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Authors: Julie Miller

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BOOK: Kansas City Secrets
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The muscles in his face relaxed with an unfamiliar smile as the shepherd and poodle charged toward him. But the dogs ran right past, abandoning the game. Abandoning him.

Tension gripped him again, just as quickly as it had ebbed, when he heard the clanking of the gate opening behind him. The mutts were showing their true allegiance to their copper-haired mistress by trotting up to greet her. Rosemary March followed Trent through the gate and latched it behind her, stopping on the opposite edge of the narrow pool. She knelt down in that starchy dress to accept the enthusiastic welcome of her pets, and Max's cranky, used-up heart did a funny little flip-flop at the unexpected sight of that uptight, upper-crust woman getting licked in the face and not complaining one whit about muddy, grass-stained paws on her white dress.

Great. That was the last thing he needed today, thinking he had the hots for the most viable suspect in their murder investigation—a good girl, no less, who seemed to push every bad-behavior button in his arsenal, a woman who was all kinds of wrong for him and his crass, worldly ways. She was a suspect, not an opportunity. He needed to get his head back in the game.

“Miss March was visiting her brother yesterday,” Trent began, giving Max a heads-up nod across the narrow width of the pool, indicating that he'd gotten her to open up to him. Max raised a surrendering hand, promising to watch his mouth and not blow any progress Trent had made in his absence, and started a slow stroll around the pool to join them. “She thinks she spotted a man paying undue attention to her down at the prison, and that he may have taken a picture of her—”

“I don't think.” Rosie glanced up at Trent, then pushed to her feet. “I know. He didn't have to stare at me. He was watching me on his phone.”

So, still no news about the Bratcher murder. Max played along. Getting her to talk, period, was the first step in getting her to talk about their investigation. “Did you know this guy?”

“I'd recognize him if I saw him again, but I've never seen him before.” She backed up onto the patio, keeping both men in sight as Max closed the distance between them. “You don't believe me.” She looked across the yard to her neighbors, probably guessing how he'd spent his time back here. Her chin came up as she glanced over at the tall, plastic cabinet, then trained those accusing gray eyes on him. “You never even read the threat, did you? What did Otis and Arlene say to you? You think I'm making this all up.”

“I don't know what I think,” he answered honestly.

Apparently, that wasn't a good enough answer. With a frustrated huff that might be her interpretation of a curse, she walked past him and opened the cabinet doors. She backed away, picking up the poodle and hugging the dog to her chest, averting her eyes from the shelves inside. “Look for yourself. This is why I called the police.”

Max muttered a real expletive when he saw the message and noose hanging inside. He glanced back and scratched around the ears of the little dog who bore an unmistakable resemblance to the toy on display. “Looks a lot like you, killer.”

Miss Rosie's eyes widened along with his when his fingertips accidentally brushed against her arm. A split second later she jerked away, pulling herself and the dog beyond his outstretched fingers. “Her name is Trixie. Is someone going to hurt my dogs? Is someone going to hurt me?”

“You don't know who sent this?”

She shook her head and backed another step away.

Right. Not his dog. Not his anything.
Do your job
already.
Max busied his hands by snapping a couple of pictures with his phone before pulling out his pocketknife. Trent had come up beside him to inspect the cryptic message. Max asked, “You got a bag in that notebook?”

Trent pulled out a small plastic evidence bag and held it open while Max cut down the threat. The sisal looped around the toy's neck reminded him of the spool of twine Mrs. Dinkle had been using in her garden. He peeked around the cabinet door and caught Arlene watching from her back porch. Otis remained oblivious as she quickly glanced away. Could it be that simple? “Any reason why your neighbors might want to scare you?”

“Because Arlene hates dogs as much as she loves the sound of her own voice?” Max almost grinned at the spunky dig of sarcasm. But Rosie clapped a hand over her mouth. “I'm sorry. That wasn't very polite.” She was reining her emotions in again, a skill Max envied, especially today. “The Dinkles aren't responsible for this. And they certainly weren't in Jefferson City snapping pictures of me yesterday. I'm guessing the money from the settlement is the reward that creep is talking about. Believe me, it doesn't feel like any kind of compensation with all the hassle that has come with it. I'd rather have Mom and Dad and my old teaching job over millions of dollars any day.”

