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Authors: Susan Page Davis

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BOOK: Just Cause
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“I can’t wait to meet her.” Judy gave him the smile that always buoyed his spirits. She was the driving force behind the quartet and took charge of the music selection and performance schedule. As Dan’s musical mentor, she pushed him to his limits where the violin was concerned.

Joe settled his cello into position. “So, are we ready to practice, or what?”

They were midway through the Beethoven when Dan’s cell phone trilled. Although the other musicians groaned at the interruption, he knew it had to be important. Only his parents, the dispatcher and Laurel had the number. He got up and laid his violin on a chair before pulling the phone from his pocket.

“Hello?” He pressed his hand to his other ear to shut out the music.

“Dan! Something’s happened.”

“Laurel? Are you at home?”

“Yes. I need help.”

“I’ll be right there.” Dan realized the music had petered out, and the three other musicians were staring at him.

 

Dan pushed the speed limit as much as he darted between the Lions Club’s hall and Laurel’s apartment. He considered calling for a patrol car to meet him there, but rejected the idea. Laurel had hung up as soon as he’d said he would come. He had no idea what he would find when he got there.

Her Toyota sat in her parking space, and he pulled his truck into an empty one near it. As he ran up the walk, he looked around. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

He rang the bell and almost immediately the door swung open. He caught his breath. Laurel’s fearful eyes and trembling hands spurred him to step inside quickly, kick the door shut behind him and pull her into his arms.

She broke into sobs as he held her.

“It’s okay. I’m here.” He stroked her long, sleek hair and caressed her shoulders. He could see nothing in the entry or the visible part of the living room that would bring on this level of anguish. Time enough to find out what happened later.

“Thank you,” she managed between ragged breaths.

“It’s all right.”

As she sobbed, she clutched the front of his T-shirt. Dan tightened his embrace and rested his cheek on her head. He felt her hands relax slowly and her fingers splayed out on his chest.

“It’s all right,” he said again. “Laurel, I’ll do anything I can. It’s going to be okay.”

She slid her arms around his waist then, and they stood holding each other for a long minute, while her sobs quieted and her breathing slowed. Dan waited, gently rubbing her back and praying silently for God to infuse her with courage.

“Come sit down.” He tried to guide her toward the timeworn green sofa, but she stood back and shook her head.

“No. I have to show you first. Otherwise I won’t want to.”

“All right.” He allowed her to lead him across the room. She stopped in front of the open doorway to the bathroom.

“In there.” She stared at the floor.

“What is it?”

“Just look.”

He braced himself. It had to be more than a cockroach. He fully expected to find a bloody corpse. What he saw was a spotless bathroom with white fixtures and blue tile. His quick survey took in the details, and he focused in on the medicine cabinet.

The black, handwritten letters on the mirror might have been a playful greeting, but Laurel’s reaction told him they were much more sinister than that. He slid his arm around her and pulled her close to him as he read the message once more.

Laurel turned her head and buried her face against his shoulder.

FOUR

D
an felt a cold chill sweep through him as he examined the unsettling message. “Is there anything else?” he asked.

Laurel shook her head. “I don’t think so. But I was afraid to open the bedroom closet.”

He strode into her room and Laurel hung back. He heard her gasp as he yanked the door open. A few clothes and a plastic hanger lay on the closet floor, but otherwise it seemed perfectly normal.

“She was in here.”

“She?”

Laurel swallowed. “My clothes. She went through my clothes.”

“Okay. Is anything missing?”

She reached a trembling hand to slide the hangers along the closet rod, touching each item as she moved it aside. Her clothing took up only a small part of the space. Finally she dropped her hand to her side.

“My red silk blouse.”

“It’s missing?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

“Are you certain? It’s not in the laundry?”

She shook her head. “No. And she would like that blouse. It was two or three years old, but it was expensive.”

“Who are you referring to?”

Laurel bit her lip. “You’ll hate me.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Yes, you will. You’ll call some other cops, and you’ll leave. You’ll never want to see me again.”

Dan pulled her back into his embrace, even though her words sent a warning shiver down his spine. “Shh. That’s not going to happen.”

She took a deep, tremulous breath. He turned toward the living room and pushed her gently along. “Come on. You can’t stay here.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been burglarized twice. You need to get out of here before you get hurt.” He pulled out his phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling for some on-duty officers. They can investigate this latest break-in, but you’ll have to tell them what you know, Laurel.”

She nodded. “Then what?”

“I’ll take you to the police station. You can’t stay here. They can put you in protective custody—”

“No!” Her eyes were wild with terror. “Don’t do it! Please, Dan. I can’t!”

