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Authors: Marie Ferrarella

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“My sister called me at around four o’clock yesterday to see how I was doing. Does that count?”

He nodded, couching his words carefully. “If it checks out on your phone bill, it does.”

“Not a very trusting soul, are you?” she tossed over her shoulder.

From the ripe smell that was coming from Andy’s lower half, she knew that the first order of business was to change him. She took him over to the changing table. Both ends of the table were buffered with the latest, most absorbent diapers on the market. Never having so much as
looked
at a diaper until two months ago, she’d gotten very proficient at changing them in the past eight weeks.

“It’s not a very trusting line of business,” Nick answered. “You should know that,” he added, “seeing as how your husband was the county sheriff.”

Was.
Not
is.
It was really hard to absorb that, she thought.

“Like I said,” Suzy said out loud with emphasis, “I wasn’t privy to my husband’s professional life. Or his private one, it’s beginning to seem,” she added under her breath. She spared Nick another glance as she deftly went about the task of getting rid of the soiled diaper and putting a brand-new one on the baby. “And as far as alibis go—that’s what this is about, right?—
this
is my alibi,” she informed him, nodding at the baby on the changing table. “Andy kept me busy all day. He hardly slept at all. That didn’t leave me any time to—how was my husband killed?” she asked, suddenly realizing that she couldn’t remember if the detective had told her that or not. If he had, she’d blocked it out. But now she wanted to know.

Had Peter been shot, stabbed, strangled or mowed down by some vehicle? The very thought of each method made her want to shiver.

“You really don’t want to know,” Nick told her quietly.

“Yes, I do,” she said emphatically. In a strange way, she felt she owed it to Peter to know all the details regarding his death. She could at least do that much for him.

“All right—just remember, you asked to hear this. Your husband was strangled,” Nick told her crisply. “The medical examiner will give the official verdict, but from the looks of it, I’d say someone put a plastic bag over the sheriff’s head and held it tight against his face until he suffocated.”

Now she did shiver, visualizing the scenario in her mind. Peter might not have been the husband she’d always dreamed of, but he didn’t deserve to die like that.

He didn’t deserve to die at all, but to live a long life, being there for his son even if they weren’t going to be there for each other much longer. She hoped he hadn’t suffered.

“How do you know it was a plastic bag?” she asked. “Maybe someone just strangled him with their bare hands—or hung him.” Each method she suggested just made it that much worse for her. But now that the detective was talking about it, she wanted all the details—and then she’d lock this subject away forever. She never wanted to revisit it for
any
reason.

“Well, for one thing, there were no dark ligature marks around his neck. If he was hung or manually strangled, there would have been telltale marks left around his neck.”

Nick paused a moment, thinking of the card that had been found on the sheriff’s person. Specifically, in his pocket. Similar cards, with something different written on each, were found on the other two men who had been dug up.

He considered withholding this from her, then decided that it might be better out in the open. You never knew where something might lead.

“He had a card on him.”

“A card?” she repeated, puzzled. “You mean like a playing card or a business card?”

“More like the kind that’s used to print business cards, except that there was nothing printed on it except for just one word, and that was handwritten.”

She didn’t know why she instinctively braced herself, but she did. “What was the word?”

“Liar.”

Suzy blinked and stared at him. Had he just accused her of lying? About what? “Excuse me?” she cried.

“That was the word written on the card—
liar,
” he explained. “Would you know anyone who would accuse your husband of being a liar?”

She shook her head, painfully aware that she was no help in finding Peter’s killer. The detective was probably tired of hearing her negative answers. But she couldn’t exactly tell him what she didn’t know.

“Can’t think of a single person. As far as I know, Peter was regarded as a pillar of the community, a real good guy. I don’t know of anyone who would accuse him of being a liar. Unless it was one of the women he was seeing,” she amended. Now that she said it out loud, his “good guy” status was on shaky ground.

Suzy shrugged her shoulders again in a hapless gesture. “And, like I already told you, I don’t even have any proof that he
was
seeing other women. It wasn’t as if I’d found any love notes in his pockets, or any lipstick smeared on his collar. It was just a feeling I had,” she admitted, “because things were so strained between us lately.”

“Maybe that wasn’t your fault,” Nick suggested. When she glanced in his direction, confusion written on her features, he added, “Maybe the sheriff was acting that way because of whatever got him killed.”