I
know what you did.

So, who was close enough to Rosemary March, besides her brother locked away in prison, to know or even suspect that she'd murdered Richard Bratcher? Who else cared that she might be guilty?

He plucked the sealed bag from Trent's grasp and dangled it like a pendulum in front of her face. “Can you prove you didn't put this note out here yourself, Rosie?”

Her face went utterly pale. “What?”

“What are you doing, Max?” Trent cautioned.

“Testing a theory.” He closed the cabinet doors and moved a step closer. “Have you gotten other threats, Rosie?”

“Yes. Wait. Rosie?” Instead of recoiling from him, she planted her feet, her hand fisting in the dog's curly hair. “We are not friends, Mr. Krolikowski, so you have no right to be so familiar. Or condescending. Especially when it sounds as though you're calling me a liar.”


Are
you lying, Rosie?”

“Stop calling me that.”

“It's a pretty good diversion to make us think someone's after you.”

“Diversion from what?” Her chest puffed out, and a blush crept up her neck as understanding dawned. “I'm such an idiot. This is about Richard, isn't it?”

“It's a reasonable question, considering your history. You're kind of like the lady who cries wolf with all your phone calls to 9-1-1.”

“My history?” Her cheeks were as rosy as his new nickname for her now. “We're finally getting to the point, aren't we? Is KCPD accusing me of killing him again? Are you accusing Stephen? And here I thought the police had shown up because...” She stared at the evidence bag in his hand for a moment, her chin trembling against the tight clench of her mouth. Then her lips buzzed with an escaping breath and she walked to the gate. “Duchess, heel. Sit.” The German shepherd settled onto her haunches beside her mistress, staying put as Rosie opened the gate. Rosie shifted the poodle to one arm and pointed down the driveway with the other. “I'd like you two to leave my home. Now. And please don't gun your engine on your way out of the neighborhood. There's already enough gossip about me without hearing complaints about loud cars leaving my house.”

“There's not a damn thing wrong with the way I drive, lady. You and your brother had more motive than anybody to kill Richard Bratcher. I think you'd be less worried about my car and more worried about talking to us and trying to prove your innocence.”

She shook her head, probably biting down on some unladylike crack about being innocent until proven guilty. But all he got was a succinct dismissal. “If you won't help me, I'm not helping you. If you gentlemen have any further questions about Richard's murder, you may call my attorney.”

Man, that woman was the definition of control. No blowing her stack or shedding a tear or slapping his face. No answers. No freaking reason he should be so perplexed or fascinated by her. He walked up to her, letting his six feet two inches lean in close enough to steal a breath of her summery scent. “Gentlemen? Honey, I'm as far from being—”

“Max, shut up.” His partner pushed him on out the gate.

“You, too?” Max patted his chest pocket, but there was no cigar there. Damn it. The stress, the suspicion, the guilt—too many emotions were hitting him way too fast to deal with them properly. He shook his head and strode toward the Chevelle. “I should have called in sick. I don't need this kind of convoluted drama. Not today.” He spun and pointed a finger at the redhead whose cool eyes had locked onto him. “You really need the cops someday, lady, you come and find me. But you'd better be willing to talk and you'd better make sense.” He turned and resumed his march toward the car. “I need a drink before I screw anything else up today.”

“Excuse us, Miss March. Thank you for your time.” Trent hurried to catch up and fall into step beside him. “You know we're not going to get anything out of her now, right?”

“I know.”

“You really think she's making up these threats to make her read like a victim instead of a suspect?”

“She's smart enough to do it. Ah, I don't know what I think.”

“Hey, Max.” A strong hand on his arm stopped him. “I'm on your side, remember?” The tone of Trent's voice was as full of reprimand as it was concern. “It's a little early for the Shamrock, isn't it?”

“Not today, it isn't.” He shrugged out of Trent's grip and circled around the car. It was probably best for everybody here—that frightened, pissed-off woman; his best friend; this case; this job; Jimmy's memory; him—if he just walked away.

