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Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Twenty)

My resultant shriek stopped the hum of voices that came from outside his closed office door. "You take that back!"

"All right, all right. Pipe down," he muttered. "Shit. I take it back."

"No you don't. You meant it." As a rule of thumb, you never let a man take something back on the first attempt. Section three, paragraph ten, of the Southern Women's Code states that if one (meaning a man) is going to be a shithead, one must pay for it.

"I didn't mean it. I'm just frustrated." He reached for me.

I drew back before he could touch me, jerked the door open, and swept out. Just as I had thought: everyone in the big, busy open room was staring at us, some openly, some pretending not to. I stalked silently to the elevator, and let me tell you, various aches and pains were making themselves felt, so stalking hurt. Creeping would have been better, but there's just no way to creep with attitude. My feelings were hurt, and I wanted him to know it.

The elevator doors opened and two uniforms got out. Well, the uniforms had men in them, but you know what I mean. Silently Wyatt and I entered the elevator, and he punched the button.

"I didn't mean it," he said as soon as the elevator doors closed.

I shot him a dirty look but didn't say anything.

"I've seen you get nearly killed twice in four days," he said raggedly. "If Bailey didn't do it, then you have an enemy somewhere. There has to be a reason. You know something, but you may not know that you know it. I'm trying to dig out some information that will point me in the right direction."

I said, "Don't you think you should check out Bailey's alibi before assuming there are 'hundreds' of people who want to kill me?"

"Maybe that was an exaggeration."

Maybe? An exaggeration? "Oh? Just how many people do you really think want to kill me?"

He shot me a glittering glance. "I've wanted to strangle you myself a time or two."

The elevator stopped, the door opened, and we stepped out. I didn't respond to that last statement because I figured he was trying to get me mad enough to say something rash myself, like maybe accuse him of tampering with my brakes, since he admitted having wanted to kill me, and then I'd have to apologize because of course he didn't really mean that, either, and I knew it. Rather than surrender the high ground, I played dirty and kept my mouth shut.

When we walked out into the parking lot, Wyatt caught me around the waist and turned me to face him. "I really am sorry," he said, lightly kissing my forehead. "You've been through a lot these past few days, especially today, and I shouldn't have teased you, no matter how frustrated I am." He kissed me again, and his voice roughened. "When you spun into the intersection and that first car hit you, I thought my heart would stop."

Well, hell, there was no point in being petty, was there? I leaned my head against him and tried not to think about the sickening terror I'd felt this morning. If it was that bad for me, what had it been like for him? I know how I would have felt if I'd been behind him and watched him get killed, which is what I'm sure he thought had happened to me.

"Your poor little face," he murmured, stroking my hair back as he examined me.

I hadn't been just sitting in the police station all day waiting for my face to swell up and my eyes to turn black. One of the cops had given me a plastic sandwich bag, and I'd filled it with ice and applied it, off and on, to my face, so however bad I looked wasn't as bad as it could have been. I'd also put an adhesive strip across the cut on the bridge of my nose. I thought I looked like a boxer who'd just finished a fight.

"J. W.," someone said, and we both looked around as a gray-haired man in a gray suit approached. With his hair, I personally thought he should have worn a suit with more color in it, or at least a nice blue shirt, so he wouldn't have given such a blah impression. I wondered if his wife had no fashion sense. He was short and stocky, and looked like a businessman, except that when he got closer, I could see he had that distinctive sharp gaze.

"Chief," Wyatt said, from which I deduced (duh!) that this was the chief of police, Wyatt's boss. If I'd ever seen him before, I didn't remember it; in fact, at that moment, I couldn't even remember his name.

"Is this the young lady the entire force is talking about?" the chief asked, studying me with great curiosity.

"I'm afraid so," Wyatt said. "Chief, this is my fiancee, Blair Mallory. Blair, this is William Gray, chief of police."

I resisted the urge to kick him-Wyatt, not the chief-and instead shook hands. Well, I would have shaken hands, but instead Chief Gray just sort of gently held my hand as if he were afraid of hurting me. I was afraid I looked a lot worse now than I had the last time I'd checked myself in a mirror, what with Wyatt's "poor little face" and now the chief treating me like a piece of fragile glass.

