Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Twenty-seven)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Can't you think while I sleep?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, I felt fine. The stitches in my left arm had been in for seven days and the muscle was healing nicely. I could even dress myself. The soreness from the car accident was mostly gone, taken care of by yoga, ice packs, and general experience with sore muscles.

After about fifteen minutes Wyatt came down the stairs and saw me sitting in front of the television. "Making another list?" he asked warily as he approached.

"Yeah, but it isn't yours."

"You make lists of other people's transgressions?" He sounded a little insulted, as if he thought he was the only one who deserved a list.

"No, I'm making a list of the evidence."

He leaned over and kissed me good morning, then read the list. "Why is your red Mercedes on the list?"

"Because I've dreamed about it twice. That has to mean something."

"Maybe that the white one is a total wreck and you wish you had the red one back?" He kissed me again. "What would you like for breakfast this morning? Pancakes again? French toast? Eggs and sausage?"

"I'm tired of guy food," I said, getting to my feet and following him into the kitchen. "Why don't you have any girl food? I need some girl food."

He froze with the coffee carafe in his hand. "Women don't eat the same things that men eat?" he asked cautiously.

Really, he was so exasperating. "Are you sure you were married? Don't you know anything?"

He finished pouring his coffee and set the pot back on the hot pad. "I didn't pay that much attention back then. You've been eating what I eat."

"Just to be polite, because you were going to so much trouble to feed me."

He thought about that for a minute, then said, "Let me drink my coffee and I'll get back to you on this. In the meantime, I'm going to cook breakfast, and you'll eat it because that's all I have and I refuse to let you starve yourself."

Man, he gets testy over the least little thing.

"Fruit," I said helpfully. "Peaches. Grapefruit. Whole wheat bread for toast. And yogurt. Sometimes a cereal. That's girl food."

"I have cereal," he said.

"A healthy cereal." His taste in cereal ran to Froot Loops and Cap'n Crunch.

"Why worry about eating anything healthy? If you can eat yogurt and live, you can eat anything. That stuff's disgusting. It's almost as bad as cottage cheese."

I agreed with him about the cottage cheese, so I didn't leap to its defense. Instead I said, "You don't have to eat it; you just need to have girl food here for me to eat. If I'm going to stay, that is."

"You're staying, all right." He fished in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out something, which he tossed to me. "Here."

It was a small velvet box. I turned it over in my hand but didn't open it. If this was what I thought it was-I tossed the box right back at him. He fielded it one-handed and frowned at me. "Don't you want it?"

"Want what?"

"The engagement ring."

"Oh, is that what's in the box? You threw my engagement ring at me?" Boy, this was such a big transgression I would have to write it in block letters on its own page, and show it to our children when they grew up as an example of how not to do something.

He cocked his head while he gave this a brief consideration, then looked at me standing there barefoot, dwarfed by his robe, waiting narrow-eyed to see what he would do. He gave a quick little grin and came to me, catching my right hand in his and lifting it to his mouth. Then he went down gracefully on one knee and kissed my hand again. "I love you," he said gravely. "Will you marry me?"

"Yes, I will," I replied just as gravely. "I love you, too." Then I threw myself at him, which of course knocked him off balance, and we sprawled on the kitchen floor, except he was on bottom, so that was okay. We kissed for a while; then I sort of came unwrapped from the robe and what you might have expected to happen, happened.

Afterward he retrieved the velvet box from near the door, where it had skittered when he dropped it, and flipped the top open. Taking out a simple, breathtaking solitaire diamond, he took my left hand and gently slid the ring onto my ring finger.

I looked at the diamond and tears welled in my eyes. "Hey, don't cry," he cajoled, tilting my chin up to kiss me. "Why are you crying?"

"Because I love you and it's beautiful," I said, and gulped back my tears. Sometimes he did things just right, and when he did, it was almost more than I could bear. "When did you get it? I can't think when you would have had the time."

He snorted. "Last Friday. I've been carrying it around for a week."

Last Friday? The day after Nicole was murdered? Before he followed me to the beach? My mouth fell open.

He put a finger under my chin and pushed up, closing my mouth. "I was certain then. I was certain as soon as I saw you on Thursday night, sitting in your office with your hair up in a ponytail and wearing that little pink halter top that had all the men's tongues dragging the ground. I was so relieved to find out you weren't the one who'd been murdered that my knees nearly buckled, and I knew right then that all I'd been doing for two years was avoiding the inevitable. I made up my mind right then to get you corralled as soon as possible, and I bought the ring the next day."

