Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Twenty-four)
"I volunteered," Jenni said, pushing her long hair behind her ears. She stood back as Wyatt kissed me hello. His mouth was warm, his touch gentle, as he held me against him.
"How did the day go?" he asked, cupping my cheek.
"Uneventful. Just what I needed." The peace had been wonderful. Not one thing had happened to make me think I might die, which was a nice change of pace. I smiled at Jenni. "Come in and have something cold to drink. I didn't realize how hot it is until I came out."
Wyatt stepped aside for Jenni to enter. She looked around, her gaze frankly curious. "This is a great house," she said. "It looks old and modern at the same time. How many bedrooms are there?"
"Four," he answered, shrugging out of his suit jacket and draping it over the back of a chair. He tugged the knot of his tie loose, and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. "Nine rooms total, three and a half baths. Do you want the nickel tour?"
"Just downstairs," she said, smiling. "That way if Mom asks me anything about your sleeping arrangements, I can honestly say I don't know."
Mom wasn't a prude-far from it-but she had impressed on her daughters that a smart woman didn't sleep with a man unless they had a committed relationship, and by committed she meant at least an engagement ring on the finger. She was of the opinion that men, simple creatures that they are, value most that for which they work the hardest. I agree in principle, though maybe not completely in application. I mean, look at my current situation. Wyatt didn't have to work hard for me at all; all he had to do was kiss my neck, and I rued the day he'd discovered that weakness of mine. To be fair to myself, though, he was the only man I'd ever met who could so easily undermine my self-control.
Jenni dropped the keys to the rental on the kitchen counter, and followed Wyatt as he gave her the short tour around the ground floor of the house, which consisted of the kitchen, breakfast room, formal dining room (which was empty), living room (ditto), and family room. He had a small office just off the kitchen, as I had discovered that day, but he didn't bother with that; it was very small, maybe six-by-six, more suited for a pantry or a walk-in closet than an office, but he had the essentials in there: desk, filing cabinet, computer, printer, phone. There was nothing interesting in the filing cabinet. I'd played some games on his computer, but hadn't investigated any of his folders. I do have some limits.
I didn't follow the two of them, but I heard him pause in the family room and turn on the television-checking to see if I'd messed with his remote, huh? I grinned to myself. I'd thought about removing the batteries, but I figured I'd save that for when we had an argument. No, he probably had a huge supply of batteries, just in case. Instead it would be smarter if I just went shopping… and accidentally dropped the remote in my bag before I left. You should think of these things ahead of time, so you won't have to hesitate. She who hesitates gets caught.
I had glasses of iced tea sitting on the table when they came back to the breakfast room. Wyatt picked up one of them and chugged down half of it without pausing for breath, his tanned throat working. As affable as he'd been with Jenni, I could see the lines of frustration in his face. Evidently the police were getting nowhere in finding out who was trying to kill me, or why.
When he finally lowered the glass, he looked at me and smiled. "Your bread pudding was a hit. The pan was empty within thirty minutes, and everyone was on a sugar high."
"Did you make doughnut bread pudding?" Jenni asked, then groaned. "And there isn't any left?"
Wyatt smirked. "It just so happens two were made, and one of them is still in the refrigerator. Want some?"
She accepted with all the enthusiasm of a hungry wolf, and Wyatt pulled the pan out of the fridge. I turned to the cabinet and got out two saucers and two spoons. "Aren't you having some?" Jenni asked with a little frown.
"No. I can't work out right now, so I have to watch what I eat." I wasn't having any fun doing it, either; I would much rather work out for an hour or two every day instead of counting calories. I wanted some of that bread pudding, but it wasn't as if I'd never again have any-just not right now.
We all sat at the table while Wyatt and Jenni ate. I asked Wyatt if they had any leads at all, and he sighed.
"The forensics team did find a footprint in the dirt behind your condo, and we ran it through analysis. It's a woman's athletic shoe-"
"Probably mine, then," I said, but he shook his head.
"Not unless you wear size eight and a half, and I know damn well you don't."
He was right. I wore six and a half; none of the women in my family wore that size shoe. Mom was a six, and Siana and Jenni both wore size seven. I tried to think of any of my friends who might wear an eight and a half and who might also have been behind my condo, but no one sprang to mind.
"I thought you said it probably wasn't a woman trying to kill me," I said accusingly.
"I still don't think it is. Sniper fire and tampering with a car's brakes just aren't generally the way a woman would go about it."
"So the shoe print probably doesn't mean anything?"
"Probably not. I wish it did." He rubbed his eyes.
