Passion To Die For
llie Chase loved her job. Owning a restaurant had long been
a dream of hers, way back in the times when she didn’t have
many dreams, when she was sleeping on the street or scroung-
ing for a meal. She’d savored sweet visions of a diner, a café,
a bistro, warm when it was cold, dry when it rained, safe and
welcoming and, of course, filled with all the good food her
sixteen-year-old belly had ached for.
Tonight, though, she’d rather be working nine to five at
some dreary job where all the responsibilities fell on someone
She was seated on a stool at the end of their newly installed
bar, receipts, schedules and a glass of iced tea in front of her.
Outside it was pouring rain, and the temperature was about
twenty degrees colder than normal for October in east-central
Georgia. In spite of the weather, business had been good—if
you counted running out of broccoli cheese soup, fresh bread
8 Passion to Die For
and banana cheesecake as good. The oven was being tempera-
mental again, and so was Dharma, her self-proclaimed chef.
One of the waitresses had called in sick, a customer had
mumbled something about a problem in the men’s bathroom
and Tommy Maricci had come in for dinner.
With a date.
To top it all off, her feet were aching, her head was throb-
bing and though it was nearly closing time, no one besides her
and her staff showed any interest in going home.
Carmen, her best waitress and unofficial assistant manager,
slid onto the stool next to her. “You want me to comp Russ and
Jamie for their dinner?”
“Yes, please.” Russ Calloway, owner of Copper Lake’s
biggest construction company, had fixed the overflowing toilet
in the men’s room, saving her from putting in a call to her over-
priced and very-difficult-to-reach plumber. She was grateful,
even if he had come in with Tommy and his date.
“I want you to know, I didn’t step on Sophy’s toes, spill her
drink on her or spit in her food, even though I was tempted.”
Ellie managed only half a smile. “Sophy’s nice.”
“I know, and if I worked for her over in the quilt shop instead
of here, I’d be hating you. But I don’t. The least he could do is
take his dates somewhere else.”
“His money is as good as anyone else’s. Besides, I’m so over
him that I don’t care.”
Carmen gave her a long look, from the top of her head to
the pointed toes of her favorite black heels.
the devil residing on her shoulder whispered. They made her
legs look a mile long and showed her butt to good advantage—
Amanda Calloway, retired exotic dancer, had taught her that—
and they drew the sweetest, naughtiest little grin from Tommy
every time he saw her wearing them.
At least, they used to.
“Uh-huh,” Carmen drawled at last. “I can tell from the way
you’re hiding in here instead of working out front like you
always do. And from all those dates you’ve been accepting.”
“Hey, your social life is active enough for both of us.”
Carmen snorted. “I’m married, honey. My social life con-
sists of work, church, taxiing the kids around and trying to
schedule sex with my husband at least once a month.”
“You’ve got five kids. See how well you’re succeeding?”
Ellie hadn’t had sex since last April. She’d thought it was
make-up sex—her relationship with Tommy had always been
an on-again, off-again thing. When it was over, he’d put on his
clothes, kissed her, said he was sorry and walked out. She’d
known it would happen someday—people always gave up on
her eventually—but not that day. It had hurt more than it was
But she was over it now.
And if she told the lie often enough, she might even believe it.
With a grunt, Carmen slid to her feet. “Let me start politely
hurrying these people along. They need to get home where
they belong so we can do the same.”
Ellie’s house on Cypress Creek Road was pretty, cozy, had
two bedrooms and was even emptier than her life. It was the
place where she stayed, but it wasn’t home. She didn’t
belong there. She’d never really belonged anywhere besides
But it was more than she’d ever expected to have. She
wouldn’t whine about the things that were missing.
She’d just gotten back to work when Gina, one of the part-
time waitresses, approached. “Hey, Ellie, there’s a woman out
front who wants to talk to you.”
“An unhappy customer?” she asked warily. Her food was
first-rate and the service even better, but some people always
found something to complain about. She comped more meals
10 Passion to Die For
than anyone could reasonably expect in the name of customer
“Nope. Never seen her before. I told her I’d bring her back
here, but she said no, she would wait on the porch.”
Great. In the cold. At least the awning Ellie had installed
over the summer would keep her dry. Still, she swung by the
office to grab her coat before she skirted through the main
dining room to the front door. Unwillingly her gaze strayed to
the three tables pushed together in the center of the room,
where Tommy Maricci and Sophy Marchand were sitting with
Russ and Robbie Calloway and their wives. Their dessert plates
were empty, and they were making the restless movements
Ellie associated with saying goodbyes.
Tommy would take Sophy home, of course, even though the
house that held her shop on the first floor and her apartment on
the second was just across the square and around the corner. He
would escort her inside; maybe because he was a cop, maybe
because his father had raised him right, he was big on that sort
of thing. Would he spend the night? Was he sleeping with her?
She didn’t care. She was over him.
A blast of cold hit when she opened the door. A woman
waited in the shadows at the end of the porch, her back to Ellie,
the hood of her trench coat pulled over her head.
Ellie shrugged into her own coat, belting the wool around
her waist, uncuffing the sleeves so they covered most of her
fingers. Stopping a few feet from the woman, she said, “Hi. I’m
Ellie Chase. I understand you want to talk to me.”
“Ellie. Is that short for something?”
The voice was low, hoarse, probably from years of smoking.
Even with the breeze and the fresh scent of rain, Ellie could
smell stale cigarette smoke, as if it permeated the woman so
thoroughly that it had no choice but to leach into the air sur-
“Ellen,” she said impatiently. “Can I help you with some-
“Ellen. Hmm. You sure? You don’t look like an Ellen. In fact,
you look like…oh, a Bethany to me.”
Wind gusted along the length of the porch. That was the
reason Ellie felt so cold inside, why she felt as if her knees
might give out. She staggered a step before gripping the back
of the nearest chair, her fingers knotting so tightly around the
cold wood that they went instantly numb.
“I’m sure,” she said, her voice sounding flat and cold. “I
know my own name.”
Slowly the woman turned. The hood cast shadows over the
upper half of her face, leaving only an impression in the dim
light of aged skin, deep grooves, an overglossed mouth. “So do
I,” she said. “I know the name you use now, and I know the
name you were born to. Bethany Ann Dempsey.”
She raised one weathered hand to pull the hood back, and
Ellie stared. Her stomach knotted, and tremors shot through her,
making her shiver uncontrollably inside her coat. It had been
fifteen years since she’d last seen the woman, and time hadn’t
been kind. Her hair was a dull, lifeless gray, her skin sallow.
Too much tobacco, too much booze and too damn much
meanness had combined to add an additional fifteen years to
her face. The only thing that remained the same as in Ellie’s
memories was her eyes. Blue. Cold. Cruel.
“What’s the matter, Beth?” The woman smiled, and that, too,
was the same: smug and vicious. “Surprised to see your mama?”
For a moment, a dull haze surrounded Ellie, blocking out
sound, cold, rain and wind. Anger, loss and panic welled inside
her, each fighting for control, the anger curling her fingers into
fists, the panic urging her to run, run
. That terrified
little girl would have run, but she was gone. The woman she’d
become wouldn’t give in to emotion.
12 Passion to Die For
“As far as I’m concerned, my mother died fifteen years ago.”
Shoulders back, Ellie turned and took a few steps toward the
door before Martha Dempsey spoke again.
“You’ve made a place for yourself here, haven’t you? Nice
restaurant. Nice little blue house. You go to church. You’re a
member of the Copper Lake Merchants’ Association. You rub
elbows with the rich folks in town. People think you’re some-
thing, don’t they? But they don’t know what I know.”
Ellie hovered, frozen in the act of taking a step. After a
quavery moment, her foot touched the floor and she pivoted to
face Martha, freezing again when the screen door creaked open.
Jamie and Russ Calloway came out first, not noticing her,
heading directly for the steps. Behind them were Robbie
Calloway and Sophy Marchand, lost in conversation, and
bringing up the rear were Robbie’s wife, Anamaria, and Tommy.
Half wishing to remain unseen, Ellie knew it wasn’t going
to happen. Anamaria was her closest friend in town, and she
was sensitive to emotions, conflicts and auras. Her gaze came
immediately to Ellie’s, her dark eyes taking in what was
probably a fireworks display of auras.
Moving gracefully despite her pregnancy, Anamaria closed
the distance between them, smiled at Martha, then wrapped one
arm around Ellie. “Dinner was wonderful, as usual, Ellie.”
Leaning closer, her mouth brushing Ellie’s ear, she murmured,
“If you need me…”
“Thanks.” Ellie squeezed her hand more tightly than she’d
intended, too aware that Tommy was waiting, a distinct look of
suspicion on his face. All the other times they’d broken up, they’d
remained friends, but this time he never smiled at her and never
spoke if he could avoid it. This time he’d said it was for good, and
though she’d denied it for the first month, finally she believed him.
When Anamaria went back to him at the top of the steps, he
was still wearing that look. His gaze met hers for an instant,
but he didn’t acknowledge her. Instead, he broke contact, took
Anamaria’s arm and escorted her down the wet steps.
know?” Martha asked, her tone sly and taunt-
ing. “Do they?”
People believed she had no family, that her parents were
dead and all that was left were distant cousins. They thought
she’d been raised in Charleston, where she had, in fact, done a
fair amount of growing up, that she’d lived a normal, if some-
what family-deficient, life.
Ironically, Anamaria, whom she’d known the shortest time,
had guessed there was more to Ellie than the story she told. But
that was none of Martha’s business. Nothing about Ellie was
“How did you find me?”
Martha grinned and lifted one bony shoulder in a shrug.
“I’ve got my sources.”
“What do you want?”
Martha felt in her pockets, coming up with a pack of ciga-
rettes and a cheap lighter. Ellie let her shake one out and slide
it between her lips, then said, “Don’t smoke here.”
Martha hesitated, hands cupped to protect the lighter’s
flame, then slowly lowered it. She left the cigarette in her
mouth, though. For forty years she’d talked around one. Lit or
unlit didn’t matter. “Your father died four months ago.”
No surprise. No disappointment. No regret. The news meant
nothing to Ellie, and that was a sad thing.
“Nothing to keep me in Atlanta anymore.”
Oliver Dempsey may not have amounted to anything as a
father, but he’d brought home a steady paycheck, enough to
cover the basics: housing, transportation, food, booze, tobacco.
He’d resented spending any of that paycheck on a teenage
daughter whom he considered pretty much worthless, but he’d
taken good care of himself and Martha.
14 Passion to Die For
And now she wanted someone else to take care of her.
Ellie wanted to laugh, but was afraid what kind of sound
would squeeze through the tightness in her throat. “You want
money. From me. Is that it?”
Martha stiffened defensively. “I am your mother.”
“Like hell you are. You gave birth to me, you changed a few
diapers and you fed me until I was old enough to feed myself.
That doesn’t make you my mother.”
“Don’t you get smart with me—”
“Remember the last time I saw you?” Ellie interrupted.
“When I pleaded with you to let me come home? When I was
hungry and sleeping in abandoned buildings and I
to help me?”
Martha’s expression was contempt tinged with regret. Not
because she regretted throwing her teenage daughter out of the
house, not because she’d never loved or protected Ellie the
way a mother was supposed to, but because her past actions
were going to interfere with getting what she wanted now. She
was about to be held accountable, and Martha had always hated
“You had to learn a lesson,” she said sourly.
“What lesson? That I couldn’t count on my parents? I
already knew that. That the next carton of cigarettes and the
next case of beer were more important to you than me? I knew
that, too. Just what the hell lesson was I supposed to be learning
“Don’t you cuss at me. I didn’t tolerate it back then, and I
won’t now. You won’t disrespect me.”
The urge to laugh bubbled inside Ellie. The idea that she felt
anything remotely resembling respect for this woman was ludi-
crous. If Martha dropped dead in front of her right that moment,
she would feel nothing more than relief that such an ugly part
of her life had ended.
“You want money,” Ellie said again, her voice flat. “How
Martha smiled, showing teeth in need of care and greed that
made her eyes damn near sparkle. “Well, now, it’s hard to say.
Like I said, your daddy’s dead. There’s no reason for me to stay
in Atlanta, and truth is, it’s a little late in life for me to be
starting a new career. I kind of like the idea of retiring, reset-
tling to be close to my girl and the grandbabies she’s sure to
give me someday. I looked around that pretty little house of
yours, and that back bedroom would suit me fine. I could even
help out down here sometimes, you know, welcome customers
to our restaurant and chat with them about this and that.”
Ellie’s spine was stiff enough to hurt. There was no way she
would ever let Martha move into her house or help out at her
restaurant. She’d burn both places down before letting Martha
taint them. Drawing on the cold deep inside her, she said, “So
you get a better life than you’ve ever known. And what do I get
Martha’s vicious smile reappeared. “Your fancy friends don’t
find out about this.” From under the trench coat, she produced
a manila envelope. “Here. You can keep it. It’s just copies.”
When Ellie made no move to touch it, Martha tossed the
envelope on the seat of the rocker next to her, then tugged her
coat tighter. “I don’t expect you to say yes right now. Take a
walk down Memory Lane. Think about what you stand to lose.
I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”
Ellie numbly watched her pull the hood over her limp hair,
then clump past and down the steps into the rain. She didn’t
look to see which way Martha went. The only place Ellie
wanted her to go was away, and that wasn’t going to happen
until she had what she wanted.
When everything was still, Ellie picked up the envelope
with unwilling fingers and hid it inside her own coat. She would
16 Passion to Die For
take that stroll down Memory Lane—more like Nightmare
Street—later. First, she had a restaurant to close for the night.
The clock in the hall chimed eleven times, rousing Tommy
from the edges of sleep. The television was still on, framed
between his booted feet propped on the coffee table, and Sophy
was snuggled beside him, her sweater rustling against his shirt
as she shifted. Damn, he must have fallen asleep not long after
they’d settled on the couch.
“I should go home.”
“Or you could spend the night.”
He could. It wasn’t as if he had someone to go home to.
And he’d slept over before—not a lot but enough to be com-
fortable with the idea. But having dinner at Ellie’s Deli had
guaranteed that his mind would be on someone else—looking
for glimpses of her, waiting for her to come to the table to greet
them like the old friends they were, wondering how he’d been
lucky enough to go there on a day when she wore his favorite
outfit: white blouse with a deep V and black skirt that clung
to her hips so snugly that it needed a slit so she could walk.
Conservative clothes that concealed a tiny lace bra and
matching thong, all set off by those incredible black heels. Just
the sight of them…
His body twitched, and he silently cursed, hoping Sophy
hadn’t noticed. He wouldn’t insult her by pretending he wanted
her when Ellie was all over his mind. Her sleek blond hair. Her
amazing legs. The confident way she moved. Her smiles,
ranging from polite to intimate to wicked.
Oh, yeah, and the drop-dead cold shoulder she gave him
“When it takes you that long to come up with an answer, it’s
pretty clear.” Sophy sat up, lowering her feet to the floor.
An answer to…?
Then he remembered: staying the night.
“I’m sorry, babe. It’s just…I’ve got to work tomorrow, and it’s
been a long day—”
“And spending the evening at Ellie’s wasn’t the best way to
get in the mood to sleep with another woman.” Sophy scooted
to the edge of the couch, then looked at him. “Can I ask you
“Rumor is that you broke up with her. If she’s got this much
effect on you six months later, why’d you do it?”
He’d issued an ultimatum, and then he’d had to live with it.
He’d demanded marriage, kids, living together, commitment
and she’d opted for nothing. It had been a lonely six months,
but faced with the same situation, he’d make the same demand.
He wanted more than a long-term girlfriend. If she couldn’t give
him that, someone else could.
“It’s complicated,” he said, getting to his feet and pulling her
with him. Keeping hold of her hand, he went to the front door,
where he snagged his jacket from the coat tree. After sliding it
on, he wrapped his arms around Sophy and kissed her.
She tilted her head so the kiss fell on her cheek. “Are you
still in love with her?”
Grimly he gave the best answer he could. “I’m trying not to
Sophy studied him for a moment, then leaned forward and
brushed her mouth across his. “You’re still welcome to spend
the night. I know, not tonight. But maybe next time.”
“Sure.” Provided they didn’t go to the deli, and he didn’t see
or think about Ellie all night. Yeah, then he might be good for
“It’s all right about her,” Sophy said. “I mean, I knew going
Somehow that didn’t make him feel better. He said goodbye
18 Passion to Die For
and brushed a kiss across her forehead, then opened the door
to a blast of cold air. Closing it quickly behind him, he took the
wooden steps two at a time, shoved his hands in his jacket
pockets and set off down the street.
It had been Sophy’s suggestion that they walk home from
dinner. Between the canopies that covered the storefronts and the
live oaks that shielded the path through the square, they’d arrived
significantly drier than if they’d walked the block north with no
cover to his SUV. Now, with everything closed up for the night
and the streets empty, he wished for a closer parking space.
Tommy was passing the gazebo in the square when a rustle
of movement caught his attention. Someone hunkered on one
of the benches inside the structure. The dark coat could belong
to anyone; the pale blond hair could only be Ellie’s. What the
hell was she doing there?
He wanted to walk on. He should have, but he was a cop.
He didn’t like things out of place, and Ellie alone in the square
late at night was definitely out of place. She should have fin-
ished closing up the restaurant over an hour ago, should have
been home in bed.
Should have been home in bed with him.
When his boot landed on the first step, she stiffened, then
whirled around to face him. There was a moment of surprise on
her face, then that blankness he’d come to associate with her. She
sat straighter, pulled her coat tighter and something papery rustled.
He stopped halfway up the steps, on eye level with her, and
allowed himself a moment to just look at her. Light blond hair
falling past her chin, sleek and elegant like her. Skin the color
of warm, dark honey. Brown eyes, a surprise on first sight,
damned sexy every other time. She was shorter than his five feet
eleven inches, slender, with great breasts and hips, but always
lamenting that she enjoyed her own food too much.
He’d never agreed. Not from the very first time he’d seen
her and thought
. Damn, she was beautiful. Damn, she was
hot. Damn, he was lost. Five years he’d been lost, and he’d
hoped to stay that way forever.
His hands clenched inside his pockets. “You okay?”
. During all the rough patches they’d gone through,
she’d never cried, pouted or moped. She’d never pleaded with
him or shown a moment’s weakness. She’d always been stronger,
less affected, than he. He admired her strength, but would it have
killed her to need him even half as much as he’d needed her?
“What are you doing out here?”
“Enjoying the lovely evening. What are you doing?”
“I was at Sophy’s.”
If that news bothered her, she didn’t let it show. Was she the
least bit jealous? He wished. Did she miss him? Maybe. Would
she ever marry him? Doubtful. If she hadn’t loved him enough
after five years, why should a sixth or eighth or tenth year
make a difference?
“How is Sophy?” she asked.
“You could have come to the table and seen for yourself this
evening.” He’d waited through the appetizers and the salads for
her to do just that. By the time the main course had arrived, he’d
accepted that she wasn’t going to.
“I was busy.”
“You’re always busy. Running things. Talking to customers.”
Was it a good thing that she’d avoided his table? Had she not
wanted to acknowledge him with Sophy?
He took another step up. “I saw you talking to that woman
on the porch.” Stupid comment. Of course he’d seen them and
she knew it; he’d passed within a few feet of them. “I didn’t
The thin light from the streetlamps showed her shrug, stiff
and awkward. “She doesn’t live here.”
20 Passion to Die For
“An old friend?”
She was stiffer, more awkward. “Just someone who wanted
He thought back to the woman. If asked, he would have said
he hadn’t really paid much attention to her; he’d been too busy
not paying attention to Ellie. But he’d seen enough. The woman
had looked to be in her sixties, average height and weight.
