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

Mom wouldn't let me leave until she worked on my bruises. Siana and Jenni helped, plastering me with cold packs, vitamin K cream, cucumber slices, and tea bags soaked in ice water. Other than the vitamin K cream, everything else seemed to be just a variation on an ice pack, but doing it made them feel better and being coddled and fussed over made me feel better. Dad and Wyatt were smart enough to stay out of the way while this was going on, entertaining themselves with some ball game.

"I was in an accident once," Mom said. "When I was fifteen. I was on a hayride; the hay wagon was pulled by a pickup truck. Paul Harrison was driving; he was sixteen and was one of the few people in our school who had something to drive. The only problem was, Carolyn Deale was beside him in the truck. I don't know what all she was doing, but Paul forgot to pay attention to the road and ran off in a ditch and turned the hay wagon over. I wasn't hurt at all, I didn't think, but the next morning I was so stiff and sore I could barely move."

"I'm already that way," I said ruefully. "And I haven't even had a hayride. I'm missing out."

"Whatever you do, don't take any aspirin, because that'll make the bruises worse. Try ibuprofen," said Siana. "Massage. A whirlpool tub. Things like that."

"And stretching exercises," Jenni added. She was carefully kneading my shoulders as she spoke. She took some massage classes once-she said just for the fun of it-so she was our go-to girl for sore muscles. Normally Jenni was a chatterbox, but she'd been unusually quiet tonight. Not pouty or anything like that, though she can be on occasion, just sort of thoughtful and withdrawn. I was actually surprised that she'd stayed around to do the massage, because usually she had a group of friends she was meeting, or a date, or some party.

I loved being with my family; I stayed so busy with Great Bods that I didn't have a lot of opportunity to do that. Mom told us all about her problems with her computer, which involved a lot of nontechnical language like "doohickey" and "little thingie." Mom operates computers just fine, but she sees no need to learn terms that she considers silly or stupid, such as "motherboard," and for which other normal words will do just as well. In her version, a motherboard is "that main deal." I totally understand that. Technical support (what a laugh) wasn't living up to her expectations, because evidently they'd had her uninstall everything, then reinstall, and that hadn't solved a damn thing. Mom said they'd made her take everything out and put it back in.

But finally we had to leave. Wyatt came to the doorway; he didn't say anything, just looked at me with that look men have when they want to go, the impatient, "Are you ready yet?" expression.

Siana glanced at him and said, "The look's here."

"I know," I said, and gingerly got up.

"The 'look'?" Wyatt glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting something to be standing behind him.

All four of us instantly mimicked the expression and body language. He muttered something, wheeled, and went back to where Dad was. We could hear them talking. I think Dad was telling Wyatt some of the finer points of how to live in a household with four females. Wyatt was a smart man; Jason had thought he already knew all he needed to know.

But Wyatt was right, and we did need to leave. I wanted to get the bread puddings made tonight, because I knew I'd feel even worse in the morning.

Which brought up the subject of what he intended to do with me the next day, because I had my own ideas. "I don't want to go to your mother's," I said when we were in the car. "Not that I don't like her-I think she's adorable-but I figure I'm going to be so sore and miserable tomorrow I'd rather just stay at your house so I can lie in bed all day if I want."

By the dash lights I saw him give me a worried look. "I don't like the idea of you being alone."

"If you didn't think I was safe at your house, you wouldn't be taking me there."

"It isn't that. It's your physical condition."

"I know how to handle sore muscles. I've had them before. How did you usually feel after the first day of full-contact practice?"

"As if I'd been beaten with a club."

"Cheerleader practice was the same. After the first time, I learned to stay in shape all year long, so it was never that bad again, but the first week of practice was still not a lot of fun." Then I remembered something and sighed. "Scratch staying at home and resting. My insurance agent is supposed to arrange a rental car for me, so I'll have to pick it up."

"Give me your agent's name and number, and I'll take care of that."

"How?"

"Deliver the car to me. I'll drive it home, then have your Dad come pick me up and take me back to work to pick up my car. I don't want you in town again until I find this bastard."

A really bad thought struck me. "Is my family in danger? Could this man use them to get to me?"

"Don't borrow trouble. So far this seems targeted specifically toward you. Someone thinks you've done 'em wrong, and he wants vengeance. That's what this feels like, honey: vengeance. Whether it was something in business or a personal matter, he wants revenge."

I honestly couldn't think of a thing, and in a way not knowing why someone wanted to kill me was almost as bad as the actual attempts. Okay, so it wasn't as bad; it didn't even come close. I'd still have liked to know. If I'd known why, then I'd have known who.