I tried to take this in. While I'd been busy protecting myself until he decided he loved me the way I knew he would if he just let himself, he'd already made up his mind and had been trying to convince me. Reality altered once more. At this rate, by the end of the day I wouldn't have a real good grasp on what was real and what wasn't.

Men and women may belong to the same species, but this was proof positive to me that we are Not Alike. That doesn't really matter, though, because he was trying. He bought a bush for me, didn't he? And a gorgeous ring.

"What are you doing today?" he asked over breakfast, which consisted of scrambled eggs, toast, and sausage. I ate about a third of what he did.

"I don't know." I twined my feet around the legs of the chair. "I'm bored. I'll do something."

He winced. "That's what I was afraid of. Get ready and go to work with me. At least then I'll know you're safe."

"No offense, but sitting in your office is even more boring than sitting here."

"You're tough," he said unsympathetically. "You can take it."

He wouldn't take "no" for an answer; his track record on that so far was pretty damn consistent. So I decided my arm hurt after all our rolling around on the floor and he had to help me put on some makeup to cover my bruised cheekbones; then my hair just wouldn't do what I wanted it to do and I told him he'd have to braid it. After two attempts, he growled something obscene and said, "All right, that's it. You've punished me enough. We need to leave or I'll be late."

"You might as well learn how to braid hair," I said, giving him the Big Eyes. "I just know our little girl will wear her hair in braids sometimes, and she'll want her daddy to do it for her."

He almost melted under the onslaught of Big Eyes and mention of a little girl; then he caught himself. He was made of some stern stuff, to withstand the double whammy. "We're having all boys," he said as he hauled me to my feet. "No girls. I'll need all the reinforcements I can get without you bringing in a ringer."

I grabbed my notebook before he hustled me out to the garage and practically stuffed me into the Crown Vic. If I had to sit in a police station, I might as well work on my clues.

When we got to City Hall and he ushered me into the police station, the first person I saw was Officer Vyskosigh. He was wearing street clothes, so I guessed he had just finished his shift. He stopped and gave me a little salute. "I enjoyed the dessert you sent, Ms. Mallory," he said. "If I hadn't been late getting off my shift, I wouldn't have gotten any. Sometimes things work out for the better."

"I'm glad you enjoyed it," I said, smiling at him. "If you don't mind my asking, where do you work out? I can tell you do."

He looked faintly startled, then preened a little. "The YMCA."

"When this is over and I can go back to work, I'd like to show you around Great Bods. We offer some programs that the Y doesn't, and my facilities are first-rate."

"I looked around last week," he said, nodding his head. "I was impressed with what I saw."

Wyatt was gently herding me forward with his body, and as we turned the corner to the elevator, I looked past him and called, "Bye, now," to Officer Vyskosigh.

"Would you stop flirting?" Wyatt growled.

"I wasn't flirting. I was drumming up business." The elevator doors opened and we stepped inside.

He pressed the button for his floor. "That was flirting. So cut it out."

Chief Gray was talking with a group of detectives that included MacInnes and Forester, and he looked up when Wyatt steered me toward his office. The Chief was wearing a dark taupe suit and a French blue dress shirt. I gave him a big smile and a thumbs-up, and he self-consciously stroked his tie.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," Wyatt muttered as he parked me in his chair. "But it's too late now to change my mind, so just sit there and make lists, okay? There are some guys here who have high cholesterol, so try not to smile at them and give them heart attacks. Don't flirt with anyone who's over forty, or overweight, or married, or under forty, or single. Got it?"

"I'm not a flirt," I said defensively, and pulled out my notebook. I couldn't believe he was being so dog-in-the-mangerish. That might be list-worthy.

"The evidence says otherwise. Since you told him he'd look good in blue, Chief Gray has worn a blue shirt every day. Maybe you should clue him in on some other colors."

"Oh, how sweet," I said, beaming. "He must have gone shopping that very day."

Wyatt studied the ceiling for a moment, then said, "Do you want some coffee? Or a Diet Coke?"

"No, I'm fine right now. Thank you. Where will you be, since I have your desk?"

"Around," he said unhelpfully, and left.