Gray hair, sallow complexion, a heavy smoker and on edge.
Even when standing still, she hadn’t been still. Shifting her
weight, her gaze darting about, her attention honed.
What had she wanted from Ellie? A handout? A favor?
And why Ellie?
Because they shared a connection somewhere in their past?
In the five years Ellie had lived in Copper Lake, she’d had little
to say about her twenty-five years elsewhere. She was an only
child, her parents were dead, and her only relatives were distant,
figuratively and literally. He knew she’d had some unhappy
times, but she’d never been open to discussing them.
A woman should be willing to discuss her hurts and disap-
pointments with the man she’d been seeing for the better part
of five years.
The wind gusted, scattering sodden dead leaves across the
square, and it sent a chill through him. His jeans and leather jacket
weren’t enough to stand up to the cold, but Ellie didn’t seem to
notice the temperature. Granted, she wore a long wool coat, but
there was an air of detachment about her. Anamaria would
probably say her aura was the translucent shade of blue ice.
“Why don’t you go home?” he suggested, wanting very
much to do the same.
“Are you going to continue harassing me if I don’t, Detective?”
“Come on, Ellie.” He wasn’t comfortable leaving her, or any
other woman, alone in the gazebo with midnight approaching.
Copper Lake’s crime rate was nothing compared to the big
cities, but bad things still happened to innocent people.
She opened her mouth as if to argue, then closed it again and
stood, arms still folded across her middle. There was another
papery crackle. From something hidden beneath her coat?
She passed without touching him, and when he fell into step
beside her, she scowled. “I can make it to my car alone.”
“It’s on my way.”
Those were the last words either of them said until they
reached the small parking lot that opened off the alley behind
the deli. Her lime-green VW Beetle was the only car in the lot,
parked under the lone streetlight, its lights flashing when she
clicked the remote. She would have gotten in and driven away
without a word, but he laid his hand on her arm, stopping her.
“Ellie, if you need to talk—”
Even through the bulk of the coat, he felt her muscles clench.
She looked at him, then at his hand, and he withdrew it. The
night chill had nothing on her gaze. “Thank you for the escort.”
Her polite words were as bogus as his response. “You’re
welcome.” Pushing his hand into his pocket, Tommy stepped
back and watched as she slid behind the wheel, started the
engine, then drove away. He stood motionless long after her
taillights disappeared down the alley, until another blast of
wind hit him, this time dampened with more rain moving in.
Damn, she was cold. Damn, she was distant.
And damned if he didn’t still love her.
Ellie’s house was located at the end of Cypress Creek Road,
just before it made a sharp right turn and became Magnolia
Drive. It wasn’t a trendy part of town; her neighbors were
mostly as old as her house, on the downhill side of sixty. The
house was small, but the floors were hardwood, it had an
22 Passion to Die For
attached garage and the price had been reasonable. Besides,
most of her waking hours were spent at the restaurant. The
house was used mostly for sleeping and doing laundry.
And, off and on until last spring, for having great sex with
She would have been touched by his stopping at the gazebo
and walking her to her car if she didn’t know him so well. He
would have stopped for anyone, ex-lover, acquaintance or total
stranger. He was a protector from the inside out. Ensuring other
people’s safety wasn’t just his job; it was who he
She’d desperately needed someone like that fifteen years
ago. She hadn’t had him then, and she couldn’t have him now.
Didn’t deserve him now.
She let herself into the house from the garage, leaving her
coat in the utility room and walking through the dimly lit
kitchen into the living room. None of the furniture was anything
special, and the dishes and linens had been chosen by an accom-
modating clerk at the housewares shop at the mall. Ellie could
walk away from it all and never miss a thing.
Except, possibly, the four-inch heels she admired before
kicking them off her feet.
Once she was settled comfortably on the couch, she reached
for the large envelope Martha had given her, sure what was
inside before she opened it. Police reports, complaints, convic-
tions, photographs. It hurt to see herself at fifteen—still young
and naive—and then at sixteen and seventeen. Like Martha, she
had aged far more than the months could account for. By the
age of eighteen, there’d been a hollowness about her, in her face
and her eyes and her soul. She’d wanted to end it all—the pain,
the shame. She’d had only one reason to live, and even that had
Ellie went to the fireplace, put a sheet of paper on the grate
and struck a match to it. As the edges curled with flame, she
added another page, then another, report after photo after com-
plaint. When the last piece was burning, she held the envelope
over it, feeling the heat from the fire, holding it until she risked
a burn. It dropped to the ashes on the grate, and the flames
consumed it with a final wisp of smoke and a lingering, sooty
fragrance. She stirred the ashes with the fireplace poker, breaking
them into smaller pieces that fell through the grate, grinding
them to powder until she was satisfied they’d been destroyed.
All those years ago, she hadn’t thought she would live to see
thirty. And here she was, not only alive but reasonably well. She
had a house and a business. She had the friendship and respect
of the people she did business with. She was a success by
Would she still be a success if she refused Martha’s blackmail?
She wanted to believe the answer was yes, that her friends
would remain her friends, that who she’d become would be
more important to them than who she’d been. She wanted to
believe that she was good enough, changed enough, to rise
above her past.
She wanted to believe that she’d earned the life she had
now, that she
But the truth was, she didn’t know. She was a fraud, mas-
querading as someone no different from anyone else in Copper
Lake. She’d lied to them about her background and her family.
Ellie Chase was someone they could relate to. Bethany
She was no stranger to disappointment and rejection. Her
mother and father hadn’t been the first to turn away from her,
nor had they been the last. And if her own parents hadn’t been
able to accept and forgive her, how could she count on people
like the Calloways to do so?
How could she ever expect Tommy—the protector, the cop,
the good guy—to do so?
24 Passion to Die For
She could leave. Disappear. Put the restaurant and house up
for sale. Only her lawyer would need to know how to contact
her, and Jamie Munroe-Calloway wouldn’t share that informa-
tion with anyone, especially Martha.
Let the mother who’d abandoned her bleed her dry, give up
everything that mattered and run away like a coward, or stand
up to Martha and risk the loss of everything—and everyone—
It was a hell of a choice.
Tommy leaned his head against the Charger’s headrest and
watched the house down the street through slitted eyes. He
was partnered with Katherine Isaacs this week and wondering
whether it was because he was good at what he did or if the
lieutenant was punishing him for something.
Kiki might be the department’s newest detective, but she was
also its biggest whiner. She bitched about everything: rain, sun,
heat, cold, driving, not driving, having to arrest someone, not
getting to arrest someone.
“Piss off, Kiki,” he muttered, shifting in the seat.
She scowled at him. “I hate that nickname.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whine to someone who cares.” It was warm
inside the car, so he switched the engine on long enough to
crack the windows an inch or two. Fresh air blew in, the rain-
drops it carried a small price to pay for its cooling effect. They’d
26 Passion to Die For
been parked under the trees down the road from a drug dealer’s
house for hours now, the black Dodge practically disappearing
in the gloomy overcast, and so far they hadn’t seen anything
more interesting than a dog taking a leak on the dealer’s steps.
“Are you always this pleasant on surveillance?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You’re supposed to be teaching me.”
She stabbed at the button to roll up the window, but he’d
turned off the car again. The rain wasn’t coming in on her side,
but the humidity was. Before long, her hair would frizz out like
a ’70s Afro. He knew, because she’d whined about it the first
time he’d rolled down the windows.
Sprawled in the driver’s seat, head tilted back, he said,
“Okay, listen up. This is me teaching. When you do surveil-
lance, you park someplace where you’re not real noticeable,
you settle in and you watch your target. If you’re real lucky,
you’ll actually see something. Most of the time, you sit until
your butt goes numb and you get nada. You don’t eat anything
that smells offensive. You don’t get crumbs or wrappers in my
car. You don’t drink more than your bladder will hold. You don’t
fall asleep. And you don’t complain.” He turned his head so he
could see her. “Oh, wait, I forgot who I was talking to. Kiki
Isaacs, queen of complainers.”
“That’s Detective Queen of Complainers to you.” She fluffed
her brown hair, starting its inevitable frizz. “I don’t complain.
I make my opinions known. Keeping things inside is bad for
“Then you must be the healthiest person I’ve ever met. Be
quiet now. You’re fogging up my windows.” He used a napkin
to wipe the windshield, then leaned back again.
The house they were watching sat isolated from its neigh-
bors. A fire had taken out the house to the west, and the one to
the east had been leveled by a tornado. That probably suited
Steve Terrell just fine. His own lot was overgrown, and junk
filled the yard. The screens on the windows were torn and
rusted, patches of shingles were missing from the roof and the
paint was a truly ugly shade of purple.
An informant had told them that Terrell was expecting a
shipment around nine that morning, but it was now one in the
afternoon and there hadn’t been any movement on the street at
all. Even the neighbors were either gone or staying home.
Drifting on the damp air came the scent of wood smoke and
Tommy breathed deeply. He’d given up smoking more than a
year ago. It had taken him six months to get from five cigarettes
a day to none. He’d think it was completely out of his system,
and then he’d catch a whiff of smoke—even the sour stench of
burning leaves—and want a cigarette so badly he could taste
it. Kiki’s slow intake of breath, a signal that she was about to
speak again, doubled the desire.
“How long do we wait?”
“The guy might have had car trouble. He might have gotten
a late start, or the weather might have slowed him down.”
“Or your informant might have given you bad information.
He might have just liked the idea of us sitting out here in the
rain waiting for something that was never going to happen in
the first place.”
She repeated her question. “So how long do we wait?”
“As long as it takes.” She was probably right. This bust was
a bust. But just to keep her from thinking she’d nagged him into
giving up, he waited another half hour before finally starting the
engine. The Dodge Charger turned with a powerful rumble, and
he pulled out of the trees and drove away from Terrell’s house.
Kiki gave an exaggerated sigh of relief, then looked slyly at
him. “I saw you at Ellie’s last night with Sophy.”
“Yeah.” Tommy resisted the urge to fidget. His dating Sophy
28 Passion to Die For
wasn’t a secret. He’d been seeing her for a month, though he’d
never taken her to the deli. Though he’d been a regular since
the doors opened, taking his current girlfriend to his ex-
girlfriend’s restaurant seemed a really lousy idea. Last night the
choice hadn’t been his. Anamaria had been craving prime rib,
and Ellie’s was the best in town.
He missed the food there. Almost as much as he missed Ellie.
“Sophy and I are friends. If you break her heart, I’ll have to
After turning onto Carolina Avenue, he gave Kiki a sharp
look, then deliberately changed the subject. “I’m taking you
back to the station. Then I’m going looking for my informant.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“Come on, Maricci—”
“He’s called a confidential informant for a reason. Besides,
you wouldn’t like the places he hangs out.”
He pulled to a stop in front of the Copper Lake Police
Department and waited pointedly for her to get out of the car.
When she didn’t move, he said, “Go inside, Kiki. Do your nails
or fix your hair or something. I’ll swing back after I’m done.”
With a scowl, she climbed out, muttering something about
macho jerks and pissants. Grinning, he pulled out of the parking
lot and headed back downtown. He did intend to go looking for
his informant, but not until he’d gotten something to eat, along
with a strong cup of coffee.
He circled halfway around the square before finding a
parking space near A Cuppa Joe. As he got out of the Charger,
a figure crossing the street caught his attention. She wore a long
coat that was too big, the hood pulled up over gray hair and a
lined face, and trudged through the crosswalk with a plastic
shopping bag clutched in each hand.
It was the woman Ellie had been talking to on the porch last
night, the out-of-towner who wanted something from her. Ellie
hadn’t been happy to see her or to talk about her with him in
the square…though these days she wasn’t happy talking about
anything with him.
On impulse, he met the woman as she stepped onto the curb.
“Can I help you with your bags?”
She drew up short and fixed a suspicious stare on him. “Do
I look like I need help?”
“No, ma’am. I just thought—”
“Who are you?”
“Tommy Maricci.” He gestured to the gold shield clipped
onto his belt, and her gaze dropped, then returned to his face.
“I haven’t done nothin’ wrong.”
“I didn’t say you had. I just thought you might like some help.
Maybe a ride to get out of this rain.” A blast of wind kicked up
behind her, bringing with it the smell of stale smoke and liquor.
Shifting the bags to one hand, she raised the other to tug her
hood back enough to see him better. “You always offer innocent
“More often than you’d think.”
“Huh. All right. I’ll take your ride.” She handed both bags to
him, then shoved her hands into her coat pockets. “It
a bit chilly
for this time of year. And I’m not going far. Just to the Jasmine.”
Her blue eyes narrowed, clearly expecting some response
from him, but he was good at hiding surprise. The Jasmine was
a restored three-storied brick-and-plaster post–Civil War beauty
on two prime acres east of downtown. Now a bed-and-
breakfast, it was by far the most expensive place to stay in
Copper Lake. Not what he would have expected for this woman.
Though his job had taught him to expect the unexpected.
“My car’s over there.” He gestured toward the Charger, and
they’d walked a few yards when she inhaled deeply.
30 Passion to Die For
“Nothing smells as good on a chilly day as a cup of strong
Especially with a little something extra in it to help warm a
body, he thought, catching another whiff of alcohol. “I was just
heading for a cup. Do you have time?”
Her laughter was throaty and grating. “I have nothin’ but
time. Are you treating?”
“Well, then, why don’t you put them bags up and I’ll wait
inside out of the cold?” Without pausing for his agreement, she
pivoted and walked into A Cuppa Joe.
Tommy unlocked the car door and set the bags in the back.
As the plastic sides sagged, he saw two cartons of cigarettes, a
six-pack of beer, chips and three large bags of candy. Tucked
between the beer and the
was a slim brown bag, the
kind used at the local liquor stores. Booze, chocolate and a
gossip rag…the basic requirements of life.
After closing and locking the door, he strode down the
sidewalk and into the coffee shop. The woman was standing at
the counter, head tilted back, studying the menu on the wall.
She’d pushed the hood off her head, leaving her hair sticking
out like tufts of straw, and, like the night before, she gave off
an air of watchfulness. “Does that offer go for plain coffee or
the grande-mocha-latte-chino good stuff?”
“Whatever you want.”
A twenty-something girl with bottled black hair and deep
purple lips waited idly for their order, tapping an orange fin-
gernail on the counter. A person could be forgiven for thinking
she was already in the Halloween spirit, but she looked like that
every day of the year. After the woman ordered a caramel-
hazelnut something-or-other, Tommy asked for his usual—
high-octane Brazilian blend with a slice of cream-cheese-filled
“Make that two slices,” the woman said with a sly smile. “I’ll
find a table.”
Midafternoon, with only a couple of other customers, that
was no hardship. She chose one near the front window but
away from the draft of the door. By the time Tommy set down
the tray with their food, she’d removed her coat and sat, legs
crossed, hands clasped on the tabletop. Her fingers were short,
stubby and nicotine stained, her nails blunt and unpolished. The
skin on her hands, like on her face, was weathered and worn.
Not by work, he suspected. She didn’t strike him as a woman
who indulged in hard work.
And she didn’t strike him as a woman who would have even
the vaguest connection to Ellie. Ellie was so elegant and
“I didn’t get your name,” he said as he set a tall foamy cup
and a saucer with bread in front of her.
“I didn’t offer it.” She swiped a finger in the whipped
cream that topped her drink, licked it clean, then shrugged.
“Are you here on vacation? Visiting friends? Just passing
Picking up her fork, she wagged it in his direction. “That’s
the bad thing about cops. They’re always asking questions.”
“We’re just curious people.” And he wasn’t asking even a
fraction of the questions running through his mind.
you? Why are you here? How do you know Ellie? What do you
want from her?
“I seen you last night. At the restaurant down the street. With
that pregnant black girl. Is she
girl?” There was an under-
tone of something—disapproval, bigotry—that made her voice
“I like to think she could have been if my buddy hadn’t met
her first.” He’d liked Anamaria from the first time they’d met,
32 Passion to Die For
but Robbie, she insisted, had been her destiny. God knows,
she’d certainly turned him around. The shallow Calloway
brother, the irresponsible one, had taken to marriage and
impending fatherhood as well as or better than any of his more
“She’s not your kind,” Martha said dismissively.
Before he could ask just how she meant that, she shifted her
gaze outside to a temporary sign in the square, announcing the
date and time of the annual Halloween celebration. “This isn’t
a bad little town. I’m thinking I could live out my last days here.”
And what would Ellie think of that? “I’ve lived all my days
here, except for four years in college. I like it.” He stirred sugar
into his coffee, then took a careful sip before asking, “Where
do you live now?”
“Atlanta. Big place. You can stay twenty years in the same
house and still not know your neighbor’s name.” She gave him
another of those sly looks. “I bet you know pretty much every-
thing about everyone in town. Or, at least, you think you do.”
“I’m not sure you can ever know
about a person.”
He was probably the only one in town who didn’t have much
in the way of secrets. The only major events in his life—his
mother’s alcoholism, her leaving when he was five and aban-
doning him, his falling in love with Ellie and her not loving him
back—were common knowledge. He had nothing to hide.
“What do you know about Ellie Chase?”
He stilled in the act of reaching for another bite of pumpkin
bread. Laying his fork carefully on the plate, he folded his
hands around his coffee cup instead. “She’s got the best restau-
rant in town. Everyone likes her. She’s good to work for. She’s
active in the community.” He paused. “I know you know her.”
Ellie hadn’t actually said that. Martha Dempsey was just
someone who wanted something, she’d said. Someone from the
past she never talked about, he’d inferred.
Martha’s smile was crooked. “A long time ago,” she said. “I
hadn’t seen her since she was a teenager.”
“Is she the reason you came here?”
She studied him a moment, then took a drink of coffee,
slurping to get whipped cream, as well. With a drop clinging
to her upper lip, she said, “What you call curiosity, Mr. Police
Detective, some people consider plain old nosiness.”
After another drink, she shook her head. “Her being here is
just a happy coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidence.” And Ellie certainly hadn’t
That earned a sharp laugh from her. “I don’t believe in little
green men from Mars, neither, but that don’t mean they aren’t
out there. Now…tell me about this Halloween festival.”
A shrill whistle startled Ellie, who’d been staring off into the
distance. She shifted her gaze to the door of her office where
Sherry, one of the waitresses, stood, a takeout bag in hand.
“I called your name three times. You imagining yourself on
some Caribbean beach with a hot cabana boy?”
If only her mind had wandered someplace so pleasant… But
no, she’d been distant in years, not so much in mileage. “You
bet,” she lied, forcing a smile. “The sun was warm, the sand
was endless and the rum never stopped flowing.”
“Well, come back to reality, where the sky is gray, the tem-
perature is cold and the rain hasn’t stopped falling.” Sherry held
up the bag. “Joe’s order is ready.”
Ellie looked blankly at the bag before remembering: Joe
Saldana had called in an order to go, and she’d offered to deliver
it to him. He’d promised her a tall chai tea, his own special
blend, as a fee.
“I can take it for you.”
34 Passion to Die For
“You’re married, Sherry,” Ellie reminded her as she rose from
the chair, then took her jacket from the coat tree in the corner.
“But there’s no harm in looking.”
The waitress handed over the bag, and the fragrant aromas of
the day’s special—roasted chicken, dressing, mashed potatoes and
gravy, along with a piece of apple pie—drifted into the air. It was
enough to remind Ellie that she had skipped lunch, and breakfast,
as well. She hadn’t been able to stomach the idea of food.
Not with the sour stenches of fear, bourbon and nicotine that
had gripped her for the past fifteen hours or so.