He reached for her, but she twisted away.

“Don’t put me in jail.”

Dan frowned and tried to decide whether she was rational. “Laurel, I just want to keep you safe.”

“Not in prison!”

“A safe house.”

She stood still. “A place the police have for witnesses?”

“I was thinking of a friend’s house. Unofficially, unless you think you need an officer’s protection.”

“You could hide me?”

“Maybe. If my friend agrees. Do you think you need to hide?”

She didn’t answer, and his apprehension grew.

“The police department isn’t likely to pay for concealing you and assigning around-the-clock protection for a burglary victim,” he said. “But I know people who might give you a place to stay for a few days.”

Her eyes darted about the room, and she drew in rapid breaths. At last she sank onto the sofa. “All right.”

Dan gave her an approving look. “I’ll find a place. If you want to pack a few things, go ahead.”

“Do we have to call the police?”

Dan looked away from her desperate, beautiful face. “Laurel, I am the police.”

“I know, but…”

He sat down beside her and laid the phone on the cushion between them, then reached over and took her hands in his. “I want to help. I can see that you don’t want the police involved officially this time. Give me a reason not to call the dispatcher.”

She didn’t respond. Dan watched her silently for a minute. “Laurel, it’s all right.”

She shook her head.

“Yes, it is. You can trust me.”

She sighed and looked at him, her brown eyes swimming in tears. “I hoped we could be friends, and if I didn’t get too close, I’d never have to tell you.”

“It’s all right to tell me.” He stroked her fingers. “I promise, I won’t hate you. I can’t hate you. We’re way past that.”

Her cheek twitched, and he was afraid she would break down again.

“If only you weren’t a cop,” she whispered.

Dan inhaled deeply. “Well, I am. That’s not going to change. You need to tell me everything. Then maybe I can help you.”

She nodded.

“How about you start by telling me where you’re from.”

Her face crinkled up for a second. “Maine.”

He wanted to laugh and say, “There now, was that so hard?” But the look on her face warned him that she was still close to panic. “You left Maine to put something behind you.”

“Yes,” she acknowledged carefully.

Dan strove for a lighter note. “Hmm, broken heart, maybe? A lobster fisherman broke up with you, and you vowed never to live by the sea again?”

She shook her head soberly. “When you know the truth you won’t want anything more to do with me.”

“Why don’t you let me decide?” He squeezed her hand. “We’re not going anywhere until I know what’s hurt you so badly.”

Her brown eyes wavered, as if she were summoning her courage. “I’ve felt so guilty since the first night I met you. You see, I haven’t exactly been up front with you. My last name isn’t Wilson.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s my maiden name. I was married.”

He tried to breathe evenly without showing his shock. “Okay. Want to tell me about it?”

She bit her lip.

“Divorce?” he probed gently.

She shook her head. “No. He’s…he’s dead.”

“I’m sorry.” It was a huge relief to him, but he realized it was probably anything but a relief to Laurel. He could deal with her being a widow. In time she would get past her grief, along with the guilt and anger that survivors sometimes felt. “How long ago?”

She swiped at a tear with the back of her hand. “Almost two years. I’m sorry, Dan, I should have told you, but this isn’t something you tell someone the first time you meet.”

“Of course not.” He moved closer to her and slid his arm around her shoulders, driven by an overpowering desire to comfort her. “I’d like to help you any way I can. But if you need some time to…deal with things, that’s okay. I won’t push you into anything you’re not ready for.”

Her eyes widened in near panic, and her lower lip trembled. He wished he hadn’t brought up the subject. What had happened to his resolve to exercise caution?
Way too soon, Ryan. Watch yourself.

“Dan,” she whispered, “it’s a whole lot more than that. You really don’t want to get involved with me.”

Dan was skeptical. Being with her made him feel happier than he had felt in ages. Surely they could work through whatever problems she was fighting. He could be patient.

“Laurel, you don’t know what I’m looking for in a woman.”

“Fair enough. But I know what you’re
not
looking for.” Before he could protest, she moved away from him and sat with her back to the armrest. “You said I wasn’t in your crime database, and that surprised me. I guess they need to update it. But you should call the Ohio State Police in Columbus.”

He sat very still. Crime database…she had a police record. Was that what she was telling him? It didn’t shock him, after the clues she had dropped, but the sick feeling he’d had three years ago was back. He’d found a woman who had seemed perfect, and he’d soon regretfully learned otherwise. Ashleigh had almost cost him his badge and his reputation. When he’d realized she’d crossed the line into drugs, he’d tried to help her, but she wouldn’t be helped. He ended it, but just in time. She was arrested a month later for trafficking in cocaine. Dan had avoided dating ever since. The pain wasn’t worth it.

