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Authors: Debra Webb

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BOOK: Dark Whispers
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“You will always have a place here, Natalie,” Rosen assured her. “We’re suggesting that you take some more time and let’s reevaluate in a few months.”

“Months?” The rush of hurt and anger burned in her veins but Natalie refused to cause a scene. “Very well. If you believe that’s best for the firm, then what else is there to say?” She stood. “Thank you so much. I’ll make the necessary preparations for an extension of my leave.”

“Give us a moment,” Rosen said to the others.

Brenner and Taylor stood and shook her hand in turn.

When the room was theirs, Rosen came around to her side of the table and leaned against it. “Natalie, we’ve been through a lot together.”

Every ounce of strength she possessed was required to hold back the words she wanted to hurl at him.

“You’re well aware that you’ve always been my favorite.”

Oh she was very well aware.
Deep breath, Nat
.

“But I have a responsibility to the other partners, to our clients and to the rest of the firm. You are not yourself. The accident changed you. When you’re back to your old self, we’ll make this right.”

He dared to touch her, just a gentle brush of his cool fingers against her cheek. “Take care of yourself, Natalie. I’m going to miss you.”

Shaking with fury, Natalie walked straight to her office, feeling as if all eyes were on her. Clint stood as she entered the room. He took one look at her and opted not to ask the question she knew full well was poised on the tip of his tongue.

Rather than leave him in suspense, she said, “I’ve been asked to extend my leave from the firm. Apparently,” she started to shove personal items into her briefcase, “there has been a security breach that originated from my computer and I’ve been deemed unreliable or untrustworthy—maybe both.” She jammed in a few more items. “So, I’m on leave for a few more months.”

He took the briefcase before she could attempt to stuff anything else into it, ensuring it never closed. “I’m certain it’s only temporary.”

“Maybe.”

They exited her office. “Let’s take the stairs.” She had no desire to walk back down the hall past all those other office doors to reach the elevator.

Natalie held her tongue as they descended the stairs. She refused to be caught on the security cameras venting, which would only make bad matters worse.

“Natalie!”

Vince Farago hurried to catch up.

Natalie stopped and turned back to see what he had to say. She imagined he’d been gloating all morning. He was likely the first to hear the news.

“Are you all right?” he asked as he looked her up and down and then glanced at Clint. “We’re all very worried about you.”

“I’m fine, Vince. I’ll be taking a little more time off. There’s no need for you to be concerned.”

He glanced at Clint again. “I am concerned, Natalie. You haven’t been yourself all week and...frankly, I have serious reservations about your involvement with Clint.”

“I’ll wait outside,” Clint offered.

Natalie held up a hand. “No need.” She lifted her gaze to Vince where he stood a few steps up. “I am fully aware of Clint’s history and I have complete confidence in his ability. So, don’t waste your time and energy worrying about me, Vince. I’m in very capable hands.”

The bastard had the audacity to smirk. “I can’t say I’m surprised. How long has it been since Steven dumped you? They say women get desperate after—”

Clint was nose to nose with him before Natalie realized he had moved.

“That’s enough, Farago.”

Vince held up his hands and backed away, almost stumbling on the step behind him. “Just telling it like I see it.”

Clint turned his back on him and headed down the stairs, guiding Natalie along with him. The feel of his hand at the small of her back gave her a sense of reassurance she hadn’t felt in a very long time.

Once they reached the parking garage, she paused before getting into the passenger seat of his Audi. “Thank you for backing me up.”

The slow smile that released across his lips made her pulse flutter. “I’m the one who should thank you.”

He had no idea. His only indiscretion was giving women what they wanted...she, on the other hand, had quite possibly killed a man.

She suddenly felt sick.

He squeezed her arm. “Don’t worry. We’ve got this under control.”

Natalie nodded and settled into the passenger seat. She should tell him what she’d found before he discovered the truth some other way. Her heart lurched. If she told him and he stopped believing in her, what would she do? Who could she trust?

The one thing she understood with complete certainty was that she could not do this alone.

Chapter Nine

Southwood
Road
10:50 a.m.