“I’ll tell Joe you send your regards,” she said as she squeezed
past Sherry and started down the hall.
“Oh, honey,” Sherry murmured behind her. “I want to give
him a whole lot more than that.”
Ellie’s faint smile faded before she reached the door. They’d
had a busy lunch, and one of the staff had called in sick, so she’d
had to pitch in and wait tables. Busy was good; it kept her from
thinking about anything more than the task at hand.
But busy couldn’t last forever, and once the lunch rush was
over, she’d retreated to her office and brooded. She’d faced a
lot of problems in her life, but there had always been solutions.
This one had solutions, too—just none that she could face at
The rain came in steady, small
against her lemon-
yellow slicker until she reached the protection of the awnings
that fronted the other businesses on the block. There she pushed
the hood back and drew in a deep breath of fresh, clean air.
Speaking to the few people she passed on the sidewalk, Ellie
realized with some measure of surprise that she would miss
Copper Lake if she had to leave. She’d tried not to get overly
attached to the town or the people in it.
was a concept,
not a place, and people let you down. From the day she’d come
there, she’d wanted to be able to leave without regret.
Truth was, she
attached. She could own
another dozen restaurants, and none of them would mean the
same as the deli. She could make a hundred new friends, but
they would never replace Anamaria and Jamie, the Calloways,
Carmen and everyone else. She could have a thousand more
affairs, but not one of them—
Grimly she stopped herself midthought as the fragrance of
fresh-roasted coffee drifted into her senses. A Cuppa Joe
occupied the corner lot, a full block from her own place. Ironi-
cally, Joe Saldana hadn’t named the gourmet shop. It was just
coincidence that Joe now owned A Cuppa Joe.
I don’t believe in coincidence.
Scowling at the words she’d heard more than once from
Tommy, she pushed open the plate-glass door and went inside.
Louis Armstrong played softly on the stereo—Joe didn’t listen to
anything recorded after 1960—and coffee scents perfumed the air.
She was halfway across the shop, already anticipating the
first sip of chai tea, when she realized that something was
amiss. Slowing her steps, Ellie glanced over her shoulder, then
came to an abrupt stop and turned.
Martha was sitting at the front table farthest from the door.
A chill shivered through her as she stared at them and they
stared back. There was malice in Martha’s expression, specu-
lation and something more in Tommy’s. A little longing. Maybe
regret. Definitely curiosity.
How had they wound up in the coffee shop together? Had it
been Tommy’s doing, his way of finding out answers she hadn’t
given him the night before? Or had Martha sought him out? Did
she somehow know they’d been involved?
Ellie couldn’t speak, couldn’t move or look away, until Joe’s
voice broke the shock that held her.
“Hey, Ellie. How much do I owe you?”
36 Passion to Die For
Bit by bit, she forced her attention from Tommy and Martha
to Joe, who was sliding his wallet from his hip pocket as he
came out from behind the counter. She tried to remember how
much the lunch special was, but couldn’t. Gratefully, though,
she recognized the ticket nestled atop the foam container in the
plastic bag and pulled it out, handing it over.
“Nina’s getting your tea,” Joe said, offering her a ten-dollar bill
in exchange for the bag. “Why don’t you come on back with me?”
Ellie still felt Tommy’s and Martha’s gazes, though, prickling
down her spine and into her somersaulting stomach as Joe took
her arm, guiding her behind the counter. She numbly went along.
As soon as they reached the rear space that served as both store-
room and office, he closed the door and the prickling went away.
He released her, went to the battered desk and unpacked his
lunch. “So you and Maricci still aren’t friendly.”
She shook her head.
“I doubt you have to worry much about the woman with him.
She’s not his type.”
He was wrong. Martha was the biggest worry in her life.
“Okay, bad joke. What’s wrong? This is hardly the first time
you’ve seen him since…” With typical male tact, he shrugged
instead of finishing.
Since he walked away from you. Since he
gave up on you.
“It’s not that,” she said, and it was only half a lie. She could
handle seeing Tommy. She could even handle seeing him with
Sophy. But with Martha, who hadn’t been satisfied with ruining
her life fifteen years ago? Who’d come to Copper Lake for the
sole purpose of ruining what was left?
“Then what is it?” Joe asked as he cut a generous bite of
“Complicated,” she said with a helpless shrug.
“Sex always is.”
Leave it to a man to boil down her and Tommy’s relation-
ship to its most basic component. If it were only sex, they
would have no problem, because the sex was always good.
“And how’s your sex life?” she asked to change the subject.
“I’m thinking about it.”
She snorted. In the year since he’d come to town, he’d caught
the eye of every available woman—and a few who weren’t. Six
foot four, tanned, muscular, with unruly blond hair and blue eyes,
he could have women lined up around the block.
women lined up the day he’d reopened A Cuppa Joe after remod-
eling. But to the best of her knowledge, he’d never gone out with
any of them. He was friendly, considerate and disinterested.
“How long can a man go without?” she asked.
His forehead wrinkled for a moment, then smoothed. “Eigh-
teen months, two weeks and three days. And counting.”
She gazed at him a long time, while he sampled the mashed
potatoes, dipped a forkful of dressing into the gravy, then cut
another piece of chicken. Finally she shook her head and started
toward the rear wall. “Can I use your back door?”
“You gonna slink back down the alley to the diner? Coward.”
But he gestured toward the door with careless approval.
She let herself out the door with a wave, then stood under-
neath the roof overhang while pulling the slicker hood into
place. Hands shoved into her pockets, she turned left toward
the deli, but after a dozen feet, turned around and headed along
the sidewalk in the other direction instead. Shivering more than
the weather called for, she turned at the next block and headed
aimlessly out of the business district and into a neighborhood
of lovely old homes.
Five years ago Ellie had chosen Copper Lake as her new
home based on only one thing: the two-hundred-year-old
general store turned restaurant turned hot investment property.
Randolph Aiken, her mentor, for lack of a better word, had con-
tacted her in Charleston, where she’d been working for a friend
38 Passion to Die For
of his in a lush, plush, black-tie restaurant and told her about
the space. It would be a great investment, he’d said, for that
money she’d been saving.
When she’d driven through Copper Lake that first time, her
initial thought had been that it was too pretty, too small-town
perfect. She didn’t belong in such a place.
But she hadn’t fit in in Charleston, either, or Atlanta. She
didn’t belong anywhere, so she might as well not belong in
Copper Lake, where she could have her own modest restaurant.
Then something strange had happened along the way. The
town and its people had made a place for her. They’d welcomed
her, befriended her and treated her like any normal person.
Tommy’s welcome had been the sweetest.
A short, sharp tap of a car horn sounded as she was about
to cross a driveway. She drew up short, realizing she’d reached
the Jasmine, one of Copper Lake’s historic gems, as an elegant
gray Mercedes glided to a stop in front of her. The driver rolled
down the window, and both he and the passenger, the inn’s
owners, smiled up at her. “Look at this, Jared. It’s the middle
of the afternoon, and Ellie Chase is out taking a stroll,” Jeffrey
“Let me mark this date on the calendar. I do believe it’s a
first,” Jared Franklin replied.
Ellie couldn’t help but smile at both men. Like her, like Joe
Saldana, they’d come to Copper Lake to make a new start.
Unlike her and Joe, everyone knew the basic facts of their lives.
They were open and unashamed; they had nothing to hide.
“I’m not at the deli
the time,” she protested.
“No, of course not,” Jeffrey agreed. “You have to sleep
“You’re not still sleeping on that couch in your office, are
you?” Jared asked.
“One time. And it was just a nap. I’d worked late the night
before for… What was it? Oh, yeah,
birthday party.” Ironic
that a birthday party for a retired lawyer had turned into the
largest and most boisterous private event the restaurant had ever
hosted. The sheer number of people who’d made the drive from
Atlanta had been astounding—lawyers, judges, criminals.
She’d spent half the night in the kitchen, afraid she would run
into someone who’d known her from before.
That was no way to live, but if she gave in to Martha’s black-
mail demands, she would live the rest of her life just like that.
“Why don’t you let us give you a ride to wherever you’re
going?” Jeffrey asked.
She was about to say no, thanks, when another car ap-
proached. It was black and looked so unlike a police car, she had
once teased, that of course it was. The turn signal was on, the
driver—Tommy, of course—preparing to turn into the Jasmine’s
other entrance, the one that circled around to the small guest
parking area. In the passenger seat, a glimpse of sallow skin and
tufty gray hair proved that Martha was still with him.
It was hard to walk off your problems when they kept
Turning her gaze back to the men, Ellie smiled. “If you’re
not worried that I’ll ruin your upholstery, I would like a ride
back to the deli.”
“Upholstery can be cleaned,” Jeffrey said with a negli-
The electric locks clicked, and she opened the rear door
before either man could get out to do so for her. As she slid onto
the buttery leather seat, the Charger disappeared behind a hedge
of neatly groomed azaleas.
“Do you have a guest named Martha?” she asked, striving
for a conversational tone as the Mercedes began moving again.
Jared’s nose twitched subtly. “Yes, we do.”
40 Passion to Die For
“She came to the restaurant last night. Wow. I couldn’t afford
to stay at your place unless you hired me as the live-in help. I
guess appearances really can be deceiving.”
Jeffrey ignored Jared’s snort. “She has money. We have
rooms. And you know, we’d always cut you a deal, Ellie. You’re
our favorite restaurant owner in town.”
“She has money, all right,” Jared said. “She paid for a week
from a thick stack of hundred-dollar bills. Said she’d never
stayed in a place quite so fancy.” He put a twang on the last few
words that should have made Ellie smile, but didn’t.
Where had Martha gotten a stack of hundred-dollar bills?
Had Oliver had life insurance enough for her to bury him, pay
her usual bills and allow her to splurge on a two-hundred-
dollar-a-night bed-and-breakfast? Maybe she hadn’t wasted
any money on a burial. After all, he was no use to her dead.
Just as her daughter had been no use to her.
It didn’t make sense. If Martha needed money—and she
must; how else would she survive with her aversion to work?—
why wasn’t she staying at the Riverview Motel? One night at
the Jasmine would cover nearly a week at the Riverview.
Thinking about it made her head hurt. Thinking about
Martha with Tommy made it hurt worse.
Staring out the window, she listened to Jeffrey and Jared’s
idle chatter until they reached the restaurant. She thanked them
for the ride and climbed out into heavier rain.
“Next time you need a break from work, come on over,”
Jared invited. “I’ll fix you my special Long Island iced tea, and
we’ll dish on
the guests. I could tell you things…”
Politely she said she would, then hurried along the sidewalk
and up the steps to the porch. As she shrugged out of her slicker,
she remembered that she’d forgotten to pick up her chai tea at
A Cuppa Joe.
Too bad. She could have used it.
Tommy didn’t feel guilty for taking care of personal matters
on department time. He put in way more than his forty hours
a week, routinely getting called out too early in the morning
and too late at night, to say nothing of spending more than a
fair amount of his evenings writing and reading reports, study-
ing notes and trying to figure out why people did the things they
The rain had stopped after he’d dropped Martha Dempsey
off at the Jasmine, and now the sun was making a so-so stab at
breaking through the clouds in the western sky. Finding no
space on the square, he parked in Robbie’s law office lot and
jogged across the street, careful not to spill the still-warm chai
tea in the cup he carried.
Ellie’s Deli sat fifteen feet back from the sidewalk, the path
to the steps flanked on both sides with beds of yellow and
purple pansies. Those had been his mother’s favorite flowers,
back in the days when she’d found the energy to plant anything
at all, and his father had continued to plant them for years. The
autumn he’d stopped, Tommy thought, was when he’d finally
accepted that Lilah wasn’t coming back.
By then, she’d been gone for eleven years.
Like father, like son. Mooning endlessly over women who
didn’t want them.
The main dining room was empty except for a half dozen
girls gathered in one corner wearing the uniform of Copper
Lake High School cheerleaders, and a waitress, poring over a
textbook while waiting for something to do.
“Is Ellie here?”
The waitress, a high school student herself, nodded before
a burst of laughter drew her gaze, a bit longing, to the girls. It
wasn’t fun, Tommy would bet, having to wait on the cool kids.
Thanks to his friendship with Robbie, he’d been one of the cool
42 Passion to Die For
kids in school, for all the difference it made. Some of them had
gone on to achieve a lot; some of them were regular visitors at
the Copper Lake Correctional Facility.
“She’s in her office,” the girl said. “I’ll get her—”
“That’s okay. I know the way.” He passed through the main
dining room, past the bathrooms and the bar, dimly lit for now,
until the evening bartender came on at five, then stopped at the
next door. For more than four years, he’d been in the habit of
walking right in, without a knock or warning. But such famil-
iarity didn’t seem appropriate at the moment.
Then his jaw tightened. How had his life come to this, that
familiarity with the one woman he knew better than himself
He rapped at the door, sharper than he’d intended to, and a
quiet invitation followed. “Come in.”
He could do the polite thing: give the tea to the girl up front
and let her deliver it. Or the smart thing: toss the cup in the
nearest trash can and beat it out the back door. But he didn’t
stand a chance trying to find out what he wanted to know by
being polite, and he couldn’t spend even a moment with her if
he slipped out the back door the way she had earlier. So he
twisted the knob, let himself in and closed the door behind him.
Ellie was a hands-on manager, chatting with the guests, refill-
ing drinks, clearing tables, delivering food and even, on a regular
basis, rolling up her sleeves in the kitchen. She knew every job as
well as her employees and was energetic enough that she could
run the place sans two or three of them without showing the strain.
This afternoon, as she sat alone in her office, doing nothing,
the strain showed.
He set the chai tea on the middle of the desk pad, nudged
the visitor chair with one boot toe, then took a few steps back
to lean instead against a narrow oak table that butted up to the
wall. “Nina said you forgot that.”
She didn’t touch the cup. “She could have delivered it herself
or just thrown it away.”
“She was too busy.” Joe’s was a popular place after school,
with its wireless Internet connections and doctored drinks that
tasted more like dessert than coffee. Besides, Tommy hadn’t
given her much of a chance.
She left without her tea,
complained, and he’d been quick to respond.
I’ll take it to her.
Martha Dempsey had given him a look, part slyness, part
meanness and part curiosity. He’d ignored her. Though ignoring
Martha Dempsey too often, he figured, was the express route
Ellie looked at it a moment as if she might do what he
hadn’t: throw it away. She even picked it up and started to turn
to the side, but the wisps of steam drifting up from the small
hole in the lid were rich with cinnamon and cloves. Instead of
completing the move toward the wastebasket behind her desk,
she lifted the cover, wrapped both hands around the still-warm
cup and breathed deeply. After taking a tentative sip, then a
long, savoring drink, she grudgingly said, “Thank you.”
He watched her, taking far too much pleasure in her pleasure,
growing warm inside his jacket, remembering not long ago
when he would have made some suggestive comment, when she
would have responded with suggestiveness of her own. Back
when they were together. When he’d thought they had a chance.
He waited until she lowered the cup again to remark, “You
saw that I had coffee with Martha Dempsey.”
Darkness eased into Ellie’s features—nothing so obvious
as a scowl, just a subtle displeasure, dislike, distrust. If he
didn’t know her so well, he probably would have missed it.
“Your idea or hers?”
“Mine. I’m a cop, Ellie. I get answers one way or another.”
“And what answers are you looking for about her?”
“She’s new in town. She looks like she doesn’t have a dime,
44 Passion to Die For
but she’s staying at the Jasmine. And just the sight of her upsets
you.” He shrugged. “All that makes me curious.”
“You could mind your own business.”
Though she was totally serious, he laughed. “I haven’t
minded my own business since I was five years old. That’s why
I became a cop in the first place.” He’d always wanted answers,
and if he didn’t get them the usual way, he found them another.
“Martha said she hasn’t seen you since you were a teenager.
That her coming to Copper Lake and finding you here is a
When neither comment drew a response from her, Tommy
fired off a third one, embellished for effect. “She said she’s
looking forward to living out her life here, close to you.”
Something flashed in Ellie’s eyes, and a muscle convulsed
in her jaw with the effort to keep her mouth shut, but she suc-
ceeded. After a moment, with a faintly strangled quality to her
voice, she replied, “It’s a free country. She can move wherever
“Why wouldn’t you want her here?”
“Why would I? I hardly know the woman, and I have no
desire to get to know her better.”
“Where do you know her from?”
A heavy silence developed as Ellie studied him. Her chin
was lifted, the soft swing of her pale hair brushing the delicate
skin there. Her heart rate had settled to its usual throb, visible
at the base of her throat, and her features looked as if they had
been carved from ice.
Finally she rose from the desk, circling to the front, mimick-
ing his pose. Her hips rested against the worn oak, her ankles
crossed, her fingers still cradling the tea. “She’s from my
father’s past,” she said flatly. “Not mine.”
Maybe two yards of dull pine separated their feet. As relaxed
as she looked, it should be an easy thing to push away from the
table and reach her before she could think about retreating. But
her ease was deceptive. If he so much as breathed deeply, she
would be an instant from fleeing.
In five years she hadn’t talked a lot about her parents. Her
upbringing had been boringly conventional. Mother, father and
only child, blue house not far from the beach, across the Cooper
River from Charleston. Mother had died in a car wreck eight
or ten years ago, father soon after of a heart attack. Normal life.
No unusual traumas, no major dramas.
And he’d had no reason to doubt her. For every person who
found comfort in talking about times that were past and people
who were gone, there was one who found it tough. Some
memories were better kept to oneself.
She’s from my father’s past.
Some hurts, like a father’s betrayal of a mother, were
Silence settled, as if one confidence was all she had in her. He
wished he could close that six-foot distance, earn another secret
or even just a moment being silent together. Six months ago he
could have held her, and she would have let him. Let him, but not
opened to him. There had always been distance between them,
that had pushed them apart time after time, that had caused him
to finally give her an ultimatum: commit or end it. All or nothing.
Saying “I want everything” was a hell of a lot easier than
living with nothing.
“Well…” They both spoke at once, both broke off at once.
Ellie moved away from the desk. “I’ve got things to do….”
“Yeah. Me, too.” Still, it took an effort for him to move. He
wished she would walk past him and into the hall. Not too close.
Just enough that her clothing would brush his, that her perfume
would tickle his nose.
She didn’t, though, instead returning to her desk, focusing her
attention on the paperwork there. Grimly, he walked out.
hen Ellie walked onto the porch Friday afternoon, the sun
was shining, making it warm enough for short sleeves. After
the previous day’s rain, everything downtown had a fresh, clean
look to it: the color of the flowers brighter, the contrast against
the grass sharper, the smells of sawn wood richer and earthier.
The news reports called for good weather through the weekend,
with an appropriate fall crackle in the air on Saturday for the
Copper Lake Halloween Festival.
The sound of rhythmic hammering came from the square
where a half-dozen teams of volunteers were building the
booths for the festival. Most of the local restaurants sponsored
a booth; Ellie’s was a prime corner section, directly across the
street from the deli. There would also be the usual carnival-type
food—funnel cakes, Sno-Cones, deep-fried everything—and
simple old-fashioned games like bobbing for apples and
musical chairs. There would be costume parades across the
front veranda of River’s Edge, the grand Greek Revival plan-
tation home on the southeast side of the square, and a band
would set up in the gazebo.
A lot of good fun for kids and their families and people who
had dates, she thought sourly.
A sleek vintage Corvette pulled to the curb at the end of the
walk, top down in deference to the weather. Her hair tied back
with a red print scarf, Anamaria looked exotic and sexy as usual.
She was a beautiful woman, and deeply in love with her husband.
Those Calloway boys—and their wives—had all the luck.