"It was a terrible thing that happened this morning," the chief said solemnly. "We don't have a lot of homicide in this town and we want to keep it that way. We'll get this solved, Miss Mallory; I promise you."

"Thank you," I said. What else could I say? Hurry up? The detectives knew what they were doing, and I trusted they were good at it-just as I was good at certain things. I said, "Your hair is a really great color. I bet it looks fantastic when you wear a blue shirt, doesn't it?"

He looked startled, and Wyatt surreptitiously pinched my waist. I ignored him.

"Well, I don't know about that," Chief Gray said, giving the laugh that men do when they're both flattered and a little uncomfortable.

"I do," I assured him. "French blue. You probably have ten shirts that color, don't you, because it looks so good on you?"

"French blue?" he murmured. "I don't-"

"I know." I laughed. "To a man, blue is blue is blue, and don't bother you with all those fancy names, right?"

"Right," he agreed. He cleared his throat and took a step back. "J. W., keep me up-to-date on how the investigation is going. The mayor is asking about it."

"Will do," Wyatt said, and hurriedly turned me toward his car while the chief continued on into the building. Wyatt hissed, "Were you actually giving the chief of police fashion advice?"

"Someone needed to," I said in self-defense. "The poor man."

"Wait until news of this gets around," he said under his breath as he opened the passenger door and helped me ease into the seat. I was becoming more stiff and sore by the minute.

"Why's that?"

He shook his head. "You're practically all everyone in the department has talked about since last Thursday night. They either think I'm getting my comeuppance, or that I'm the bravest man walking."

Well. I didn't know what to think about that.

* * *

I closed my eyes when we got to the intersection where the wreck had taken place. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to stop at that stop sign again without reliving everything. Wyatt turned onto the street that led to my condo and said, "You can open your eyes now."

I shook away the memory of screaming tires and opened my eyes. With the intersection behind me, everything looked normal and familiar and safe. My building loomed on the right, and Wyatt pulled under the portico. I looked around, remembering that my fence gate had been unlocked when the officer brought my car home. Had whoever tampered with my brakes-I still thought Dwayne Bailey was the most likely suspect-been lurking around then? Had he seen my car being delivered and figured if he couldn't get to me in one way, he would in another?

"I think I'm going to move," I said vaguely. "I don't feel safe here anymore."

Wyatt got out and came around to open the door for me, and helped me out. "That's a good idea," he said. "While you're recuperating, we'll get your stuff packed up and moved out to my house. What do you want to do with your furniture?"

I looked at him as if he were an alien. "What do you mean, what do I want to do with my furniture? I need my furniture for wherever I move to."

"I already have furniture at my house. We don't need more."

Ah. I was a little slow on the uptake, because I just then realized what he was saying. "I didn't mean move in with you. I just meant… move. Sell the condo and buy another one. I'm not ready for a house, I don't think, because I don't have time to take care of yards and flower beds and things."

"Why make two moves when one will do?"

Now that I knew what track he was on, I could easily follow him. "Just because you told Chief Gray I'm your fiancee doesn't make it so. You not only have the cart before the horse, you forgot to get the poor thing out of the stable. We haven't even gone on a date yet, remember?"

"We've barely been apart for five days. We bypassed the dating thing."

"You wish." I stopped in front of the door and in that moment, like a blow, realized that I couldn't get in my own house. I didn't have my bag, didn't have my keys, didn't have control of my life. I gave him an appalled look, then sat down on the stoop and burst into tears.

"Blair… honey," he said, but didn't ask what was wrong. I think I would have hit him if he had. Instead he sat down beside me and put his arm around me, cradling me close to him.

"I can't get in," I sobbed. "I don't have my keys."

"Siana has a set, doesn't she? I'll call her."

"I want my own keys. I want my bag." After everything that had happened that day, not having my bag was the crowning blow, the one that sent me over the edge. Evidently realizing I wasn't capable of being reasonable, he simply held me, rocking me back and forth while I cried.