"I can't hide out forever." I didn't say it accusingly, just stating a fact. I had a life, and if I couldn't live it, then this creep had killed me in one sense even if he hadn't managed to kill my body.
"Maybe you won't have to," Jenni said hesitantly, staring at her spoon as if the meaning of life was written on it. "What I mean is-I volunteered to drive your rental out because I've been thinking and I've come up with a plan. I could wear a blond wig and pretend to be you and be the bait in a trap so Wyatt can catch this creep and you'll be safe again," she finished in such a rush that she ran her words together.
My jaw dropped so far it almost hit the floor. "What?" I squeaked. Never in a hundred years would I have expected Jenni to make such a preposterous offer. Jenni was really good at looking out for number one, and no way was that my number. "I can be my own bait, and I won't even need a wig!"
"Let me do this for you," she begged, and to my surprise tears welled in her eyes. "Let me make it up to you for what I did. I know you've never forgiven me and I don't blame you; I was a selfish bitch and didn't think how much I'd be hurting you, but I've grown up, I truly have, and I want us to be close the way you and Siana are close."
I was so flabbergasted I couldn't think of anything to say, and that's not an everyday occurrence. I opened my mouth, then closed it again when my brain remained in neutral.
"I was jealous of you," she continued, still talking fast, as if she had to get it all out before her courage failed. "You were always so popular and even my friends thought you were the coolest person they knew; they all tried to do their hair like yours, and buy the shade of lipstick you wore. It was sickening."
Now there was the Jenni I knew. I felt comforted, knowing the aliens hadn't taken over my little sister's body. Wyatt was sitting quietly, taking in every word, his gaze sharp. I wished he would go into another room, but I figured I had a better chance of growing wings and flying.
"You were the best cheerleader, you were cute, you were athletic, you were the class salutatorian, you went to college on a cheerleading scholarship, you pulled down really good grades and got a degree in business administration, and you married the handsomest guy I'd ever seen," she wailed. "He's going to be governor someday, maybe a senator or even president, and he fell into your hand like a ripe plum! I was so jealous, because no matter how pretty I am I'll never be able to do everything you did and I thought Mom and Dad loved you more. Even Siana loves you more! So that's why when Jason made a pass at me, I took him up on it; because if he was looking at me, then it must be because you weren't that great after all, and I was."
"What happened?" Wyatt interjected quietly.
"Blair caught Jason and me kissing," she confessed in a wretched tone. "That's all it was, and that was the first time, but everything blew up at once and they got divorced. It's all my fault, and I want to make it up to her."
"You'll have to find another way," he said, his words matter-of-fact. "There's no way in hell I'd set up either you or Blair as bait. If we used that plan at all, one of our female officers would masquerade as Blair. We'd never risk a civilian."
Jenni looked stricken that her grand plan should be so summarily turned down, not just by me but by Wyatt, too; in the end, his was the approval that counted, because he had the authority to either nix the plan or put it into motion. He'd nixed it.
"There must be something I can do," she said, and a tear streaked down her face. She looked pleadingly at me.
"Well, let's see." By this time I'd found my voice. I tapped my bottom lip with a fingernail while I thought. "You could wash my car every Saturday for the next year-after I get a car, that is. Or you could regrout my bathroom, because I really hate doing that."
She blinked at me as if she couldn't quite make her mind wrap itself around what I was saying. Then she giggled. In the middle of the giggle she hiccuped a sob, and that was a very strange sound combination. It startled me into my own giggle-which I've tried hard to stop doing because of the image thing. I'm blond; I really shouldn't giggle.
Anyway, we ended up hugging and laughing, and she apologized five or six times, and I told her she was family and I'd choose her over Jason Carson any day because he was a lowlife bastard who made a pass at his seventeen-year-old sister-in-law and I was better off without him.
Whew. Family dramas wear me out.
Wyatt had to take Jenni home. They asked me to come along, but I elected to stay because I felt that I needed some alone time to get my emotions settled. I had tried to forgive Jenni and to some extent I had, because the lion's share of blame belonged to Jason; he'd been an adult, and married, while teenagers aren't the best in the world at making rational decisions. Still, it had always been there in the back of my mind that my own sister had betrayed me. I had tried to act normally toward her, but I guess she knew there was a difference between Before and After. What surprised me most was that she cared. No, what really surprised me most was that she'd ever been jealous of me; Jenni is gorgeous, and has always been gorgeous, from the day she was born. I'm smart, but not as smart as Siana. I'm pretty, but not in the same class with Jenni. I was sort of middle-of-the-road in our family. Why on earth would she be jealous?