Ellie slid into the passenger seat. “I thought you didn’t like
to drive the ’Vette.”
“Oh, I like to,” Anamaria replied breezily. “I just don’t like
Robbie to know.”
Robbie was inordinately proud of the vehicle he’d bought
as little more than a rusted heap and rebuilt from the ground
up. Since his marriage to Anamaria, it had been a sore point
that she preferred to drive her nothing-special Honda over his
“Besides,” Anamaria said, resting one hand lightly on the
swelling of her stomach, “I figure if I want to drive it, I’d better
do it before Gloriane gets too big.”
Ellie’s gaze dropped to Anamaria’s belly; then she pointedly
looked away. She never thought about having children. Never.
It was safer that way. Well, except when she saw an expectant
mother or a sweet, innocent infant. Or when she watched Russ
and Jamie fussing over two-month-old Sara Elizabeth. Or noticed
how solicitous Robbie was of Anamaria. Or let her defenses
down and remembered back to when she was a child herself and
for such a very short time, things had seemed…hopeful.
For a moment she closed her eyes, grinding her teeth, shoring
up that little bit of weakness around her heart. When Anamaria’s
hand settled on her arm, it startled her eyes open again.
48 Passion to Die For
“Are you all right?”
It was such an easy question to lie to. She’d been doing it
for years—smiling, tossing off an airy
. Truthfully, for
a good portion of the past five years, she
been fine. She’d
had more in her life—a career, a home, a good man and dear
friends—than she’d ever dreamed of.
Now, thanks to Martha, it was hard to imagine that anything
would ever be
Still, she managed an uneven smile. “I’m fine. How is
Anamaria clearly recognized the question for the evasive tactic
it was, but let it slide. “She’s great. The doctors say she’s got the
heart of a woman half her age.” After a pause, she went on with
a sly smile. “And Mama Odette says she’s not giving it back.”
Ellie laughed in the moment before her thoughts took a mel-
ancholy turn. Anamaria had never known her father, and her
mother had died when she was a little girl. But she’d had an
amazing family welcoming her with open arms—her grand-
mother, Odette; her aunts and their daughters; Odette’s sisters
and their daughters. Dozens of strong, smart and loving
Duquesne women gathering her in.
And Ellie had had her mother and her father, neither of
whom had wanted kids in the first place. Her paternal grand-
mother had been a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking old
woman who’d scared the wits out of Ellie every chance she got,
and her maternal grandparents had never been a part of her life.
She’d had aunts and uncles but could hardly remember them,
had cousins but had never known them.
It wasn’t fair—all those people who’d loved Anamaria, and
not even one who’d wanted Ellie.
Life ain’t fair,
Martha had often said as she’d unscrewed the
cap from yet another bottle of booze.
of the turn signal penetrated Ellie’s thoughts, and
she looked up to see that they’d reached the mall. It was small,
but it offered a lot, including their reason for coming there. In
a small first-level storefront was the Seasonal Store. If you
celebrated a holiday, any holiday, the Seasonal Store was the
place to shop. Right now the front half was filled with all things
Halloween, while in the rear, Christmas was encroaching on the
space allocated to Thanksgiving.
“You shouldn’t have put off buying your costume for so
long,” Anamaria admonished as they wound through the racks.
“There’s not a lot left for adults.”
“Are you dressing up?” It had taken Ellie’s staff three years
to nag her into joining them among the ranks of the costumed.
She’d had fun. She’d felt free. She had looked forward to
repeating it this year…until things had changed.
“Of course I am,”Anamaria replied, then added drama to her
voice. “I’m going as the great Queen Moon, who knows all,
hears all and sees all, but doesn’t tell all for less than a gold
doubloon.” She took a costume from the rack, studied it a
moment, then returned it to pick up a different garment. “There
really was a Moon in our family—she was Mama Odette’s
great-grandmother—and her faithful believers really did call her
Queen. Who knows? Maybe I’ll channel her Saturday night.”
Psychic gifts ran strong in the Duquesne family. It had made
Ellie wary when she’d first met Anamaria. Could Anamaria see
things that no one else could? she’d wondered. Would she give
away secrets Ellie had so stubbornly kept?
The answers, the last six months had determined: seeing
secrets? Probably. Sharing them? Definitely not.
“How about this?”
Ellie turned away from a moldy-looking corpse outfit to
find Anamaria holding a full black skirt. She lifted one flirty
strip of nearly transparent fabric, then let it flutter down again.
“Just a skirt?”
50 Passion to Die For
“I have a white peasant top you can borrow and a burgundy
velvet shawl with fringe. And some black knee boots, a scarf
to tie over your hair, maybe a long wig and voilà.”
“Voilà what?” Ellie asked drily. “Serving wench? Pirate lady?”
“Depending on how low we can get the neck of the blouse,
maybe pirate’s lady friend,” Anamaria teased.
“I think she was closer the first time with wench,” a voice
said from behind Ellie. “After all, isn’t that just an old-fashioned
way of saying whore?”
Ellie restrained the impulse to whirl around. She didn’t need
to look to know it was Martha who had spoken, didn’t need to
give her the satisfaction of knowing she’d caught Ellie off-guard.
Anamaria gave Martha a long, level look, then took hold of
Ellie’s arm. “Let’s find a wig.”
Ellie’s feet automatically followed Anamaria’s lead, but
Martha wasn’t about to be ignored.
“You’re that psychic girl that’s married to the youngest
Calloway boy, aren’t you? Man, you must have put some
mighty good voodoo on him, getting him to marry you, what
with him being rich and white and you being neither.” Martha
fluffed her hair and smiled broadly. “What does your psychic
gift say about me?”
“Just ignore her,” Ellie said, but Anamaria wasn’t listening.
She walked in a slow circle around Martha. “Your whole life,
you’ve cared for no one but yourself. You’ve disappointed and
hurt all those who should have mattered to you. But there’s still
time to change. You can’t undo the past, but you can change
Martha’s eyes widened for an instant; then her laughter
sounded, loud and coarse. “I surely do intend to change my
future. Wow, you really must be psychic or something. Don’t
you think, Ellie?”
Ellie’s face was hot, her stomach knotted. She wanted to
stick her fingers in her ears so she would never have to hear that
voice or that laughter again, wanted to scrub her eyes with her
knuckles to chase away the sight of that smug, vicious face. But
she would never be free of Martha now that the woman had
tracked her down, so running was next on her list of desires.
She’d even taken a step back when Martha’s gaze shifted past
her, and the woman gave a friendly wave.
“There’s Reverend Fitzgerald’s wife, Kayla. Such a nice
girl. We met at the church this morning—I dropped in for a little
meditation time—and she invited me to go shopping with her.
She needs a birthday gift for her mother-in-law, who’s about
my age. Thanks for the advice, Anamaria. And, Ellie—” her
blue gaze sharpened “—I’ll be seeing you around.”
Ellie wondered if Anamaria heard the threat in those last
words as clearly as she did. Martha was doing a very good job
of insinuating herself into the lives of Ellie’s friends. They
were nice people; they’d never suspect her of having an ulterior
motive. And once she’d weaseled her way in, how much easier
would it be for her to convince them of the truth of her tales
about Ellie? She would paint herself the victim, the loving
mother who had tried so desperately to help her out-of-control
daughter, and people would have no choice but to believe her.
And she had proof.
Once Martha exited into the mall, the air inside the shop
became easier to breathe. Ellie took a cleansing breath, chasing
away the last of the cigarette and booze odor, and found
Anamaria studying her somberly, her dark eyes troubled.
“Who is she, Ellie?”
Numbly she shook her head, then dug some nonchalance
from deep inside. “Just some wacko who seems to have fixated
on me. No big deal.”
“As I recall, the last wacko in town who fixated on someone
tried to kill both my brother- and sister-in-law. The Calloway
52 Passion to Die For
family in general and Russ and Jamie in particular considered
it a very big deal.”
“This woman’s not violent.” Not beyond a slap now and
then. The occasional physical violence had been easier to
endure than Martha’s relentlessly cold treatment. Bruises
healed. Emotional scars didn’t.
“That’s what they thought about Lys Paxton until she started
trying to kill people.”
Ellie moved past displays of candy, spiders and webs,
camouflage face paint and long fake fingernails in deep purple,
black and bloodred, and Anamaria followed. “Martha Dempsey
is many things,” she said, shooting for a breezy tone, “but she’s
not a killer.”
“What is she to you?”
“A blast from the past. How’s this?” Stopping in front of a
selection of cheap wigs, Ellie picked up one from the top row
and clamped it onto her head. The mirror next to the display
showed a fringe of brow-brushing bangs and a straight fall of
silken strands that ended past her shoulders. The jet-black hue
gave her skin a sickly blue tinge.
“Unless you’re going as a wench of the undead, that is so
not your color,” Anamaria teased. “Try this.”
She handed over another long wig, this one dark copper and
curly. The color wasn’t as surprising a contrast as the black wig,
but it was different enough to be fun. She pulled it off again and
combed her fingers through her own blond hair. “Let me pay for
this and the skirt, then let’s get out of here.” She didn’t want to
run into Martha again and certainly didn’t want to be reminded
how easily the woman was finding welcome in Ellie’s own town.
She’d checked out and they were walking back through the
mall to the entrance when a laugh echoed across the space. She
tried to ignore it, but her gaze traveled that direction anyway,
to the few occupied tables at the sidewalk café that fronted the
fountain. Kayla Fitzgerald sat at one, her smile serene, and
Martha sat to her left. At the next table, chairs turned for easier
conversation, were Sara Calloway and Jack Greyson, the man
she old-fashionedly referred to as her beau.
A chill swept over Ellie. Kayla was the pastor’s wife; she
had to be nice to strangers. But Sara was Anamaria’s mother-
in-law. More important, she was the closest thing to a mother
Tommy had ever had.
She’s taunting you,
a voice in Ellie’s head whispered.
saying, “Look how easily I can get to them, and there’s only
one way you can stop me.”
Only one way to Martha’s way of thinking: give her money
and trust her to go away…until the money ran out and she
needed more. Ellie could give her everything and still never buy
If there was just some way to get rid of her for good…
Get rid of her.
The words echoed across the years, hurtful,
yet another betrayal to a girl who’d already experienced too
many. They slowed her steps until she was hardly moving.
Ellie didn’t have a clue how to manipulate and control
people, but she knew someone who did. Part of Randolph
Aiken’s duties as lawyer to his respectable and influential Old
South family had involved persuading people who might prove
cause for embarrassment to disappear, to keep their distance
from and their silence about the family.
People like Ellie.
She didn’t know if Randolph had taken a liking to all the
people he threatened on behalf of the Aikens, but his attitude
toward her had always been somewhat paternal. He’d given her
advice, stayed in touch with her long after she’d expected him
to vanish, had helped her move to Charleston and put her life
back together. It was his contacts that had gotten her her first job,
his assistance that had led to her owning her own restaurant.
54 Passion to Die For
He would surely have some suggestion for what to do
“Ellie? Are you coming?”
The sound of Anamaria’s voice made her blink. While she’d
come to a complete stop, Anamaria had reached the double glass
doors ahead and was holding one open, watching her curiously.
Ellie hastily moved forward, sweeping through the door,
then held the outer door in turn. “I’m all right,” she said before
Anamaria could ask. “I really am.”
And for the first time since she’d seen Martha standing on
the deli’s porch, she somewhat believed it.
Every year Tommy took off work on the Friday before the Hal-
loween festival, trading his badge and pistol for a hammer and
nails, and this year was no exception. Sara Calloway chaired the
committee in charge of the festival, and she knew she could always
count on her boys—a designation that included him—to work.
He was helping Robbie and Russ knock together the last of
the booths when he heard a familiar rumble. He wasn’t as into
old cars as the Calloways—he drove a three-year-old SUV off
the job and it suited him fine—but he’d spent enough time helping
them work on their vehicles to recognize the ’Vette’s engine.
Balancing on the ladder, he turned to look. The ’Vette was
too flashy to miss, especially on a nice day with the top down
and two gorgeous women inside. Catching sight of her husband,
Anamaria waved that fake beauty-queen-in-a-parade wave, but
Ellie, in the passenger seat, didn’t seem to notice anything. She
was staring off into the distance, her expression somber.
“You hanging out with Sophy tomorrow night?”
Tommy forced his gaze away from the ’Vette and hammered
in a nail with enough force to shake the entire framework. “We
haven’t talked about it.”
Everyone on the department would be working, either in
uniform and patrol car or on foot, at the festival. Not that there
was ever much trouble, but Tommy was in no position to argue
with the chief.
But working didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the festival. He
didn’t have to actually patrol—just hang out, have a good time
and be available if something happened. He could ask Sophy
to go with him, have dinner with her, dance with her in the grass
around the gazebo.
Or he could go alone, stake out a place in the shadows and
watch Ellie as she worked the deli booth.
Admitting which option sounded more appealing was pathetic.
“You can always ask Ellie,” Russ said.
Tommy shot him a venomous glare that Russ just shrugged
off. “You guys have broken up a half-dozen times, but you
always get back together. What are you waiting for? Quit
driving everyone nuts and settle this.”
“Don’t take advice from an idiot,” Robbie said. “Remember,
this is the man who took six years—and a wife—before getting
back together with Jamie.”
Russ sent an obscene gesture his brother’s way. “So I know
what I’m talking about. Six years is a hell of a long time to
waste. So is six months.”
Tommy finished securing his end of the frame, then climbed
down the ladder. Russ was right about that. But getting back
together…it just wasn’t that easy. Before he’d called it quits
with Ellie the last time, he’d talked to his father and grandfather
about it. The two men had raised him after his mother left; they
His father had asked one question:
Are you happier with her
or without her?
To him, it was that simple. Despite his wife’s
problems, Phil had been happier with Lilah than without. He
would have continued to track her down when she was out
drinking and take her home, to overlook her highs and deal with
56 Passion to Die For
her lows, to take care of her
Tommy, to be the responsible
one in the family. It wasn’t perfect, but it had been better than
not knowing where she was, what she was doing, whether she
was even alive.
But Pops had understood that Tommy couldn’t settle for that.
He understood the value of commitment. He’d had the comfort
of knowing that Gran had always loved him every bit as much
as he’d loved her.
Tommy wasn’t sure Lilah had been capable of loving anyone.
Just as he was convinced that Ellie was.
Though he didn’t have a clue whether it could be him.
The brothers went on working, bickering as they tended to
do. The days were mostly gone when they settled their disputes
with punches or smacks. They still stuck together, though. Like
ticks on a deer, their granddad Calloway used to say, and
Tommy had been lucky enough to be one of those ticks, along
with their half brother, Mitch Lassiter.
But they were all married now. Mitch, the second in line, had
two daughters, and oldest brother Rick and his wife were
expecting a daughter within the month. Russ had Sara Eliza-
beth, and even baby brother Robbie would soon have Gloriane.
And Tommy couldn’t settle for what Ellie was willing to
give, and didn’t want what any other woman might give.
It was a hell of a place to be in.
They finished the last booth shortly before five. It was up to
the participants to decorate them in time for the 6:00 p.m. start
of the festival Saturday evening. Last year he’d helped hang crepe
paper and streamers from the deli’s booth and had learned the fine
art of fake spiderwebs. Boiling cauldrons had lined the counter,
and the staff, dressed as wicked—or wicked-sexy—witches, had
put a nicely ghoulish touch on things. And after the festival—
Shaking away the memories, Tommy helped pack away the
tools and load them into the bed of a Calloway Construction
truck. Russ headed home to see his wife and daughter, and
Robbie left, too, planning to meet up with Anamaria for an early
dinner at the country club with Sara and Jack.
Tommy picked up a scrap of lumber they’d overlooked and
tossed it in a trash can, then hesitated. It was barely a block in
one direction to Sophy’s shop, a little less in the other to his SUV
in Robbie’s office lot. He could ask Sophy to have dinner with
him, or eat alone and watch the History Channel—probably the
same plans both his dad and Pops had for the evening.
Or he could…how had Russ put it?
with Ellie. Lit-
. For less than he wanted, less than he needed.
He was lonely, but he wasn’t desperate. Yet.
Still, as he walked along the sidewalk toward River Road,
something just steered him into a right turn through the gate
that led to the deli. Something kept him moving along the path,
up the steps and across the porch. Just hunger, he told himself
as he stepped inside. A craving for a bowl of their prize-winning
potato-broccoli-cheese soup and a roast beef sandwich on
Carmen was leaning against the wall, talking with two
other servers. The early birds would start arriving within the
next half hour, followed by the usual Friday evening crowd,
but for the moment business was slow. She pushed away from
the wall and met him near the glass counter that displayed an
assortment of cheesecakes and pies. “She’s in her office,” she
said without a greeting.
He blinked. For the better part of five years, it had been routine
for him to come in most nights, for Carmen to say, “She’s in her
office,” or the kitchen or the bar, and for him to go wherever. Six
months, and the comment had still been second nature for her.
He hesitated before saying, “I, uh, want an order to go.”
Carmen flushed as she pulled an order pad from her apron
pocket. “Oh. Yeah, sure.”
58 Passion to Die For
He rattled off his order, adding a slice of carrot cake, and
Carmen went to the kitchen. Aware of the other waitresses
watching him and whispering, Tommy shoved his hands in his
pockets and turned to study a painting on the wall.
A moment later, he felt the change in the air as the two wait-
resses left the dining room. His nerves damn near humming,
Tommy crossed to the broad hallway that led to the bar, the
kitchen and the rear dining room. The aroma of barbecue drifted
on the air as he kept walking to the end of the hall where a
window looked out on the kitchen garden. He could see Ellie’s
VW Beetle in the parking lot beyond, a flash of lime-green
directly beneath the one pole light.
He turned back restlessly, retracing his steps. When he came
even with the oak door marked Office, he stopped, went on,
then pivoted and returned. He was standing just inches from the
door, knowing it would be stupid to knock, clenching his hand
at his side to keep from doing it anyway, when her voice carried
through the wood.
“Hi, this is Ellie Chase again. Would you please ask Mr.
Aiken to call me as soon as he can? He has my numbers. Please
tell him that it’s really—” a sound interrupted, sort of a choked
cough, and her voice lowered “—really important. Thanks.”
He continued to stare at the door after the phone call ended.
Who was Mr. Aiken, and what was important enough to bring
that stressed tone to her voice?
Whatever the answers, there was one simple truth: it was
none of his business.
Scowling, he walked away from the door.
“Halloween is trouble enough at home,” Carmen grum-
bled. “I don’t know why we have to make more work for our-
selves at work.”
Ellie ignored her friend’s grumbling. Carmen was a com-
plainer by nature, and having five kids didn’t help. Easter, the
Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas were all trouble
enough at home, according to her. She didn’t realize how lucky
she was to have those kids and a home and a husband, and Ellie
knew if she pointed it out, Carmen would snort and say,
one of ’em, or two or all of ’em—please.
It was two o’clock on a sunny Saturday afternoon, only four
hours from the trick-or-treat parade for candy that would kick
off the festival. One of the waitresses was in the deli, filling
huge plastic cauldrons with so much candy that it would take
two people to move them to the porch, and everyone else who
could be spared from waiting on the usual Saturday customers
was helping out in the kitchen or with the booth.
Which was coming along very nicely. Ellie stepped back a few
feet to survey their efforts. The plywood frame was enclosed with
black vinyl, orange streamers fluttering from the top and from the
counter that ran along two sides. Spiderwebs, with large black
spiders anchored on them, stretched from corner to corner, and
fake tombstones leaned precariously against the posts. Large glass
jars lined the short end of the counter, filled with fake eyeballs,
ghostly-looking fingers and hands and a decapitated head that was
ghastly green, its white hair floating gently in the liquid inside.
