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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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BOOK: A Widow's Guilty Secret
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“Let’s just say I’ve been there,” he answered evasively.

This wasn’t about him, and Nick had no intentions of revisiting his own failed attempt at marital bliss. He’d married far too young and it had all fallen apart on them not that long after the vows. In keeping with his marriage, he’d been divorced young as well. He’d learned a lesson along the way: He was no good at marriage.

“Were you two talking?” he asked, trying to sound as kind as he could under the circumstances.

“Yes,” she snapped back, then shrugged helplessly as she amended, “But just barely.” She paused again, searching for a way to phrase what she wanted to say. “We’ve just had a baby—”

“Congratulations,” Juarez said with enthusiasm. “Me, too. I mean, my wife, too—except not yet. I mean—”

“He means his wife’s due anytime now,” Nick interjected. He’d heard about nothing else this entire last week. “Go on,” he coaxed Suzy, “you were saying...?” He trailed off, waiting for her to fill in the blanks.

“Despite that, Peter’s been rather distant lately,” she admitted.

The next moment, she regretted the words. Why was she baring her soul to these men? What did any of this have to do with whoever had killed Peter?

“Some men feel threatened by a baby,” Nick told her, recalling what he’d once heard. “They think that they’re being replaced in their wives’ affections.”

Suzy shook her head. She wanted to stop any further conjecture before it got too out of hand.

“Having the baby was Peter’s idea,” she told him, then added, “he thought that the baby would bring us closer together.”

He noticed she didn’t say “again,” which meant that they probably hadn’t been all that close to begin with. Nick decided to press a little further. “How bad did it get?”

Enough was enough. Suzy’s own protective instincts, the same one that had her protecting her sister from their parents’ inebriated wrath, kicked in.

She glared at this intruding detective. “What does any of this have to do with my husband’s murder?” she demanded.

“Just trying to establish the sheriff’s frame of mind the last few days before he was killed,” he replied matter-of-factly.

She really didn’t like exposing her private life like this to strangers, but then, what did it matter, anyway? Peter was dead and that meant her world would have to go through some pretty drastic changes—even faster than she’d initially anticipated. After all, she
had
been planning to divorce Peter. All in all, a divorce was rather a drastic life change in itself.

She blew out a breath and plunged in. “I was going to ask Peter for a divorce when he got home last night.” She addressed her words to her shoes, not feeling up to making eye contact with the detective who was doing all the questioning right about now.

But then, he’d probably take that as some sort of a silent admission of guilt, she realized. Blowing out another breath, she forced herself to look up at the man.

“Except that he didn’t,” she said quietly once she’d reestablished eye contact.

Something sharp pricked at his insides the moment their eyes met. Nick tried to shrug it off. It didn’t budge.

“I see,” he said without a shred of emotion evident in his voice, successfully masking his feelings.

It was at that moment that Detective Nick Jeffries made a stunning and rather uncomfortable discovery. He realized that he was attracted to this woman,
deeply
attracted. Moreover, it wasn’t just her delicate looks that had hooked and reeled him in, it was her underlying vulnerability, which he could see she tried to cover up at all costs.

But the very existence of that vulnerability had awakened his dormant protective streak, a streak he had thought he’d successfully laid to rest more than a few years ago.

Apparently, he’d thought wrong.

Chapter 3

A
s Nick tried to bury this unsettling and somewhat annoying realization, Juarez’s cellphone rang.

Juarez snapped to attention and seemed to go on high alert even
before
he pulled his phone out of his pocket. He blinked, clearing his vision, and then looked at the screen to identify the caller.

Rather than just answer it, the young detective continued to stare at the name, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

Finally, he glanced up at Nick and said numbly, “It’s my wife.” The next moment, he shivered as a sudden attack of nerves seized him. His mouth choked out, “This could be it.”

“It?” Nick repeated. Completely focused on the sheriff’s widow, he had no idea what his partner was talking about.

Juarez nodded, still staring at the phone. “The baby’s due anytime now,” he said, repeating what he’d said earlier—and the day before, and the day before that. “She could be calling to tell me that she’s in labor.” His voice took on a panicked note as it went up two octaves, then cracked.

“Don’t you think you should answer it, then?” Nick coaxed, utterly mystified at the way his partner’s mind seemed to work—
if
indeed it actually
was
working at all, which he was beginning to doubt.

“Yeah, right,” Juarez cried.

He fumbled with the cellphone, managing to almost disconnect himself from the incoming call before he finally hit the right key to answer it.

Juarez’s hands visibly shook as he put the cellphone to his ear. “Tina? Is it time?” His eyes grew huge as he listened to his wife’s answer. Literally stunned, his eyes shifted over to look at Nick. “It’s time,” he announced breathlessly.

He gave every indication that he was about to hyperventilate.

“Then I suggest you start breathing evenly, get in your car and go,” Nick responded, uttering each word slowly, as if he were speaking to someone who was mentally challenged.

