Melanie stared out the window of the sheriff’s Navigator without seeing the houses they passed. What was wrong with her? She could have left the vehicle when he was talking to her next-door neighbor, the nurse with the out-of-control father, but she’d waited in the vehicle like a fool or a suspect. Or like a woman with no place to go.
Alexander’s death had left her rootless. She still had to honor the lease on the house, but they hadn’t lived in Rubicon Ranch long enough for it to become home. And anyway, Alexander had been her home. Through all the years of their roaming the world, he had been her one constant. She hadn’t needed anyone or anything as long as they were together, but now that he was gone, what did she have to show for it? Nothing. No husband, no children, a near empty bank account, only enough possessions to fit in the trunk of a car, but no car to put them in. They’d leased the car Alexander wrecked, and she didn’t have the energy to lease another.
And now here she was, driving around with this aggravating sheriff and his barely concealed sexual innuendos. What does he want with me?
If he thought she had something to do with the child’s death—with Riley’s death—surely he wouldn’t have asked her to accompany him when he talked to the Petersons? Unless it wasn’t her opinion of them he wanted, but theirs of her? The hint of vulnerability he’d exhibited before going in to talking to them had touched her, but it could have been an act put on for her benefit. A man so adept at traversing the fine line between impropriety and barely acceptable behavior would consider such manipulation part of his job.
She stole a look at him. He seemed oblivious to her presence. One hand on the steering wheel, the other on the mike, he shot off a barrage of “I wants.”
“I want everything you can get me on Jeff and Kourtney Peterson. I want to know everyone Mary Sinclair has been talking to. I want to know if she’s been practicing without a license. I want—”
While he finished rolling out his list of wants, Melanie slumped in her seat. Could he be punishing her for daring to talk back to him? Her earlier outburst, when she’d accused him of being “The Man” had felt good. She wished she could summon another spurt of anger, but apathy weighted her down even more securely than manacles would have.
Damn Alexander. If she weren’t still reeling form his death, weren’t still grieving for the worthless bastard, she’d be more capable of dealing with this situation. But if Alexander hadn’t died, she’d never have been in this situation. She’d have been hunched over the computer this morning, not wandering in the desert taking photos.
The sheriff cut a glance at her. Did she detect a glimmer of sympathy in his eyes? Well, she didn’t want any sympathy from him. She didn’t want anything from him.
“When are you going to let me go?” she asked.
He smirked at her, and she realized she’d lost the game of who-can-ignore-the-other-the-longest, a game she hadn’t known they were playing.
“I have a couple of things to see to first.” He swung into the parking lot of the bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the housing development.
Rubicon Ranch had once been a stud farm supplying horses to Hollywood for use in movies. All that remained, besides the name, was this ranch house, which did a good business as a bed and breakfast.
Sheriff Bryan turned off the engine. Melanie held still and tried not to let her alarm show. Even he, a man who seemed to think the whole world existed only to do his bidding, even he could not be so deluded as to think she’d agree to bed him on such short acquaintance?
He returned her glance with raised eyebrows, and she could tell he was enjoying her confusion. She felt a blush creeping up her face and wished she were any place but here.
“When did you last eat a real meal?” he asked.
She studied him, trying to figure out this new game, but couldn’t see anything in his brown eyes but curiosity and perhaps concern. “I don’t know. Why?”
“In my experience, women who lose their husbands see no reason to cook for themselves, so they nibble.”
In his experience? As a cop or as a womanizer? Could he be one of those guys who went after grieving women, thinking they were either easy or desperate or both?
“Come on, I’ll buy you breakfast.” He got out, strode around the vehicle, and opened the door for her.
She folded her arms across her chest. “It’s past breakfast time.”
“They know me here.”
He let out a bark of laughter. Ignoring his outstretched hand, she slid out of the car. A wall of scalding air hit her, stealing her breath and making her stagger.
He caught her arm. “Easy there.”
Drat the man! He didn’t even crack a sweat, and here she stood, instantly drenched. He grinned at her as if he heard her thoughts. Still holding her elbow, he escorted her into the spacious front room of the inn. A middle-aged woman in jeans and a frilly blouse lit up at the sight of him, and her plain, square-jawed face became almost beautiful.
One of his conquests? He probably had a string of women up and down the state, all ready to jump into bed with him, though Melanie couldn’t see his allure. He didn’t have half the charm of Alexander. Secure in her belief of his love, she used to be amused by the women who threw themselves at him. Damn you, Alexander, how could you have done this to me?
Melanie started at the sound of the sheriff’s voice, astounded that she’d forgotten him for even a moment. She followed him and the chattering woman to a cloth-covered table in the dining room. The sheriff pulled out a chair for her.
“Your usual?” the woman asked over her shoulder as she scurried for the door.
“Make it two,” Sheriff Bryan said.
An unexpected burst of anger kicked Melanie. “You really are The Man, aren’t you? I can order for myself.”
“Coffee and toast? You need more than that.”
“I wouldn’t have had just toast.” But that’s exactly what she’d planned to order.
The sheriff poured two cups of coffee from an urn on a rosewood sideboard, set them on the table, and slid into a chair opposite Melanie.
“What do you want with me?” she asked.
He gave her an innocent look as if he didn’t know what she meant. “I just want to feed you.”
“Yeah, feed me to the sharks,” she muttered.
“You’re very clever, aren’t you?”
She sat up straight. “What?” The word came out almost as a shriek. She modified her tone, but did not try to conceal her anger. “Are you suggesting that I had something to do with that little girl’s murder?”
“Why do you assume she was murdered?”
