him since the night he killed her uncle. She’d thought she’d never see him again. Wasn’t that what he’d wanted?
“Liz, please.” He had somehow moved across the threshold. Letting go of the door, she pushed against his chest, but he caught her hands and held onto them. “Liz!”
For the first time, she met his gaze straight on. His stormy eyes and gaunt cheeks hinted he wasn’t sleeping or eating well. His skin was pale, unnaturally so for a man who had spent most of his life outdoors, whose passion was fighting infernos and saving lives, who camped and hiked year-round. Jail time can do that to a man, she figured, trying to imagine what he’d look like after ten years behind bars, twenty.
“I’m home,” he said gently.
She felt a biting pain behind her nose as tears gathered there but went no farther. She fought with herself to discount the way his voice caressed her, the sudden ache his presence created, an ache she’d spent months trying to overcome, to deny. Pulling away, she said, “No—”
“I’m home,” he repeated fiercely, his face mere inches from hers, his breath warm against her chilled skin. His gaze bored two holes into her. “Home, Liz.”
And feeling the pressure of his hands clasped around hers, sensing the heated power of his body standing so close, she felt every last ounce of self-control and pride slip away. Horrified at her own weakness, she nevertheless burst into tears, slumping against him, relying on his quickness and strength to save her from hitting the floor in a pitiful heap.
He caught her with forceful hands. Supporting her against his side, he shut the door, shielding them both from the wild cold night and prying eyes.
It’s all been a terrible mistake, her heart chirped like a demented songbird. Haven’t you somehow known it all along? He’s your husband and he’s home.
For the first time in months the planet fell back on its axis.
“You’re really here,” she whispered as he wiped away her tears with trembling fingers whose touch she’d thought she’d never again feel. Then he lowered his head and kissed her.
How many nights had she dreamed this very thing? Alex’s soft, sensuous mouth pressed against hers, his big hands gently cupping her face, his lips everywhere, grazing her forehead, eyelids, mouth, chin. She held onto him as tightly as she could, afraid he might vanish from her arms the way he always vanished from her dreams, but he was flesh and blood and real.
A million questions rattled around in her brain. She shut them out. For the moment, it was enough to go on feelings and her feelings were telling her that everything she’d thought about her husband for the past several months had been unequivocally wrong. Damn the facts, damn his own confession. Damn the way he’d turned away from her, shut her out. All wrong.
Not for long. Not now…
Like the relentless advances of an unwelcome suitor, reason refused to leave her alone. Things weren’t so simple. She’d come a long way in the past six months, further than Alex knew. She’d had no choice.
Pulling herself away, she whispered, “What are you doing here?”
“I came because of you.” Tugging on her hands, he led her toward the light cast by the floor lamp. “Look at you.” His gaze dropped from her face to her distended middle and he put a hand on her belly, lightly cradling his baby. She involuntarily flinched at the intimacy.
“I missed all this,” he said. His gaze lifted again and his expression was so carefree he almost looked like the boy she’d fallen in love with over twelve years before. “Do we know the sex?”
“No,” she said, her voice shaky. She’d worked hard to eradicate the surreal quality that had suffused her life for the past several months, thanks to him, but now it was back.
His gaze swept over her, leaving her breathless, reawakening memories of him she’d fought desperately to forget. Alex after a fire, alive and safe; Alex in bed, reaching for her, loving her…
“You cut your hair,” he added, fingering the tousled blond tresses. “I like it.”
She’d cut her hair because he’d loved it long.
“Honey, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. Come sit down.”
Summoning her resolve, holding her breath, she blurted, “I’m not moving from this spot until you explain how a man who should be in prison is suddenly here in my living room.”
He looked at her as though the answer were obvious. “I know you’re surprised—”
“You could say that,” she whispered.
His gaze traveled every square inch of the room as he took off his jacket, revealing a black shirt she’d never seen before. It didn’t fit him very well; it was too tight across his broad shoulders, too short in the sleeves. He caught sight of the cat who now sat on his haunches, both almond shaped eyes wide open. “Sinbad, you little devil, how are you, boy?” He picked Sinbad up and as Liz watched, the cat rubbed Alex’s chin in a show of affection and trust. Liz found herself thinking that life was easier if you were a cat.
Alex put Sinbad down and draped his jacket over the back of a chair. He stared at the unused fireplace for a moment, then back at her. “You still can’t stand an open flame in the house,” he said softly.
She shrugged as he strode to the door with the unconscious grace that had first attracted Liz in high school. Back then, she’d been a shy freshman and he’d been the star varsity basketball player, the resident bad boy, four years her senior. It had been love at first sight.
He locked the door then yanked the drapes closer together, blocking out the black, moonless night.
From what—or whom—was he hiding?
Rolling up each sleeve in turn, he faced her again, more in control now, thinner than in the past but still unbelievably fearless and every inch the man she’d pledged to love for eternity.
She said, “Why are you stalling?”
Staring at her as though she might disappear at any second, he whispered, “Because I can’t believe I’m really here. I thought I’d never see you again.”
She nodded, well acquainted with that particular feeling.
He moved close to her and added, “There’s going to be a new trial.”
A veritable tidal wave of relief flooded Liz’s central nervous system. Her legs felt wobbly again, but all she could think about was that a new trial must mean new evidence and some kind of…well, mistake or misunderstanding.
“Come sit down before you fall down,” he insisted, taking her arm.
She obligingly sank down on a chair and stared up at him. “I’m okay,” she insisted, relieved when he let go of her. It was hard to think clearly in his presence, let alone form a coherent thought when he actually touched her.
And then his statement resounded in her head. A new trial? How could that be? She knew his case had gone to jury two days before. The television and radio had been full of little else; the newspaper had all but locked him up and thrown away the key. She’d avoided watching, listening to or reading anything that had to do with his trial. What was the point? He’d confessed. He’d shut her out. He was history.
He pulled the ottoman near her chair and sat down opposite her, so close their knees touched. Propping his hands on his thighs, he leaned closer still. “The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.”
Liz rubbed her hands together. The old house tended to be cold anyway and having the door open for so long hadn’t helped matters, nor did the tension presently building in her chest. “How could that happen when they had your confession?”
His gaze met hers and slid away. “My lawyer was too good.”
“And that means?”
“I told him not to mount a defense, but he said he couldn’t do that because it would provide grounds for a mistrial. He offered up enough witnesses and enough doubt about the way my confession was obtained and the way the evidence was handled that it planted a seed of doubt in some of the jurors’ minds. The D.A. has warned me there’ll be a new trial. My being out is only temporary.”
As she tried to assimilate all this, she started to shake. Alex retrieved his jacket and draped it around her shoulders. He stared down at her, his face caught in shadows, holding her gaze with glittering intensity.
“Sheriff Kapp is foaming at the mouth,” he said. “He told me he’s coming after me. That’s why I’m here, Liz, to warn you. It’s imperative you and I have our stories straight. This time Kapp will build a tighter case. This time his pride is on the line and re-election is right around the corner.”
The jacket was still warm from Alex’s body heat, and she pulled it close, burying her hands in the heavily piled lining. “You want me to lie for you?”
His brow wrinkled as he sat back down.
She realized with a sinking heart that she’d been foolishly nurturing the hope that a miracle had occurred, that he truly was innocent and that someone on the jury had realized it. That hope now shriveled up and died as had all the other hopes before it. She said, “Nothing’s really changed.”
“Everything’s changed. I thought you were safe, but you’re not, that’s what I’m trying to tell you, that’s why I’m here.”
She pointed at the door and said, “I want you to leave. Right now. Go.”
He managed to look bewildered for a moment. “How can you ask me to leave?”
“You have no right to come back here and try to make me feel…”
“Feel what, Liz?”
“Anything,” she mumbled.
He got to his feet in one fluid motion. “I suppose that explains the divorce papers delivered to the jail?”
She narrowed her eyes as months of frustration and grief fueled her anger and words too long unspoken flowed from her mouth with a life force of their own. “When you killed my uncle, you killed us. You killed any feelings I had for you. You killed our future. And you did it for his money. Was his money the only reason you married me in the first place? Was Uncle Devon actually right about you?”