But something drew his gaze over the roof of the car back to Rosemary March. She'd followed them along the driveway toward the porch, catching the end of their conversation. But she froze as soon as his eyes locked on to hers, one arm hooked around the poodle, the other clinging to the shepherd's collar. From this distance she looked smaller, fragile and as painfully alone as he'd ever been. She'd needed someone to make her feel safe, and he'd chosen to play his bad-cop role to the hilt. He deserved the truckload of regret that dumped on top of the guilt already weighing him down.

Max swung open the car door and climbed inside to start the engine. “Not today.”

Chapter Four

Rosemary squeezed her fists around the long straps of her shoulder bag, staring at the steel doors of the elevator while Howard Bratcher rattled on about the trust fund and investment portfolio he and his accountant had put together for her on Stephen's behalf. She'd understood the benefits and restrictions and attorney fees clearly the first time they'd discussed splitting up and managing the settlement money, but it was easier to let him repeat himself than to explain the troubling turn of her thoughts.

Two detectives had come to her home this morning. As if her encounter with that grizzled, grabby, surly Detective Krolikowski and his bigger, quieter partner wasn't upsetting enough, it was dismaying to learn that KCPD had reopened the investigation into her fiancé's murder and considered her and Stephen suspects again. Even six years after she'd found his dead body in his condo, blue faced and frozen midconvulsion, it seemed Richard still had the power to destroy any sense of security and self-worth she'd ever had.

The disturbing phone messages and threat in her own backyard left her as on edge and unsure of the world around her as those last few months with Richard had been. Her morning visit from Detectives Dixon and Krolikowski had only intensified her feelings of losing control over her own life.

Trent Dixon might have looked like a Mack truck, but he'd been businesslike, pseudofriendly. He'd kept his words polite and had respected her personal space. But Max Krolikowski made no bones about their reason for being there. And despite the military haircut that reminded her so of her father, he'd been coarse, forthright, unapologetically male—not a kindly paternal figure in any way, shape or form.

The broad-shouldered detective with the stubbled jaw and wrinkled shirt was as different from Richard's suit and tie and courtly charm as a man could be. He was right to keep his eyes hidden behind the mask of those sunglasses. On first glimpse, those deep blue irises had been full of ghosts and despair. But upon a closer look, a quick shift in attitude revealed a frightening sort of defiance—as though some great pain was crushing in on him before he summoned his considerable strength or pure cussedness or both and crushed it, instead.

He'd grabbed her, sworn his frustration with a vast vocabulary of objectionable words, accused her of lying, gossiped with the neighbors about her, made friends with her dogs and then invaded her personal space and gone vulgar and insulting again. He couldn't be more unsuited to her guarded sensibilities.

But it wasn't the lack of manners or even the not-so-subtle doubts about her innocence that stuck with her an hour after he'd driven away.

She'd forgotten how warm a man could be.

The heat of the summer sun on his skin mixed with temper and muscle—Max Krolikowski didn't have to touch her for her to be aware of the furnace of heat that man could generate. Yet he
had
touched her, singeing her skin with his abundant warmth. Rosemary wiggled her fingers around the strap of her purse, remembering the shock of his rough hand sliding over her arm. No man who wasn't her brother—she sneaked a glance up at Howard—or a brotherly type, had touched her since long before Richard's death. Frissons of white-hot electricity had danced across her skin beneath the sweep of the detective's hand. She'd reacted to his touch.

And then she'd touched him. Her hand had encountered a wall of warm, immovable muscle when she'd pushed against his chest. For a split second, her fear and fortitude had given way to a reaction that was purely female. Surprisingly aware. Completely out of character for her now.

She remembered closeness. Wanting. She remembered she was a woman.

Rosemary twisted her neck from side to side in discomfort, feeling as if the cold steel walls of this elevator were closing in on her. Why would her hormones suddenly awaken and respond to an ill-mannered beast like Max Krolikowski? Did she have no sense when it came to men? She'd never had a thing for bad boys before. Of course, she hadn't had the chance to have much of a thing for any man. But wasn't rule one that she needed to feel safe? Could it be that six years of isolating herself in order to recapture control over her own life had left her so lonely that any man barging past those meticulously erected barriers was bound to trigger a reaction?