Melanie took a sip of coffee, and tried to make sense of the sheriff’s words. “You’re saying she wasn’t murdered?”
“Did you know the girl?”
“No. I might have seen her, but I didn’t pay much attention to what went on in the neighborhood.” A stray thought niggled at her. “Wait! I bet she’s the one Alexander told me about. Right before his accident, he caught a little girl snooping around in our backyard.”
A line appeared between Sheriff Bryan’s dark brows. “I never saw the report.”
“Report? Oh, police report. He didn’t turn her in. Professional courtesy, he said. He was a bit of a snoop himself. Supplemented our income with photos of celebrities.”
“Did he ever take photos of your neighbors?”
Something in his expression—an added alertness—alarmed her. “What difference does that make? His death couldn’t possibly have anything to do with this little girl. Could it?”
“Why do you ask that?”
She shot him an exasperated look. “Having a conversation with you is like trying to talk to a four-year-old who has an attention disorder.”
“Could he have been killed?” she asked, mulling over the idea. “It was a hit and run. You people told me someone rear-ended him with such force that he crashed head-on into a concrete abutment, and you never found the other driver. What if Riley saw something that got her killed? What if Alexander saw the same thing?”
She sipped her coffee. Maybe she was stretching for an explanation so she wouldn’t have to deal with the truth, but would Alexander’s death make more sense if he’d been killed on purpose rather than in an accident? Either way, he’d brought his death on himself. If he hadn’t been texting his girlfriend, he might have been able to evade the other vehicle.
“I’ll look into it again.” Sheriff Bryan went still, his body tensed like a hawk spotting prey. Melanie followed his gaze. A young woman with waist-length brown hair came in and grabbed two cups of coffee. The only indication she might have seen the sheriff was a momentary hitch in her walk as she turned to leave. He continued to watch the door for several seconds after the young woman disappeared from sight.
“Are we on a stakeout?” Melanie asked. “Is that woman a suspect?” If so, then one of her neighbors wasn’t necessarily the killer. The thought brought no comfort. Despite the sheriff’s reticence to admit the girl had been murdered, someone had killed her. The body had been stuffed into the television in an unnatural position, and there had been an air of evil about the scene.
“Tell me about your neighbors.” Sheriff Bryan sounded abstracted, but when Melanie didn’t respond right away, he turned to her and said sharply, “Well?”
“There’s nothing to tell. The only one I’ve ever talked to is the poor woman who lives next door, the one you went to see.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Nothing, really. Her father came to our front door by mistake one day and couldn’t get in, so I went to his house and told the woman he was on the loose. She apologized for his behavior. That was it.”
“Who else have you talked to?”
“Is this why you’ve kept me with you this morning? To interrogate me? But if no one killed that girl, what difference does it make?”
“I’m hiring you to be my gape.”
Melanie didn’t know what he meant by gape, but his insinuating tone told her it couldn’t be anything good. “You like playing games with people, don’t you?” she asked with another eruption of anger. She didn’t know who this angry person inside her was, and she didn’t know how to deal with the anger. She’d always been happy with Alexander, with being his wife, with being his co-author, but now she was none of those things. Just an angry and grieving woman, who seemed to have become the plaything of a sadistic sheriff. “I bet you really get off on having a sidekick, don’t you? Probably always wanted to be one of those guys like Nero Wolfe who gathered everyone together at the end of a case to explain your brilliant deductions.”
“Nero Wolfe?” A look of pain contorted his face. “Do I look fat to you?”
“Okay. The Thin Man. But the point remains. You like playing games. And I don’t.”
The woman who had seated them brought huge platters of food—bacon, eggs, hash browns, sausage, toast, and cinnamon rolls as big as a dinner plate. “I’ll be back with your waffles in just a minute. I had to reheat the waffle-maker.”
Melanie gagged at the sight of all that food. A bite or two of toast would have been sufficient for her.
Sheriff Bryan waved a fork at her platter. “Eat.”
She gingerly took a bite of bacon, then a nibble of the cinnamon roll. She reached out to push the plate away; instead, she drew it closer and devoured half the meal.
“Feel better?” Sheriff Bryan asked.
She did, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of telling him so. “What is a gape?” she asked.
“A gape is a general all-purpose expert. No pay, of course. But lots of benefits.”
“Benefits?” She held up her hands. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. Besides, it makes no difference. I’m not an expert on anything. Alexander always laughed at me because I was so unobservant. Have no eye for details.”
“Doesn’t seem to be a good trait for a . . . photographer.”
Her face grew warm. So he knew she lied about being a photographer. She lifted her chin. “I am a photographer. A very new and inexperienced photographer, but my photos will be published, so that makes me a professional photographer.”
All warmth, teasing, insinuation disappeared from his eyes. They didn’t become cold, but still that bland disregard chilled her, and she knew she’d underestimated him. She wished she knew why he seemed so interested in her. She thought back to their meeting this morning—had it really just this morning? It felt like days—and tried to see it from his point of view. She’d thought she’d handled herself well, but now she saw that she’d merely been numb. Her reaction at finding the girl seemed too off-hand. She’d compounded that mistake by giving him the memory card. Should she explain why she gave it to him? It might make him lose interest in her, but then she’d probably lose the photos, and she’d lost too much recently to risk another loss, no matter how trivial. And anyway, she hadn’t touched the girl, so she didn’t have anything to fear.
Or did she?
Perhaps Sheriff Bryan had killed the girl and presumed that she—Melanie—had seen something or photographed something that might incriminate him. Maybe he was keeping her with him not as a gape, but as a gapp—a general all-purpose patsy.
His next victim.