Alex stood over her, eyes blazing again, fists balled, and for the first time in her life, Liz felt afraid of him. She sat frozen in her chair as he dropped to his knees by her side.
“You know why I married you,” he said, his voice deep with emotion. “In your heart, you damn well know why and it had nothing to do with money.”
Every womanly part of her knew he was right. It was just that his abrupt arrival had jolted her. She’d spent months mourning, she’d made herself sick with grief. It had been a long and difficult journey to escape the yawning abyss that had threatened to swallow her and her baby. She wasn’t about to allow herself to stand so close to the edge ever again.
“I don’t understand this charade,” he added in a hushed whisper, sending new chills down her spine that had nothing to do with the temperature. “We both know what really happened the night your uncle died. Okay, I signed on for the long haul. I was willing—I am willing—to protect you and our baby until my dying breath. Nothing’s changed when it comes to that.”
Liz shook her head. “What are you talking about?”
He pushed himself to his feet and glared down at her. “You know what I’m talking about.”
She shook her head. “No, I don’t. What do you mean you were willing to sign on for the long haul? What’s going on here, Alex? Stop talking in riddles.”
When he finally spoke, his voice was low and ominous, as though he sensed a thousand ears pressed against the windows, listening to their every word. Standing over her, his expression grim, he said, “Remember the night your uncle died? We went to his house to tell him about your pregnancy. There was a terrible fight.”
“We left the party and you were called to an emergency at the station,” she added. “The old church at Taylor’s Crossing was on fire.” She shuddered as she thought about that fire, mercifully without victims.
Alex stopped dead in his tracks and pinned her with a laser stare. “When I left you, you were still furious with Devon.”
Tears puddled in her eyes as old feelings of inadequacy welled up inside her. “Of course I was furious. For years I tried to please that man. I never could. That night was the last straw. The things he said—”
“He didn’t want you saddled to someone like me,” Alex said. “He wanted better for you than one of the Chase boys.”
One of the Chase boys. Sure, Alex had come from a disreputable family but he’d grown into a wonderful, trustworthy man. Her uncle had refused to see that. To him, Alex would always be the boy he’d forced Liz to break up with in high school—the boy with no future.
Did wonderful, trustworthy men commit murder? an inner voice demanded.
Alex a murderer. It didn’t sit right, it never had.
But he confessed.
It always came down to his confession.
“Later that night, you went back to his house,” Alex said softly.
“How do you know that?” She’d never admitted that bitter, pointless trip to anyone.
Alex said, “I saw you.”
Before he killed her uncle? Had she been that close to being able to stop him? A cry of anguish erupted and died in her throat. “I thought Uncle Devon might have had a…I don’t know, a change of heart,” she mumbled. “Except he didn’t have a heart and I should have known it. I guess I was still hoping he might come through.”
“But he didn’t.”
“Of course not. It was foolish of me to think he would. He was more sure than ever that I’d eventually do just as he wanted, like I always did. He said he was going to call his lawyer in the morning and set up the papers giving everything he had to a local nature conservatory. He didn’t care about the wetlands, it was just his way of showing me he had control. Because he judged everything by its monetary worth, he thought I did, too.”
Alex cleared his throat. “He never understood you.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.”
He stared at her so hard she felt the back of her skull throb. Finally, he said, “Don’t ever tell anyone else you went back there that night. Do you understand? Not a soul.”
“Not a soul,” he repeated. “Promise me.”
She took a deep breath. “Okay.”
“You didn’t tell Kapp, did you?”
“I was in shock when he came, but I kept thinking the less I said the better it would be for you. After he left, I called your lawyer. I told him I wanted to help you. I couldn’t believe you’d ever kill anyone. But he confirmed that you’d confessed. He said you didn’t want any help from me, you didn’t even want to see me or talk to me. Alex, do you have any idea how much that hurt?”
“Because for all intents and purposes, I lost you that night. I thought I was going to lose our baby, too. I’d lost one before and the thought of losing another… The doctor put me in bed for a week.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re out on a technicality. You’re still a murderer. I won’t have you around me or my baby.”
To her astonishment, Alex laughed. He laughed until a single tear rolled down his cheek, then he sat abruptly in one of the wing back chairs that flanked the stone-cold fireplace and buried his face in his hands.
Liz watched him with growing alarm until she found herself standing by his side. She shrugged off his coat and laid it aside. He apparently sensed her closeness for without looking up, he reached for her, caught the hem of her sweatshirt, pulled her onto his lap. He rested his cheek against her breasts, his chin on the curve of her belly.
While one tear did not a crying-jag make, she’d never seen Alex shed even that before. She’d always been the one to weep at the drop of a hat, not him. She wrapped her arms around him and smoothed his hair with an unsteady hand. She tried to dismiss how sitting in his lap made her feel. The way her body came alive. The way the world suddenly seemed to be okay again despite the fact that nothing was okay. It was like finally waking from a long, dreary sleep.
But where would this feeling of renewed life take her? Into heartbreak territory, that’s where. Into a new trial, the outcome of which didn’t matter because he was guilty and that was enough to destroy them. She concentrated on feeling pity. It was safer.
Eventually, he looked up. She fought the urge to touch his lips with her own. How else does a woman comfort a man she loves, even a man she knows she shouldn’t love?
His expression guarded, he said, “I found your long green scarf.”
She blinked a few times, totally at sea.
“The one I gave you for your birthday because it matched your eyes.”
“I know which scarf you mean,” she said. “But I don’t understand—”
“You left it behind. I only had a second before I heard the sirens so I did the only thing that came to me. I hid it.”
Blood pounded in her ears, making it hard to follow his words.
“Liz,” he said gently, “I passed you a few miles from your uncle’s estate. It’s a narrow road and it doesn’t go much of anywhere else. You were driving back into town.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“It was dark and my old black truck looks like half the other black trucks in the county. But you have that white sports car.”
“I don’t understand, Alex. What’s this got to do with my scarf?”
“I found your scarf in your uncle’s hands. For an eternity or two, I just stared at it, trying to make sense of it until I heard the sirens. Then I untwisted it somehow and hid it. By then, the sheriff was there. He took me into custody. I tried to call you. I tried for hours. You weren’t home.”
Liz had a hard time finding her voice. Her throat felt dry and raspy. She said, “After I talked to my uncle for the last time, I went to my office at the mall and started packing my things. I wrote a letter of resignation. I was going to give it to him the next day. I was going to quit.”
“When I couldn’t reach you, I thought it meant you were hiding,” Alex said. “The sheriff started talking about finding you. He started saying that everyone, even him, had heard you threaten your uncle. He said everyone knew you were just waiting for your uncle to die so you’d be rich. He said maybe you’d killed your uncle. I’ve had time to think about it since then. I think he was goading me. At the time I just wanted to strangle him.”
“Why would he do something like that? He was my uncle’s protégé, and while we weren’t exactly friends, he’s always been pleasant to me.”
“He wanted me to admit I killed your uncle.”
Liz found herself on her feet, trembling. “What are you saying, Alex?”
He took her hands and held them firmly. “I think your uncle came at you with that letter opener and you struggled with him. I think your fear gave you enough strength to protect yourself and our baby. I think that during the struggle, the letter opener got turned on him or he fell on it, I’m not sure which. I think it was an accident or self-defense.”
She pulled her hands away and backed up. “You think I killed my uncle?”
Brow furrowing, he nodded. “Yes. Of course I do.”
“And then allowed you to take the blame for me?”
She felt all the blood drain out of her face.
“I didn’t kill him,” she cried, hurt beyond bearing that he could think she would betray him.
He looked as pale and stunned as she felt. He swore under his breath and stared at her.
“I didn’t kill him,” she repeated.
Alex swallowed so hard she could see his throat work. His eyes narrowed dangerously. Their stares stretched on and on until Liz finally sat down on the ottoman. “I don’t understand. You confessed. Now you’re telling me you didn’t murder my uncle?”
“I didn’t murder your uncle.”
“But you thought I did?”
“Yes, I did,” he said, and closed his eyes. She could only imagine what he was thinking and feeling.
