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Authors: D.J. Palmer

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BOOK: The New Husband
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No doubt, if she did raise a ruckus the police would probably call for backup. The children would awaken. The authorities would interview Simon in the house, not down at the station, because they'd have no cause to arrest him. They'd simply want to know why Nina was making these allegations. And he'd have an answer.

“I'm sorry for all this craziness, officers,” she imagined Simon would say. “Nina's been under tremendous stress because of Glen and now this terrible incident with Maggie. I just need to get her to bed. She'll be better in the morning.”

Nina could make a scene. Beg for help. But again, what crime had been committed here? She could try to explain the long string of events that had led her to the conclusion that Simon was dangerously manipulative, but not without sounding like a lunatic. Her best bet was to bluff and hope that Simon wasn't as intimately familiar with police procedure as she was.

Simon took a threatening step forward. Nina held her ground, forcing herself to gaze into the blackness of his eyes, seeing in them something deeply disturbing.

“Go upstairs, pack a bag, and get out of here. Get out before I make things much worse for you.”

Nina could see from Simon's pained expression that her words had packed the intended punch.

“I love you, Nina,” Simon said, sounding as sweet and sincere as she'd ever heard him. “You need help, serious help. But I'm not going
to put you under any more stress. I can tell you're at your breaking point. So I'll go. Okay? I'll leave, right now, but remember, this is
my
property, too.”

My property …

His comment evoked a memory of those tree branches. Everything in Simon's world, Nina thought, from his clothes to the people in it, needed to be ordered, neat, to fit inside defined compartments in his mind.

“I expect you to get over whatever is going on with you right now and to invite me back into my house very soon.” Simon's tone was severe, borderline threatening. “Otherwise, I'll be forced to take action on my own.”

“Action?” Nina's brow knitted as her voice rose in pitch.

“You're a social worker,” Simon said. “You of all people know it's not acceptable to leave children in a dangerous situation. Your thoughtlessness could have killed Maggie today.”

Was he threatening to accuse her of being an incompetent parent? Yes, that's exactly what he was doing, she decided. Threatening to take the children away from her.

“And don't forget Glen is out there somewhere,” Simon continued. “What if he wants his kids back? Who is going to stop him? You? The police? You need me, Nina, you need my help.”

“Help with what?”

“Protection, for one, from Glen. But most important, I need to teach you how to be a good mother.” Simon glared at Nina, piercing her with an icy chill. “I'm a teacher. It's what I do. I educate. And you have a lot to learn before you can be the wife and mother I expect you to be. There is a right way and a wrong way to be, for everything and everyone. That includes you.”

Simon left the kitchen. Finally, Nina felt like she could breathe again. Still, she followed him upstairs, praying he wouldn't try to do anything to the children. She carried her phone in one hand, 911 pre-entered and ready to send, and in the other was a kitchen knife hidden behind
her back. Her heart hammered in her throat while she watched Simon pack a single bag. Minutes later he was downstairs.

He opened the front door and stepped outside onto the porch landing. He stood there a long while, a suitcase of clothes in one hand, the leather bag she'd bought him for a birthday gift in the other. He kept his back to Nina.

Without any sort of good-bye, Simon closed the door softly behind him, and then he was gone.

 

CHAPTER 51

The evening after I nearly died was Sports Award Night at the high school. Unfortunately, I had to go. Connor was getting some big award so he had to be there, and Mom didn't want to miss it, because she's a mom. Our world might have been turned upside down, but that didn't mean we couldn't do normal things, too.

Mom was worried about me, of course, but not worried enough to let me stay home alone. With Dad back in the picture, she was concerned he might show up at the house. Maybe he'd try to take me, she said. Or worse. I wasn't worried. Dad would never hurt me or try to kidnap me, but Mom didn't see it the same way, and I wasn't going to argue.

Either way, I felt pretty good. I had rested at home all day, with no side effects from the allergy attack. I probably could have gone to school, but I didn't want all the attention. Everyone checked in with me anyway—including Laura Abel. We talked by phone (real voices, not just texts) and it was a bit awkward, but it was also kind of okay. I'm not talking rainbows and unicorns or anything like that. I wasn't going back to my old crew—no way. But I realized it was easier not to carry all that anger and resentment around. In a way, just by being nice, Laura had made it possible for me to leave her and Justin and the rest of the meanies behind for good. I call that progress.

