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Authors: Janice Kay Johnson

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BOOK: His Partner's Wife
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And she was afraid.

"Natalie, look at me."

Startled, she realized that they were stopped at a light in
the old part of town. An enormous Queen Anne style turn-of-the-century house on
one corner was now a bed-and-breakfast; across the street, an antique shop
spilled onto the sidewalk from what had probably once been a carriage house.
She had been blind to the view of the bay during the drive here, to the arrival
of a ferry that had disembarked the long line of cars waiting to race up the
hill toward the highway. John lived here in Old Town, just a few blocks away,
in a more modest restored Victorian.

She turned her head to meet his frowning gaze.

"I will not let you be hurt." His words had the
power of a vow. "I promise."

The idea panicked her. Natalie shook her head hard.
"No. Don't promise. How can you? At some point, I'll have to go home even
if you don't make an arrest. What if he did come back? Are you going to abandon
your children to hover in my shrubbery every night? No," she said with
finality. "I don't want to be a weight on your conscience."

A horn sounded behind them, then another one. For a moment
John still didn't move, his electric, brooding eyes holding hers. Then he
blinked, shuttering the intensity, and flung an irritated glance at the mirror.

"Yeah, yeah, hold your horses," he growled,
stepping on the gas. He drove the remaining blocks in silence, but her stolen
look saw the deep lines carved in his forehead. In front of his house, he set
the emergency brake and turned off the engine. Turning a near-scowl on her, he
said, "All right. How's this instead? I'll do my damnedest to keep you

"That," she said, smiling shakily, "I can
accept. Gratefully."

She was going to accept
help gratefully?

Driving away from his house, John gave a grunt of wry
amusement. Oh, yeah. Sure.

The next moment, his brows drew together. No, he wasn't
being fair. Natalie would be grateful, all right.

She would just hate having to be.

Actually, he liked that about her. His mother excepted, the
women John had known well had tended to be dependent on the men in their lives.
They assumed a man would fix anything that was wrong.

Not that Natalie was the prickly type; far from it. She was
warm, gentle, relaxed, a comfortable voice on the phone when he felt like
talking out a day's problems. But she was also determined—sometimes
infuriatingly so—not to lean on anyone, even if she was a new widow.

No matter what he did for Natalie, no matter how trivial,
she'd thank him gravely but with a troubled expression puckering her brow. Then
he could count on her bringing a plate of cookies to the station, or sending a
casserole home with him, or buying gifts for Evan and Maddie. She had to
balance the scales. Always.

In John's book, friends did each other favors. Natalie was
on her own now, and he didn't mind picking up some of the slack. He liked
working with his hands, and if painting her house meant dumping the kids at
their friends' homes, heck, they'd have a better time with their buddies than
they would if he took them out to the spit anyway. It wasn't as if his
five-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter didn't get plenty of his
attention. Except for work, he was with them most of the time.

He knew Stuart Reed hadn't left any life insurance, and he
was pretty sure Natalie didn't make enough to be able to afford to put out
fifteen hundred dollars or so to have her house painted. The very fact that she
bit her lip, let him do the work and thanked him prettily told John that he was
right: she needed him.

She just wished like hell that she didn't.

Did she feel guilty at putting him out? Hate any hint of
dependence? He didn't know, hadn't asked. John would have been over there
cleaning out her gutters no matter what. She was his partner's widow. Stuart
would have done the same for John's children, if he'd been the one to go.

Natalie seemed to understand and accept that. She'd let John
hold her when he brought the news of Stuart's death. He had stood beside her at
her husband's funeral, kept an arm around her as Stuart's casket was lowered
into the ground and the first, symbolic chunk of earth was flung down onto its
shining surface. That was John's place, and she hadn't tried to keep him from

Huge dark circles under her eyes, she'd gone back to work a
week after the funeral. She hadn't asked to be held again, and wouldn't.
Admiring her strength, John had found himself talking to her as if she was
another man.

He knew she was a woman, of course. Her ripe curves and
leggy walk might have fueled a few fantasies under other circumstances. But
that wasn't how he thought of her. It was her laugh and her wisdom and her
grave dignity that characterized her. He'd never been friends with a woman
before, but somehow it had happened with her, perhaps because he'd known her
for several years as his partner's wife. That was another page out of John's
book: you didn't lust after a friend's wife.

The end result was that he'd quit noticing her looks. He
liked talking to her. He'd call just to see how things were going, stop by
casually to do small jobs around the house he figured she wouldn't get to. She
seemed to enjoy his kids. As far as he knew, she hadn't begun to date. No
possessive man had taken to hanging around questioning John's presence. He and
Natalie had an easy relationship that he savored. He didn't know when—if
ever—he'd been able to relax around a woman.

But she wasn't going to like having new reason to be
grateful, he reflected.

The damn ferry traffic was still bumper-to-bumper up the
main drag. Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, John strove for

His mother had been just the right medicine tonight, he
decided. Strong herself, Ivy McLean expected everyone else to be as well.

He'd left Natalie in his mother's competent but not tender
hands. Her brand of coddling, he suspected, would suit Natalie Reed fine.

Ivy McLean hadn't been the most sympathetic of mothers when
her three sons took turns being heartbroken by high school femmes fatales or
suffering knee injuries on the football field.
Get over it
was her
sometimes impatient message.
up tall, focus on what's important.
was not. Neither were teenage romances.