She supposed it was possible. But then, why hadn’t Peter said something? Why had he shouldered this burden on his own?

A ragged sigh broke free as she finished changing the baby.

She looked at the detective, her eyes meeting his. Hers were guilt ridden. “He should have talked to me, told me what was going on.”

“Maybe he just didn’t want to burden you—or get you involved,” Nick told her.

But she was already involved. She was his wife and this was where the words
for better or for worse
came into play.

Had she failed Peter?

She couldn’t think about that now. If she let herself get mired in guilt, she wouldn’t be of any use to Andy and right now, he was her top priority.

Replaying the detective’s words in her head, Suzy suddenly realized something. With a now fresher-smelling Andy in her arms, she turned to look at the man who’d forced her into all this introspection.

“I take it that by saying that, you no longer find me to be a—how do they put it?” she asked, searching for the right terms. “A person of interest?” she recalled.

He wouldn’t exactly say that, Nick thought. Not by a long shot. But since he didn’t mean the phrase the same way she meant it, he refrained from making a direct comment on her question.

Even if he
did
find her person to be of interest.

Chapter 4

A
fter a beat, Nick realized that the sheriff’s widow was still waiting for an answer. “For now,” he told her, “we’re moving on.”

“For now,” she repeated.

Did that mean that he really
did
suspect her? The idea was utterly insane to her, but obviously not to him. The last thing she needed or wanted was to have that hanging over her head like some sword of Damocles. If nothing else, she wanted this absurd notion to be cleared up and gotten out of the way.

Now.

“Does that mean you’re planning on revisiting your assumption that I had something to do with my husband’s—” She couldn’t even bring herself to say the word
murder,
much less contemplate the horrid act. How in heaven’s name could this solemn detective possibly think she caused Peter’s death? “Just for the record, Detective Jeffries, I draw the line at killing anything larger than a swarm of ants.”

“Ants,” he echoed, nodding. The barest hint of a smile threatened to curve his lips. “Can’t stand them myself,” he told her by way of agreement.

For a moment Nick watched her as she stood holding her baby, swaying to and fro ever so slightly to soothe him and keep him quiet. Unless he missed his guess, those were tears causing her eyes to glisten like that. He had a gut feeling that they were genuine, which in turn made him feel guilty for his questioning.

“Do you have anyone you’d like me to call?” Nick asked, his voice a great deal less stern than it had just been.

Her mind in turmoil, Suzy tried to make sense of the question. “You mean so you could question them about my marriage?”

Maybe he
had
been a bit too harsh on her. But damn it, it was his job. He had to eliminate potential suspects, take in motives, opportunity and all the rest of it. Spouses killed their other halves more often than not.

Even so, he could feel guilt weighing heavily on him. And that was new. Cases—and the people involved in them—didn’t, as a rule, get to him.

This woman was different. He’d sensed that even before he’d carried her into her house.

“No,” he explained. “As in getting someone to come and stay here with you, maybe help you out with the baby while you try to pull yourself together.”

She tossed her head, her long blond hair flying over the shoulder that wasn’t currently occupied by her son. “Newsflash, Detective Jeffries, I
am
together.”

Detective Jeffries sounded so formal, and although he usually liked maintaining that wall between a potential suspect and himself, he didn’t this time.

“Call me Nick,” he told her.

“Doesn’t matter what I call you, ‘Nick,’ my answer’s still going to be the same,” she informed him.

He knew he should just back off. That any more interaction with this woman would get him in deeper. He didn’t want that. But somehow, he just couldn’t make himself walk away yet, not when she looked as if the whole world had just exploded in on her—and he’d been the cause of her pain.

“Look, I meant no disrespect, but you are dealing with an emotional situation and taking care of a newborn isn’t exactly a walk in the park, especially not when it’s your first baby and you find yourself questioning every move you make, every thought you have.” At this point, there was nothing but sympathetic understanding in Nick’s voice. “I just asked if there is a friend or a relative I could call for you. Somebody for you to lean on if you needed to.”

And this way,
he thought,
I won’t have to volunteer for the position.

Suzy flushed. The man was trying to be nice to her, and she had all but bitten his head off. Maybe she really
was
going to pieces over this and didn’t even realize it.