. Ellie liked it.
“Reliving your childhood, I see.”
Stiffening, she slowly turned to Martha, standing a few yards
away with a foam cup from A Cuppa Joe in hand.
“My childhood?” she repeated. “You mean, the House of
“Poor thing. You had it so tough, didn’t you? At least in your
version of things. The truth of it was, your life was pretty cushy.”
Ellie checked to see if anyone was near enough to hear, but
Carmen and the others had returned to the deli. “Cushy?” she
60 Passion to Die For
“You had a roof over your head, food to eat and clothes on
your back. What more could a kid ask for?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Support. Trust. Affection. God forbid,
maybe a little love.”
Typical of Martha, she focused on only part of Ellie’s
answer. “Trust? You mean believing your lies? Ignoring when
you got into trouble? Ignoring what the police and everyone
said about you?”
“I told you the truth.”
Martha shrugged as if disagreeing about nothing more
important than the weather. “You lied. You whined. You com-
plained. You were an ungrateful brat who was never satisfied
with everything your father and I did for you.”
Ellie stared at her before shaking her head in disbelief.
Martha had always been good at rewriting history. Oliver hadn’t
cared enough to argue with her, and with little family and few
friends to disagree, her version of events usually stood.
When it became clear that Ellie wasn’t going to rise to the
bait, Martha sipped the coffee. Today she wore jeans and a
short-sleeved plaid cotton shirt with worn loafers. Her hair was
combed and sprayed into place, and she’d even made a stab at
applying makeup. To anyone who didn’t know her, she looked
respectable, normal, like any other middle-aged woman in
But Ellie knew too well that there had never been anything
respectable or normal about Martha.
“Have you given my proposition any thought?”
I haven’t thought of anything else.
But Ellie kept the words
“You really don’t have a choice. You’ve got too much to lose
here.” Opening her arms wide, Martha turned to encompass the
square and, symbolically, the entire town. “These people won’t
even bother to spit on you when they find out the truth. They
won’t come to eat at your fancy restaurant. They won’t want you
at their merchants’ association meetings. It’ll change the way
they feel about you. They might say it won’t, but trust me, it will.
They’ll think less of you. They won’t want you anymore.”
Martha knew how to push Ellie’s buttons, knew her inse-
curities and fears. Hell, she’d created most of them herself.
She’d made Ellie feel unworthy, had told her over and over how
little she had to offer anyone.
And Ellie had always believed her.
She wanted to argue with her now, to insist that her friends
and customers would stand by her. She wanted to believe it
herself, but the only person who’d ever stood by her in any way
was Randolph Aiken, and his support had grown out of his job.
She’d tried to call him the day before, leaving two messages
with his voice mail before finally getting a call back from his
assistant. Randolph was on vacation in Europe, Marie Jensen
had said, and wouldn’t be back for nearly a month. She would
be happy to pass along Ellie’s message the next time he checked
in, probably in a week or so.
Though, Ellie reflected darkly, it had really been too late
from the moment Martha remembered she had a daughter out
there somewhere who might have something to lose.
“I’m not asking for a lot,” Martha went on. “Put my name
on the deed to the house and on the restaurant papers. Give me
keys to both of them and your car. Move my stuff into your
house. Oh, yeah, and the money.” She looked at Ellie, and her
lower lip curled in a sneer. “It’s no more than I deserve for the
life I gave you.”
“If you got what you deserved, you’d be rotting in hell right
now alongside your husband,” Ellie ground out. Her chest was
tight, and she couldn’t draw enough air to ease the panicked
feeling streaking through her. Giving up ownership, even half,
62 Passion to Die For
of her house and business, having to face Martha every morning
and night, listening to her complaints and lies…
It’s no more than I deserve for the life I gave you.
When she was fifteen and desperate, she had begged her
parents for the chance to live with them again. Dear God, now
she couldn’t bear it. She
It was no more than she
deserved for the person she’d become.
“Are you asking for an answer now?” Ellie was so numb
inside that everything felt frozen, her lips barely able to move
to form the words.
“It would be nice. But I’m paid up at the Jasmine for a few more
days, and those two gay guys do know how to spoil their guests.”
Martha drained the last of her drink and tossed the cup toward the
nearest trash can. It hit the rim and bounced to the ground.
“I’ll tell you what, Beth. Pastor Fitzgerald and his wife are
picking me up in the morning for church. You can give me a
ride home, and we’ll shake hands on it then. Then you can have
a day or two to get the house ready for me. Since I’ve already
paid for the Jasmine, I might as well enjoy the whole bit. When
my money runs out there, you can move me into your house.”
Her smile was ugly. “
house. We’ll be together again, just
like a family.”
By the time church was dismissed the next day, Ellie
would be hours away. She would head west, maybe to Califor-
nia or Washington or even Alaska. She would go someplace
where Martha would never find her, would change her name
and appearance and accent so that anyone who did find her
wouldn’t know her.
A sick calm descended over Ellie. She didn’t want to run
away, but it was the only realistic choice.
Numbly she walked to the trash can, picked up the coffee
cup and dropped it inside before facing Martha again. “All
right. Tomorrow, then.”
Despite her earlier certainty—
You really don’t have a
—surprise darted across Martha’s face. Had she thought
Ellie would be more stubborn? Had some truly malicious part
of her hoped Ellie would refuse so Martha could share her
secrets with everyone in town?
“All right,” she echoed after a moment. “See you then,
Not if I see you first.
“Oh, look, there’s my new friend, Louise.” Martha stretched
onto her toes to wave at Louise Wetherby, coming out of the
flower shop across the street. Louise was active in all aspects
of the community and, as owner of the steak house a few blocks
away, one of Ellie’s biggest competitors.
“Louise, let me help you with that,” Martha called, starting
toward her. A few yards away, she turned back and grinned at
Ellie. “Later, little girl.”
Ellie watched her cross the street and take an armload of
flowers from Louise. Then she sought out Carmen, returning
from the deli with an armload of foam cups. “I’ve got to run a
few errands. Do you mind?”
“You’re the boss. Just be back here by six. Don’t leave me
alone with the little hooligans.”
“I won’t.” Instead of cutting through the restaurant, where
someone would surely stop her with some question or problem,
she circled around the building, climbed into her car and drove
away. Her first stop was the bank, where she made a substan-
tial withdrawal from the ATM.
Her second stop was home. The house was quiet and exactly
as she’d left it that morning. She tried to imagine Martha living
there, but everything inside her cringed away from the thought.
In the bedroom—the back room, the one Martha wanted for
herself—Ellie pulled two suitcases from the closet and began
filling them with clothes. It was methodic work: pull garment
64 Passion to Die For
from hanger, shake out, fold neatly, place in suitcase. She con-
centrated on it, refusing to let unwanted thoughts into her mind,
like where she would go, what she would do, how she would live.
She packed her clothes, shoes and makeup. She dumped her
toiletries into a canvas tote bag and her personal papers, along
with an inexpensive photo album, into another; then she walked
slowly through the house.
Two suitcases and two tote bags. Not much to show for
thirty years. But the last time she’d been homeless thanks to
Martha, she’d had far less: the clothes on her back and a great
terror. Now she knew the worst that could happen; she’d lived
through it. Now she had money and job skills. She knew how
to take care of herself.
Her thoughts went to the photo album in the bag. Pictures
of Tommy, Robbie, Russ and Jamie. Holidays with the Mariccis
and the Calloways, day trips from the nursing home with Pops
Maricci. Short vacations she and Tommy had taken together.
She’d never had friends to leave behind. How was she going
to stand that?
The same way she’d stood getting arrested at fifteen when
her supposed best friend slipped her drugs into Ellie’s purse.
The same way she’d stood those days in jail, finding out her
parents had thrown her out, learning how to survive on the
streets of Atlanta, doing what it took to survive.
She was strong. She would turn off her emotions. She would
get through it by sheer force of will. She would leave here, find
a new place, start a new life.
And she would never be vulnerable to anyone again as long
as she lived.
hy aren’t you in costume?”
Tommy looked at Anamaria, gorgeous in a lemon-yellow
top, a bright African-print skirt that swirled around her ankles,
a shawl in another print that should have clashed but didn’t and
enough flashy jewelry to add twenty pounds to her pregnant-
but-slender frame. “Where’s Robbie?”
“Gone to find me some hot cocoa. Where’s your costume?”
“I’m dressed as a detective for the Copper Lake Police
She scowled at his jeans, polo shirt and leather jacket.
“That’s how you dress every day.”
“As a detective. This is my costume.”
She made another face. “Have you seen Ellie?”
Tommy ignored the tightening in his gut. “I assume she’s
somewhere over there.” He gestured in the direction of the deli
and its booth. He’d been at the square since before six o’clock;
66 Passion to Die For
it was now seven forty-five, and he hadn’t yet made it to that
corner. There had been no need. There’d been no trouble, the food
was just as good at this end and the music could be heard all over.
“Have you seen Sophy?”
Tommy shrugged. He’d run into her and Kiki a while earlier,
both dressed like something out of the
. Kiki had
hinted that he and Sophy should dance, and he’d deliberately
ignored the hints until finally they’d moved on, Kiki in a huff,
Sophy quieter. Of course, Sophy was always quieter than
Kiki—so was a cement mixer—but this had been in a bad way.
He didn’t want to hurt her, lead her on or take advantage of her.
He liked her, he really did, but he wished he’d never asked her out.
When Anamaria started to open her mouth again, Tommy
beat her to it. “When Robbie gets back, why don’t you two go
dance while he can still get his arms around you?”
She tossed her black curls, looking regally, primitively
fierce. “Ha. We can still do a lot more than dance.”
“Yeah, but you’re like a sister to me. I don’t want to hear
Unexpectedly, she laid her palm against his cheek. “That’s the
sweetest thing you ever said to me.” Then the touch turned into
a sharp tap. “Go see Ellie. Talk to her. Tell her you’ve been a fool.”
Because he didn’t want to admit how often he wanted to do
just that, he scowled at her. “Why?”
Taking his hand, Anamaria studied his palm a moment,
drawing her fingers featherlight over the lines there. “Because
you belong together. She’s your future. You’re hers. The sooner
you two accept that—”
He drew his hand away. “You’re preaching to the choir,
Anamaria. I’m the one who wanted to get married, have kids
and spend the rest of our lives together, remember? She’s the
one who didn’t.” It hurt to say it aloud, but some things were
supposed to hurt for a while. If they didn’t, there was a problem.
Anamaria’s expression turned sad. “I wish I understood why.”
“You and me both.” He gestured. “Here comes Robbie.”
His buddy was dressed in khaki cargo pants, a plaid shirt,
an olive-drab vest and a khaki fishing hat, with both vest and
hat covered with lures. Tommy recognized the hat and vest as
belonging to Granddad Calloway, who’d taught them both the
fine art of fishing when they were five or six years old. Robbie
hadn’t put on a costume of any sort since the year they were
fifteen, so this must have been Anamaria’s doing. The things a
man would do for the woman he loved…
Anamaria was smiling at her husband in a way that made
Tommy feel like a pervert for watching. They were the least
likely match he’d ever known: an illegitimate mixed-race
fortune-teller and a lazy, white, shallow, aristocratic Southern
lawyer. Stranger, even, than Robbie’s brother Rick, a special
agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and his wife,
whom he’d met while she was dancing in the strip club where
he was working undercover.
But Robbie and Anamaria
a match, and for the long-term.
Tommy loved them—she really was like a sister to him, and
Robbie had been his best bud all their lives—but he envied them.
Suddenly too restless to stand still, Tommy took a few steps
back. “I’m going to take a walk around. I’ll catch you guys later.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and headed toward
River’s Edge. The farther he got from the square, the fewer people
he saw, mostly families carrying worn-out kids to their cars.
At the end of the block, he turned right. Ahead a woman with
two young boys were headed to their car. Both boys were
dressed as ghouls, and they were chanting in unison. “Trick or
treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”
Once they got in the car and drove away, the street was so
quiet Tommy could hear the buzz of the streetlights. The music
sounded more than a block away; so did the murmur of the
68 Passion to Die For
crowd. He felt a hell of a lot more than a block away. He should
cut out—he was only obligated to stay two hours. He should
take some sweets and visit Pops at the nursing home. Every
holiday had been important in Pops’s life—all the big ones, plus
Halloween, Labor Day, Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays,
back when they’d been holidays—and he always got nostalgic,
telling stories that Tommy had heard so many times he could
tell them himself. Still, he always liked hearing them again. He
liked that glimpse into the past, when Pops was younger and
healthier, when Gran had been alive, when his dad was happier
and his mother hadn’t yet lost herself in a bottle.
He turned right at River Road, walking back toward the
square. As he reached it, a group of hooligans and goblins
darted around him on both sides. One of them called back an
apology, and Tommy grinned. He and the Calloway boys had
been hooligans for real when they were growing up, but Sara
had seen to it that, by God, they were polite hooligans. They
were fast on the trouble, even faster on the apologies, and had
always managed to sound sincere. Usually they even had been.
They’d never meant to cause trouble. They’d just wanted to
Once the kids were past, his gaze went automatically to Ellie’s
booth, well lit to show off its creep factor. There were two women
behind the counter, plus another one waiting on customers at the
handful of small tables set up around the booth. All three women
were in costume: wenches all, in low-cut, off-the-shoulder blouses
and long skirts, with wigs and scarves. The shorter, rounder one
was easily identified as Carmen. He wasn’t sure who the other two
were, but he did know neither was Ellie. He would recognize her
even if she was covered head to toe and wearing a full-face mask.
Dodging a couple dancing in the street, he stepped onto the
sidewalk that ran in front of the deli and, as if she’d been
summoned by his thoughts, found himself a half-dozen strides
behind Ellie. She wore a costume similar to her waitresses: a
white blouse, ruffled sleeves pushed off her shoulders, a black
skirt with a long slit, a brightly printed scarf tied around her
waist to emphasize the curve of her hips and soft black boots.
With a black scarf tied around her head like a do-rag taming
the wig, the red curls exploded once free of the fabric, electric
and wild and surprisingly sexy.
A couple of quick steps and he could be beside her, could
Hey, how are you? You look great, want to spend the
night with me?
I miss you, I want to see you again, even if you don’t love
or need me.
I’m happier with you than without you, so I’m giving up—
pride, hope, the future.
Instead of speeding up, he slowed his steps.
Ellie turned through the gate at the deli and was halfway to
the steps when something made her stop short. Turning sharply,
she headed toward the side of the building. Entering the res-
taurant through the kitchen? Avoiding diners she’d have to see
if she used the front entrance?
Not his concern. As she’d told him before, not much about
her was anymore.
He expected to see her disappear around the back. Instead,
she stopped about midpoint, arms folded across her chest, spine
straight, radiating tension. A shorter, stockier figure faced her
from a few feet away.
Martha Dempsey wasn’t in costume. She wore jeans and
run-down loafers, and a plaid shirt collar stuck up over the neck
of a black and orange sweatshirt. She held a foam cup in one
hand, a cigarette in the other.
Curious, Tommy moved into the shadows of a tall evergreen
azalea, one of a half dozen he and Ellie had planted themselves
a few years earlier.
70 Passion to Die For
“—agreed to meet after church tomorrow,” Ellie was saying,
her voice cold. He’d been on the receiving end of that icy
disdain a few times himself. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Martha swayed unsteadily. “You might as well get used to
having me around, Ms. Ellen Chase, ’cause we’re gonna be a
“We were never a family.” More ice, more disdain, accom-
panied by anger.
Oblivious of the emotions, Martha gulped from her cup.
“I’m gonna like living here in Copper Lake. Everybody’s so
friendly and welcoming. And you…well, you’re just gonna
make it all that much better, aren’t you?”
Ellie glared, the light from the streetlamp leaching color
from her. Her face was pale, as unyielding as stone, and her
breathing was shallow, tight. Tommy had seen her angry,
aroused, amused, hot and warm and cold, but never quite so
passionate. Whatever was between her and Martha threatened
her composure, as if she might lose control for the first time in
the five years he’d known her.
“I wish to God you were dead.” Her voice was strained, taut
Strong sentiment, but Martha’s response was a sly smile.
“But I’m not dead. I’ve got a good twenty-five years left, and
I’m gonna spend them with you.”
Even from a distance, Tommy could feel the emotion ratch-
eting through Ellie. Her fingers tightened into fists, and she
opened her mouth as if to argue, clamped it shut and breathed
deeply before speaking again. “I agreed to meet you tomorrow
after church. Until then, get the hell off my property and stay
the hell away from me.”
Quick as a snake striking, Martha’s hand shot out and
smacked sharply against Ellie’s cheek. Tommy was stunned,
more so, it seemed, than Ellie. He left the shadows, covering
the distance between them in a few strides. “What’s going on
here?” he demanded.
Martha’s smile was smug and phony. “Nothing, Detective.
We were just having a little conversation.”
“Are you all right, Ellie?” He studied her in the colorless
light. Her cheek was mottled, her eyes frigid and glittery. A
muscle twitched in her jaw before her lips turned up in the
faintest of smiles.
“I’m fine.” But her voice was distant, her expression detached.
“Like I said, Detective,” Martha butted in, “we were just
Tommy kept his attention on Ellie. He wanted to wrap his arms
around her, to offer her comfort that he knew she wouldn’t accept.
He settled for moving to stand between her and Martha. “Do you
want to file charges against her? I’d be happy to take her in.”
“Charges?” Martha repeated, outraged. “For what?”
“Assault. Public drunkenness. Trespassing.”
“That wasn’t an assault, was it, Ellie? I just gave her a little
pat on the cheek. And I’m not drunk.” Martha grinned crook-
edly. “Believe me, I’ve been drunk before. I know the feeling.
I’ve just had a little sip or two to keep me warm. And as for the
trespassing, I’m sure Ellie would disagree with you on that, too.
We were just talking. No harm, was there, Ellie?”
Tommy shifted his gaze. “Ellie?”
For a moment she looked as if she’d disappeared some-
where inside herself; then she gave a little shake of her head.
“No harm,” she agreed tonelessly. “Martha’s just leaving. I’d
appreciate it if you’d escort her back to the square.”
Before he could protest, Ellie walked off toward the alley.
He turned back to scowl at Martha. “What the hell is going
on between you two?”
She stabbed one finger in his direction. “You are entirely too
suspicious. Ellie and I are old acquaintances starting a new
72 Passion to Die For
friendship. Now, are you going to do like she said and escort
me back to the square?”
“I’d rather throw your ass in jail,” he muttered under his
breath as he gestured for her to lead the way to the street.
She heard him, though. “I’m sure you would. But you know
what, Detective? You and me are going to be friends.”
And Ellie was going to show up at his door after
the restaurant closed, wearing that sexy off-the-shoulder blouse
and the red wig and asking him to take both off.
Hell, he’d do damn near anything to make that happen.
Even become friends with Martha Dempsey.
Trembling, Ellie stopped in the shadows outside the restau-
rant’s back door. Her hands were shaking, and her chest hurt
from the panic that had wrapped itself around her. She should
get in her car and leave right now. Her bags were loaded. She
had everything she was taking with her. She could call the deli
before abandoning her cell phone—she didn’t want friends
calling once they realized she was gone, didn’t want something
as simple as a GPS chip in a phone to track her down. She
could tell the staff she had a headache, or was tired, or
Halloweened-out. They would close up for her. They would tell
her to go home, rest, take care of herself, that they would see
her on Monday.
And by Monday she would be hundreds of miles away.