Clint placed the last box on the dining room table. “Last one.”

Rather than allow Natalie to stew over the injustice of the morning, he had decided to lay out his suspicions about her fall. In his opinion, it was someone from her professional life that had set out to harm or to kill her. If he’d had any doubts, the so-called security breaches on her computer at the firm had banished those.

Fortunately, Natalie kept copies of her work files at home. Going through those files, he decided, was a step in the right direction. Not to mention, he needed something more to do than to focus solely on the woman.

“Thanks.” Natalie reached for the lid on the box. “This should be everything I need.” She scanned the contents of the box before lifting her gaze back to his. “You really think what happened to me has something to do with the Thompson case?”

His fingers itched to reach out and brush those dark bangs back from her blue eyes. She had amazing blue eyes. Clear and inquisitive. Instead, he reached up and pulled the tie he’d already loosened free of his collar. His jacket lay across the sofa in the great room. He wished now that he’d brought something a bit more comfortable.

He cleared his head of any thoughts of getting more comfortable. He recognized the line to which he was edging far too close. “It’s the only scenario that makes sense. Your accident took you off the defense team and suddenly the case does an about-face based on new evidence. Rison Medical gets the win and your colleague gets his long awaited spot in the limelight.”

One hand on her hip, she rubbed her forehead with the other. “Vince isn’t capable of...” Her voice trailed off. She turned to Clint. “Is he capable of pushing me down the stairs?”

“You were pushed?” Clint cocked an eyebrow at her question. He’d read all the reports related to her injury and never once did she or anyone else mention the possibility of her being pushed.

She shook her head and sighed. “I don’t think so.” She reached for a file. “Truth?”

He read the uncertainty in her eyes. “Nothing else will do.”

“I don’t know if I was pushed.” She moistened her lips, drawing his hungry eyes there. “In my dreams, sometimes it feels like I’m being pushed, but it was dark and I just don’t know for sure.” She shook her head again. “The concept is ridiculous. No one was here with me except my sister. There is no way April pushed me.”

The way she pretended to focus on the pages in the file belied her words. “You keep dreaming of hearing your sister in her room with a man. Are you sure her husband wasn’t with her that night?”

“No, David was in Montgomery for a meeting. April said she called him from the hospital and let him know what happened.”

It was time to take off the kid gloves. “Was she involved with someone else?”

“What?” Natalie’s brow furrowed with a frown. “Of course not. April would never cheat on David.”

Clint pulled out a chair and took a seat at the table. “Could Heath have been here with another woman that night?”

“Absolutely not.” She tossed the file aside and moved on to the next one. “Heath is the quintessential good guy. He married his high school sweetheart. They go to church every Sunday and support every charity in Alabama. Their first child is on the way. No. Heath has always been the one who made April and me look like the bad children.”

She assessed Clint for a moment. “Why all the questions about my siblings? I thought we cleared up any potential involvement by them when we first spoke?”

“You answer my questions and we won’t go there again.”

Her hesitation warned she wasn’t happy. Still, she pulled out a chair and sat. Like his, her jacket was somewhere in the great room. Her heels were somewhere between here and there. If he’d been a stronger man he might not have watched her skirt slide up her thigh as she sat down, but he wasn’t. He’d never wanted to be that strong.

“Fire away.” She lifted her chin and waited for his first shot.

“What does either your sister or your brother have to gain if you were to die or be mentally incapacitated?”

She laughed, it was the first real laugh he’d heard from her. He liked it. The sound came from deep inside, making it rich and sweet.

“Well, that’s easy.” She lifted her arms wide apart. “This lovely old home that costs a mint to maintain. Fair market value is somewhere in the two-to three-million-dollar range. Since both my siblings have assets worth far more than the value of this estate, I highly doubt they’re in any hurry to take it from me.”

“Life insurance?”

She deliberated on her answer for a moment. “I have a healthy policy. Five million. Half of which goes to my siblings as long as I remain unmarried and the other half goes to my chosen charities.”

Clint still wasn’t convinced. “Are you protecting any family secrets?”