“I went to tell Devon he could give his blasted money to a flea circus for all I cared,” he added, opening his eyes and searching her face. “I wanted him to leave us alone. Don’t you think I know how hard it’s been for you to keep peace with him, to do things his way, how impossible it’s been? But telling you to divorce me, to ‘get rid’ of our baby if you ever wanted to see a dime of his money—when he said those things, he burned his bridges as far as I was concerned and I wanted him to know it.
“He was in the den, crumpled on the floor in front of his desk, your scarf tangled in his fingers. He was warm. My EMT training kicked in and I felt for a pulse, I thought maybe—but he was already dead.”
“And then Sheriff Kapp showed up. He’d received a telephone tip that something was going down at Devon Hiller’s house. He asked me to come in with him, to answer questions. I still wasn’t saying much of anything, just that I’d found Devon like that but I had his blood on my sleeve and apparently I even touched the handle of the letter opener because they found my prints on it. The sheriff started insinuating things about you and all I could think about was the murder scene. I’d found the scarf but had I missed something else you left? I confessed there’d been a struggle and he’d fallen. The sheriff was anxious to wrap it all up in record time and he was absolutely sure he had his man.”
“You wouldn’t let me help you.”
“I wanted the investigation to begin and end with me. I thought you would understand what I was doing, why I had to do it. Your silence confirmed you did.”
“My silence?” Liz said, angry now. “What choice did you give me but silence?”
He shook his head again.
“You didn’t give me a chance to explain.”
“Explain what? How mad you were? How mad we both were? You and I were prime suspects. Everyone at the house that night heard you threaten your uncle, heard you tell him you’d had enough, that you weren’t going to take it anymore.”
“I meant I was going to quit my job and stop subjecting myself to his manipulations.”
“Dozens of bystanders only heard a threat. You were pregnant. You’d had a miscarriage a few months before and I couldn’t let anything happen to you.”
“So you told them you did it.”
“For once, my family history came in handy. Nobody ever really expected a Chase man to stay out of trouble for long. I don’t think it strained anyone’s imagination to picture me as a killer. Logic said it had to be one of us.”
“But, Alex, it wasn’t one of us.”
He stared at her. “No, it wasn’t.”
Liz felt her heart thump wildly. Alex reached out and took her hand, kissed her palm, and folded her hand in his. His fingers flicked over her bare finger, absent of her thick gold wedding band. “No,” he repeated, “it wasn’t.”
“So are you.” His relief was palpable and for the first time she understood the depth of the burden he’d been carrying. He’d thought she’d killed her uncle, he knew he hadn’t. He’d given up his freedom and his chance to know his child—all for her. He’d thought she’d been willing to repay this sacrifice by leaving him to suffer the consequences alone. And then she’d asked him for a divorce.
She felt herself lean toward him, she felt him leaning toward her. What came now, a kiss, reconciliation, everything back to the way it was? She pulled away.
His eyes demanded an explanation but she didn’t have one to offer. What he’d done was protect her and she felt humbled. But he hadn’t trusted her. She’d thought they were a team, but Alex hadn’t included her in a decision that would forever change the course of both of their lives—and that of their unborn child. Quite the opposite, he’d gone out of his way to exclude her.
His distrust of the sheriff was old news. It reminded her that Alex had learned, within the boundaries of his highly dysfunctional family, to go it alone. A stint in the army and the years at the fire station had tempered his fierce independent streak so that he’d become comfortable working as part of a team with men he respected. She’d assumed that quality would extend into their marriage, but he’d jumped to a terrible and wrong conclusion this time and he hadn’t trusted her when it counted.
More to the heart of the matter, he’d also implicated himself so thoroughly that it might never be made right because Alex was correct—the whole community had reacted to his arrest with a knowing shake of their collective head.
Another Chase man gone wrong.
Only this one hadn’t.
Alex stood, and extending a hand, helped Liz to her feet. “Are you okay now?” he asked softly. “Is the baby all right?”
“We’re both fine.”
“You must know I love you—”
This time she held up a hand to silence him. Her feelings were like tumbleweeds, roaming here and there and everywhere, rootless and brittle. “I can’t talk anymore tonight,” she mumbled.
“You’re exhausted,” he said, his voice filled with concern. Taking her hand, he looked at her with eyes so deep and midnight blue she yearned to get lost in them the way she had in the past, lost and found at the same time. He whispered, “You go to bed.”
“What about you?”
He glanced around the room then back at her. “I need to think.”
She felt a consuming shudder rack her body from the inside out and knew she needed time alone to absorb all this startling new information. For six months she’d thought him a murderer. And worse in some ways, she’d thought he had stopped loving her, stopped needing her. These feelings had never seemed, well, right, but for six months, she’d told herself that her feelings, especially when it came to Alex, were unreliable. All that didn’t change in an instant.
She picked up Sinbad who immediately started purring. Lowering her gaze, avoiding Alex’s eyes, she said, “When you do get tired, I think it would be best if you slept in the guest room.”
She could feel him staring at her pregnancy as though he was wondering if she just wanted the bed to herself for comfort’s sake or because she didn’t want him that close. She added, “There’s a sleeping bag in the closet. All your clothes are packed away in the attic.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
There was so much she wanted to say to him. She didn’t know where to start.
He moved to her side, cupped her chin and kissed her. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the moist warmth of his lips, on the undercurrent of desire she could feel pulse between them. It was all she could do to keep from asking him to join her, to hold her, to make love to her, to take away some of the pain they had unwittingly caused each other.
But she didn’t. The world had exploded tonight—again. Alex was afraid a new investigation would lead the law to her. She was more afraid that he would once again try to protect her by offering himself up like a sacrificial goat. She didn’t want him spending the rest of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
After all, it was just his word that he was innocent, just her word that she was, too. As far as she knew, the only pieces of undiscovered evidence both led back to her: the silk scarf and her late-night visit, the one she’d thought no one knew about.
Most likely, other than the true killer, she was the last one to see Uncle Devon alive.
And that wasn’t exactly a comforting thought, either.
LIZ WAS INNOCENT. He should have known. She was innocent. Not self-defense, not an accident—innocent.
Of course, the flip side of that was that there was a murderer on the loose. Even worse, there was a murderer on the loose who must have thought they were all but home free. What would happen when that person learned about the hung jury and the new investigation?
Liz’s green scarf worried him. How had her uncle ended up with that piece of sand-washed silk wrapped around his fingers? Alex realized he should have asked Liz more about it and he stopped pacing long enough to glance down the hall and consider going to her room right now.
The thought of her snuggled in the bed they’d shared so many times stopped him. There was no way in the world he would be able to leave her side once he was there. Pregnant or not, she was the most sensual woman he’d ever known and he ached for her in his mind, in his body, in his soul.
He needed her.
The dark smudges under her eyes also kept him where he was. It was obvious that the past six months had been as harrowing for her as it had been for him.
Eventually, he made his way down the hall, too drained to put together a coherent thought. The surprise came when he discovered the spare room, so much bigger than his former cell, felt like a prison nonetheless.
For one thing, everything was all changed around. Gone was the twin bed, the dresser and chairs, the wooden desk he’d brought from his apartment when they married. Instead, there was a navy colored futon against one wall and a glass desk topped with a high-tech computer on the other.
Liz was good with computers. He thought them a giant waste of time better spent outdoors. And how he had missed the outdoors. Even the short, cool walk from Dave’s truck to Liz’s door with the tangy taste of the sea on his tongue, the crunch of gravel and redwood fronds under his feet, the roar of the ocean below and the boughs whipping in the wind above had been seconds of pure bliss. Freedom. Wonderful, messy, beautiful freedom.
He stripped down to his shorts and crawled into the sleeping bag. The flannel felt good against his skin, comforting somehow, reminding him of all the camping trips he’d taken with Liz, of the fireside romance that had taken place once they zipped their bags together and made love beneath the stars.
He heard the creak of her bedsprings and wondered if she was as wide-awake as he. The wall was just too damn thin.