“Yes, there’s someone,” she admitted quietly. “My sister, Lori.”

He waited a moment, thinking she would give him her sister’s phone number. When she didn’t, Nick prodded, “Can I have her number?”

“That’s okay, I can call her,” Suzy told him.

Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea, getting Lori to come, she thought. She could always count on Lori, just as Lori could always count on her. They were each other’s support system. They always had been, going all the way back to the days when they had thought that all children had parents who fell asleep, fully clothed, on any flat surface that was handy, clutching a bottle of whiskey.

A little more than a year apart in age—with her being the older one—she and Lori were in tune to each other’s feelings. It was Lori who had first sensed that she wasn’t as happy in her marriage as she’d hoped to be. And it was Lori who’d made her promise that she would come to her if there was ever a problem.

This certainly qualified as a problem.

Since the woman wasn’t making an attempt to walk over to the phone and pick it up, Nick made another offer. “I can hold the baby for you while you make your call.”

She hadn’t made a move yet because she was trying to find the right words to apologize to him. She supposed that saying “I’m sorry” was a one-size-fits-all catchall. It felt insufficient, but she used it anyway.

“I’m sorry.” When she saw him raise a quizzical eyebrow, she added, “I know you were just trying to be nice and I just about bit your head off. I really didn’t mean to—”

He smiled at her for the first time since she’d opened the door to him and his partner. Really smiled. Suzy caught herself thinking that he had a nice smile, one of those terrific boyish ones that utterly captivated the beholder and transformed his face.

Rather than an austere representative of the law, Nick Jeffries suddenly became human, someone she could relate to and even talk to.

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “My skin’s a lot tougher than you think, Mrs. Burris.”

“Suzy,” she corrected. “Call me Suzy. Being called Mrs. Burris makes me feel like a gray-haired grandmother in sensible shoes.”

He glanced down at her feet, noticing for the first time that she wasn’t barefoot, the way his own wife used to be the minute she walked in through the front door. And rather than wearing something like comfortable slippers, Suzy had on high heels. Three-and-a-half or four-inch heels if he didn’t miss his guess. She moved around so effortlessly in them, he’d just naturally
assumed
that the woman was barefoot.

But now that he’d looked—and, he had to admit, admired—he could see how very wrong he’d been. The shoes made her legs look sexy.

“Nothing sensible about
those
shoes,” Nick commented with an appreciative grin. “Don’t they bother your feet?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t even know I have them on.”

The shoes had been one of her ways of coping with her situation. She gravitated toward pretty things, toward things that
made
her feel pretty and took her attention away—for however short a time—from whatever was bothering her.

When she’d been a teenager, she sought distractions to make her forget about her abusive parents, now she’d looked for distractions to make her momentarily forget about the husband who was pulling away from her. The husband who had never really made the “magic” happen for her, even in the beginning.

“They’re my guilty pleasure,” she explained.

“If you say so.” Nick looked at the baby in her arms who was growing more and more vocal about his mounting unhappiness. “My offer still stands. I can hold him for you while you call your sister. You might find it a little hard to talk with him crying like that.”

The detective had a point, she thought. Pressing her lips together, she glanced from her son to Nick—and hesitated.

Nick could almost read her thoughts. “I do know how to hold a newborn.”

There was no missing the confidence in his voice. “You have children, Detective—Nick?” she corrected herself at the last moment.

He thought of his ex-wife and the baby she’d chosen to erase from their lives without giving him the opportunity to voice his opinion, or even say a word in its defense. Just like that. It was gone before he even knew of its existence.

He’d found out quite by accident—looking for their bankbook, he’d come across the notification from a test that her gynecologist had run that Julie was pregnant. That was the afternoon he’d gone through a huge potpourri of emotions, all jumbled up and overlapping one another. But ultimately, the biggest emotion he experienced, was pure joy.

Elated at the news, he’d stopped off at his local bookstore during his lunch break and loaded up on every parenting book he could find, as well as a huge book singularly devoted to the selection of a name for the baby.

His head crammed full of plans for the baby-to-be, he came home only to discover that there was no need for plans at all. Julie had “gotten rid of the problem,” to use her phraseology when he’d started talking about needing to move to a larger home in a better school district. Without a word to him, she’d swept away their unborn child as if it was some annoying, trivial inconvenience.