I figured Simon would be joining us at the big event, but no, he
didn't. In fact, I hadn't seen him all day. When I asked Mom, she told me we'd talk about it after the awards night. That gave me a big lift.

“Talk about it” sounded like code for “we got into a huge fight and he's gone,” maybe for good. I looked around the crowded auditorium for signs of Simon but didn't see him anywhere. It wasn't his school, but still, I figured he might have shown up, invited or not, to watch Connor get his award.

Connor was around somewhere with his team. The football team was always the grand finale. Groan. This evening was going to take forever, and we'd have to stay until the end.

At least Ben was with me. He'd gotten his parents to drop him off even though he didn't have any siblings who were getting awards. But he wanted to see
me,
make sure I was okay. Mom hugged Ben tightly and wouldn't let go for the longest time. I could tell it embarrassed Ben, but I also knew how much he appreciated it. It was Mom's way of letting him know she didn't blame him for what happened.

“Don't ever do that to me again,” Ben said, taking the seat next to mine.

“Like I'm planning on it,” I shot back.

We shook on it, but Ben didn't seem relieved.

“It
wasn't
there,” Ben whispered to me as the auditorium lights dimmed. “I looked in every pouch, every single one. It wasn't there, Maggie. I swear to you.”

Ben told this to me on the phone earlier, but now he could look me in the eye so I'd know he had no doubt about it.

“But Simon
found
it,” I said to him, still trying to puzzle it out.

Then something clicked for me, and judging by the
OMG!
expression on Ben's face, it did for him as well.

“Do you think—?” Ben didn't finish the thought because he didn't have to. We were on the same wavelength now.

I remembered something from that day, a vision of Simon running toward me. Something had been different about him, but what? I
asked Ben about it, but he didn't know either. So we sat in silence, hardly paying attention as the fall sports teams and individuals got recognized—team spirit award, most valuable player, most improved, yadayadayada. I clapped when I heard applause, but my brain was elsewhere, trying to recall what had been different about Simon that day. My memories were scattered. I could see faces in my mind, and remembered the terrible fear and the horrible feeling of not being able to breathe. I'd never experienced a feeling of panic like that and prayed I never would again.

Ben was positive that my EpiPens were not in my backpack. One hundred percent sure! There was only one possible explanation—Simon had removed them the night before, like he did my lab report.

So, how would he have slipped the pen case into my backpack later when I was having my reaction? He must have had them with him. But where? In his hand? No, I remembered him running toward me holding one pen case, the one from the nurse's office, not mine. Could he have hidden my case in his pants pocket? Maybe, but it's pretty bulky. So where else?

Then it struck me—the one place Simon could have easily concealed the pens. I knew something had been different about him. Yes, he had on his usual polo shirt and khaki pants combo. But he was also wearing a suit jacket that day, something he
never
did. I remembered it clearly now, waving behind him like a flapping cape as he ran. And that's when I knew Ben was right about the pen case and Simon was a monster.

FOR THE
rest of the evening program I tried to come up with a way to tell Mom that Simon was a nutcase—bad pun intended. If he took my pens, which I believed he had, it also meant he poisoned my food. I could only imagine what Mom would say: “Here we go again, Maggie.” I'd never felt so connected to the boy who cried wolf in all my life. This accusation, more than all the others, would seem so outrageous,
Mom would never, ever believe me. I was completely stuck. Unless … unless her promise to talk later meant she already knew.

Connor was in the front seat as we drove home, carrying a plaque to commemorate his coach's award. Mom didn't seem to be her usual beaming, proud mom self. We were silent for a bit until Mom spoke up.

“Kids, I didn't want to say anything earlier because this was Connor's day and I didn't want to spoil it. There have been some … developments at home with me and Simon.”

I was on the edge of my seat. Connor looked at Mom all concerned, like he was bracing himself for the worst. I was doing the same, but his bad news would be good news for me.

“We've had some difficulties getting along and I've asked Simon to leave for a while.”

Connor's eyes shot open wide. “What? Why? What did he do?”

“It was nothing he did. We're just not getting along.”