“Right. Go.” As if someone had fired a starter pistol, Juarez scrambled for the door. But when he reached it, he suddenly came to a skidding stop. The rest of his brain—the part that knew it was on duty—kicked in. “What about you?” the younger detective asked. “If I take the car, you’ll be stranded. How are you going to get back to the squad room?”

Nick waved away his concern. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll call someone,” he told the other man, his tone confident. And then he ordered, “Go. Your wife needs you. And try not to hit anything on your way there,” he called after the swiftly departing detective.

“Okay,” Juarez yelled back.

When Nick looked back at the sheriff’s widow, she had an odd expression on her face. He couldn’t begin to interpret it.

“Something wrong?” he asked her.

Suzy shook her head. “I just envy his wife, that’s all,” she said wistfully. “He looked really excited about becoming a father.”

“He looked really clueless,” Nick corrected. “And so far, that seems to be pretty much his natural state,” he added in what turned out to be a completely unguarded moment. It was out of character for him. As a rule, he didn’t usually let on what he thought of the people he worked with—or the ones he questioned for that matter.

“Still, he loves her.” And love had a way of making up for a host of failings, she thought. “You can see it in his eyes.”

Nick took his cue from her wording, following it through. “And what did you see when you looked into your husband’s eyes?” he asked, curious as to what her answer would be.

Suzy shrugged in a careless manner that seemed a little too precise to him—and possibly practiced. “Barriers. Walls. Someone I didn’t know.”

And that, she knew, had been the true reason for the death of their marriage. Because she’d realized that after all this time, Peter was more of a stranger to her now than he had been when they’d first gotten married.

Was the woman saying that because it was how she’d actually felt, or was she laying the groundwork to distance herself from whatever the investigation would turn up about the sheriff?

She wasn’t as easy to read as he’d first thought. Nick felt himself being reeled in a little further, despite his resistance to the idea. He knew he was on slippery footing.

“Did your husband have any enemies?” Nick asked her.

Suzy thought for a moment, but it really didn’t matter how long she took, she decided. She would arrive at the same conclusion: she didn’t think so, but she didn’t know for sure.

With a sigh, Suzy shook her head. “Not that he ever mentioned, but to be honest, I really don’t know. I know that Peter was away at night more and more. When I asked him about it a couple of times, he said that he was working late on a case.” It had sounded like an excuse to her at the time, but maybe she was doing Peter a disservice. “Maybe he was,” she said out loud. “But at the time, I thought that there was another woman in the picture—or six.”

How had she arrived at that number, Nick wondered. Most women would have said one or two. “Six?”

When he said the number, it sounded foolish. Suzy shrugged. “Sorry, that was flippant. I really don’t know how many he was seeing—or
if
he actually was seeing someone else. My pregnancy had me pretty miserable and looking back, maybe I took it out on him.”

Added to that, she’d worked until a little more than a week before she delivered. What that translated to, Suzy thought, was that she and Peter hardly saw each other toward the end.

Nick wasn’t quite ready to allow this line of questioning to drop just yet. “Did you ever find anything concrete to back up these suspicions, something that might have got you thinking he was seeing someone else?”

“I didn’t look,” she admitted, unconsciously raising her chin again defensively. “I didn’t want to be one of those snooping, bitter women.” Besides, she thought, as long as she didn’t find anything, there was always the hope that she was wrong. Other times, she was fairly sure she
wasn’t
wrong. “To be honest,” she continued in a distant, quiet voice, “I was a little relieved when I thought that Peter was seeing someone else.”

Nick came to his own conclusions: a guilty conscience might welcome a level playing field. “Because you were seeing someone, as well?” he guessed, watching her face intently.

Stunned, she stared at him. Despite the growing chasm between Peter and her, she’d never once thought of seeking solace in someone else’s arms. She might not have been in love with Peter, but she was definitely loyal to the institution of marriage.

“What?” she cried, thinking she’d heard wrong. But the expression on the detective’s face told her that she hadn’t. “No, of course not. Why would you say something like that?” she asked.

“Just a natural assumption,” he answered mildly. “If your husband was seeing someone, that made you feel less guilty about you seeing someone.”

“You have it all wrong,” she informed him with more than a touch of indignation.

“Then enlighten me.”

Suzy took a breath. She really didn’t like baring her soul this way, but she knew she had no choice. If she kept things back from this man, she was certain that he would think the worst.

“If Peter
was
seeing someone else, that would have made me feel less guilty about not having feelings for him.”

Now, there was a novel approach to marital discord, Nick couldn’t help thinking. “I see. And when did you stop having feelings for him?”

Suzy shrugged again, her slender shoulders rising and falling beneath the light blue cotton blouse she had on. She thought of telling the detective that was none of his business, but he’d probably counter that protest by telling her that right now it was. She might as well avoid a verbal squabble with him and just answer the question.

“I don’t think I ever started to have feelings for Peter, not the deep, everlasting kind. Don’t get me wrong,” she cautioned quickly, not wanting the detective to come away with the wrong impression. “There was a really intense attraction between us from the very first moment we met, but there turned out to be nothing behind it, nothing substantial. At least, not for me,” she told him sadly. With all her heart she wished that there could have been. But this was a case where wishing just didn’t make it so.