I started to call Siana to talk things over with her, but decided that I'd keep this private between Jenni and me. If she was serious about mending our relationship-really mending it-then I wasn't going to sabotage the opportunity by maybe blabbing something she wasn't comfortable with others knowing.
Wyatt was back within the hour. His dark brows were drawn down in a scowl when he came in the door. "Why the hell didn't you tell me you blackmailed your ex into giving you everything you asked for in the divorce? Don't you think that's something that could be considered as motive?"
"Except Jason didn't shoot at me," I pointed out. "And he thinks he got the negative."
He did the green-eyed laser look. "He thinks?"
I blinked my eyes at him, and put on my most innocent expression. "I mean, he knows he got the negative."
"Uh-huh. Does he know he got all of the copies?"
"Um… he thinks he did, and that's what's important, right?"
"So you blackmailed him, then double-crossed him."
"I look at it more as insurance. Anyway, I've never needed to use the picture and he doesn't know it still exists. I haven't had any contact with him since our divorce was final, and that was five years ago. That was why I knew Jason wasn't trying to kill me, because he wouldn't have any reason to."
"Except he does have reason to."
"Well, he would if he knew, but he doesn't."
He pinched the bridge of his nose, as if I'd given him a headache. "Where are the copies?"
"In my safe deposit box. There's no way anyone saw them by accident, and no one else knows I have them, not even my family."
"Okay. I strongly suggest that, when this is over and you can come out of hiding, that you get those copies and destroy them."
"I can do that," I allowed.
"I know you can. The question is: Will you? Promise me."
I scowled at him. "I said I would."
"No, you said you could. There's a difference. Promise me."
"Oh, all right. I promise I'll destroy the pictures."
"Without making any extra copies."
Sheesh, he wasn't the most trusting guy in the world. It pissed me off that he'd thought of that, too. Either Dad had been giving him advice again, or he had an unnaturally suspicious mind.
"Without making any extra copies," he repeated.
"All right!" I snapped, and made plans to maybe accidentally drop his television remote in the toilet.
"Good." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Now, are there any other little secrets you're keeping from me, anyone else you're blackmailing, any revenge thing going on that you neglected to mention because you didn't think it was relevant?"
"No, Jason's the only person I've ever blackmailed. And he deserved it."
"He deserved worse than that. He needed to have his ass kicked up around his shoulders."
Slightly mollified by those sentiments, I shrugged. "Daddy would have done it, so we didn't tell him why Jason and I got divorced. That was to protect Daddy, not Jason." No way was stomping Jason worth my dad spending even one minute under arrest for assault, which is what would have happened, because Jason is the petulant type and he'd have filed charges.
"Agreed." Wyatt watched me for a moment, then gave a rueful little shake of his head and pulled me into his arms. Comforted, I slid my arms around his waist and laid my head on his chest, and he rested his cheek on top of my head. "Now I understand why you need so much reassurance," he murmured. "That was a big hit you took, finding your husband kissing your sister."
If there's anything I hate, it's people feeling sorry for me. In this case, there was no need. I'd moved on, and left Jason in my dust. But I couldn't say, "Oh, it didn't really bother me," because that would have been a big fat lie and he'd have known it and thought I still hurt so much I couldn't let myself admit it. So I muttered, "I got over it. And I got the Mercedes." Except I didn't have my Mercedes now, because it was just a hunk of crushed and twisted metal.
"You may have gotten over the hurt, but you didn't get over the experience. It made you wary."
Now he was making me sound like some poor wounded bird. I pulled back and scowled up at him. "I'm not wary; I'm smart. There's a difference. I want to be sure there's something solid between us before I sleep with you-"
"Too late," he said, and grinned.
I sighed. "I know," I said, and laid my head back on his chest. "Gentlemen don't gloat."
"What does that tell you?"
It told me he was way too cocky, and I needed to shore up my defenses. There was a big problem, though: I didn't want to shore them up; I wanted to tear them down. Common sense said I might as well abandon my stance on not sleeping with him, since I was doing nothing but wasting my breath. On the other hand, it went against the grain to let him have his way in everything.
"It tells me I should probably go stay in a motel in another town," I said, just to wipe the smile off his face.
"What?" he snapped. "What gave you a harebrained idea like that?"
"I should be perfectly safe in another town, right? I could check in under a fake name, and-"
"Forget it," he said. "There's no way in hell I'm letting you run away." Then he realized that I now had wheels, and he had no control over what I did during the day while he was at work. He didn't anyway, because if I wanted to leave, all I had to do was pick up the phone and call any of my family and they would come pick me up. For that matter, his own mother would, too. "Ah, shit," he finished.
He was so eloquent.