“No, he did do something.” The words came spilling out of my mouth before I knew what I was saying. “He poisoned me. He took my EpiPens, put something in the brownies, and then he slipped the pen case into my backpack.”

“Maggie, enough with you and Simon!” Connor sounded really ticked off.

“What makes you say that, Maggie?” To my utter surprise, Mom didn't sound angry at all. I told her my theory about the sport coat. Connor shook his head in disbelief, but Mom stayed perfectly still.

“Okay, sweetie,” she replied.

She said it absently, like she was lost in thought.

“I'll make some hot chocolate when we get home and we'll all talk about what's going on, okay?”

Connor nodded his agreement. I leaned my body forward to put a hand on Mom's shoulder.

“I love you, Mom,” I said.

She glanced at me in the rearview mirror, and the look in her eyes told me everything I needed to know.

She believed me.

WE ENTERED
the house through the garage door, and the first thing I expected, I didn't get: Daisy didn't start barking. She always barked whenever we came home, because she knew it was her job to protect us. I thought maybe she was sleeping, so I went to the living room to look for her. But she wasn't there.

“Daisy!” My voice bounced off the walls as I listened for the sound of padded footsteps that never came. I ran to the kitchen to look for Mom and Connor.

“Daisy's not here,” I said, tears welling in my eyes.

“Of course she is,” said Connor confidently. “She's probably sleeping.”

We checked all over the house, every room, under the beds even, but she wasn't there.

I kept calling her name over and over again: “Daisy! Daisy! Where are you? Come out. Please … please!”

My voice kept breaking into sobs. Even Connor now looked sick with worry. It wasn't until I was coming downstairs after checking all the bedrooms that I noticed what was wrong. The front door was open slightly, like we'd forgotten to shut it completely on our way out. I checked the screen door for paw marks, thinking maybe she'd gotten out the way she had before—that horrible day Simon came into our lives. But I saw no scratches and the screen was intact. Still, who had left the door open?

We called the police. There should have been a patrol car parked out in front of our house.

“They were called away because of a reported burglary in the neighborhood,” Mom told me. “So they didn't see anyone take her.”

Then Connor spoke up, and surprised us all.

“What if Simon reported the burglary to get the police to leave so he could come here and take Daisy?”

“Where would he take her?” Mom asked. “Are there hotels around here that allow pets?” She didn't make it sound like Connor's theory was far-fetched.

“He's not staying at any hotel,” I said. Connor and I took turns telling Mom about the rental house, our theory about the place not being rented, and how we sort of proved it.

Mom looked upset, but more about us taking risks than us spying on Simon.

Then Connor's face lit up.

“What is it, honey?” Mom asked.

“The camera,” he said. “It's still operational. It's not running at night to save battery, but if he has Daisy, we might be able to get a picture of her.”

“Who cares about pictures? Let's go there now and get our dog back,” I said.

“No!”

I jumped at the sound of Mom's hand slamming against the kitchen table.

“Nobody goes back to that house. Nobody. Is that understood? I'll call the police. You let me handle this,” Mom said.

I wasn't about to disagree.

 

CHAPTER 52

They spent the weekend without Daisy—a whole heart-wrenching, gut-churning, sleepless, brutal weekend.

Nina arrived at the Seabury Police Department for her scheduled meeting with Detective Eric Wheeler, hoping for some kind of development. This was her second trip here.

On her first visit, the detective had assured her he was conducting a thorough investigation, and while he had yet to update Nina on his latest findings, she wasn't entirely in the dark. She knew something of Simon.

According to her spies, Ginny and Susanna, he was at school, teaching his Monday classes like all was normal. Maggie was staying home under protest. In her mind, it was unconscionable to give Simon any control over her life. Nina did not want her daughter to be in the same building as that man, but Maggie did have a point that school was the safest place for her. Glen was still out there, somewhere, and the police were no longer keeping watch over the house.

Nina had hoped she'd have proof by now that Simon had taken Daisy, or poisoned Maggie, and then he'd be put on leave or fired outright with criminal charges pending, so her daughter could return without worry. Such wasn't the case.

Her other option for getting Simon out of the picture wasn't panning out either. She had called Hugh Dolan, texted him numerous times, sent him Facebook messages, but gotten no answer. She had
imagined marching into Wheeler's office holding irrefutable evidence that Simon was a killer. Unfortunately, Hugh had vanished, proving himself unreliable, which really wasn't surprising.