But when she moved, she went to the door, not the car. She
let herself in, passed the storeroom and walked through the
kitchen, smiling automatically at employees, not slowing until
she reached the bar.
She wasn’t a drinker; growing up with parents who were
could turn a kid off alcohol forever. But it was her last night in
the restaurant, her last night in town, and she’d never even had
a drink in her own bar. Her cheek was throbbing—memory, not
lingering pain—and she was feeling…too much. Too hurt, too
angry, too scared, too bitter, too alone.
She stopped at the bar, and Deryl Markham came over. He
grinned, looking too young to even be in a bar, much less
tending one. “Name your poison, boss.”
She thought of the alcohol-and-cider smell coming off
Martha, and her nose wrinkled.
“Cocoa,” Deryl went on. “The pumpkin spice ale is ice-
cold but selling hot.”
“I’ll have that. I’ll be over there.” She nodded toward a
booth in the corner, sat down, closed her eyes and began
rubbing her temples. Her muscles ached from too much stress,
and she didn’t expect them to relax any time soon.
Opening her eyes, she found an unfamiliar witch standing
beside her table, glass in hand. She set it down, then slid it
toward Ellie. “The waitresses are busy, so I offered to deliver
this for Deryl.”
The woman started to leave, then turned back. “You look like
you could use some company. Mind if I join you?”
I could use a new life, a new past, a new future. But no
But Ellie forced a smile and gestured toward the
The witch detoured to the bar and picked up her own drink,
then slid onto the bench. Her costume was no cheap one-time-
only outfit. The black robes were heavy, made of substantive
fabric, and her hat bore no resemblance to the cheap, floppy
things Ellie and the female staff had worn last year. Her hair,
coarse strands of black heavily mixed with gray, was either real
or a good-quality wig, and her makeup job, complete with
74 Passion to Die For
warts, was outstanding. She could have been a regular at the
diner, a neighbor or the woman who shared her church pew
each Sunday, and Ellie wouldn’t have a clue.
“This town certainly knows how to celebrate,” the witch said
with a careless wave around the room. An ornate ring of braided
silver on her right hand glinted in the light.
Ellie glanced around. Deryl was dressed in an Atlanta Braves
baseball uniform, and the few other customers were also
costumed. “They enjoy it.”
“It’s great for the parents. All the fun of Halloween with
none of the risks.” The woman’s voice was soft, definitely
Southern, but unfamiliar. If Ellie had met her before, it hadn’t
been consequential enough to remember.
Smiling politely and wishing she’d taken the drink to her
office, Ellie picked up the glass and sipped. It was cold, fragrant
with cinnamon and cloves and allspice, but that didn’t hide the
fact that it was ale. Bitter and far too strong a reminder of Martha.
Still, she took another drink. If it would soothe her nerves
and ease the pounding in her head, she would even drink the
icky liquid the green head was floating in at the booth.
Feeling a bit of warmth with the second, longer drink, she
focused on the witch. “Do you live in Copper Lake?” People
from cities thought a town of twenty thousand was so small that
everyone knew everybody else—probably true for Tommy and
Robbie, but not most people. She had her small group of
friends, acquaintances, fellow church members and business
associates, and recognized some other folks, but the majority
of people in town remained strangers to her.
“No, I’m visiting a friend. I don’t know where she’s gotten
off to. We agreed to meet at the bandstand at nine, so I thought
I’d warm up with a drink until then. I’m from Augusta.”
“Nice city.” Ellie took another drink and realized the glass
was half-empty. Was she feeling better? In some ways. Her
teeth weren’t grinding anymore, and she was pretty sure her
head wasn’t going to explode, after all. In fact, she was starting
to feel a little drowsy.
She realized the witch was speaking again, though her voice
seemed to come from farther away than just across the table,
and Ellie had to concentrate on listening.
“—should be going. My friend’s always early, so I don’t want
to give her time to get herself in trouble.” The witch slid to her
feet, her robes rustling around her, and gave an incongruous
wink. “At least, not without me.” In a voice reminiscent of
Wizard of Oz,
she added, “Finish your drink, my pretty, then go
find yourself a handsome rogue and enjoy the rest of the evening.”
“I will,” Ellie said, saluting her with the glass. She wished
she could take the woman’s advice. Wished there was a
handsome man in her life. Wished there was
man in her life.
No, she didn’t, she amended as she watched the witch leave,
then took another swallow. Men had been the source of much
of her heartache. There had been too many, starting with her
father and ending with Tommy. But it wasn’t fair to lump
Tommy in with the others. He was a good guy, possibly only
the second she’d ever met. All he’d ever wanted was her—for
her to trust him, love him, marry him, have babies with him.
No matter how much she wanted it, too.
Suddenly unbearably tired, Ellie got to her feet, swaying a
bit. She set the glass down, then her retreating fingers spilled
it onto its side, ale splashing her skirt, puddling on the table.
Grimacing, she swallowed the last bit, then headed for the bar.
“Can I get a towel, Deryl? I spilled my drink over there.”
“I’ll get it, boss,” he replied, and she gratefully nodded.
Her office was far enough away from the front of the res-
taurant to mute the sounds of the ongoing celebration. The air
was warm inside, smelling of the potpourri in a dish on her
76 Passion to Die For
desk, and the space was dark. Welcoming. She reached for the
light switch beside the door but missed, her hand brushing
brick instead. She was so tired…
Ellie pushed the door shut, leaning against it for a moment,
rubbing her cheek. When Tommy had intervened outside and
she’d realized that he’d witnessed Martha slapping her—hardly
the first time, but for damn sure the last—she’d been filled with
shame and anger and hatred.
I wish to God you were dead,
said, and she’d meant it.
God help her, she really meant it.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside the door. Staff, cus-
tomers—she neither knew nor cared. Carefully she straightened
and found her legs unsteady. The pumpkin spice ale should come
with a warning: hazardous to your balance. She took a few
cautious steps to reach the couch, sat down, then slowly stretched
out on the cushions. She didn’t have time to waste—so much to
do, so many miles to put between herself and Copper Lake and
Tommy—but her ears felt as if they were filled with cotton, her
body seemed heavy as stone and even in the near darkness, her
vision was blurry. She should have known that ale, stress and a
lack of drinking experience weren’t a good combination.
Just a rest. That was all she needed. A brief nap, time to
recover, and after that she could…
After that she…
She would do something, she thought as she drifted off. She
just had to remember what.
Tommy escorted Martha Dempsey back to the sidewalk and
to the far end of the block. Mostly, that meant holding on to
her arm to keep her upright. She practically ran into a light pole
and apologized profusely to the metal before he dragged her
aside; then she began humming along with the band, a tuneless
sound that drove him nuts in three seconds flat.
“What’s between you and Ellie?” he asked, as much because
he wanted to know as to stop that damned noise.
Martha smiled goofily at him. “Ask me no questions and I’ll
tell you no lies.”
“You make a habit of lying to cops?”
“We all have our lies and secrets. Me, you, Ms. Ellen Chase.”
“Why did you slap her?”
“I saw you.”
Martha’s head lolled to the side and she squinted to bring
him into focus. “That was just a little pat on the cheek, like I
told you. Like she told you.”
All Ellie had said was that she was fine, which she wasn’t.
That there’d been no harm done, which there had been.
Tommy would give a lot to know everything about her and
Martha, but she wasn’t talking, and neither was Martha.
“What are your secrets?” he asked, guiding her around a
cluster of kids comparing the takes in their trick-or-treat bags.
“If I told you that, then they wouldn’t be secrets.” She
smiled, flirtatious in a creepy way. “You tell me one of yours
and I’ll tell you one of mine.”
“How do you know Ellie?”
“That’s no secret. We’ve been family for years.”
“Funny. She was pretty adamant back there that you were
never family. Were you involved with her father?”
Martha stared at him a moment, then started laughing.
Quickly the laugh turned into a hoarse cough that ended in a
sputter, and her gaze narrowed. “Did she tell you that?”
He didn’t answer.
“Well, there’s family, and then there’s
. And there’s
and involved.You’d have to ask her to be more specific.”
When they started to turn onto Oglethorpe Avenue toward
the bed-and-breakfast, she pulled free, swayed and leaned
78 Passion to Die For
against the stop sign for support. “Thanks for the escort, Detec-
tive, but I’m going that way.” She nodded toward the couples
dancing in the street and, on the edges, the folding chairs that
flanked them. Robbie and Anamaria were out there; so were
Russ and Jamie and Sarah and Jack Greyson.
And Sophy. With Joe Saldana.
He wasn’t surprised, and sure as hell not jealous. Mostly…
“No, you’re not.” Tommy whistled sharply, catching the
attention of two officers across the street. When he beckoned,
Pete Petrovski jogged over to join them. “Give her a ride, will
you? She’s got two choices—the Jasmine or the jail until she
sobers up. No place else.”
Pete nodded. “This way, ma’am—”
Martha clasped both hands around the stop sign post and
glared at Tommy. “You don’t want to arrest me. For Ellie’s sake.”
He doubted Ellie could care less whether Martha spent a few
hours in a cell. Unless she meant she would somehow make
Ellie regret it.
would have to make Martha regret ever coming
to Copper Lake.
“It’s your choice,” he said with a shrug. “Sober up in a cell
or in your luxury room at the Jasmine.”
She straightened the best she could, drawing her shoulders back
and leveling a disagreeable gaze on him. “I choose the Jasmine.”
“I thought you would.” He nodded to Petrovski, and the
younger officer took Martha’s arm and led her across the street
to his patrol unit.
Tommy watched until the taillights disappeared in the night,
then walked half a block north before turning down the alley.
He didn’t kid himself that he was going straight to his car, that
he would resist the temptation to go into the deli. He needed
to check on Ellie.
Needed to see that she was all right.
Needed to let her know that he was there if she needed him.
He reached the gravel parking lot behind the deli, barely
large enough for five vehicles, and stopped. Ellie’s usual space,
the one directly underneath the only light, was empty. She was
A drive past her house proved a waste of time. No car in the
driveway, no lights on besides the porch light. Her best friends
in town were Anamaria and Jamie, who were both still at the
festival, so she couldn’t have gone to see them, and she for
damn sure hadn’t gone looking for
She probably was fine, just as she’d said.
Though he’d never felt less
himself as he drove home
to spend the rest of the night alone.
The pounding in Ellie’s head woke her from a sound, if
restless, sleep. She tried to roll over in the bed and practically
fell to the floor, shoving one hand out to catch herself. Puzzled,
she opened one eye, squinting, then the other.
She was on the sofa in her office and, judging by the dim
light leaking in around the blinds at the window, had spent the
night there. Her mouth was dry and her tongue felt twice its
size. Her body ached as if she’d lain in the same position all
night, and her head was throbbing, pounding.
No, the pounding came from elsewhere, loud enough to
make her wince, distant enough that telling where it originated
“All right,” she said impatiently, but the words came out as
little more than a mumble. Even that small movement of her
jaw forming two indistinct syllables was enough to make her
stomach turn, but she gritted her teeth and forced herself to
slowly sit up.
80 Passion to Die For
The room danced before her, the distortion reminding her
of a fun-house mirror. What had she done last night? She’d
worked at the booth in the square, pretended to have a good
time, had a run-in with Martha, seen Tommy and then…
She couldn’t remember. But her mouth tasted like sweat
socks, and she still wore her wench’s costume, even the curly
red wig. Had she gotten drunk? Was this misery a hangover?
Gritting her teeth, she pushed to her feet and swayed
unsteadily. “Dear God, make this go away and I won’t do it again,
I promise,” she whispered, but once again the words lacked voice.
Pulling the wig off and clutching it by a handful of curls, she
stepped out into the restaurant. Sunday was the one day the deli
was closed, and it seemed strange to have the sun up and the
kitchen empty. Strange for her to be there. Stranger still because
she was supposed to be somewhere else, doing something else,
something important. She just couldn’t remember what.
The pounding was an insistent knock at the back door. She
headed into the kitchen, the sound growing louder and more
difficult to bear with each step. At last her fingers, stiff as if
she’d slept with them knotted all night, twisted the lock, and
she pulled the door open.
Tommy stood on the stoop, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, his
jaw unshaven and his hair on end. A few feet behind him was
Kiki Isaacs, fellow detective and best friend to Sophy Mar-
chand. Ellie never had cared much for Kiki, and certainly didn’t
want to see her when she was feeling so whipped.
“Where the hell have you been?” Tommy demanded. “I’ve
been knocking for nearly ten minutes.”
She leaned against the doorjamb for support. “I have a
headache.” The words came out this time, though hoarse and
“A hangover is more like it,” Kiki muttered.
“We need to talk to you.” Tommy moved forward a step.
He looked more serious than Ellie had ever seen him, and
She glanced past him to what she could see of the parking
lot. The Charger was there, parked at the foot of the steps, and
a police car was behind it. When she looked back at him, she
noticed the badge clipped to his belt.
Kiki, the Charger, the badge—he was working. This was an
official police visit. Something had happened. Something bad
that somehow involved her. But what? She hadn’t gone any-
where in the last eighteen hours. Hadn’t done anything.
Didn’t remember anything of the last nine hours.
Numbly she stepped back, moving into the kitchen, stopping
to lean against a stainless-steel counter. Tommy rested his hands
on the same counter from the other side, and Kiki took up
position at the end, between them and the door.
“Did you spend the night here?” Tommy asked.
“I guess so.”
“You guess so?” Kiki sounded scornful. “You don’t know?”
Ellie looked at her a moment, then turned her attention back
to Tommy. “Why? What’s going on?”
“After I saw you last night, where did you go?”
Her eyes closed briefly as she tried to remember. She’d
been on her way from the booth into the restaurant when
Martha had called her into the side yard. They’d talked,
Martha had slapped her and Tommy had stepped out of the
shadows. Where had she gone?
“I came in here,” she said, opening her eyes again. She’d
walked through the kitchen, exchanged smiles with the staff,
gone to the bar, talked to Deryl.
she’d asked him,
and he’d replied,
She hadn’t ordered cider, she was sure of that. Even fer-
mented apple juice couldn’t match the bad taste in her mouth
or cause the throb in her temples.
82 Passion to Die For
“Did you go anywhere else?”
I’ll be over there,
she’d told Deryl. A table in the bar? A
booth? With a drink much more potent than cider. After all, she
couldn’t have a hangover without a stiff drink first.
But she couldn’t remember. Not leaving the bar, not sitting
down, not taking a drink. Not going to her office or passing out
on the couch. Her memory jumped from
I’ll be over there
Tommy’s relentless pounding on the door just moments ago.
she gone anywhere?
“I don’t—I don’t remember. What is this about?”
“Those are the same clothes you had on last night,” Kiki said.
Ellie glanced down. The blouse Anamaria had loaned her was
wrinkled and smelled faintly of fried onions, stale smoke and
liquor. The scarf around her waist was twisted, and the black
skirt looked, well, as if she’d slept in it. Her makeup was surely
worn off or smudged, her cheek was tender and her hair was flat
and limp after so many hours under the wig. Self-consciously
she ran her fingers through it, then wiped under each eye with
her fingertip. She needed a hot shower, a glass of cold water, a
handful of aspirins and clean clothes, not in that order.
Then she needed to get on the road.
was the something
important she’d forgotten: to put as many miles between her
and Copper Lake as she could before anyone realized she was
gone. She hadn’t even made it out of the damned restaurant.
Now she was about eight hours behind schedule.
“No, this is my regular Sunday outfit,” she said sarcastically
to Kiki. Straightening her shoulders, Ellie started to fold her
arms across her middle, realized she was still clenching the wig
in her left hand and dropped it on the counter. Both Tommy’s
and Kiki’s gazes went to it, then to each other, and Tommy’s
expression turned even more somber.
“What’s that?” Kiki gestured toward the skirt, and Ellie
The fabric was cheap, and so was the dye job, the black
faded except for a large spot near the hem. “I don’t know. It
was busy in the booth last night. I must have spilled something.”
“What, do you think?” Kiki asked, her tone suspicious and
sarcastic and obnoxious all at once. “Let’s see…it doesn’t look
like oil or mustard. Or cider or tea or cocoa or pop. What else
did you have in there that you could have spilled?”
“I—I don’t know.” Ellie rubbed her forehead, wishing the
dull throb that had settled there would go away, wishing she
could think more clearly. Then she looked past Tommy, out the
window behind him, and saw her car, and in the instant it took
the sight to sink in, everything inside her went numb.
She was virtually always the last one out of the deli after
closing. Though she wasn’t afraid of the dark, not anymore, she
saw no reason to tempt fate. That was why she always parked
in the same space, the one best lit by the streetlamp overhead.
But her car wasn’t in that space this morning. Instead, it was
pulled carelessly across the two spaces next to her slot.
And there was a dent in the front end. A big one. Marked
with something in a dark crimsony shade, like paint or…or…
Horror growing, she glanced at the stain on her skirt again.
She gathered a handful of fabric, lifting the hem higher.
Whatever had soaked into the material had left it heavy and
stiff. Dear God, it wasn’t—it couldn’t be—
Tommy’s voice, sounding far away but still ominous, cut
through the buzzing in her ears and fed the panic rising inside
her. “Martha Dempsey died last night. It looks like a hit-and-
run. Her body was found in the eleven-hundred block of
Cypress Creek Road.”
The blood drained from Ellie’s face, and her hands, her
legs, her entire body began to tremble. Oh God, Martha was
. The woman she should have loved best but
instead had hated most. Killed. Just down the street from
84 Passion to Die For
Ellie’s house. And there was a dent in Ellie’s car, and blood
on Ellie’s skirt.
Whirling around, she reached the trash can just in time to
empty her stomach.
ommy dampened a paper towel in the sink, squeezed it, then
walked around the island, offering it to Ellie when the retching
stopped. She was as pale as the ghosts that had flitted around
the square the night before, her brown eyes looking huge and
confused and… Was that guilt?
Absolutely not. Whatever had happened to Martha Demp-
sey, Ellie hadn’t been responsible.
Even if she had told the woman
I wish to God you were dead
a few hours earlier.
She accepted the paper towel, wiped her face, then tossed it
into the trash can. Her hands were still shaking, and her pulse
beat heavily at the base of her throat. “I—I live in the twelve-
hundred block of Cypress Creek.”
He knew that. Kiki knew it. Presumably Martha Dempsey
had known it. Had she gone looking for Ellie to continue the
conversation he had interrupted outside? There were no side-
86 Passion to Die For
walks in that part of town; the only choices for walking were
the uneven grassy shoulder and the street itself. She had likely
taken the easier path. And someone had struck her as she stag-
gered in the traffic lane.
Someone, but not Ellie.
Though her car had a dent in it.
Though the dent appeared to have blood on it.
Though her skirt also appeared to be bloodstained.
Ellie, he thought again fiercely.
“Someone hit her?” Her voice was weak, unsteady. “Who?”
“If the driver had stuck around to tell us, we’d call it a hit-
and-stay instead of a hit-and-run.” Kiki all but sneered. “Do you
have any clothes here? We’re gonna need that outfit.”
“I don’t.…” Ellie shook her head longer than necessary, as
if she didn’t realize she was doing it.
She was in a hell of a state. Hungover? Probably. Tommy
could smell the alcohol on her. Sleeping in her office, still
wearing the same clothes… She wasn’t a drinker; he’d never
seen her take anything more than a celebratory sip or two of
wine. But she’d been pretty stressed lately—ever since Martha
Dempsey had come to town—and one or two drinks would
have a more extreme effect on her than on a woman who was
accustomed to liquor.
“We’re gonna need your car, too,” Kiki went on. “When did
you get that dent?”
“I—I don’t know. It wasn’t there the last time I drove it.