Getting dressed again, he abandoned the sleeping bag and retreated to the living room but found little comfort. Memories were everywhere he looked. As lonely as his cell had been, what had it been like for Liz to be caught here in an old house full of ghostly reminders?
What in the world was he going to do?
Find the killer, make him or her pay, that’s what he was going to do.
Over and over again, he recalled the night he and Liz had driven to her uncle’s house. Devon Hiller had been hosting a party celebrating the twentieth anniversary of his pride and joy, the Harbor Lights Mall. There had been scads of people present. He and Liz had told Devon about the baby in private, but the ensuing explosion had spilled out of the study and into the house. Everyone had heard everything that was said.
Sure, he’d wanted to strike Devon Hiller dead in his tracks. How could he not when Devon’s cruel tongue lashed out at the woman he loved? But as Liz fought back, probably for the first time in her life, Alex had stood there, rigid with fury, afraid that if he acted he wouldn’t be able to contain himself. When he’d finally looked at Liz he’d been stunned by the expression on her face. It was as though she saw the old man for who he really was, or at least finally understood it. He couldn’t wait to get her out of there.
And later, when he’d found Hiller’s body, he’d assumed this insight had given his gentle wife the courage to return for a final, private confrontation that had led ultimately to the need to protect herself and her baby.
Restless, Alex roamed the house. He looked at the Homer print of a breaching sailboat on the wall, at the books stacked two deep on the shelves, at the catnip mouse abandoned near Sinbad’s water bowl, and once again vowed never to return to prison.
Unless he had to protect Liz.
Who had hated Devon Hiller enough to kill him? Hell, who hadn’t? No, that wasn’t true. People often hated other people, but not to the point of killing them.
Okay, who kills a man so old and riddled with self-inflicted health problems that he was due to self-destruct within a year anyway? Why take the chance? Why not just wait until the old guy dies of natural causes? According to his will, the only one who stood to benefit from his death was Liz.
Alex watched the sky grow gradually lighter while standing out in back near the bluff. The cold wind of the night before had given way to a light rain which felt great. Cold, wet, great. Seagulls wheeled overhead and the wooden stairs leading down the hillside to the beach below disappeared in swirling mists. Waves crashed against the shore, retreating with a loud swish. A few hours from now, at high tide, there would be no beach, just the relentless surf beating against the huge rocks at the base of the cliff.
Liz had been orphaned days before her eighth birthday when a fire burned her family’s home to the ground. Only the fact that Liz was staying at a friend’s house had spared her. Her uncle had taken her in, but as soon as she turned twenty-one and inherited her parents’ money, she’d bought this place and moved out on her own. Alex imagined that streak of autonomy had irritated the hell out of her uncle but he shouldn’t have worried. Liz might have moved ten miles north, but for years after, she’d still worked hard to please the man who had raised her, managing his biggest mall, sweeping up after him when he alienated his employees.
Slowly, Liz was fixing the house up, making it into a home, and though he worried about her spending so much time out here alone, he couldn’t deny that there was something very life affirming about living in one of nature’s more spectacular pockets. Last spring, they’d talked about building a fenced backyard before the baby came. He made a mental note to start it now.
A movement in the house caught his eye. He turned to see that Liz had come to the glass door and was staring at him, a yellow towel in one hand.
He was still getting used to her ballooned figure. When last he’d seen her, she’d been angular on the outside and soft in the middle. Now she was just the opposite. It made him feel awful that he was responsible for the guarded edge he detected in her.
He had to find out what she remembered about her scarf. If she hadn’t left it in her uncle’s den, then someone else had taken it there and that someone must have wanted to implicate Liz.
As he crossed the wet ground, he saw her move away from the door, leaving the towel draped over the back of a kitchen chair. He left his wet shoes and the raincoat under the overhang, went inside and dried his short hair as she took a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator. Sinbad, twining his way around her legs, meowed in that strident Siamese cry that always reminded Alex of a small baby.
“Did you sleep okay?” she asked, turning to look at him.
“You look great,” he said.
She glanced down at her maternity clothes and protruding belly and smiled wistfully. “Oh, yeah, I’m a real treat. That isn’t your shirt, is it? Or your jacket?”
“Dave brought me some of his brother’s stuff. Liz, what do you remember about your green scarf?”
She popped slices of bread in the toaster. “Move, Sinbad,” she scolded the cat who squeezed his eyes at her and stood his ground. She faced Alex with a troubled expression. “I don’t know. I thought about that last night after I went to bed. When had I worn it last, where had I last seen it? But I can’t remember. It just seems that I had it and then I didn’t have it.”
He picked up the cat and rubbed his sable ears. “What about at the party?”
“I don’t know. It’s been so long ago and so much has happened, I don’t remember what I was wearing that night. I do recall that we hadn’t changed clothes after work or dressed up or anything. It’s important, isn’t it?”
“Very. And you were wearing a greenish-blue dress.”
She looked thoughtful, then shook her head again. “I know the dress, I used to wear it with your scarf, but I don’t remember if I did that night or not. It’s no use.”
“It’ll come to you,” he said with confidence, desperate to ease the strain on her face. He put Sinbad down on an empty chair and added, “I notice you have a big old computer in the guest room now. You know how hopeless I am on those things. But maybe you can use it to help us figure out who really killed your uncle.”
She bit her lip. “I was thinking. Maybe you should go to Sheriff Kapp or the D.A. and explain this…misunderstanding.”
She was dressed in a pale-blue cotton blouse and loose white sweater, clothes that did nothing to add color to her washed-out complexion. Was she beautiful? Of course, but her beauty was accidental now. With an incredulous tone to her voice, she said, “What do you mean, ‘No’?”
“Think about it. A brand-new story, a retraction of my confession, they’ll all just think I’m grasping at straws. Worse, the information that you were at your uncle’s house later that night to say nothing of the fact that a piece of your clothing was found in his hand will put you under scrutiny, and maybe not just for second degree murder like me. Your scarf might be interpreted as a would-be weapon that suggests premeditation, they might go after the death penalty. Absolutely no way we’re ever going to chance it.”
“I’ve been thinking, too. I need to figure out who killed your uncle and how to prove it.”
“You’re not an investigator. We’ll hire a really good lawyer—”
“I don’t want your name coming into any of this until I know who’s responsible.”
She jerked open the refrigerator and emerged with the orange juice. He set out small glasses and watched as she poured the juice. “That’s very noble, but I repeat, you’re not an investigator.”
Taking the juice to the table, he called over his shoulder. “That baby you’re carrying is mine, Liz.” He moved to her side and gently touched her tummy, praying she wouldn’t flinch like she had the night before. When she didn’t, he left his hand where it was. “I want his or her name to be one he or she will be proud to own. Now that I know you’re innocent, I won’t rest until I clear that name. That’s a promise.”
She stared into his eyes and said, “Can you feel it?”
He hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. “Feel what?”
She put her hand over his and pressed down a little. “Right here. The baby. Kicking up a storm.”
And suddenly he felt a muffled thump against his palm. “Yes,” he said, grinning. “Yes.” He felt several more soft kicks and then it seemed as though Liz’s whole belly kind of shifted to the side.
“You just experienced a rollover,” Liz said. “Trust me, it’s quite a sensation from the inside.”
“I bet it is,” he said, longing to lift her blouse and lay his cheek against her stomach. Instead he reluctantly dropped his hand.
“You have to get over worrying about implicating me, Alex,” she said as she set their plates on the table. “We have to tell—”
“No,” he repeated, and sat down opposite her.
“You still don’t trust anyone, do you?”
“I trust you,” he said.
“But you didn’t trust me when it mattered. You didn’t give the law a chance. You still won’t.”
“You mean that idiot, Kapp.”
“Roger Kapp isn’t so bad.”
“He’s a dangerous fool. Maybe my poor opinion of him stems from the fact that he was out at my house a lot as I grew up, hassling my brothers. He was a deputy then and liked to throw his weight around. Or maybe it’s the way he used you to get to me.”
“Try to put the past behind you. Let’s just talk to him—”
“Look, it’s my hide we’re talking about. And I’m the one who fouled things up. Now, eat something. You need to keep your strength up.”