But Laurel wasn’t like that. She couldn’t be.

Something had happened back in Maine, and she had run away from it. Maybe the husband had done something and she had been implicated. Was she a fugitive? He looked at her closely. No, he couldn’t believe that. Whatever she had done, she would face up to it.

“You…have a record.” He didn’t want to make assumptions until she told him more.

“Yes. A whopping big record. When I learned you were a policeman, I was afraid you’d find out what happened in Maine, and I didn’t want that. But I also knew I couldn’t be your friend without you knowing. And if it’s too much for you, well, I’d be disappointed, but I really don’t expect much right now.”

“Whoa, Laurel, slow down.”

She wouldn’t look at him then, but sat shaking with her hands clenched tightly in her lap.

“What happened?”

Tears clung to her lashes as she raised them and looked into his eyes again. He hadn’t noticed before that her nose was not quite straight. He fought back the impulse to slide over and kiss her. It wouldn’t fix everything, but it might release the tension. He immediately regretted the thought. Kissing her was the last thing he ought to do. Time to regain his self-control. He counted silently to five as she seemed to weigh the pros and cons of giving him an answer.

Lord, You know I’ve got feelings for this woman. I seem to have run ahead of Your leading again. Please show me what to do. If there’s a way I can be part of her life and still please You, let it happen
.

“Who do you think was in your closet today?” he asked.

She bit her lip and looked toward the window. “Renee.”

“Last name?”

“Chapin.”

He gave her a reassuring look, urging her to continue.

She twisted her hands together. “When I first saw the message, I was just scared. But then I realized it had to be Renee.”

“Can you tell me the rest? What happened to your husband?”

She took a deep breath. “I stood trial for his murder. Renee was my cellmate.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing but vowed to stay objective. “You were acquitted. You wouldn’t be here now if you weren’t.”

It was a full five seconds before she tore her gaze away.

“No, Dan, I wasn’t acquitted.”

 

Dan’s mind reeled from Laurel’s shocking confession that she was an accused felon. When she went into the bedroom to pack, he picked up his cell phone and debated who to call. His first thought had been his partner, Jessica, but that wouldn’t do. Jess was engaged and was probably spending time with her fiancé this weekend. And she’d insist they go by the book. He hoped he wouldn’t regret the decision, but until he read through the files, he would abide by Laurel’s wishes and not make an official report.

After careful thought, he decided family was the place to turn tonight. If he made sure no one knew where he took Laurel, his oldest brother’s family wouldn’t be in danger for one night. He dialed Owen’s number and waited, deliberating on how much to reveal.

Owen was curious and sympathetic. “Is your friend going to be all right?”

“I think so,” Dan said. “But her apartment was broken into for the second time in two days.”

“The poor woman.”

“Yes, well, I was wondering if you and Marissa were feeling adventurous.”

“That sounds intriguing.”

Dan hesitated. “I need a safe place for Laurel while we sort this thing out. I hate to ask you. Worst-case scenario, whoever victimized her finds out she’s with you. It could put you in danger.”

Owen laughed. “My middle name is Cloak and Dagger.”

“I’m serious.”

“Well, best-case scenario, we’ll hide her for a couple of days and she’ll ask Marissa to be her maid of honor at your wedding.”

“You’re way too optimistic, but if you’re willing, I’ll bring her to your house in about an hour.”

“I’ll tell Marissa.”

“Maybe I should wait while you ask her.”

“Are you kidding? My wife loves company, and knowing you’re finally bringing a woman around to meet us will thrill her no end.”

“We’re not dating, Owen. That is, not yet,” he said gruffly. “Well, what I mean is…oh, forget it!”

Owen laughed. “This should be very interesting.”

As Dan hung up, Laurel emerged from her room carrying a backpack.

“I’ve been thinking, Dan.”

“What about?”

“In jail, Renee was always hinting that I was very wealthy and could take care of her when I got out. I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t that well off to begin with and that if I was convicted, I would end up with nothing.”

“But she didn’t accept that?”

“Right. She intimidated me, I admit. The implication was that she would watch my back in prison if I would do something for her from the outside.”

Dan nodded. “But you didn’t.”

“No. When I was released, Renee was still in jail.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to keep track of her. But the trial was huge news in Maine. We had television privileges in jail and newspapers in the library.”

“She knew that you weren’t convicted.”

BOOK: Just Cause
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