Nina had fretted the last few days away—everyone had, with Daisy gone. Twice she had nightmares about Glen showing up at the house with a knife to annihilate his family, his anger boiling over into a murderous rampage.

She had awakened bathed in sweat. Nina was left on her own to protect her children, and Ginny's suggestion to buy a gun no longer sounded ridiculous to her.

Meanwhile, other stresses began pinging away, including paying the mortgage. She was formulating plans to move out. Let Simon have the damn house; she'd go live with Ginny or Susanna if she had to.

In an ironic twist, Simon had at last gotten what he desired: Nina decided to take a leave of absence from her job. She had stopped by The Davis Center first thing in the morning to deliver the news to her boss, Rona, in person. She gave vague excuses of a difficult family situation and no timetable for her return. Nina filled out some paperwork and that was that. Maybe they'd fire her, but she couldn't trouble herself with those concerns, at least not until she got her dog back and Simon was out of the picture.

There was no perfect time to step away, but this moment was as good as any. She'd finished her report on the Cooper case, recommending joint custody for the children. There'd be fallout from Wendy for sure, but Nina wouldn't be in the office to hear it. Instead, she was at the police station, seated in an interview room, getting Wheeler's take on his part of the investigation. He did not look like a man about to deliver good news.

“Let me go over what we've done and where we're at,” he began. “We interviewed most of your neighbors, and nobody saw Simon leave your house with Daisy.”

“Okay,” said Nina, nodding. She had expected this answer, because she had checked with her neighbors as well. She had also contacted
Granite State Dog Rescue, put up posts on the Seabury community Facebook page, and once again pinned missing dog posters around town, but so far none of those efforts had yielded any results.

“What about the burglary?” Nina asked.

“We investigated and found nothing. The person who reported the incident said he was a tourist from out of town and heading home when he saw something suspicious.”

“Have you spoken to him?”

“Called. No answer.”

“That's because it was Simon.”

“Not according to the name he gave us.”

Nina knew when a conversation was going nowhere.

“What about Simon, have you spoken with him?”

“Of course,” Wheeler said. “And you can guess what he told us.”

“He doesn't have Daisy. And before you ask, his neighbors haven't seen a dog out in the yard, or seen Simon walking a dog, or heard barking, for that matter.

“Simon did tell us that you two got into a fight and he's living at his other home until you work something out. That's not a crime, Nina. People break up all the time.”

“Sure, but they don't always steal a dog when they go. Detective, Daisy is part of our family, and we need her back.” Nina's voice shook with a mix of frustration and sadness.

“Look, Nina, we want to help, but we've got our hands full with you. Glen, Simon, your dog—you're like a full-time project here. Have you tried talking to Simon?”

“No.” Nina kept her head down, afraid if she looked the detective in the eyes she'd crack and tell him what she suspected he'd done to Maggie. She had no proof other than a store receipt that he'd laced her brownie with peanut oil and no idea how Simon might retaliate if the police questioned him about it. Until she got her dog back, Nina did not want to take any unnecessary chances. Maggie was fine. They were all fine … all but Daisy.

“Can't you just get a search warrant?” Nina pleaded. “Go in there and look for yourself?”

Wheeler's deepening frown told her the answer was no.

“That's a big ask. We need probable cause, a court order, all of that,” he said. “And right now, we don't have it.”

“I kicked him out of the house, and the next night my dog goes missing. That should be proof enough.”

Wheeler's mouth tightened, telling her it was not. He glanced at his files. “According to the report, the front door was partially ajar. You really need an alarm system.”

“We called an alarm company—well, Simon did, after you told us Glen attacked Dr. Wilcox. But the company couldn't get the install scheduled until next week.”

Wheeler glanced at his case file. “From what I'm reading here, it's not the first time your dog has gotten out through an open door.” Nina took the comment as victim-blaming.