While he rocked, he unclipped his cell phone and called Siana. Because of the investigation none of my family had yet been told what happened that morning, and Wyatt kept the explanation brief: I'd been in a car accident that morning, the air bag had deployed and I wasn't hurt, hadn't even gone to the hospital, but my bag hadn't yet been retrieved from my car and I couldn't get in my house. Could she come unlock the door for me? If she couldn't, Wyatt said he would have a patrolman stop by to get the keys.

I could hear Siana's voice, the tone of alarm, but I couldn't make out exactly what she was saying. Wyatt's calm responses reassured her, though, and when he disconnected the call, he said, "She'll be here in about twenty minutes. Do you want to get back in the car in the air-conditioning?"

I did. I wiped my face-very gingerly-and asked him if he had a tissue. He didn't. Men are so unprepared.

"I have a roll of toilet paper in the trunk, though, if that will do."

Okay, I didn't want to know why he had the toilet paper, but I changed my mind about him being unprepared. Diverted from my tears, I went to stand beside him as he popped the trunk, to see what else he had back there.

The main thing was a large cardboard box, which contained the toilet paper, a pretty extensive first aid kit, a box of plastic gloves, several rolls of duct tape, folded sheets of plastic, a magnifying glass, measuring tape, paper bags, plastic bags, tweezers, scissors, and a bunch of other stuff. There was also a shovel, a pickax, and a saw. "What's with the tweezers?" I asked. "You just keep them handy in case someone's eyebrows need plucking?"

"Evidence collection," he replied as he unrolled some toilet paper and gave it to me. "I had to have it when I was a detective."

"But you aren't a detective now," I pointed out. I folded the toilet paper, then wiped my eyes and blew my nose.

"Habits die hard. I keep thinking I might need some of this."

"And the shovel?"

"You never know when you'll need to dig a hole."

"Uh-huh." I understood that, at least. "I always carry a brick in my trunk," I confided, then felt a twinge as I remembered what shape my car was in.

He closed the trunk, a frown between his eyes. "A brick? Why do you need a brick?"

"In case I need to break out a window."

He paused, then said to himself, "I don't want to know."

We sat in the car until Siana arrived, driving a new model Camry. She got out, looking smart and sexy in a taupe suit with a red lace tank under the jacket. Her shoes were taupe sling-backs with three-inch Lucite heels. Her golden blond hair was cut in a sleek shoulder-length bob, the simple lines doing great things for her heart-shaped face. Despite her great dimples, Siana had a look about her that said, "Be afraid. Be very afraid." Between us, my sisters and I pretty much had all the bases covered. I was pretty enough, but mostly I was athletic and business-oriented. Siana was maybe less even-featured, but her intelligence shone in her face like a beacon, plus she had great boobs. Jenni was taller than either of us, with darker hair, and drop-dead gorgeous. She couldn't settle on a career, but she was making good money doing local modeling jobs. She could have gone to New York and tried her luck there, but she wasn't interested enough.

Wyatt and I both got out of the car. Siana took one look at me, gave a low cry, and burst into tears as she rushed toward me.

She looked as if she wanted to throw her arms around me, but she stopped short, started to pat me, then drew her hand back. Tears dripped down her face.

I looked at Wyatt. "Do I look that bad?" I asked uncertainly.

"Yeah," was his answer, which perversely reassured me, because if I'd been in truly bad shape, he would have been coddling me.

"I do not." I began reassuring Siana, patting her.

"What happened?" she asked, blotting her eyes.

"My brakes failed." The full explanation could come later.

"What did you hit? A power pole?"

"Another car hit me. On the passenger side."

"Where's your car? Can it be fixed?"

"No," said Wyatt. "It's totaled."

Siana looked horrified all over again.

I sidetracked her by saying, "Mom invited us to supper tonight, and I need to get cleaned up before I go over there."

She nodded. "That's for sure. She'd freak out if she saw you like this, with blood all over your clothes. I hope you have some real good concealer, too. You've got a raccoon thing going on."