For the first time since she’d opened the door the night before, she really smiled. Alex drank in the sight—to him more breathtaking than any sunrise—and hoped he’d find a way to make it happen again.
“Tonight we share the same bed,” he said softly, admiring the lovely curve of her jaw. This new clarity of her features was one of the surprising bonuses of her shorter hair. He could see the long, graceful line of her neck, her sweet earlobes, her golden eyebrows. “I don’t know the rules about sex and pregnancy, but surely being held in a husband’s arms is on the approved list,” he added tenderly.
The smiled faded and she grew increasingly silent. He tried concentrating on the taste of fresh eggs and icy juice. He tried living in the moment, relishing the sounds of the soft rain on the roof, the hum of the refrigerator, the distant thunder of waves. The very fact that he was back in the middle of his own life, seated at his own table, looking at his own wife, was astounding and cause for profound thankfulness. He tried to ignore the black cloud he could feel hovering over them both.
Nothing worked. Liz fed Sinbad bits of egg which he seemed to demand with strident yowls. She folded and refolded her napkin, moved her juice glass from one side of the placemat to the other.
“Remember when you found out you were pregnant?” he asked.
That got her attention. She said, “Yes. Of course.”
“You put on that tight red dress with the low, sexy back and bought a bottle of sparkling apple cider. You even soaked off the cider label and replaced it with a champagne label, remember? You made sure we had the evening alone, made a platter of fancy little things to eat, sat me down, mumbled something I couldn’t understand and then started fidgeting. In fact, before you finally got the news out, you did everything but reline the kitchen shelves.”
She smiled at the memory. “Well, I was nervous.”
“I know. And now you’re at it again.”
She stopped folding her napkin into triangles and looked up at him.
“Besides everything, Liz, what’s troubling you?”
He put his hand over hers. “I’m not an idiot. Come on, fess up, what’s wrong?”
She cast him a wary glance and bit her top lip. “I just keep thinking about how you must have hated me.”
There was nothing in the world she could have said that would have astonished him more. “What are you talking about?”
Brushing wayward strands of pale hair from her forehead, she said, “You thought I killed Uncle Devon and then sat by while you took the blame for it.”
“No, no, honey. I thought you understood that I understood—”
“You thought I was more worried about myself than I was about you. It makes me feel terrible that you could have thought that of me.”
He shook his head, unsure what to say. Why hadn’t it occurred to him that his delicate wife would no more stand aside and let him take the blame for something she did than fly to the moon?
Laying her fork aside, gaze averted, she added, “You didn’t turn to me when it mattered most. You pushed me and our marriage aside and went it alone. I…I feel as though I can’t trust you anymore. I don’t want you behind bars for something you didn’t do, for trying to protect me, but beyond that I…I don’t know. About us, I mean. About our future. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t mean that,” he said.
A single tear rolled down her cheek as she averted her gaze.
She meant it.
Liz stared at the computer screen and tried to figure out how she was supposed to use it to help find a killer. Overhead, she could hear Alex’s footsteps as he moved around the attic looking in boxes. Sinbad must be up there with him, she thought, because every once in a while, she could hear him throw in his two cents via a throaty meow.
Silly as it might seem to non–cat lovers, Sinbad had been her lifeline while Alex was gone. He was someone to come home to, someone who needed her and never complained if she moped about all day in a robe. He ate pretty much anything she fed him, liked to sit for long periods in her lap—back when she had one—and punctuated her remarks with snappy sounds so it seemed he was really listening.
She moved from randomly surfing the Internet to checking her e-mail. She had one message and it was from her friend and co-worker, Ron Boxer. He’d sent it early that morning and a business question was followed by a personal one—did she want to meet him downtown for lunch? Hands poised over the keyboard to explain why she couldn’t, she paused.
Why couldn’t she? Getting away from everything suddenly sounded like a fantastic idea. She typed a positive response and suggested Ron invite his sister, Emily, to join them. Talking to friends would be good therapy.
An hour later she was still at the computer, finishing the outline for a marketing blitz for the mall. Hiller Properties was a vast and complicated conglomerate, woven together by her uncle and his lawyers. Since her uncle’s death, his properties had been tied up, but she was still the one in charge and would be even more invested and involved once the dust settled.
However, after the upcoming office Christmas party, which she felt duty-bound to host, she was off on maternity leave for an indefinite time. Lately, she’d felt herself entertaining ideas of bailing out. To counteract these treasonous thoughts, she’d been working harder than ever.
Of course, there was always the possibility that once the sheriff started digging, someone else would come forward with the news that they’d seen her visiting her uncle late that night. Maybe someone else had seen her car or maybe the maid heard her voice and never mentioned it because what was the point, Alex was guilty? Maybe, despite Alex’s best intentions, she’d still wind up in jail!
She whirled around in her office chair as Sinbad bounded across the room and landed on the desktop. Papers and pencils went flying as the big cat settled on top of a stack of books and immediately began washing his face with a silky brown paw.
Alex stood in the doorway. He’d put on gray sweats; she almost expected to hear him say he was on the way to the gym. In the background, she heard the tumbling growl of the drier.
“You startled me!”
“Find anything interesting on the computer?”
“I’m not sure where to look. I can’t find the Murderers Anonymous site.”
Smiling, he said, “I have a few ideas we’ll talk about later. Meanwhile, you made a nursery out of my old den.”
It was a three bedroom house and she’d chosen the bedroom across the hall for the nursery because of the light. “Yes.”
Looking guarded, he said, “If you really won’t let me share our bed, then I’d like to throw the sleeping bag in that room.”
She gestured at the wall. “But the futon—”
“I don’t want to sleep in here. I’ll take the futon mattress across the hall and move the crib.”
“But this is all set up and ready to go,” she protested. She didn’t want him changing things. She’d created a nest across the hall and she wanted it to stay the way she’d made it. Why she felt so strongly about it was unclear to her. “It doesn’t make sense to drag things around,” she mumbled.
“I can’t sleep in this room,” he said, advancing. He stopped when he was right in front of her, forcing her to look up at him.
He seemed to consider her question as though trying to decide how honest to be. With his free hand, he fondled her hair, one of his fingers drifting down her cheek, across her chin. Every place he touched tingled with awareness. His voice very soft, he said, “Because I can hear you in our old bedroom. I can hear you move. I swear I can hear you breathe. I can picture you in bed and it drives me wild.”
It was more of an answer than she had expected, but that shouldn’t have surprised her. Alex was not only an arousing man to look at with his smoldering blue eyes, strong athletic body and dark good looks, he also exuded sexual energy, always had, and as long as she’d known him, that focus had been directed at her.
She saw desire on his face now, she felt it emanating from his body, and pregnant or not, it made her ache for his touch, reawakening parts of her that had been dormant for months.
“Whatever you want,” she said.
“That way you can work when you want to.”
“Also, until we have an idea of who really killed your uncle, we need to be cautious. The murderer might very well be someone we know.”
Liz felt a tremor move through her body. “I can’t believe it’s anyone we know,” she insisted.
He ran a hand through his hair. “We’ll go out to lunch and get a head start on a plan but first I want to stop by the firehouse and return Dave’s brother’s clothes plus check out the mood there.”
“It sounds like a good idea, but I can’t go with you.”
Alex narrowed his eyes for an instant. “Why not?”
“I already have lunch plans,” she said, uncertain why she felt so awkward. She straightened the papers the cat had disturbed. “I made them a long time ago,” she lied and mentally slapped herself for doing so. “Anyway—”
“Plans with whom?” Alex asked, backing away a little.
“Business plans,” she mumbled.
“Can’t you change them?”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“Stop pushing me, Alex.”
He glowered at her for a second, then said, “Be careful what you say to people.”
“What does that mean?”
“All I’m saying is that you and I need to sit down and make plans. We need to figure out who had motive and opportunity. Until we do, let’s not divulge more than the fact that I’m going to have a new trial.”
“You don’t even want me to mention that you’re innocent?”
His blue eyes looked intense as he said, “Absolutely not. I know it will be hard for you. People are going to be shocked that you allowed me back in your house.”
“You can’t blame them.”