Someone must have banged into it in the parking lot last night.”
“Banged into it, huh?” Skepticism underlay Kiki’s tone.
“Banged into it hard enough to spin it around and knock it out
of its parking space, and nobody saw or heard or noticed?”
“The car was fine last time I drove it,” Ellie insisted.
“When was that?”
She rubbed her forehead again. “I don’t— Yesterday after-
noon, I think. I went home between, I don’t know, two and
three. Then I came straight back here, and…”
“And?” Kiki prodded. “You didn’t go anywhere else?”
“No.” Ellie sounded sure—or was it desperate? Then her
voice softened. “I don’t think so. I don’t remember.”
Tommy extended his hand, palm out, in Ellie’s direction.
“Don’t say anything else.”
Predictably Kiki puffed up, scowling at him. “Hey, Maricci,
this is an investigation into a suspicious death. If she’s got
nothing to hide, then she should want to answer our questions.”
Ellie’s gaze shifted rapidly between the two of them, back
and forth. She looked as if she wanted to say something, but
apparently she decided to take his advice. She kept her mouth
“Do you have anything to hide, Ellie?” Kiki asked pointedly.
Arms folded over her chest, Ellie didn’t say anything, but
lowered her gaze to the floor.
“I’d like to speak with you outside, Detective.” Kiki’s voice
had turned cold as ice, colder, even, than Ellie’s had been the
night before when she’d wished Martha dead.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” he replied.
“You’ll come now.” Kiki went to the back door and yelled,
“Petrovski, get in here!” When Pete trotted up the steps and into
the kitchen, she stabbed a finger in Ellie’s direction. “Watch her.
Don’t let her leave your sight.”
“Sure thing, Kik—uh, Detective.”
One brow arched, Kiki looked at Tommy, then jerked her
head toward the door. Ignoring her, he pulled his cell phone
from his pocket and held it out to Ellie. “Call Robbie and tell
him to get over here now.”
Looking sick, she took the phone and fumbled it open.
Tommy followed Kiki outside, closed the door and shoved
his hands in his jacket pockets, rocking back on his heels. She
88 Passion to Die For
stalked down the steps to the gravel lot, paced to the rear of the
Charger, then spun around and came back. “What the hell are
you doing in there?”
He took the steps slowly, stopping a half-dozen feet from
her. “Watch the attitude, Isaacs. I’m still your supervisor.”
She snorted. “And what are you teaching me? How to screw
up an investigation? All the evidence points to Ellie, and
everyone knows how you feel about her. Telling her not to say
anything? Advising her to call a lawyer? Damn! You shouldn’t
even be working this case.”
He wouldn’t defend what he’d done. If they’d switched
places and she was telling someone not to answer his questions,
he’d be pissed, too. One call to the lieutenant who headed the
detective division or to the chief, and he’d be yanked off this
case faster than Kiki could open her mouth.
And that would be fine with him. It would save him the effort
of informing the L.T. that he wanted off.
“Damn it, Tommy, she’s a suspect!”
“Ellie didn’t kill that woman. Not on purpose, not by accident.”
“You sure of that? She knew the woman, but they weren’t
friendly. She lied about leaving the deli last night. Her car has
a nice Martha Dempsey–size dent with blood on it. Her dress
has what looks like a bloodstain. All she says is ‘I don’t
remember’ and ‘I don’t think so.’ And then there’s the wig.”
Seeing in his mind the tangle of new-penny-copper curls on
the stainless counter, Tommy scowled. In the time it had taken
to drive from the accident scene—crime scene?—to the deli,
he’d tried to remember if he’d seen anyone else last night with
a curly red wig. On or off duty, he was pretty observant, and
the answer, regretfully, was no. Ellie’s was the only synthetic
red hair he’d seen in a while.
Except for the single strand that the crime scene tech had
lifted from Martha Dempsey’s body.
That didn’t mean it had come from Ellie’s wig. Or that it had
fallen there after Martha was run down. It didn’t even mean it
had gotten there through any doing of Ellie’s. The hair had been
on Martha’s sweatshirt. Maybe when she’d slapped Ellie last
night, the hair had caught on her hand, then fallen, landing on
the shirt. Maybe she’d swiped her hand across her shirt, depos-
iting it then.
If he voiced those possibilities to Kiki, she would counter with
the likelier possibility: the hair had fallen after Ellie had hit Martha
with her car, then got out and checked to make sure she was dead
or dying. The same time she’d gotten the blood on her skirt.
If it was blood. The lab would have to tell them that.
Deliberately he focused on Kiki’s earlier comment rather
than the evidence that did, on the surface, lead straight to Ellie.
“Okay, Isaacs, this is me teaching. You consider her a suspect?”
“Hell, yes. Any reasonable person would at this point.”
“Then why haven’t you read her her rights?”
Her gaze narrowed, her mouth thinning.
“Come on, you were questioning her. You were demanding
her clothing and her vehicle. What happens when you question
a suspect without reading her her rights?” He didn’t give her a
chance to answer. “A good lawyer sees that none of it makes it
into court. You learned that in Cop 101, Kiki.”
She shoved at a strand of hair that had fallen over her eyes.
“Okay,” she said, taking a slow breath. “But we’re allowed to
interview people about the victim and the circumstances of her
death without Mirandizing them.”
“Not when you’ve already tagged them as a suspect in said
death. You want to go into court and testify under oath that you
didn’t consider Ellie a suspect before you questioned her?
Because you should know now, I don’t perjure myself. Not for
you, not for anyone.” Not even Ellie. Though if anyone could
tempt him to break that rule…
90 Passion to Die For
Kiki kicked a piece of gravel that skittered across the lot,
then leaned against the Charger. Her lower lip jutted out in a
pout. “You’re only being so picky because you like her.”
“I can make the argument that you’re only being so careless
because you don’t like her. And believe me, if I can make it,
Robbie can, too, and he’ll be a hell of a lot more persuasive.”
He glanced up as the sound of a familiar engine came clearly
on the thin morning air. “We don’t
all the evidence yet.
We don’t have a cause or a time of death. We don’t have a
motive. We don’t even know that getting hit by the car had
anything to do with her dying. She could have passed out, hit
her head and died before the car struck her. She could have had
a heart attack. There are a lot of possibilities, and we’re nowhere
near ruling them all out.”
“We can’t lose possible evidence because we don’t have
enough answers yet.”
“Our only risk of losing evidence right now is if you keep
bulldozing through this. We’re going to do it by the book.”
“I don’t remember seeing the page in
book where it says
the lead detective should lawyer up for the suspect,” she
grumbled as Robbie’s Corvette turned into the alley.
Tommy watched Copper Lake’s best criminal defense attor-
ney—Ellie’s criminal defense attorney; what a weird thought—
pull into a nearby space and shut off the engine before he
looked at Kiki again. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for
Her only response was a grudging shrug.
Robbie looked as if he’d been dragged out of bed four or five
hours too early. He combed his fingers through his hair, then
rubbed one hand across his jaw as he approached them. “You
know, some of us like to get up at a decent hour.”
“You think we wanted to get called out at 5:00 a.m.?”
Tommy responded mildly.
“You’re up then anyway, except on Saturdays. Where’s Ellie?”
“In the kitchen.” Tommy wished he could go inside with
him, could sit beside Ellie and offer moral support or some-
thing. Of course, that wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.
He, Robbie and Ellie would all have to be fools to allow that,
and Robbie, at least, was no fool.
Besides, she didn’t want Tommy’s support.
Or anything else.
Ellie sat numbly in the back dining room, a bottle of water
open in front of her, a croissant untouched on the saucer beside
it. She’d talked with Robbie awhile, maybe fifteen minutes,
maybe an hour. Nothing seemed real. Time didn’t pass, nothing
made sense, everything was out of control.
Pete Petrovski stood in the doorway, arms crossed, gazing
out the windows that lined the back wall. He’d brought her the
water and scrounged around the kitchen until he found the
croissant left over from yesterday’s breakfast. He’d even offered
to go down to A Cuppa Joe’s for her just before Robbie had
arrived and sent him away with nothing more than a look.
Now Pete was back, and Robbie was outside, talking to
Tommy and Kiki. She didn’t move, though. She wasn’t sure her
legs would support her.
Martha was dead. Ellie was stunned, yes, but not sorry. The
emotion churning inside her was for herself. Had Martha’s
threat to reveal her past died with the woman, or would it all
come out anyway? As long as her death remained a police
matter, Ellie wasn’t safe. They would look into Martha’s back-
ground, gather her belongings from the bed-and-breakfast.
They would find the originals of the files Martha had given to
her Wednesday night, and they would figure out that she’d
been attempting to blackmail Ellie.
One more reason to consider her a killer.
92 Passion to Die For
she done it? Had she left the deli last night,
run down her mother in the street and left her there to die? Was
she capable of that kind of desperate act, that kind of rage?
She didn’t want to believe it. There had to be another expla-
nation. Her mother, her car, her past, her clothes, but someone
else was guilty.
Even she didn’t buy it.
The back door closed, and then a moment later, Tommy,
Robbie and Kiki came into the dining room. Kiki pulled a
garment from the canvas bag she carried and shook it out, then
nodded to Ellie. “Come on. We need your clothes.”
“Anamaria sent a dress for you,” Robbie said in explanation.
Probably a maternity dress, since Ellie hadn’t been long and
lean like her in a lot of years.
It took monumental effort to get to her feet, then follow Kiki
to the women’s bathroom. When she would have gone into a
stall, the woman stopped her. “Change out here.”
The police want to take my clothes and my car,
Ellie had said
on the phone.
Robbie, they think I killed someone!
They’d discussed Kiki’s request when he arrived, and he’d
advised her to cooperate. If she didn’t voluntarily turn over the
costume and the car, the police would just get a warrant. It
would prolong the process, but in the end, the result would be
the same: either way, she was giving up both clothes and car
before she left here.
The dress Anamaria had sent was grass-green, a simple sheath,
stopping short of the knees, the sleeves ending above the elbows.
She stripped off the peasant blouse, the scarf and the skirt, handed
them to Kiki, then tugged the soft cotton over her head.
She looked ragged in the mirrors above the sinks. Her hair
stuck out every which way, her eye makeup was smudged and
a bruise darkened her cheek. Nothing new there. Last night
hadn’t been the first time Martha slapped her.
But it was the last.
“Is that where she hit you?”
Her gaze shifted in the mirror to meet Kiki’s, and she nodded
mutely. Tommy had told her about it, had also, no doubt, told
her that Ellie had wished Martha dead mere hours before she
was killed. No wonder, with everything else, that Kiki looked
at her as if she’d already been convicted.
No wonder Tommy had stopped the questioning and told her
to call Robbie. Bless him for that.
Running her hands under cold water, she managed to bring
some order to her hair. Kiki gave her another minute to wipe
away some makeup with a damp paper towel, and then they left
the bathroom. Kiki went into the kitchen with the costume;
Ellie returned to the back dining room. Through the window,
she saw a couple of people in the parking lot, examining her
car. They wore T-shirts marked CSU on the back, and they were
looking for evidence that she was a killer.
Shuddering, she sat down, Tommy to her left at the small
table, Robbie to the right.
Tommy broke the silence. “How did you know Martha
Tell the truth,
Robbie had advised. Getting caught in a lie,
especially one that didn’t relate directly to Martha’s death,
would just make the cops wonder what else she was lying about.
Easy for him to say when he didn’t know the truth.
My selfish, hateful, abusive mother who threw
me out of the house when I was fifteen for something I didn’t
“I knew her growing up,” she said, staring outside though
she couldn’t see the activity in the parking lot.
“Atlanta.” She felt his gaze intensify. Yes, she’d lied about
that. She’d lied about so many things. If she stopped now, all
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the untruths would collapse and bury her beneath their weight…
or send her to prison.
“Was she a neighbor, a teacher, the church organist?” The
tension that sharpened his voice radiated in the air, as well, raw
and edgy against her skin. “Was she involved with your father?”
“Yes.” True, as far as it went.
“And he’s dead.”
“Yes.” Completely true, and a relief. If she weren’t so
worried about being blamed for Martha’s death, if she weren’t
wondering whether she was guilty, she would feel nothing but
relief over it, too. Giddy, free-from-the-past relief.
“Last night you said you’d agreed to meet her after church
today. About what?”
“She wanted to talk. To relive old times.” Oh God, she didn’t
want to tell any more lies. She wanted to grab hold of Tommy,
tell him she couldn’t remember the night before, that she didn’t
know if she’d killed Martha. She wanted to cling to him, lean
on him and let him make everything all right. That was what
he did, after all—served, protected and made people feel safe.
“And you didn’t want to.”
“I don’t like talking about the past.” Finally she faced him
head-on, for the first time since he’d given her his cell phone.
He looked tired, as if he hadn’t gotten more than a few hours’
sleep, and the expression in his dark eyes was grim. Beard
stubbled his jaw, and the way his mouth was set, she would bet
he was really wishing he hadn’t given up smoking last year.
Don’t feel you have to do this for me,
she’d said after one par-
ticularly testy day, and he’d grinned, looping his arm around
her waist and drawing her near.
I’m doing it for me. When we start having kids, I don’t want
to be outrun by a two-year-old.
Her throat constricted, and a tear or two pricked at her
eyelids. No kids for her. No marriage. Even if she ran away,
even now that Martha wasn’t alive to follow and threaten her,
she would still have to get Tommy out of her system before she
could even think about another man, and that wasn’t likely to
happen. Some broken hearts were permanent.
Did he see something in her face, or was that deepening
scowl his typical expression for interviewing murder suspects?
“How much did you have to drink last night?”
“I don’t know. I guess too much.”
“Who was working the bar?”
“Deryl.” What would Deryl tell him? That she’d gotten
bombed, announced she was going to kill someone, then stag-
gered out of the bar? Or that she’d had only one drink for
courage before leaving the bar, that when she’d returned, there
had been blood on her skirt and her car was banged up, that
she’d gotten bombed then to forget?
“Who else did you talk to last night besides Deryl?”
“I don’t remember anyone.” Lifting one hand, she kneaded
the taut muscles in the right side of her neck. “After running
into—” Bad choice of words. “After seeing you and Martha, I
wanted a drink. I’ve never had a drink in my own bar. So I came
in through the kitchen, I went to the bar and I…had several
drinks. Too many.”
“I thought you didn’t know how many,” he reminded her, his
“Look at me!” she snapped. “I look like I’ve been run
over—” Horrible choice of words, shuddering through her with
revulsion. “Like I’ve been through the wringer. I stink of booze.
I smell it, I taste it. I slept on the couch in my office in those
awful clothes and that awful wig, my head is throbbing and I’m
seriously thinking about puking up my guts again. Does that
sound like too many drinks to you?”
“Yeah. It sounds like about ten times more alcohol than I’ve
96 Passion to Die For
seen you drink in the five years you’ve lived here. Why last
night? What was it about Martha that made you decide it was
a good time to get drunk?”
Chilled, Ellie hugged her arms to her chest. “I didn’t decide.
I just wanted a drink.” One drink, to take the edge off the tension
that had been screaming through her. She was pretty sure she
hadn’t even intended to finish it. Just a few sips, to get warm, to
relax a bit, to get the nerve to climb into the car and leave. Flee.
Just one drink. But it must have done such a great job of
taking the edge off that she’d ordered another. Surely even a
nondrinker like her couldn’t get stinking drunk and pass out
from just one drink.
Abruptly Tommy took another tack. “Martha said that she
had a good twenty-five years left and she was planning to spend
them with you. She said you were going to be a family again.”
There wasn’t a question in there, but Ellie shook her head.
It never would have happened. First she would have run the hell
away from Georgia. She’d taken money from the bank, her bags
were packed and in the car—
Her gaze jerked once more to the rear windows. They were
going over her car with a fine-tooth comb. They would find the
suitcases. Soon they’d find out about the bank withdrawal, and
they would discover Martha’s blackmail material at the Jas-
mine. Motive upon motive.
Kiki came around the corner into the dining room and took
the seat across from Ellie. Her manner was bristly, her expres-
sion almost blank, but smugness eased in around the edges.
“What do you say, Ellie? Want to go to jail today?”
Ellie and Kiki had never been friends, but things had gotten
worse since Tommy had started dating Sophy. Kiki, it seemed,
thought Ellie was standing in the way of her best friend’s hap-
piness, because Tommy had been in love with her.
She’d never wanted him to love her. Sex was easy, dating
was easy. But needing, loving, committing… She had too many
secrets. Too little trust. Too little faith in herself, in him, in
anyone’s ability to see what she’d been, to know what she’d
done, and want to know her anyway.
didn’t want to know her.
“What do you have, Kiki?” Robbie asked.
“Preliminary tests show it is blood on both the skirt and the
car. Of course, the lab will have to tell us it’s Martha Demp-
sey’s. The crime scene guys found some clothing fibers caught
in the crumpled metal around the bumper. I’m sure the lab will
also identify those as belonging to Martha Dempsey, as well.
And, hey, the car was packed up. Like you intended to leave
town in a hurry, Ellie.”
Tommy and Robbie both swiveled around to stare at her,
Tommy’s dark eyes filled with hurt, Robbie’s blue gaze with
smoldering anger. She wanted to apologize to them, but she was
too stunned by the first part of Kiki’s announcement. That was
definitely blood on her car, on her skirt. She’d curled up on the
couch in her office and slept the night through with her mother’s
blood soaking into her skirt.
Lurching to her feet, she dashed to the bathroom and shoved
the door open hard enough to make it bounce. Kiki’s “Hey!”
sounded distant, along with the scrape of a chair and heavier
footsteps coming her way. Her stomach heaved, sending blood
rushing through her ears, blocking out the steps, and her vision
turned blurry as the retching started again.
When it stopped, she leaned weakly against the stall wall.
She knew it was Tommy waiting on the other side of the thin
partition, though he hadn’t spoken, hadn’t come any closer
than the bathroom door. She could hear it in his breathing,
could feel it in the air, in her own taut muscles.
I’m good at waiting,
he’d told her the first time he’d
98 Passion to Die For
proposed to her, the first time she’d turned him down.
these days, you’ll change your mind, and I’ll be here.
never changed her mind, but he’d always been there
She wished he would leave, not just the bathroom but the
restaurant. She wished he didn’t have to see her this way,
looking like death warmed over, smelling that way, too,
vomiting, giving lousy answers to important questions, sus-
pected of killing someone. She wished she could preserve a
little dignity. She didn’t have much, but she needed it.
But he wasn’t going anywhere, and the god-awful taste in
her mouth left her no choice but to leave the stall. She flushed
the toilet, then opened the door, keeping her eyes downcast as
she washed her hands and rinsed her mouth with water scooped
from the tap.
“You were leaving.” His voice was soft, his tone not
dismayed or disappointed, but disillusioned. “Without saying
goodbye. And you weren’t coming back.”
And finally she had no choice but to face him. The lie was
there, ready to come out—
I needed a break. Just a few days.
Charleston or Savannah or Beaufort. I would have been back
later in the week.
But all she did was nod.
It was as if something in him snapped. He advanced on her,
backing her against the wall, not touching her but holding her
there all the same, his body mere inches from hers, his hands on
the wall on either side of her head, his face bent to hers. “Why?”
he demanded, the question all the more fierce for its low, insis-
tent tone. “Because of Martha? Who was she, Ellie? What did
she want from you? Where were you going? What about us?”
She took a breath, painful, shallow, and whispered, “There
is no ‘us.’”
He didn’t move. The distance between them, small as it
was, remained the same, but somehow he
looming, but not threatening. “What about Anamaria, Jamie,
Sara? Robbie and Russ and Carmen? What about your friends,
Ellie? Don’t you owe them better than that? Don’t they at least
deserve a goodbye?”