It was all very unsettling. Max Krolikowski was unsettling. Knowing she was still thinking about him, wary of him, curious about him, wondering why Trixie and Duchess had taken to him so readily, was messing with her carefully structured, predictable world.

“We're here.” The elevator dipped as it came to a stop, startling her from her thoughts as much as Howard's interruption had. But by the time the doors slid open, Rosemary had her chin and armor back in place. She arched her back away from the brush of Howard's hand there, hugged her purse to her side and hurried on out the door.

Rosemary stepped out into the cold, modern decor of the Raynard Building's top floor into the Bratcher, Austin & Cole, Attorneys-at-Law, reception area. Before she reached the granite-topped reception counter, Howard wrapped his fingers around her elbow and pulled her to a stop so he could whisper against her ear. “I thought, perhaps, you'd let me take you to lunch afterward.”

She didn't immediately process that he'd asked her out on another date, because her mind was too busy comparing the light, cool clasp of his fingers to the purposeful heat of Max Krolikowski's grasp.

Really? She groaned inwardly. Although she couldn't say if her dismay stemmed from her unwanted obsession with the bullying detective or Howard's puppylike determination to turn their relationship into something more than a friendship. How many ways could she say no without hurting his feelings?

Pulling away, she offered him a wry smile. “I don't think that will work today. I've got so much to do at home. There's still a ton of Mom and Dad's stuff to go through.”

Howard's smile dimmed. “I understand. Rain check?”

An office door clicked shut at the north end of the hallway and a woman's shrill voice bounced off the sterile walls. “What's she doing here?”

Rosemary's day went from bad to rotten as she turned to face Charleen Grimes. It was impossible not to feel like a frump in the face of the blonde woman's artful makeup and thoroughbred legs. It was impossible not to feel the resentment licking through her veins, either. “Howard is my attorney. Why are
you
here?”

“You don't have to engage her, Rosemary.” Howard put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to his side. This time, she didn't pull away. Nothing like a run-in with her dead fiancé's mistress to sap her strength. “Charleen, what are you doing here?” he demanded with courtroom-like authority. “I thought I made it clear you needed to find different representation.”

“You mean besides your brother? I did. I just had an appointment with Mr. Austin.” Charleen sauntered across the gray carpet, bringing a cloud of expensive perfume and vitriol Rosemary's way. “You're the one who's got a lot of nerve, showing your face here. I loved Richard. Why couldn't you just let him go?”

After his first attack, Rosemary had been in shock. But after the second time, when he'd twisted her arm so violently it snapped, she'd been more than willing to push Richard Bratcher out of her life. “I told Richard it was over between us. The two of you could have been together. With my blessing.”

“Liar.”

Rosemary's shoulders pushed against Howard's arm as indignation kicked in. How many people were going to accuse her of that today?

“He pitied you. He said you needed him too much to ever leave you.”

What he hadn't wanted to leave was her money. He'd made it clear that he would continue to have Charleen or whomever he pleased in his bed after their marriage because no uptight, inexperienced, overworked mouse like her would ever be able to satisfy a man's appetite. And if Richard's words weren't cruel enough, the slap across the face had been. She'd pulled off his ring and held it out to him. But he'd twisted her arm and the nightmare started.

Rosemary gritted her teeth, blanking the memory of running for her life yet not being able to escape her own home or Richard's torture until he'd run out of cigarettes and had gone for more. “I don't know what to say, Ms. Grimes. Clearly, you're still grieving.”

“Grieving? I'm mad because he's dead, and it's your fault.”

Apparently, Richard hadn't treated his mistresses like the punching bag she'd been. Rosemary's love for him had died long ago. Why hadn't Charleen's? “It's been six years.”

“Feels like yesterday to me. Maybe because two detectives—Watson and Parker—came to my boutique this morning and asked me questions about Richard's death. That's why I'm here—to alert my attorney.” Charleen towered over Rosemary with her three-inch heels and movie-star figure. She used that height to her advantage to sneer down her nose at Rosemary. “But I told them who I suspected.”