The discovery of what she’d done—leaving him out the way she had—left him reeling and destroyed the last drop of love that still existed. In effect it sounded the death knell of a marriage that was already staggering on its last legs.

“No,” he answered Suzy quietly, “I don’t have any children.” Then, in case she had any further questions about his lack of family, he added, “I’m not married. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know how to hold a baby.”

Then, as if to make his point, he gently took her son from her arms.

Nervous about surrendering Andy to this man, she was about to warn Nick not to let the baby’s head drop back—or forward, But before she could get the words out, she saw that she had no need to coach him. The detective was holding her son far better and more comfortably than Peter had the handful of times that he’d made an attempt to act like a parent.

Suzy looked on in admiration and gave the detective his due. “You’re a natural.”

Nick blocked the bittersweet feeling unexpectedly filtering through him as he held this tiny miracle in his arms. Even so, he couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like had he learned about his baby in time to talk his ex into having it. Who knew the kind of turn his life might have taken?

He glanced away from the baby for an instant. “You sound surprised.”

Andy had settled down. The infant seemed to be fascinated by this new person holding him. “I don’t really think of police detectives as having nurturing instincts,” Suzy confessed.

Nick smiled down at the infant who was staring at him and seemed to be all eyes at the moment. “Maybe you should think about changing your opinion about members of the police force,” he suggested.

She thought he was serious until she saw the amused glint in his eyes.

“Maybe,” she agreed. Rousing herself—his eyes had a definite hypnotic effect—she said, “I won’t be long,” and walked out of the living room.

There was a phone in the kitchen and she made her way toward it. There was another extension in the living room, where she had just been with Andy and Nick, but she wanted a little privacy. It wasn’t that she had anything secretive to share with Lori. She just wanted to be able to break down if it came to that.

Lori would understand.

This detective would just think of her as being weak, and she didn’t feel like being judged right now. Her last shred of bravado and defensiveness had been used up. She had nothing to shield herself with, no weapons close at hand to help her deflect any unwanted criticism—or pity for that matter.

She might not have been in love with Peter, but his totally unexpected, sudden death, had left her shaken and confused about the immediate future.

She didn’t like feeling this way, didn’t like the vulnerability, and until she could get herself under control—until she could feel that she was
back
in control of her life—she wanted to be able to talk to her sister without anyone overhearing her.

Because they were so in tune to one another due to the bond they’d shared growing up in their less-than-idyllic nurturing household, Lori knew something was wrong the instant she heard Suzy utter her name.

It was the
way
she said it. “Lori?”

“Suzy? What’s wrong? Why are you calling?” Lori asked. The next second she’d jumped to her own conclusion. “Is it the baby, Suzy? Is there something wrong with Andy?”

It was hard to keep her voice from shaking. Somehow, she managed, although she wouldn’t have been able to say just how. “No, it’s not Andy.”

“You? Do you need to go back to the hospital? I told you that you checked yourself out too soon. Another day or two with nurses close by to help wouldn’t have killed you,” her sister protested.

It took a couple of seconds before Suzy could get a word in edgewise. “I’m fine, Lori.” But that wasn’t strictly true, she upbraided herself silently. “That is, there’s nothing wrong with me. At least, nothing physical.” God, this was coming out all wrong, she thought in despair.

Her words led her sister to the only remaining option. “Is it Peter?”

Suzy closed her eyes. She could feel an emptiness forming within her. But, if she were being honest with herself, that emptiness had been there before Peter’s death. She’d just worked hard at ignoring it.

But that wasn’t possible anymore.

“Yes,” she answered, the word all but sticking in her throat.

Suzy heard her sister sigh on the other end of the line. Lori, as loyal as the day was long, reacted to Peter according to the information she gleaned from her, and at present, because she
had
shared her feelings that Peter had been growing more and more distant with her, Lori was not too keen on her brother-in-law.

“All right, Suzy, out with it. What’s the almighty sheriff of the county done now?” Lori asked.

She felt disloyal to Peter because of the image Lori had of him, thanks to her, and hypocritical at the same time because she just couldn’t pretend that she actually loved the man. That had ended way
before
the baby had been born.

“He died,” she told Lori, her voice flat and devoid of any emotion.

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