“But there was for him?” Nick questioned, watching her closely.

To him, half of police work was getting a feeling for the person you were dealing with, looking beneath their layers, their complexities. He was fairly certain that he would be able to tell if this woman was lying to him.

The answer to the last question was yes, but how did she get that across without sounding conceited?

“Well, Peter
said
he loved me, that he wanted to take care of me for the rest of my life,” Suzy said. A rueful smile curved her mouth as she remembered the first stages of their relationship, before the wedding ring, the disappointments and the baby. “You have no idea how good that sounded to me at the time.”

She raised her eyes to Nick and he saw a defensiveness entering the bright blue orbs, as if the woman
dared
him to find fault in her words.

“I had less than an ideal childhood,” Suzy added by way of an explanation, “and just wanted someone to care whether I lived or died. Peter said he did.” At the time, that seemed to be enough of a basis for marriage. “So I married him, hoping that I’d eventually feel the same way about him.”

“But you didn’t.” It wasn’t really a guess at this point but a conclusion drawn from what she’d already told him.

“Well, I didn’t want him dead.” And then she relented slightly, adding, “But I didn’t particularly want him living with me. Especially when he was growing so distant—not that I really blamed him for that.” This was all coming out really badly. To her ear, it sounded as if she was digging herself into a hole. “I began to think that the whole thing—marrying Peter—was a mistake.

“The baby wasn’t a mistake,” Suzy quickly added in the next breath, anticipating what the detective was probably thinking. “But on the other hand, no baby should be used as a way to keep a marriage together. It’s not fair to the baby or to the two people involved.”

That all sounded very noble. Maybe
too
noble, Nick thought. “Do you know how much insurance your husband was carrying?”

Suzy frowned, confused for a moment. “Life insurance?”

“Yes, life insurance,” he repeated, a trace of impatience in his voice. “How much was your husband carrying?”

She was still reeling from news of Peter’s murder. Practical questions like the one the detective had just posed hadn’t even occurred to her yet.

“I have no idea,” she told him. “As far as I know, he wasn’t carrying any.” And then, although she didn’t want to believe anyone would even remotely think this horrible way about her, that she would kill someone, especially her husband, for money, Suzy demanded, “Why? Do you think I had him killed so I could get the insurance money?”

The whole thing was too ludicrous to believe—yet the detective obviously saw it as a possibility. Suzy didn’t know whether to be angry—or afraid. Was she going to need a lawyer on top of everything else?

Nick deliberately didn’t answer her directly. “It’s been known to happen.”

“Well, not as far as I’m concerned,” she retorted angrily. Stress and overworked hormones had her fairly shouting at him. “I’m an accountant. I have a good job and I don’t need extra money from some stupid life insurance policy.”

“Everyone needs extra money,” Nick told her matter-of-factly. And women had killed their husbands for reasons other than money.

Her eyes flashed. Okay, she was getting really tired of this verbal sparring match. If he thought she’d killed Peter for the money, she wanted him to come out and just
say
it.

“Are you trying to accuse me of something, Detective?”

Just then, before he could respond, they heard the baby begin to cry, Andy’s wails clearly audible over the baby monitor she’d placed on the coffee table. There were two more monitors scattered throughout the first floor, one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom.

But Suzy remained where she was. Waiting for an answer.

“No,” Nick told her, “I’m trying to rule you
out
of something, Mrs. Burris. Where were you yesterday?”

She walked away from him and went up to the nursery. Her son needed her. “Here. At home.”

Nick was right behind her, following the woman up the stairs. Walking behind her was eventful, he caught himself thinking as he watched the gentle, rhythmic sway of her hips as she went up the stairs.

“Can someone verify that?”

Stopping at the landing, Suzy looked back at him, a cynical expression on her face. It was her mask, allowing her to hide from certain people.

“The baby,” she answered flatly.

He laughed shortly. The kid was a bit too young to take on the role of witness. “Can anyone older verify that?”

She thought for a moment as she went into the baby’s room. It was everything that her own room—hers and her sister Lori’s—was not. The space was cheerfully decorated in bright yellows and greens since she’d opted not to know the baby’s gender until after he was born. It proclaimed to the world that a child was happy here—also not like her childhood bedroom.

The second she entered the nursery, Suzy did her best to shift gears. She smiled brightly at the fussing baby in the crib. At two months old, Andy was the picture of perpetual motion, his little arms and legs all going at once.

“Hi, little man. Miss me?” she murmured.

Picking up the baby, Suzy turned to look back at the detective. She expected him to be out in the hallway and was surprised to see that he had followed her into the room.

Just what did he expect to find in her son’s room?

“The mailman saw me,” she finally told him. “He came early and I had a bill I wanted to mail, so I hurried out before he pulled away.”

That helped, but a mailman could easily be dissuaded from remembering certain facts, especially if a class act like Suzy Burris was doing the “dissuading.”

“Anyone else?” Nick asked.

Suzy resented this, resented all the questions, even though she knew that it was necessary and, most likely, routine.

BOOK: A Widow's Guilty Secret
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