“It has to be this way. We can’t take the chance that Kapp might decide to look elsewhere for the murderer until I can steer him in the right direction. I don’t want him considering you.”
“You’ve got to get over protecting me, Alex. I’m a big girl.”
“Just be careful,” he said, and added, “I’m going to take a shower.”
As he left the room, she switched off the computer and went into her room to change clothes, Sinbad on her heels. She didn’t want to be in the house while Alex showered. Some of their most intimate moments had started in that shower. Just picturing him standing in it, naked, steam rising around him, his skin glistening wet and slippery to the touch made her feel faint. She felt the overwhelming need to escape the house and Alex and all her old feelings.
RON BOXER had joined the mall staff as the leasing agent eighteen months before. An easy man to like, he’d been friends with both Alex and Liz. After Alex’s troubles began and Liz felt so alone, Ron had introduced Liz to his sister, Emily, who had just moved to town following a messy divorce. Emily bought the duplex next to Ron’s. Over the months, Ron and Emily had become the big sister and brother Liz had never had.
Ron had already arrived at the narrow Italian restaurant and waved Liz to their favorite table in back. Liz was pleased to see Emily sitting beside him.
Ron was a little shorter than Alex, with hazel eyes and fine brown hair that flopped over his forehead. A fitness nut, he biked to work every morning when the weather permitted. He was good-looking in an all-American way; the female half of the office staff had a crush on him. His sister was in many ways a smaller version of Ron with the same fawn-brown hair and attractive face. She had used her divorce settlement to open a specialty yarn shop in the mall a couple of months ago. Liz knew Ron was in his early thirties and that Emily was a couple of years older.
“We ordered for you,” Ron said as he held a chair for Liz. “Iced tea, spinach pie, extra sauce, right?”
“I’m getting too predictable,” Liz said, longing for a bowl of minestrone soup instead.
Emily leaned forward. “How is Sinbad?”
“Oh, he’s fine. You haven’t been over in a few days, you’ll have to come pay him a visit,” Liz said, and then fell silent. How could she invite friends over with things the way they were? She suddenly realized that when she’d agreed to keep Alex’s innocence a secret, she hadn’t fully appreciated how difficult it would be.
“Are you feeling okay?” Ron asked as the waitress delivered their drinks.
“You do look a little weary,” Emily added.
“I didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all. I’m fine.”
“You should have come over,” Emily said with a laugh. “Ron and I were up to all hours moving my furniture around. He seems to think I’m going to win the lottery because he’s telling me I should buy myself all new stuff.”
Ron smiled. “You need more shelves for all you doodads. Anyway, I just think she should get rid of the castoffs. Most of them came from her marriage.”
“Ron is the one stuck in the past,” Emily protested. “All he has are the few things Mother left us. There’s not much since most went to pay off her last medical bills.”
“What’s left is sentimental,” Ron said. “You must feel that way, too, Liz, about all your uncle’s stuff. He had some amazing antiques, didn’t he?”
“I was just there the one time, but I couldn’t believe the quality…and the quantity.”
“Uncle Devon was quite a collector,” Liz said, her mind only half on their conversation.
“Have you thought about how you’re going to dispose of everything after the estate is settled?”
Liz shrugged. “Not really.” The fact was that Liz had no clear idea of what to do with her uncle’s house or its contents. Sometimes she thought of moving back—it was, after all, the home she’d grown up in—and at other times she never wanted to see the place again. For the moment, the vacant house was under the care of the housekeeper.
“Maybe someday you’ll remarry,” Emily said. “Your new husband might have the education and taste to appreciate things like antiques.”
Liz was still only half listening. She wished the town newspaper came out in the morning instead of the evening so they’d already know about Alex’s hung jury. In the end, it seemed best to just get it over with. Taking a shallow breath, she said, “Alex is home.”
Her declaration was met with silence.
Ron finally said, “Alex? As in your husband, Alex?”
“How in the world did he get out of jail? He’s a murderer!” Emily added.
Liz bit her lip as she took a sip of iced tea. “It’s a little complicated,” she said, suddenly wishing she’d said no to lunch. She’d had no idea how emotional she’d feel sitting next to her two friends and how hard it would be to say so little.
The waitress reappeared with a giant round platter and all conversation ceased as she set out the food. Liz stared at her wedge of spinach pie. The smell of the rich red sauce made her queasy and she longed to leave the restaurant and go outside, go home. To Alex…
When the waitress left, Ron spoke in a deep whisper. “Are you saying he was found innocent?”
“I can’t believe it,” Emily muttered. “What kind of idiots were on that jury? Everyone knows he’s guilty.”
Ron hunched forward. “Did they decide he didn’t do it? If he didn’t, who did? This is great news, isn’t it?”
These questions, assuming the best of Alex, brought a smile to Liz’s lips. “Yes, of course, except it’s not that easy. Everything is up in the air. It was a hung jury.”
“You must be scared to death he’ll come after you,” Emily said, her huge eyes filled with alarm.
“Oh, no. Of course not. Listen—”
“But he’s a killer!” Emily said. “You need a restraining order to keep him away!”
Ron put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “Emily, let Liz explain.”
From over Liz’s shoulder came a calm voice. “Maybe I can help.”
With a thrill of recognition, Liz looked up to find Alex standing behind her. The thrill quickly degenerated to irritation. Frowning, she said, “Did you follow me here?”
He met her frown with a smile. “I made an educated guess. I know how you feel about Tony-O’s spinach pie.”
“But I told you this meeting was business. I told you—”
Ron cut in. “Oh, come on, Liz. Maybe the man is hungry. Sit down, Alex, it’s good to see you again.” Gesturing to his left, he added, “Let me introduce you to my sister, Emily Watts. I think she moved to town after…well, you know.”
Alex nodded in Emily’s direction as he took off his own jacket, a soft brown leather one that Liz had bought him for his birthday in January. She loved the way it looked on him, loved the feel of it against her cheek when he held her. She had the sudden and overwhelming desire for him to do just that, to hold her, to take her away.
He pulled out the fourth chair. “That looks good,” he said, looking at Liz’s spinach pie.
She pushed the plate toward him.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Alex took a bite and smiled. “Delicious.”
“It must beat jail food,” Emily sputtered.
The table grew very still.
“You have to excuse my sister,” Ron said. “She tends to be a little cautious where Liz in concerned. Alex, it’s good to see you. I trust there’s an explanation. I have to admit I’m dying to hear it.”
“I have to warn you,” Emily sputtered, “I won’t stand by and watch a confessed murderer harass Liz. She’s in no condition—”
“She’s pregnant with my child,” Alex said, his eyes blazing, his voice no longer teasing. “She’s my wife. I know what condition she’s in.”
Ron glanced at his sister. “Calm down. Give the man a chance.”
Liz was secretly thrilled to hear Alex leap to his own defense. As someone who had spent far too many years swallowing her emotions in deference to her uncle’s tyranny, she’d always admired the way Alex stood up for himself. He was a man of action. Giving up control and taking the blame for a murder he hadn’t committed must be galling.
“Things aren’t always as they seem, Emily,” Liz said gently. She looked back at Alex and added, “But they’re my friends, Alex. I trust them. Please, swear them to secrecy and tell them what’s going on.”
She could almost see the wheels turn in Alex’s handsome head. “If it means that much to you,” he finally said.
“It means that much,” she told him, and then excused herself. She knew if she stayed at the table, she’d be inclined to blurt out every detail, and this was Alex’s situation to control. She unhooked her coat from the rack on the way out, nodding at people she knew, but desperate for an infusion of fresh air.
Pulling her coat close around her, she stood beneath the gaily striped green-and-white awning and took deep gulps of air suffused with the pungent smells of the sea. Her frayed nerves and restless stomach slowly began to relax.
This old part of the city hadn’t been affected much by her uncle’s mall. Gift stores, restaurants and galleries still thrived when the tourists came to town during the summer and now, for the holidays, twinkling lights and garlands of fake greenery gave every storefront a jaunty air. A few blocks east, however, the shopping mall had exacted a huge toll. All these years later, there were still empty buildings. It was hard for a Ma and Pa bicycle shop to compete with any of the huge chain stores.