"Air bag," I explained.

My condo key was on her key ring, mixed in with all her other keys. She separated it, unlocked the door, then stepped back while I went in first and disarmed the security system. She followed Wyatt and me inside. "Mom invited me tonight, too. I figured by the time I got here and back to the office, it would be time to leave anyway, so I left for the day. Do you need me for anything? I'm available."

"No, I think everything's under control."

"Does your insurance company provide a rental until the claim can be settled?"

"Yes, thank goodness. My agent said she'll make arrangements for me to get the rental tomorrow."

Siana was a lawyer; her mind was already moving ahead. "Do you have a mechanic lined up to go over your car, do a postmortem? You'll need a notarized statement-"

"No," Wyatt said. "It wasn't mechanical failure."

"Blair said her brakes failed."

"They did, but they had help. The brake line was severed."

She blinked; then she went pale. She stared at me. "Someone tried to kill you," she blurted. "Again."

I sighed. "I know. Wyatt says it's because I'm a cheerleader." I slanted him a "gotcha" look and took myself upstairs to shower, smiling as I listened to Siana swing to my defense. The smile faded as I climbed the stairs, though. Two attempts on my life were enough. This whole situation was getting on my nerves. MacInnes and Forester had better find that Dwayne Bailey had unaccounted-for chunks of time, and a nice set of fingerprints on my poor car would come in handy, too.

I eased out of my stiff, bloody clothing and let every garment fall to the floor. They were all ruined, anyway. I was amazed that a simple bloody nose could make such a mess. Finally I went into the bathroom and took a good look at myself in the full-length mirror. Bruises were definitely forming across my cheekbones, and across my nose. And on both knees, my shoulders, the inside of my right arm, and my right hip. I ached in every muscle; even my feet ached. Looking down, I saw a big bruise on top of my right foot.

Wyatt came into the bathroom while I was standing there surveying the damage. Without saying anything, he looked me over from head to toe, then gently folded me in his arms and rocked me back and forth for a while. For once, there was nothing sexual in his embrace, but he'd have had to be one sick puppy to be turned on by such an array of bruises. "You need ice packs," he said. "A lot of them."

"What I need," I replied, "is a doughnut. About two dozen of them. I have some cooking to do."

"What?"

"Doughnuts. I need to stop at Krispy Kreme and get two dozen doughnuts."

"Won't a cookie do?"

I eased away from him and turned on the shower. "Everyone was so sweet to me today; I'm going to make a bread pudding to take to them tomorrow. I have a recipe using Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the bread."

He stood frozen, his taste buds already imagining the taste. "Maybe we should get four dozen, so you can make two. That way we'll have one at home."

"Sorry. I can't work out right now, so I really have to watch what I eat. The temptation would be too much if there was a bread pudding sitting there calling to me."

"I'm a cop. I can protect you from it. I'll take it into custody."

"I don't feel up to making two," I said as I stepped into the shower.

He raised his voice to be heard over the running water. "I'll help."

I smiled again at the plea in his voice. He shouldn't have let me know he had such a sweet tooth; now I had him. I thought about torturing him by not letting him taste the pudding until tomorrow at the police station with everyone else, and that kept my mind off the problem of someone trying to kill me. It's just mental dancing, but it works for me.

I heard his cell phone ring while I was rinsing the shampoo from my hair. It was a slow go, since my left arm wasn't really in the game, but I was managing. I listened to him talking, though I couldn't understand what he was saying. Finished, I turned off the water and hooked the towel off the top of the shower door, then began drying myself as best I could.

"Come on out and I'll finish the job," he said, so I stepped out. The first thing I noticed was that he had that grim expression again.

"What's wrong?"

"That was MacInnes," he said, taking the towel from me and gently wiping me down. "Bailey's alibi checks out. Every bit of it. He was either at home with his wife, or at work, with only enough time allowed in between for him to make the drive there and back. According to MacInnes, Bailey's wife has filed for divorce, so she isn't inclined to lie for him. They'll check further, but it looks as if he's clean. Someone else is trying to kill you."

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