“Yes, I know that, but—”

She halted mid-sentence, feeling suddenly immobilized. With all that was going on, she hadn't seen the parallels clearly until Detective Wheeler inadvertently brought them to her attention: the first time Daisy had gotten out she'd faulted herself for leaving the front door partially open. What if she hadn't left it open either time? What if someone had been inside her house and taken Daisy, leaving the door ajar to make it look like that was how she had got out? And what if that same person miraculously found her dog in the woods and brought her back, adding burrs to her fur to heighten the ruse? She became upset enough for Wheeler to take notice.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“No, I'm not,” said Nina, as the magnitude of what she was now realizing struck her with great force. Simon could have ingratiated himself into Nina's life and the lives of her children predicated on a terrible, cruel, and calculated lie. It was entirely possible he had taken Daisy that day and brought her back so he could play the hero.

And she had no doubt he'd taken her again.

From her pocketbook, Nina removed her last-gasp effort—the printout of an image Connor had shown her that morning. They'd been monitoring pictures from the camera across from Simon's house on an app Connor downloaded to his phone. She hoped for a clearer shot. This one was a bit like the Loch Ness Monster—grainy, blurry, and extremely difficult to make out.

Nina was reluctant to admit she was spying on Simon. She certainly had concerns about the legality of a camera pointed at a private residence. But there were other ways to explain the image she was presenting.

“Look at this,” she said, sliding the printout across the table. Wheeler unfolded the printout and studied it closely.

With her index finger, Nina circled a dark, oblong shape that could have been anything, including a bit of curtain or a shadow. But in this context, she knew, as did the children, that the indistinct shape was without a doubt their Daisy.

“What's this?” Wheeler asked.

“It's my dog, in the window of Simon's house. You can see her?” Nina made it sound like the answer should have been a resounding yes.

Wheeler took another look. “Where did you get this?”

“I took a picture of Simon's house when I went looking for Daisy. Is that illegal?”

Wheeler said it wasn't, but his expression also said he didn't necessarily believe her story. Thankfully, he didn't press her for a better explanation.

“Yeah, I can't get a search warrant off this, if that's what you're asking,” he said, handing Nina back her printout.

“But that's Daisy!” Nina sounded exasperated.

“It could be anything, which is exactly what a judge would say. I want to help you, I really do, but our hands are tied, legally tied. I can't get a search warrant, so I suggest if you think Simon has your dog, go talk to him and try to get her back.”

Nina took that as her cue to leave. She thanked Detective Wheeler for his time, thinking to herself that she might have to do more than just talk.

With a hopeful heart, Nina tried Hugh Dolan's number again, figuring it was her last shot at getting Detective Wheeler on her side. If the police weren't going to believe photographic evidence, perhaps Hugh had some key fact in his possession, something that would turn a suicide into murder and a murder investigation into a search warrant.

Nina listened to the rings—one, two, three—expecting her call to go right to Hugh's gruff voice mail greeting. Someone answered this time, but to Nina's surprise, the speaker was female. She had a thick New England accent and a smoker's voice, coarse as sandpaper.

“Who's this?” said the caller.

Nina introduced herself as a friend of Hugh's and asked if she could speak with him.

“Hugh's dead,” the woman said curtly. “I'm Catherine, his girlfriend. Well, his sometimes girlfriend.”

Nina went cold inside.

“Dead?” She drew out the word, her voice quavering slightly. “What happened?”

“Overdose.” Catherine was matter-of-fact about it, as if this sad outcome was long expected. “I found him a few days ago. We were supposed to hang out, but he didn't show, so I called the cops. And they found him, in his apartment, needle still in his arm.”

“I'm … I'm so sorry for your loss.”

Nina wasn't sure what to say, or how to say it. As her thoughts swirled, a sinister possibility came to her, leaving her breathless and unsteady on her feet.

“Say, who are you again?” Catherine asked, now sounding suspicious, like Nina might be a rival for her dead lover's affections.

“I'm a friend … again, I'm so sorry … you have my deepest condolences.”

Nina ended the call abruptly as her thoughts raced ahead. It was en
tirely believable that an overdose was how Hugh would meet his end, and guiltily she considered having contributed to his demise, but another, more disturbing possibility tugged at her: Simon. Had he done something to Hugh, given him drugs that would kill him? It was possible, just as he had done to Maggie. Nina no longer required any files to believe Emma Dolan had met her fate at Simon's hands, but she had nothing to offer the police except for more speculation.

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