I didn't have time to get bored. Several people popped into the office to thank me for the bread pudding, and ask for the recipe. The women asked, that is; I don't think it occurred to the men. Between interruptions, I doodled in my notebook and wrote down other things that might or might not be relevant, but didn't hit on that magic detail that would tie everything together.

Around lunchtime, Wyatt returned with a white sack containing two barbecue sandwiches, and with two soft drinks hooked in his fingers. He moved me out of his chair-I don't know what it is about him and his chairs, that he can't share-and looked over my list of clues and my doodles while we ate lunch. He didn't seem impressed by my progress. He did like where I'd written his name, then drawn a heart around it and an arrow through the heart. He scowled, though, when he found his new list of transgressions.

After we had eaten he said, "The lab guys say that the black hairs are original, not dyed. And that they're Asian, which is a big break. How many Asians do you know?"

Now I was really puzzled. There aren't many Asians in this part of the country, and though I'd had some Asian friends in college, we hadn't kept in touch. "None since college, that I remember."

"Remember, Native Americans are of Asian heritage."

That put a whole new light on things, because this close to the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, there were a lot of Cherokees around. I knew a lot of people with Cherokee heritage, but I couldn't think of one who might want to kill me.

"I'll have to think about this," I said. "I'll make a list."

After he left, I did make a list of all the Native Americans I knew, but even as I was writing the names, I knew this was a waste of time. None of them had any reason to kill me.

I went back to my clues. I wrote down: Asian hair. Wasn't that what all good-quality human-hair wigs were made of? Asian hair was heavy and straight and glossy; anything could be done to it, in terms of color and curl. I wrote down wig, then circled the word.

If the person trying to kill me had been smart enough to wear a wig, then we shouldn't be paying any attention to the color of the hair. This threw the field of suspects wide open again. A wild idea struck me and I wrote down a name, with a question mark beside it. This was taking jealousy to the extreme, but I wanted to think about this person some more.

Around two o'clock, Wyatt stuck his head in the door. "Stay here," he said brusquely. "We have a call about a murder/suicide. Turn your cell phone on and I'll call you when I can."

If my cell phone is with me, it's always on. The big question was, when would he be back? I'd seen how long it takes to work crime scenes; he might not be back to fetch me until midnight. There is no good that comes of not having your own wheels.

The constant noise in the big room outside Wyatt's office had lessened considerably; when I went to the door, I saw that almost everyone had left. They were all probably going to the scene of the murder/suicide. If I'd been given the choice, I would have gone, too.

To my right, the elevator dinged, signaling someone's arrival. I looked around just as the person stepped out, and I froze in shock as Jason, of all people, came into view. Well, not shock; that's too strong a reaction. More like surprise. And I wasn't frozen, either, if you want to get literal about things.

I thought about ducking back into Wyatt's office, but Jason had already seen me. A big smile lit his face and he came toward me with long steps. "Blair. Did you get my message?"

"Hello," I said with a lot less than enthusiasm, and didn't bother answering his question. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for Chief Gray. Same question back atcha."

"There were some details to clear up," I said vaguely. This was the first time I'd spoken to him in five years, and I felt uneasy about speaking at all. He was so firmly out of my life I could barely remember anything about our time together.

He was still handsome, but his looks didn't speak to me at all. The state legislature wasn't in session, but now that he was a state representative, he did things like play golf with the chief of police, and even when he was casually dressed, as now, he went for a higher fashion statement than he had before. Though he was wearing jeans and docksiders-no socks, of course-he also had on an oatmeal-colored linen jacket. Some linen blends now don't wrinkle so horrifically; he hadn't been smart enough to find one. His jacket looked as if he'd slept in it for a week even though he'd probably put it on fresh just that morning.

"I haven't seen the chief since this morning," I said, stepping back so I could terminate the conversation by closing the office door. "Good luck."

Instead of going on his way, he stepped forward into the office doorway. "Is there something like a break room where he'd go for coffee, or anything?"

"He's the chief," I said drily. "He probably has his own coffeemaker. And someone to pour it for him."

"Why don't you walk with me while I look for him? We could catch up on old times."

"No, thanks. I have paperwork to do." I gestured toward Wyatt's desk, where the paperwork was all his except for my notebook, but of course I'd gone through all his paperwork again, so in a way it was mine.

"Aw, come on," Jason cajoled. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a snub-nosed pistol. "Walk with me. We have a lot to talk about."