She sighed deeply. She’d give Alex a few moments to tell Ron and Emily as much as he thought wise, then return.
Looking up the street toward the new library, she instantly spotted the sheriff’s car parked half a block up on the other side. She searched the opposite sidewalk. There he was, Sheriff Roger Kapp, standing not a hundred feet away from her, talking to one of his deputies.
Liz felt the instant urge to retreat. Should she go back inside the restaurant? Would Kapp see her if she moved and then would he follow? Did it matter? Alex wasn’t an escaped felon. But the thought of a scene in front of Emily and Ron wasn’t pleasant. Indecision caught her like a mouse under Sinbad’s paw. Naturally, because she didn’t want him to, the sheriff looked up and locked gazes with her.
She tried a smile and a nonchalant wave.
He pointed at her.
There was nothing to do but stand there and wait while he sprinted across the street.
The sheriff was a powerfully built middle-aged man with sandy hair just beginning to gray at the temples and a drill sergeant gaze Liz felt sure intimidated the innocent as well as the guilty. He wore his uniform like a second skin. In deference to the drizzly chill, he also wore a padded jacket.
Over the years, he’d been a frequent visitor at her uncle’s Victorian estate. It was well known that Devon Hiller’s campaign support had helped win Roger Kapp the last sheriff’s election a few years back. She wondered how Kapp would fare in the upcoming election without her uncle’s backing.
Kapp stopped a few feet away, his gaze traveling her figure. In her white maternity sweater and slacks, wearing the heavy black coat, she felt like a beached Orca whale under his careful scrutiny.
“Elizabeth,” he said, tipping his hat.
“Looks like it’s about time for that baby to pop.”
She said, “A few more weeks.”
“How’s everything going for you?”
“Pretty good,” she said, wondering if his question was more complicated than it sounded.
“You know, I was noticing the last time I was at your place that you don’t have a decent lock on your front door. I know you have that squawking Siamese cat to warn you when strangers come around, but that cat isn’t a Rottweiler, he can’t really protect you.”
“No, he’d just purr a robber to death.”
“Reason I got to thinking about it all of a sudden is that your hubby made bail. I suppose you know about that damn jury.”
She diplomatically decided not to mention the fact that she also knew the mishandling of the original investigation by the sheriff’s office had contributed to the jury’s indecision. His insinuation that she needed a lock to keep Alex away was offensive, but for now she decided to let it slide. She said, “Yes, isn’t that wonderful news?”
A frown drew his brows together and when he changed position, she was aware of the creaking sound of his leather holster. “I guess that depends on your point of view.”
“I just have a feeling that everything is going to work out great.”
“It almost did,” he persisted.
Resisting the urge to turn around to make sure Alex wasn’t on his way out the door, she added, “Is there something I can do for you, Sheriff?”
“Just a friendly word for an old friend’s niece,” he said, his gaze never leaving her face. “Alex Chase is rotten through to the core, just like his father and his brothers. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turns on you, next.”
“Why would he turn on me?”
“Maybe you know something he doesn’t want you to talk about.”
“Little details, things you might not even know you know. How about I come out to your place tomorrow afternoon and we’ll have ourselves another conversation about the night your uncle died. I’ll bring along a few tools and install a decent lock for you while I’m there.”
“That’s not necessary,” she said, thinking fast. She couldn’t decide if she should mention Alex was living with her or not. Surely, he already knew, didn’t he? Didn’t Kapp’s deputies keep track of things like that? “I took care of it,” she said cautiously.
“Good, glad to hear it. I’ll be to your place right after lunch, okay?”
“Fine. I have nothing to hide.”
Sheriff Kapp grinned. “Now, Elizabeth, everyone has something to hide.”
“Do you say that from personal experience, Sheriff?”
Kapp chuckled. “I swear, there’s a little of your uncle in you, after all.”
Liz decided she’d think about his remark later, but she was pretty sure he hadn’t meant it as flattery.
His expression grew serious and it seemed to Liz as though he was ready to touch her arm. At the last second, he tucked his hand in his jacket pocket instead. “If someone is chasing your uncle’s fortune,” he said, “then you’re the next one in line.”
“I hope so. Don’t worry, though. We’ll have Alex Chase back in custody before you know it.” With another tip of his hat, he nodded.
Liz watched him sprint back across the street where he hooked up with his deputy and the two of them entered a small cafe on the corner well known for its fish and chips. Relieved that Alex hadn’t come outside, she thoughtfully re-entered the restaurant, moving through the tables as quickly as her bulk allowed.
Was it a coincidence that Kapp had shown up on this street when she just happened to be standing there? Since he didn’t seem to know Alex was staying at the house, did that mean he was following her?
Alex wasn’t at the table. She looked around the restaurant and saw him leaning against the brick wall in back, talking on the phone. She also saw the turned heads of nearby diners and knew the fact that Alex had dined at Tony-O’s would spread through the small town like a rabid brush fire. Joining Ron and Emily, she took a deep breath. Her stomach had immediately retied itself in a knot.
“You look contemplative,” Ron said as she sat down.
“I just ran into Sheriff Kapp.”
Emily’s sharp intake of breath was followed by a hasty search of the restaurant. Did she expect the long arm of the law to reach right into the restaurant and snatch Alex away? This reaction surprised Liz who thought Emily’s reserve about Alex would be a lot harder than this to wear down. “The sheriff?” Emily gasped. “Here?”
“It’s okay, Emily. He’s gone. I’m so glad you listened to Alex.”
“I can imagine how much it meant to you to learn that Alex is innocent,” Ron said. “However, frankly, I don’t know how much of his story Emily believed.”
Emily had recovered her composure. To Liz’s dismay she said, “Not very much.”
“He told us he’s innocent,” Ron said.
“What good is the word of a murderer?” Emily insisted.
“I believe in him,” Liz said gently. “Totally.”
“But he confessed. You have to be cautious—”
“He said there were details he couldn’t talk about,” Ron interrupted. “I don’t think he likes Sheriff Kapp much.”
“That’s true,” Liz said, once again appreciating Ron’s levelheaded insight. “The sheriff won’t rest until Alex is convicted. In fact, he’s coming out to my place tomorrow after lunch to interview me again. I know Alex doesn’t want me telling the sheriff the truth—I’m just not sure what to do.”
“I think you should listen to your husband, Liz,” Ron said.
Emily shook her head. “How can you say that? Alex Chase is a murderer.”
“He’s not,” Liz said yet again. Glancing from one to the other, she added, “Don’t tell Alex about Kapp, okay? He has enough to worry about right now. He’s trying to protect me from everything and everybody.”
Emily pointed over Liz’s shoulder and said, “Speak of the devil.”
Alex put his hands on Liz’s shoulders as she turned to gaze up at him. “Are you okay?”
“The fresh air helped.”
“Are you hungry?” he added. “Shall I order something for you?”
“No, really, I couldn’t eat a bite.”
“I just talked to Dave down at the station. Are you ready to go?”
Liz decided she’d rather face Kapp than more of Emily’s blatant animosity. She said, “You bet.”
Alex put on his jacket and took out his wallet. “Lunch is on me,” he said firmly as he laid money on the table. Looking at Ron, he added, “Thanks for listening. I appreciate what a good friend you’ve been to Liz during these…trying…times.”
Ron retrieved Liz’s purse from her chair and handed it to her. “Liz is special to a lot of people, Alex.”
“And you’ll be wise not to forget that,” Emily added.
“Emily!” Ron snapped.
Emily looked at Liz. “If you need anything, and I mean anything, call me…or Ron.”
“I will, thanks.”
“She’ll be fine,” Alex said. “I promise you.”
Emily opened her mouth, apparently thought better of what she’d been about to say, and closed it, her attention riveted on her untouched salad.
“You two run along,” Ron added. “I’ll try to get through to my hardheaded sister. If there’s anything I can do to help, just ask.”
Alex said thanks and Liz promised to call Emily. As Alex took her hand, Liz realized how tempting it was to believe things were eking their way back to normal, and yet that wasn’t really true and might never be. Studying the faces of the many acquaintances who watched them leave, she wondered, was the murderer among them? If he or she was, what did they make of Alex’s hand wrapped around hers?