Natalie looked away. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

So, she was covering up something. He leaned forward, braced his forearms on the table. “Do you have knowledge that could create problems for either of your siblings?”

“I do not.” She grabbed another of the folders. “I thought we were going to discuss the Thompson case.”

He would come back to this because the lady was definitely hiding something. “Walk me through the case.”

“Walter Thompson entered the Rison Medical Center for a fairly routine procedure,” Natalie began. “The complaint alleged that after his procedure the next morning, a nurse, Imogen Stuart, wheeled him back to his room and helped him to the bathroom, where he fell and hit his head. According to Stuart, Mr. Thompson did not fall until
after
she had settled him into his bed. Stuart claimed that as she was leaving the room he attempted to climb out of the bed to look for his wife and that was when he fell. The wife returned to the room as Stuart was helping him back into bed. So there were no witnesses to what actually happened. However it occured, the fall fractured his skull, causing an acute subdural hematoma that went undiagnosed until the onset of symptoms. He was rushed to surgery, but they were unable to save him. The wife insisted that her husband told her repeatedly that he’d fallen in the bathroom and that the nurse had been on her cell phone in the corridor instead of helping him.”

“The nurse,” Clint said, recalling the rumors he’d heard about the case, “stuck to her story that she never left Mr. Thompson’s side until he was in the bed with the rails raised. Still, Rison offered to settle quietly but Thompson’s wife insisted on a public admission of liability.”

Natalie nodded. “She requested a jury trial. Except for her testimony, there was no evidence to support her allegations. An eleventh hour search of Mr. Thompson’s health records—which had already been submitted as evidence—found a single incident of him falling down the garage steps when he knew better than to try going outside the house without assistance suggested a pattern that seemed to confirm Stuart’s story and won the case.”

“No one had noticed this incident before,” Clint countered. Very convenient, in his opinion.

“It happens. You read files a hundred times and you miss a little something here or there. We were working night and day. It goes with the territory in a big case.”

“There were rumors about a witness who confirmed the wife’s allegations,” Clint reminded her.

“Yes.” Natalie reached for another folder in one of the boxes and took a moment to review it. “Just before trial Stuart claimed that her original statement was a mistake, but later she recanted that allegation.” Natalie shook her head. “I don’t remember any rumors about actual evidence.”

“The timing of the rumors was around the same time you were recovering from your own fall.”

“So that’s why you asked about Vince.” Natalie shrugged. “I can’t see him going that far for a case—especially one that wasn’t even his. You’re thinking that if I hadn’t fallen, I would have come forward with any evidence that might have damned my own client.”

“Winning is more important than truth?”

She held up her hands stop-sign fashion. “You know as well as I do that I was bound by attorney-client privilege.”

“As true as that is, I have a feeling you would never have ignored the truth.”

She turned back to the files. “I appreciate your high opinion of me, but you must have forgotten the first rule of being an attorney.”

“Never say never,” he finished for her.

“It’ll come back to bite you every time.” Her lips lifted the slightest bit. “Most attorneys learn that lesson fast.”

“What about your almost fiancé, Steven?” Clint had checked out the guy. Steven Vaughn was another politician. He’d been elected state representative the year before Natalie’s accident. Vaughn and Keating, Natalie’s brother-in-law, appeared to be close. If Clint’s sources were accurate, Vaughn wanted to end up as lieutenant governor when Keating was elected to the state’s highest position. Clint found it strange that Vaughn hadn’t stuck by Natalie under the circumstances. Why hadn’t Keating disassociated himself with Vaughn after he deserted Natalie? April had been all too happy to show her concern for her sister’s association with Clint. Yet, she had no trouble with her husband maintaining close ties to the man who dumped her sister at the worst time in her life. It didn’t sit right with Clint.

When Natalie continued to ignore the question, he nudged her again. “Was he in any way connected to the case?”

Natalie looked up. “I’m sorry. What was the question?”

“Never mind.” Her distraction with one of the files from the box was more intriguing to him than anything she would likely tell him about the fiancé. “What’re you reading?”

