Authors: Janice Kay Johnson
John McLean is a
single father and a cop—and he takes all his duties seriously. A year ago,
after her husband died, he added Natalie Reed to his list of responsibilities.
At first, that just meant helping around the house. Then a body is found in her
Once he learns the victim's identity—and his
connection with Natalie's husband—John realizes the safest place for Natalie is
with him. He knows it's the honorable thing to do. But even when you're right,
it isn't easy to feel good when you're falling in love with your partner's
inner table conversations
about blood-spatter patterns and other minutiae of crime
scenes didn't faze Natalie Reed. Her deceased husband had been a homicide
detective who talked about his job as if everyone hunted killers for a living.
The abstract, she discovered on the day when she found a
dead man in her own house, was not the same as a gory here-and-now.
Nothing had been out of the ordinary at work. Natalie sold
advertising space for the
a daily newspaper. The job
would be easier, she suspected, in a larger city. Port Dare boasted fifty
thousand citizens, but was relatively isolated on Washington's Olympic
Peninsula. Tourists from the urban areas around Seattle or Tacoma had a
two-hour drive to Port Dare to catch the ferries crossing the Strait of Juan de
Fuca for Victoria, British Columbia. Instead of being a suburb to a larger
city, Port Dare stood alone, which was why it had a small-town atmosphere. In
other words, you constantly tripped over your neighbor's toes.
Today's challenge had been persuading the annoyed owner of a
sporting goods store that he'd be making a mistake to quit running his regular
advertisement in the
out of ire because the editor had endorsed
his opponent for the city council.
"Why the hell should I let you have my advertising
dollars?" he'd asked sulkily.
"Because you get more bang for them with the
you would anywhere else. Our rates are better than good. We're focused—our
market is yours. Your customers read the
She'd smiled wryly at him. "Come on,
George. You were a businessman before you were a politician. The editor
couldn't make his decision based on advertising dollars, you know that. We
would have had an unhappy advertiser whichever one of you we endorsed."
He grunted and grumbled, but in the end grudgingly ran his
standard insert in the Sunday edition.
It had been a close call, Natalie knew, so she was still
metaphorically patting herself on the back when she parked in the driveway at
home and locked the car. Thanks to her good mood, she felt only a tinge of
annoyance at the fact that she couldn't pull into the two-car garage. Stuart
had filled the garage with so much junk long before she'd married him that not
even her compact would fit. She kept meaning to do something about it, but
Stuart had never thrown anything away, which meant she would be spending the
next five years going through boxes of old magazines or clothes and drawers
full of such useless flotsam as old receipts and stamps torn from envelopes.
The garage was a low priority.
The house was quiet and fragrant with the smell of freshly
baked bread. She had timed the bread machine to finish just about now. A warm
slice would taste good with the leftover minestrone soup she planned to have for
First she intended to get out of her panty hose and suit and
into jeans and wool-felt clogs. Dropping her purse on the entry hall table,
Natalie headed up the stairs.
The house was a twenty-year-old tri-level: living room,
kitchen and dining room on the ground level wing, a family room, unused by her,
extra bedroom and the utility room down a few steps in the daylight basement,
and above it the master bedroom and bath, her sewing room and Stuart's den.
Truthfully, Natalie still thought of the whole house as Stuart's because he'd
been so settled in it before their brief marriage. She had been trying very
hard these past months to make first small changes and then larger ones that
would put her stamp on what was her home until she chose to sell it.
The carpet muffled her footsteps. Taking out her hoop
earrings, she started past her sewing room before pausing in exasperation. Darn
it, the cat had obviously napped in the middle of the fabric and had torn the
tissue pattern pieces she'd laid out and pinned. Clumps of long black fur clung
to the material, too. Her fault—she'd meant to shut the door and forgotten.
Or had she? Natalie frowned. Strange. She'd have sworn… She
gave her head a small shake and philosophically accepted reality. The door was open.
The cat had undeniably napped, leaving plenty of trace evidence. Earrings in
hand, she continued down the hall.
Natalie was two steps past the den before a wave of shock
hit her. Terror smacked her next. She froze, her own accelerated heartbeat as
loud as a snare drum through a thin wall. Had she really seen a man lying in
Stuart's den? With his head…
She didn't want to think about his head.
Through the half-open door she could see into her bedroom.
It lay still and empty, just as she'd left it. The bed was made, the pinwheel
quilt without even a depression left by the cat. The closet doors were closed.
What she couldn't see was what lay—or stood—behind the door: her dresser, the
second closet that still held some of Stuart's things, the doorway to the
master bath. Somebody could be in there, waiting, listening to her heartbeat,
her choked breathing.
Somebody could also be hidden in the den with the body or in
her sewing room, or downstairs, closing off her escape from the house.
Forward or back? Her mind felt as paralyzed as her legs.
told herself fiercely.
The master bedroom door had a lock, if she dashed in.
A dumb little lock that she'd picked herself with a hair
Natalie eased slowly down the hall, trying to watch the
three partially open doorways and the downstairs at the same time. She checked
only briefly at the den. Yes, a man lay facedown on the gray carpet, and the
back of his head seemed to have … well, imploded. She shuddered.
This door, too, blocked her sight line to part of the room.
She did not linger for more than the brief second she needed to be sure she
hadn't imagined the horror. Down the stairs. There she clutched the banister,
white-knuckled, and scanned the living room and what she could see of the
dining room. The familiarity comforted and jarred at the same time. If somebody
had been murdered upstairs, why hadn't the downstairs been tossed? If
hiding in the kitchen, why was the morning newspaper open precisely where she'd
left it on the table after breakfast? Why was the bread machine beeping as
though nothing was wrong?
Natalie recognized that she was on the verge of hysteria.
told herself, and ran for the front door. She was sobbing as she struggled with
the knob, finally winning the right to stumble out. Slamming the door behind
her, she raced to the car, grateful—oh, so grateful—that it
in the garage. She had the presence of mind to check the back seat before she
fell in and locked all the doors. Cell phone … oh, God. It was in her purse,
which sat on the hall table. There was no way she was going back in.
On another lurch of terror, she realized that,
unfortunately, the car keys were in her purse, too.
want to get out of the car. She also had no choice.
Her nearest neighbors on each side didn't get home from work
until nearer seven. The new people on the corner, she didn't know. The Porters.
She grasped at the thought of the couple, he just past retirement age, she the
perpetual housewife. They'd be home. They were always home, nosy and
dissatisfied with their neighbors' conduct. Their ranch house with manicured
lawn and unnatural edging of bedding plants was across the street and two doors
Natalie took slow, deep breaths, made herself unlock the car
door with shaking hand and get out. Nothing moved behind the windows of her
house. Whoever had been there was surely long gone.
At least, one of them was long gone. The other…
She swallowed dryly. The other would leave in a body bag.
She didn't quite run to her neighbors', but she came close.
Their doorbell gonged deep in the recesses of the house. For a moment, the
silence made her fear the Porters were, unbelievably, not home. How could that
be? Everyone in the neighborhood swore they never went out, even to grocery
shop, although Mrs. Porter grumbled about Safeway's produce and Thriftway's
service, just as she did about the mail carrier—who threw the mail to the back
of the box—and the new people on the corner who didn't mow often enough.
Natalie didn't know what the Porters said about her. Right now, she didn't
Please be home.
Above her heartbeats she heard a footstep, and then the
rattle of a chain. Trust the Porters to bother, in a town that had yet to have
a serial killer going door to door.