“That's enough, Charleen.” Howard removed his arm to clasp Rosemary's shoulders with both hands and turn her to face him. “Is that true? Has KCPD started a new investigation?”

Rosemary shrugged out of his grip. “Why are you asking me?”

The tall blonde laughed. “Because he thinks you did it, too.”

“Suzy.” Howard snapped his fingers at the receptionist gaping behind her desk. “Escort Ms. Grimes back into Mr. Austin's office.”

“But Mr. Austin has a client with—”

“Get her out of here!”

“Yes, sir.” The dark-haired receptionist hurried around the stainless counter. “Ms. Grimes, may I take you to the lounge and get you some tea or coffee?”

Rosemary had flinched at Howard's raised voice, but Charleen seemed amused by his anger. “Your brother would never speak to me like that.”

“My little brother did a lot of things I didn't approve of.” Howard moved his tall body in front of Rosemary, blocking her view of the other woman. “If you want to continue to be a client of this firm, I suggest you learn how to keep your mouth shut and behave like a lady.”

“Like boring little Miss March?”

“Do you understand what slander charges are, Charleen? I won't have you accusing Rosemary of something she didn't do.”

Rosemary heard a snort of derision. “How do you know she didn't kill Richard?”

Howard's shoulders lifted with a deep breath as Charleen followed the receptionist down the long hallway to the other attorney's office suite. With a hand at Rosemary's back, he escorted her in the opposite direction. Once he closed the door to his inner office behind him, he tried to take Rosemary into his arms. “I'm so sorry the two of you had to run into each other.”

But comfort was the last thing she wanted, especially with her temper brewing in her veins. She pushed away from his hug and circled around his desk to look out at the Kansas City skyline. Maybe the world was more normal outside that window. “Six years. I thought...” She crossed her arms in front of her as a shiver ran down her spine. “It was foolish to hope the nightmare of your brother was all behind me. I guess people won't leave me alone until his murder is solved and the real killer is in prison.”

Howard shrugged off his suit jacket and draped it over the back of his chair, coming up behind her. “Did the police question you about Richard?”

Rosemary nodded. “Two detectives came to see me this morning, too.”

“You should have called me right away. I don't want you talking to the police without me present.”

When his hands settled on her shoulders again, Rosemary moved away. “Why? I didn't kill him. I don't have anything to hide.” Although she hadn't really answered any of Detective Krolikowski or Dixon's questions once she realized they weren't responding to her complaint about the harassing calls and ugly threat. She stopped her furious pacing and inhaled a calming breath. It was wrong to take her frustration out on her friend. “I'm sorry, Howard. This must all be difficult for you, too. Not knowing who's responsible. I'm guessing the police will be questioning you again, as well.”

He waved off her apology and followed her around the desk, where he pushed aside some knickknacks and perched on the corner. “Let them come. My alibi's as solid now as it was six years ago. I'm not worried.”

“Still, the memories of your brother—I know you loved him. Our reasons may be different, but you need closure as much as I do.”

“I'm so sorry, Rosemary. So sorry for everything. I knew Richard had a temper, but I never knew he was hurting you. Maybe if I had known, I could have done something to stop him. But he was so ambitious, so greedy. He never wanted to put in the time and the hard work to pay his dues and get ahead. He always looked for the shortcut. I guess I thought he'd grow out of it one day. I thought you were a good influence on him, that your marriage would be a success.” He glanced toward the door, indicating the confrontation with Charleen Grimes. “You were certainly a better class of woman than those floozies he was always taking to bed. As talented a litigator as he was, he was an embarrassment to the reputation of the firm. Cost us clients. Our father went to his grave thinking Richard was never going to amount to anything worth making him a full partner.”

“I don't blame you for anything Richard did. You weren't your brother's keeper.”

“Maybe I should have been.” He reached for her hand, and she forced herself not to dodge his grasp this time. “I intend to take care of you, though, to make up in some small way for the grief he caused you.”

Rosemary managed to drum up a smile of thanks before pulling away. “How about you show me those papers you worked so hard to prepare.”

Fifteen minutes later, the papers were signed and she was ready to leave. “I'll drive you home,” Howard offered.

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