She frowned and turned her attention back to the file. “Stuart’s statement is missing.” She reached for the next file. “It’s in here somewhere. I reviewed it with her before trial.”

“Let’s take it step by step.” Clint surveyed the boxes he’d stacked on the table. “Where do we begin?”

“The day Rosen called me and two paralegals into the conference room.” She pushed back her chair and went to one of the boxes stacked on the floor. “All we had was the incident report filled out by the hospital’s head of security.”

Clint moved to where she was opening the box. She lifted the first of several binders from the box. “Start here. I’ll make tea.”

He took the binder from her and watched her walk away.

Eventually she was going to have to share her secret with him.

* * *

N
ATALIE
PLACED
THE
teakettle on the stove and adjusted the flame. She refused to think about the fact that she was now officially unemployed—no matter that the partners had insisted she would always have a place at the firm. She knew better. She needed to call Sadie and tell her.

Should she tell her about the gun and the bloody clothes, too?

Her hands shook and she almost dropped one of her grandmother’s prized teacups. No. She wasn’t telling anyone about that until she remembered why she had done such a thing.

“Like that’s going to happen,” she grumbled. She had no recall of blood on her clothes much less of changing and stashing the evidence. She’d been warned that unpleasant memories were the slowest to return.

She placed the cups and saucers on the counter and then reached for spoons. Clint made her want to trust him with that dark secret, but she wasn’t sure she could even trust herself. How good were her instincts? Not very good now or before, she decided.

Steven had waited until she was out of the hospital and in rehab to break up with her. She’d wanted to be devastated, but she hadn’t been. In all honesty, she hadn’t been in love with him. At thirty years old she’d been more enamored with the idea of being engaged because all her friends were either engaged or married. April had kept pushing her to give Steven a chance.

Had she only committed to a serious relationship for appearances’ sake or to make her sister and Steven happy?

Maybe so. From the time she was a young girl she’d wanted desperately to make the people around her happy. Her mother had scolded her time and again about being true to herself. Somehow it never took.

The kettle started to squeal, prompting her to gather tea bags.

Pounding from the front door reverberated in the entry hall. Natalie dropped the tea bags on the counter and started in that direction. Clint was already at the door and opening it.

Fear launched inside her. What if it was his police friends? Had they discovered the truth...that maybe she killed the mechanic?

Heath walked in, giving Clint a long, hard look as he passed him. “Nat, what the hell is going on here?”

She should have called her brother. April had obviously done so. “This is Clint Hayes.” She accepted a kiss on the cheek from Heath. “Clint, this is my brother, Heath.” Heath was older than she by one year and taller by about a foot. He was a big, broad-shouldered guy and he’d always considered himself the protector of his sisters.

The two men shook hands, but the gesture was quick and visibly unfriendly.

“Clint is the private investigator helping me sort out the strange happenings of late.”

Heath stared at Clint, openly skeptical. “April said he was some kind of gigolo out for your money.”

Natalie laughed, couldn’t help herself. “Trust me, big brother, Clint doesn’t need my money.”

Clint’s stony features warned that he wasn’t amused.

Heath grinned. “April’s always been a drama queen. Besides,” he looked Clint up and down, “if he makes you happy I don’t care what he is. I never liked Steven, he had his nose too far up David’s—”

“I know what you think of Steven,” Natalie cut in. “We were about to have tea. Would you like some?”

“Tea’s for old ladies,” Heath grumbled as they moved into the kitchen.

“Be nice,” Natalie warned. Heath had snubbed his nose at college, choosing instead to immerse himself in the family business. Who needed a college degree to know how to manufacture steel, he’d said. So proud of his only son, their father had indulged him for a little while. Eventually he and Heath had struck a deal. Heath continued at the plant by day and attended college classes in the evening. An MBA hadn’t changed her brother much. He was still the man who was as happy working alongside a manual laborer as he was behind a desk. The degree, however, had made their father very happy. Natalie inserted a pod into the coffee machine to brew her brother a cup.

BOOK: Dark Whispers
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