It couldn't be business. It just couldn't. I'd been scrupulous, because I was afraid the IRS would get me if I wasn't. The IRS left all the other bogeymen in the dust, as far as I was concerned. I usually even fudged my returns and didn't claim all my deductions, just to give myself some leeway if I was ever audited. I figured if they ever did audit me and had to pay me, that would put an end to the auditing stuff as far as my business was concerned.

I'd never fired anyone. A couple of people had quit, moved on to other jobs, but I'd been careful about whom I hired, instead of just picking any warm body that could fill a slot. I hired good people and I treated them well. None of my employees would kill me, because then there would go their 401Ks.

So that left personal. And I drew a huge blank on that.

"I'm ruling out anything that happened in high school," I told Wyatt.

He coughed. "That's probably safe, though sometimes those teenage things can really fester. Were you in a clique?"

Wyatt and I had gone to different high schools, plus he was a few years older, so he didn't know anything about my school years. "I guess," I said. "I was a cheerleader. I hung out with the other cheerleaders, though I did have this one friend who wasn't a cheerleader and didn't even go to the ball games."

"Who was it?"

"Her name was Cleo Cleland. Say that three times real fast. Her parents must have been stoned on pot when they named her. They were from California, so she didn't fit in real good when they moved here. Her mother was one of those natural-beauty-earth-mother types, with some feminist stuff thrown in, so she refused to let Cleo wear makeup or anything like that. So Cleo and I would both go to school early, and I'd take my makeup with me. We'd go into the girl's restroom and I'd fix Cleo up for the day so no one would make fun of her. She had no clue about makeup when she moved here. It was awful."

"I can imagine," he murmured.

"Things got tricky when she started dating, because she'd have to figure out a way to put on her makeup without her mother seeing it. By that time she'd learned how, so I didn't have to put it on for her anymore. But she couldn't wait until she was out with her date, because then he'd see her without it, and that would be a disaster."

"I don't know about that. You're cute without makeup."

"I'm not sixteen now, either. At sixteen, I'd rather have died than let anyone see my natural face. You get convinced that it's the makeup that's pretty, not you. Well, I know some girls who felt that way. I never did, because I had Mom. She taught all three of us how to use makeup when we were still in grade school, so it was no big deal to us. See, makeup isn't camouflage; it's a weapon."

"Do I want to know this?" he wondered aloud.

"Probably not. Most men just don't get it. But at sixteen I did go through an insecure stage, because I had to fight so hard to keep my weight down."

He gave me an incredulous look. "You were pudgy?"

I slapped his arm. "Of course not. I was a cheerleader, so I worked off my weight, but I was also a flyer."

"A flyer."

"You know. One of the ones who gets tossed by the other cheerleaders. The top of the pyramid. See, I'm five-four, so I'm tall for a flyer. Most flyers are five-two, something like that, and they keep their weight around a hundred pounds so it'll be easier to throw them. I could be that slim, and be fifteen pounds heavier, because I'm taller. I had to really watch it."

"My God, you must have been a toothpick." He looked me over again. I weigh about one twenty-five now, but I'm strong and muscled, so that means I look as if I weigh ten or fifteen pounds lighter than that.

"But I also had to be strong," I pointed out. "I had to have muscle. You can't have muscle and be a toothpick. I had about a five-pound range where I had muscle but wasn't too heavy, so I was constantly balancing my weight."

"Was it really worth it, to jump around and wave pom-poms during a football game?"

See, he knew absolutely nothing about cheerleading. I glared at him. "I went to college on a cheerleading scholarship, so I'd say, yeah, it was worth it."

"They give scholarships for that?"

"They give scholarships to guys who carry around a piece of pigskin, so why not?"

He had the wisdom to detour off that path. "Back to your high school days. You didn't steal anyone's boyfriend?"

I made a scornful noise. "I had my own boyfriends, thank you."

"Other guys weren't attracted to you?"

"So what if they were? I had a steady, and I didn't pay any attention to anyone else."

"Who was your steady? Jason?"

"No, Jason was my college guy. In high school it was Patrick Haley. He got killed in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty. We didn't keep in touch after we broke up, so I don't know if he was dating anyone special or not."

"Scratch Patrick. Where's Cleo Cleland now?"

"In Raleigh-Durham. She's an industrial chemist. Once a year or so we get together for lunch and a movie. She's married and has a four-year-old."

He could scratch Cleo, too. Not because she was dead, but because Cleo was my pal. Besides, she was a woman, and he'd said the person trying to kill me was most likely a man.

"There has to be someone," he said. "Someone you maybe haven't thought about in years."

He was right. This was personal, so it was someone I knew. And I was totally drawing a blank on anyone who might want to kill me.

Then inspiration hit.

"I know!" I crowed.

He jerked, instantly alert. "Who?"

"It has to be one of your girlfriends!"

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