Swearing when he didn't make it through an intersection
before the light turned red, John grimaced. Come to think of it, not much that
had mattered to seventeen-year-old boys had been truly important in Ivy
MacLean's eyes. Grades, she cared about. Living honestly and with integrity.
Accepting the duty their father's murder had laid on all three boys.

In Natalie Reed's case, Mom would understand a degree of
shock and would respect outrage. She would be kind in her brisk way, without
encouraging an excess of tears or self-pity or fear. Hell, John thought
ruefully, most likely Mom would buck Natalie up and have her ready to rip down
the crime scene tape and move home tomorrow morning, to hell with the murderer
on the loose.

Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea.

Earlier, when Ivy had seen her son out, they'd left Natalie
listening to Maddie chatter about a roller-skating party.

"You'll find out what happened and why," Mom said,
chin set and gaze steady. It wasn't a question.
what counted. She'd raised her sons to believe that any one man could make the
world a safer place and now she was expecting him to get on with it.

She hadn't said,
Make an
arrest tonight,
but she might as well

A frown stayed on his brow until he reached Natalie Reed's
tri-level house. The crime scene techs were here, he was glad to see. A flash
popped upstairs. The coroner hadn't yet arrived. She was probably stuck in
ferry traffic. Every time one of the giant ferries docked, hundreds of cars
poured out, clogging Port Dare's narrow streets.

After parking behind the Investigations unit van, John got
out of his car and stood on the sidewalk, making no move to go up to the door.
He tried to put himself in the shoes of a stranger and see her house and this
neighborhood with fresh eyes.

The paint job—forest-green with cream trim, his doing—didn't
look half-bad. All the same, 2308 Meadow Drive was not a showplace. It was an
average house in an average neighborhood, one of many developments that had
sprung up around the nineteenth-century port town. In this middle-income
neighborhood, yards were generally well cared for but standard issue. Most of
these were single family homes, owner occupied, not rentals. Bikes with pink
tassels on the handlebars lay on their sides in driveways. Gardening was
carried out in traditional flower beds mulched with bark, edging lawns that
varied from the Porters' velvet green to the shaggy, brown-spotted grass
surrounding the corner house. The Porters, John was willing to bet, wouldn't
like those fluffy dandelion heads. Or the neighborhood eyesore that sat out in
front of the same house, a rusting junker resting on blocks instead of wheels.
Nonetheless, even at that house, a tricycle listed half off the driveway, and
in the backyard a swing set shared pride of place with a barbecue grill. The
lawn got mowed, just not often enough. Ordinary people.

A neighborhood like this wouldn't have crack houses or
marijuana-growing operations in the spare bedroom. Nor did these houses suggest
real wealth. The cops would get called here when a mountain bike was stolen out
of an open garage. Teenagers committed the few break-ins. Maybe a car prowl
from time to time. Serious burglaries would be few and far between. Murder?

So why was there a dead man in Stuart's den? Why had two
people broken in, and why had one of them been killed? A quarrel mid-crime was
the obvious answer, but then again, why Natalie's house? Why hadn't two
burglars carried the obviously expensive electronic equipment out before they
risked taking the time to check out the upstairs? Had they parked right in the
driveway, a truck backed up to receive stolen goods?

Or were they after something else? Something small?

What? he wondered in frustration. He'd have to ask Natalie
whether Stuart had any collections that might be valuable. Coins? Stamps? Hell,
he'd collected enough junk to have lucked out and hit on something worth
taking. Or did Natalie have jewelry? She hadn't said, and John thought she
would have. He remembered seeing her at the Policeman's Ball, drop-dead
gorgeous in a simple green velvet sheath, but the only jewelry he could picture
were sparkly earrings. Diamond, maybe, but tiny, not ones worth killing over.

Figure out why murderer and victim were in this house and
not the neighbor's, and he could as good as snap those handcuffs on.
Unfortunately, the
was the true mystery here. Murders happened all the time,
even in Port Dare. Just not this kind.

He sighed. Better find out what the neighborhood canvass had
turned up. Too bad the Porters hadn't seen anything. According to Natalie, they
were the only near neighbors who were stay-at-homes and nosy to boot.

Geoff shook his head when John tracked him down a block

"Nada. Zip. Nobody was home. Not even latchkey

"Why am I not surprised?" John rocked on his heels
and looked back. Meadow Drive curved, and this was the last house from which
anyone could have seen Natalie's. "You get everybody?"

"A few haven't come home yet." Geoff glanced down
at his notebook. "Four. No, three. The place down there is for sale, and
empty right now."

"What about the houses behind hers?"

"I sent Jackson. But what are the odds?"

Nada. Zip. Of course. But they had to try.

"Looks like the coroner is here. Shall we go hear what
she thinks?"

Elected in this rural county, Dr. Jennifer Koltes was a
pathologist at St. Mary's, serving in addition as part-time public servant.
Hereabouts they didn't need a full-time coroner yet. John was counting on it
staying that way.

A tall skinny redhead, Dr. Koltes was in her mid-thirties,
married to a cardiologist. Currently, she was pregnant, easily six or seven
months along. Maybe John was old-fashioned—okay, he undoubtedly was—but the
sight of a pregnant woman checking the body temp of a corpse with a smashed
skull struck him as jarring.

BOOK: His Partner's Wife
9.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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