“You are aware that your friend Emily is trying to marry you off to her brother, aren’t you?” Alex asked as they stopped in front of Liz’s car. She’d swept the street with a frantic glance as they emerged from the restaurant; Kapp’s car was still parked across the street but he was apparently still inside the cafe. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Alex’s truck was parked a space away. That truck was yet another of his belongings that Liz hadn’t gotten around to getting rid of.
She said, “Don’t be silly.”
“Don’t be naive. She hates me.”
“She doesn’t even know you.”
“Which means she hates me because of what she’s heard about me.”
“She and Alex have been staunch allies, Alex.”
“Staunch allies of yours.”
“And they both know you filed for a divorce, right?”
They not only knew, but Emily had actively encouraged her. She’d pointed out that Liz was young, she had a baby to consider, a future. Alex was as good as gone—forever.
Liz spared Alex this information. Instead she said, “Twenty-four hours ago, this entire town was under the impression you were a murderer because you told them you were. Emily doesn’t know you well enough to accept your word as quickly as Ron does. You have to give her a while.”
“I don’t have time to win a popularity contest.”
She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” he added with a sigh. “I have a feeling Emily isn’t going to be the only one in town who will feel that way about me.”
Liz unlocked her car door and slid inside. “Thank you for telling them you’re innocent. No matter what, they’re friends and I don’t know how I could have kept seeing them and talking to them without them knowing.”
“Ron is a good listener. I told him just about everything except about your scarf and your late-night visit to your uncle. Those details have to be kept secret, honey. I’ll meet you at home after I see Dave. We need to talk.”
Liz had a very quick internal dialogue about whether or not to set Alex straight regarding such mundane things as respecting boundaries when this greater issue hung over their heads like smoke hangs over an imploding volcano. She decided she might as well be honest with him. She said, “You shouldn’t have followed me today. I told you I was going to a business meeting. You showing up like that made me feel as though you didn’t listen to a word I said.”
“But it wasn’t business.”
“That’s not the point. I just want you to know that from now on, you need to respect my independence.”
One hand on top of the car, the other propped on his denim clad leg, Alex leaned down. His face was so close she could smell his aftershave. It had been months since she’d sniffed this exact odor and the way it came when mixed with his body heat. It made her head swim.
“I have nothing but respect for you,” he insisted.
She made herself get over the arousing sensation of his proximity. She made herself get over the desire for him that seemed to permeate every inch of her body and grew stronger with each passing moment. “Good. I’ve been on my own for six months.”
“On your own because of me.”
“And in some ways, it’s been a good thing.” At the hurt expression that flashed in his eyes, she added, “Don’t get me wrong, I would rather be part of a team than all on my own, but that means I’m an equal partner, not a child.”
“I never think of you as a child, honey. You are all woman, every little delicious bit of you.”
She nodded. “Well, as long as we understand each other.”
“I think we understand each other, don’t you?”
She wasn’t even sure what he was talking about anymore. Giving up, she returned his smile. “Perfectly.”
Thanks to the phone call, Dave was outside waiting when Alex pulled up in front of Ocean Bluff’s only fire station.
“I don’t think you’d better come in right now,” his friend said as he met Alex a few steps from the truck. He accepted the bag filled with his brother’s clothes and tucked it under one arm. Dave himself was a wiry man who barely came up to Alex’s chin.
“Battalion Chief Montgomery heard about the new trial but he still thinks you’re guilty as hell,” Dave added.
“Great,” Alex said, looking longingly at the station house, the doors all open. He could see the three red engines parked in the bay, all as shiny as the day they came out of production. He knew the big cardboard box inside to the left was used to collect toys for disadvantaged kids. This place had been his second home for three years; it might never be his to enter again and that thought created still another layer of ache in his heart.
“It’s politics,” Dave said, glancing over his shoulder. He seemed nervous, which wasn’t his normal state by a long shot. Any man who could share the responsibilities of raising three little kids under the age of four, let alone maneuver seventy feet of hook and ladder through the narrow roads of Ocean Bluff, had to have nerves of steel.
“Most of the guys think you got railroaded,” Dave added, lowering his voice a notch or two. “The rest think the old man pissed you off to the point where you were justified in stabbing him. Some of them think you should have received a medal or something. But Battalion Chief Montgomery, well, you know how he is.”
Cautiously, Alex said, “He’s the logical choice for Fire Chief when Purvis steps down next year. He’s also as honest as the day is long.”
“Plus he and Sheriff Kapp are suddenly buddies.”
Alex stared at Dave. “What do you mean?”
“Kapp was here earlier today.”
“What did he want?”
“I don’t know. Montgomery doesn’t exactly confide in me.” He looked over his shoulder again. His behavior made Alex jumpy and he found his gaze straying to the towering brick building, too.
“Listen,” Dave said, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I’ll ask around. Meanwhile, this is a lousy spot to hold a serious conversation. I’m off tomorrow. Why don’t you come by the house? Ginny is taking the kids Christmas shopping so we’ll have a little privacy.”
“Sounds good,” Alex said. “There are a few things I’d like to explain to you.”
Dave nodded tersely and backed up a few steps, effectively cutting short Alex’s inclination to clap him on the back or shake his hand.
Alex drove off wondering what was going on. Dave had said Chief Montgomery and Kapp were buddies. Did it matter? Alex couldn’t see a connection or that even if there was one it pertained to him, but it was bothersome, nevertheless.
Well, no matter what Dave dug up, telling him the truth about the night Devon Hiller died would feel great. Even talking to Ron had been a relief. Emily—well, Emily was another matter.
Just how much sway did that fiercely protective woman have over his wife? he wondered. Hopefully, not too much because she was going to be one tough nut to crack. Would he try for Liz’s sake? Absolutely.
What wouldn’t he do for Liz’s sake? After high school, after years apart, they’d been lucky enough to find one another again. He’d known immediately he still loved her. The miracle occurred when he discovered she still loved him.
Would she really leave him when and if this was ever resolved? Once before, he’d felt it all slip away from him. Those weeks of sitting in his cell had been a nightmare. Then the trial, the divorce papers, the hopelessness—
When Liz had told him last night that she hadn’t killed her uncle, he’d felt a surge of hope he was not going to relinquish. Liz loved him, he knew she did. She was just feeling the shock of having her husband back, looking out for her. He understood how hard-won this new independence of hers was. She would have to learn how to balance being self-reliant and protected by the man who loved her because he wasn’t going to go away.
He pulled up beside Liz’s car. The rain had stopped and the sun was struggling to get through the high, wispy gray clouds. He spent a second looking at the grove of towering redwood trees that dwarfed the single story white house and felt the sense of peace he always felt when he knew he would see Liz within moments.
As soon as he got out of the truck he heard himself hailed by Harry Idle, an apt name for a man who seemed to do very little except watch satellite television and keep track of his only neighbor’s comings and goings. Alex wasn’t too fond of Idle, but he walked out toward the fence to meet him as the older man sauntered across the country road.
“I heard on the television that they let you go,” Idle said as he came to a halt. The balding sixty-year-old had put on a few pounds since the last time Alex had seen him and after that bit of mild exertion, was breathing heavily. His weight was probably pushing three hundred and he smoked like a burning building.
Alex said, “For the time being.”
“I figure you did the community a favor by killing Devon Hiller.”
Should he protest or get away? That one was a no-brainer. “Well, see you around, Harry.”
But Harry was just getting wound up. Leaning against the mailbox post, he added, “That man ruined half this town when he put in that shopping mall. I had a nice little shoe store until Devon Hiller came along. Couldn’t afford to relocate at his fancy-schmancy mall so it went down the tubes. I haven’t had a decent job since. That’s when the Mrs. left me, too. And now, all these years later, my little girl is in a drug rehab program for the third time, all because our family got busted up by that tyrant. Downtown used to bustle. Now it’s dead. That’s all because of Devon Hiller. I’m just sorry someone didn’t put an end to that geezer twenty years ago.”
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