She was so raw inside that even the faint shake of her head
sent pain throbbing through her. “I—I couldn’t…”
“So you were just going to run away. Disappear. Give up
everything you’ve got here and leave us to wonder the rest of
our lives what the hell happened to you.” Now he sounded dis-
appointed, and bitterness added its own flavor. The look he gave
her was scornful, disgusted, as he moved away.
He walked partway to the door, then returned, staring into
her face. “Did you run down Martha Dempsey?”
It was a logical question. He should have asked it sooner.
She had asked it of herself, and it terrified her that she didn’t
know the answer.
But it hurt coming from him. The emptiness in his eyes.
The hard set of his mouth. The utter stillness that damn near
radiated from him.
“I don’t know.” Her answer was barely audible—soft,
He stared at her a moment longer, the muscles in his jaw
clenching. Then he walked away.
She watched him go, the door swinging shut behind him
then her legs gave out. Sliding down the cool
tile of the wall, she sat on the floor, knees drawn to her chest,
and imagined she still heard his footsteps. Down the hall. Into
the kitchen. Past the storeroom. Out the rear door. Down the
steps. She imagined he’d left her for good this time.
I’ll be here,
Not any longer.
Before he reached the dining room, Tommy made a left turn
and cut through the kitchen to the back door. He took the steps
100 Passion to Die For
two at a time, then stopped suddenly as he came face-to-face
with the crime scene techs, overseeing the loading of Ellie’s car
onto a roll-back wrecker. They would take it to the police
garage, where they would process it. Everything they found
would be sent to the lab, where they would say yes, the blood
belonged to Martha Dempsey; yes, the fibers came from her
clothes; yes, this was the vehicle used to kill her; yes, Ellie
Chase was their prime suspect.
The winch on the wrecker whined as it pulled the Beetle into
place. Jarred into motion again, Tommy stalked across the
gravel to the Charger, unlocking the door with the press of a
button, rummaging through the console and the glove box. He
found what he was looking for, a crumpled cigarette pack,
under the vehicle manual in the glove box.
Tossing the pack and a book of matches onto the old porch
that served as a loading dock, he lifted himself onto the ledge
to sit before removing the sole cigarette from the pack, then
studied it. It was the last cigarette in the last pack he’d
bought. At first, he’d kept it around for an emergency, for
those usually-late-at-night moments when he found himself
alone and feeling weak. But other exertions had filled in
nicely: a hundred push-ups, a quick run along the river,
making love to Ellie.
Then he’d kept it as a talisman of sorts. It was right there,
at hand during the day and easy to retrieve at night, so the fact
that he hadn’t reached for it all these months proved that he’d
really given up the habit for good.
Yeah, right. Proved that you don’t know what the hell an
He slid the cigarette into his mouth, opened the matchbook
and tore off one match. It came away easily and lit on the first
strike. Surprising, since his hands were trembling and his lungs
felt as if he’d just finished a hundred-mile fun run. He watched
until the heat started to sear his fingertips, dropped the match
to the ground and tore off another.
Robbie came out of the restaurant as the wrecker slowly
pulled out of the parking lot with Ellie’s car. The crime scene
techs were right behind it. He came to lean against the loading
dock next to Tommy. “Jesus.”
Since there was nothing Tommy could add to that, he didn’t
try. Instead, he lit the second match, the flame barely able to
flicker thanks to his unsteadiness.
“You need help with that?”
“I’ve been lighting my own cigarettes since we were fifteen
and stealing them from your granddad.”
“Yeah, but your hands don’t usually shake like that.”
Tommy dropped the second match, and it landed on a chunk
of gravel, extinguishing itself an instant later. “She was plan-
ning to run away. She wasn’t going to tell anyone. She wasn’t
going to say goodbye to anyone. She was just…going.”
The way his mother had. One day she’d been there and life
had been normal—as normal as Lilah’s life ever got—and the
next she was gone. No one knew where she’d gone. No one
knew why. He’d spent most of his life wondering if she was
alive or dead, if she’d married again, had more children, if
she’d ever missed the son she’d left without so much as a hug.
Ellie owed her friends better than that, he’d told her. She
better. It would have killed him, finding out that
she’d just vanished. That he truly meant so little to her that she
could walk away without a word. He would have spent the rest
of his life searching for her, even if she didn’t want him to find
her, because God help him, he couldn’t have lived without
knowing whether she was dead or alive. Whether she’d found
someone else. Whether she’d missed him.
“So what’s the plan?”
Tommy took the cigarette from his mouth, studied it again for
102 Passion to Die For
a time, then began methodically destroying it. Robbie had rep-
resented suspects in Tommy’s cases before. Copper Lake was
small; there weren’t that many detectives or criminal defense
lawyers. Conflict of interest had never been a problem for either
of them before, regardless of the outcome. Work was work.
Except when it wasn’t. He couldn’t imagine anything less
personal than this case.
“The plan,” he said after a moment, “is up to Isaacs and the
lieutenant and the D.A.’s office.”
“You’re not going to work the case?”
Gather evidence and information that could result in sending
Ellie to prison for the rest of her life? No way. Not even if he
knew beyond a doubt that she was guilty.
didn’t even know if she was guilty.
I don’t know,
whispered, and he’d heard the fear, seen it in her eyes. She’d
been so intoxicated that she didn’t remember if she’d gotten in
her car, driven home and killed a woman in the street.
He’d never been that drunk, not once. But his mother had.
Robbie had. No doubt Martha Dempsey had.
“Isaacs will want to confirm that the blood belongs to that
woman,” Robbie said, leaning against the porch, ankles
crossed, with that nine-mile stare he got when they were out
on the river, the sun was shining and the fish weren’t biting.
“There’s also the question of fingerprints on the car, on the
steering wheel and the door handle. If there are any besides
Ellie’s…” He trailed off, probably silently running down a list
of things to prove or disprove.
Kiki would also have to talk to the bartender, the waitstaff and
any diners who might have seen Ellie in the restaurant or bar the
night before. The medical examiner would determine the time
and cause of death, the lab would process the fibers from the car
and try to match the curly red hair to the wig and Isaacs would
collect Martha’s belongings from the bed-and-breakfast.
Then she, and whoever the lieutenant assigned to work with
her, would go sifting through Ellie’s and Martha’s pasts,
looking for a motive.
In Atlanta, not Charleston, where she’d told him she grew up.
What else had she lied to him about?
Robbie glanced at him. “She didn’t deliberately kill that
“No,” Tommy agreed.
But accidentally? How could he say no when Ellie herself
The ringing of his cell phone broke the heavy silence that
had settled. He pulled it from his pocket, glanced at caller ID,
then flipped it open. “This is Maricci.”
“Where are you?” It was A. J. Decker, the lieutenant in
charge of the detective division, usually grumpy, always short
and to the point.
“Outside Ellie’s Deli.”
“Where is she?”
“Inside with Isaacs.”
“You can’t work this case.”
“I know. But Kiki can’t work it alone.” She’d just made
detective a few weeks earlier; she lacked the experience to
handle a suspicious death on her own.
“I’ll be there in five. Tell Calloway he can go back to bed.
We won’t be arresting his client today. But she’d damn well
better not plan on going anywhere.” Decker ended the call
before Tommy could respond.
“How’d he know I’m here?” Robbie asked.
Decker knew everything, or, at least, way more than he should.
“If she tries to run off again…”
His jaw tightened and Tommy ground his teeth. “I’ll go
home with her.”
104 Passion to Die For
Robbie gave him an are-you-crazy? look. Exactly what he was
wondering himself. Seeing Ellie under the best of circumstances
these days was tough enough. Babysitting her while she was a
suspect in, at the very least, a felony hit-and-run or, at worst, a
homicide was going to make that look like a day at the beach.
“If she’ll let you,” Robbie said after a while.
“You can tell her it’s not her choice. If she wants your help,
then it’s got to be by your rules.”
“And what is Decker going to say when he finds out you’re
moving into her house? You may be off the case, but you’re
still a cop.”
“I can be a cop on vacation. Or, hell, I could not be a cop at
all. Russ has always said he’d give me a job.”
The surprise in Robbie’s expression was nothing, Tommy
would bet, compared to what he was feeling himself. The only
two things he’d ever wanted to be jobwise were a cop and a
retired cop. Nothing else had ever held even the slightest appeal,
certainly not construction work.
Without commenting on the idea that Tommy would even
consider quitting the police department because of Ellie,
Robbie said cynically, “Yeah, but he’d make you work.”
It was a family joke that Tommy and Robbie had skated by
their entire lives without exerting themselves over anything.
Today it didn’t seem funny. Nothing did.
“There’s Decker,” Tommy said with a nod toward the alley and
the black pickup turning in. “I’ll talk to him. You go warn Ellie.”
llie was exhausted and daydreaming about bed and aspirins
and quiet when Tommy and Robbie returned to the dining
room. No, she corrected with a glance over her shoulder.
Tommy, Robbie and A. J. Decker. He was older than the other
two men, a few inches shorter, broader in the shoulders. His hair
was brown, his features average and his expression always
unreadable. He should have been forgettable, but there was
something about him, some sense of authority, of
that made him the opposite.
And just the sight of him made Kiki Isaacs flinch. Ellie
liked him better for that.
He greeted Ellie with a nod and a polite murmur of her
name, then asked Kiki to step outside with him. He gestured
for Pete to follow, leaving Ellie alone, she supposed, so she and
Robbie could speak in private.
But Tommy didn’t go with them.
106 Passion to Die For
Robbie sat down at Ellie’s table while Tommy stood on the
other side of the room. “They’re not going to arrest you right now.”
She exhaled, and thought that must be what it felt like for a
balloon to deflate. Tension whooshed out—not all of it, by any
means, but enough to make her suddenly feel limp.
“Here are the rules, though. Number one. If you even think
of leaving town, I’ll turn you over to Kiki before you can finish
the thought. Okay?”
She nodded, though truthfully she wasn’t ruling out the idea.
Thanks to Martha, damn her soul, every ugly detail of Ellie’s
life was going to come out. There was nothing she could do to
stop it. But she could be gone when it happened. She could
avoid the looks on everyone’s faces, the shock, the little snubs
as they inevitably turned away from her.
“Second,” Robbie went on, “to make sure you cooperate
with rule one, you’re getting a roommate. You’ve already tried
to run once. We’re not taking a chance on it happening again.”
Roommate. Nice way of saying
Worse than that,
another way of saying
. The knot in her gut told her; a
look at him confirmed it. Numbly she realized she was shaking
her head. “N-no,” she finally said. “I don’t want— I won’t—”
“It’s not an option, Ellie. If you want my help, you’ve got
to do what I say.”
Wonderful. It would be like old times. Except that they
weren’t friends. They weren’t dating. They weren’t having
great sex. They couldn’t even carry a conversation.
But he was still a cop, and she was a suspect in Martha’s
death. She’d never be able to let down her guard around him.
Not that she’d been able to anyway for the past six months.
She found her voice again, stronger this time, cooler. “Won’t
A.J. frown on that?”
“I’m on vacation starting today,” Tommy replied. “He
doesn’t much care what I do.”
Invite Tommy into her home for the next however many days
or weeks. She would rather go to jail.
She’d been to jail too many times. Fingerprinted,
photographed, strip-searched and locked in a cell like an
animal. She’d been pepper-sprayed and restrained, and had a
few up-close-and-personal run-ins with some scary inmates.
Up-close-and-painful. She had sworn the last time that she
would never go back.
Resigned to company for the foreseeable future, she looked
grimly at Robbie. “Can I go home soon?”
“Yeah, Decker said go ahead.”
Instantly, she pushed the chair back and got to her feet, then
rested one hand on the tabletop for balance. The queasiness was
fading, replaced now by hunger. The best she could recall, she
hadn’t eaten dinner last night.
A stupid thing to think about, when Martha was dead.
“If he asks questions…” Her gaze on Robbie, she tilted her
head in Tommy’s direction.
Robbie’s grin was halfhearted. “You mean
He’s curious as hell about everything, you know.” The grin
faded. “Answer them. Truthfully.”
How nice that he felt the need to add that last bit. Before this
morning, he and Tommy had both believed she was a truthful
person: honest, honorable, normal. They were about to find out
just how many times she had lied to them. Lied to everyone.
“He’s on our side,” Robbie said as he also stood.
Tommy didn’t say anything in his defense. He didn’t need
to. Ellie could trust him. She’d always been able to trust him.
He really was an honest and honorable person. He would do
his best to help her, to make sure she really was innocent—or
really was guilty, in which case he would do the honest, hon-
orable thing and turn her in.
108 Passion to Die For
No. If she really was responsible for Martha’s death, she
would turn herself in.
“Can we go?” she asked quietly in his direction. Peripher-
ally, she saw him step back and gesture toward the kitchen.
Outside, Kiki and A.J. were talking. She didn’t look happy
that her suspect was walking away without handcuffs; he was
impossible to read, as usual.
Ellie breathed deeply before walking down the steps. Her
car was gone. Good. She never wanted to see it, or the dent in
the hood, or the blood staining the lime-green paint, again.
Robbie patted her arm, said, “I’ll call you,” then got in his
Ellie slid into the passenger seat of the Charger, fastened the
seat belt, then closed her eyes. Home. Aspirin. Bed. If she
could sleep, maybe the nightmare would end when she
awakened. She would find out that she’d really tied one on, that
it was all liquor-induced, that Martha was alive and well and
planning to destroy her and she was still free to run away where
no one would ever find her again.
Then Tommy got in beside her and started the engine, and
he looked so somber that there was no doubt this was one
nightmare she couldn’t wake up from.
she silently urged, and he did, turning down the
alley, then onto Oglethorpe. A moment later, they passed the
Jasmine, and Ellie stared at the mansion. Had the police
claimed Martha’s belongings yet? Had they found the originals
of the papers she’d given Ellie, or were they back in Atlanta?
Had Martha brought anything else with her that might connect
the two of them?
Like what? A family photograph? Ellie couldn’t remember
ever having one taken. A sentimental keepsake, a drawing Ellie
had done for her as a child, her favorite stuffed animal when
she was little, a lock of her baby-fine hair?
Martha didn’t have—hadn’t had a sentimental bone in her
body. Any drawings Ellie had done had earned a grunt and a
toss toward the trash can. The day they’d thrown her out, they’d
also thrown out all her belongings—clothes, books, the thread-
bare teddy that had sat on her bed. If there’d been any souve-
nirs of her infancy or childhood, they’d gone, too.
One day she’d had a home and a sorry excuse for a family,
and the next day she’d had nothing but the clothes she wore.
They took the long way home—by a whole two or three
minutes—turning onto Thurmond Lane, following it to the end
and making a sharp left onto Cypress Creek.
Every muscle and nerve in her body tightened again as she
got out of the Charger. Instead of going into the house, she
walked to the end of the driveway and stared off to the west,
looking for sign of the—the accident? Murder?
“There aren’t any skid marks.” Tommy stopped beside her,
six feet of pavement separating them, his own gaze directed
down the street. “There was some blood, but the fire depart-
ment washed it away when we were done.”
He pointed to a spot halfway between her driveway and the
neighbor’s. On these last few blocks of Cypress Creek, houses
were widely spaced; the distance was two hundred feet or more.
Not far enough.
“Who found her?” Her voice sounded too normal to be her
own. Turmoil inside, and cool control outside. Now that the
shaking and the vomiting had stopped.
“Father O’Rourke. He was on his way home after spend-
ing the night with one of his parishioners who had emergency
She knew the priest slightly; he’d often dropped by the
nursing home to see Tommy’s grandfather while they were
110 Passion to Die For
“We don’t have a time of death yet, but it was a while before
Father O’Rourke came along. Four, maybe five hours. There’s
not a lot of traffic here late at night.”
“No one saw or heard anything.” She said it flatly, not as a
question, but Tommy shook his head. No one saw her run down
Martha in the street. That was good news. But no one saw
anyone else do it, either.
Abruptly, she turned and started toward the house. Her little
yard was neatly mowed, the flower beds planted just last
weekend with purple and yellow pansies. Her house. Her home.
I looked around that pretty little house of yours.
Think about what you stand to lose.
Our house. We’ll be together again.
A shudder ripped through her, and she stopped at the foot
of the steps. “I can’t…” She couldn’t stay. Couldn’t be in this
house that Martha had coveted. Couldn’t sleep inside there
knowing that someone, maybe her, had run over Martha in the
street and left her there like roadkill.
She didn’t have to explain it. Tommy shrugged and said,
“We can go to my house. Do you want to wait in the car while
I pack your stuff?” Then his expression turned dark. “Or is there
any stuff left to pack?”
Regretfully she shook her head. She wanted to apologize,
to tell him that she’d only been thinking of her own survival,
that she hadn’t meant to hurt him. But of course he’d been hurt.
They’d been together for four and a half years, and he’d spent
four of them trying to persuade her to marry him. He loved her,
had said so even the day he’d broken up with her for good. He
would have been hurt, and she’d known it.
She just hadn’t cared.
They returned to the car, and he backed out silently, once
again avoiding the accident scene by turning onto Thurmond.
His house was located in the south part of town, halfway
between River Road and the river, only a few minutes from Robbie
and Anamaria’s condo in distance, but a world apart in status.
The house was on the small side, centered in a compact yard
on a street filled with other small houses and compact yards. It
had belonged to his grandfather; as Pops had gotten older and
more frail, Tommy had moved from his apartment into the
room where his father had grown up. He’d done the cooking
and the cleaning and made it possible for the old man to live
another four or five years in the comfort of his home.
Finally, two years ago, Pops had moved himself into Mor-
ningside Nursing Center. It had been harder for Tommy than it
had for his grandfather. She’d listened to him rail and argue and
blame himself, and she’d held him, just held him, a lot of nights.
She doubted he was any happier with the situation now,
even though the nursing home had been a good thing for Pops.
He was a sociable man, and there were people to talk to and
nurses to flirt with twenty-four hours a day. He was less lonely.
None of her business.
He parked in the driveway, next to his SUV, and she climbed
out wearily. She gazed at her feet as she followed the cracked
sidewalk to the steps, then went into the house. It was quiet in
a way that hers never was. The silence in her house was an
empty sort of thing. It wasn’t a home, just a house where she
slept and bathed and, for a time, had sex, but didn’t really live.
This house had seen love and laughter, tears, sorrow and joy.
It had a sense of
about it, of
that she wanted but
had never had, could never have.
“You can have Pops’s room,” Tommy said, closing the door and
tossing his keys in a wooden dish on the table next to it. He paused,
then picked up the keys again and slid them into his pocket.
He didn’t trust her not to steal his car and disappear, she
realized, her mouth curving in the thinnest of smiles.
112 Passion to Die For
He led the way into the hall, then the front bedroom. It was
square, with windows on the two outside walls, a ceiling fan
overhead and an iron bedstead to which a few flakes of white
paint still clung. The bed was made—it was Tommy who’d
gotten her into the habit of making her own bed every morn-
ing—and covered with an aged quilt. The pillowcases were
sturdy white cotton, the edges embroidered with flowers and
birds in faded threads.
“Not much has changed since he and Grandma moved in here
nearly sixty years ago,” he commented, “but it’s comfortable.”
“I’ll call Kiki and see when they’ll release your stuff from
There was a nice image: Kiki handling her clothes, checking
her sizes, passing judgment on her taste, wondering what
Tommy saw in her when he could have Sophy.
“We need to talk,” he said, but before Ellie could protest, he
moved back into the hall. “After you’ve rested.”
When the door closed, she sank down on the bed and began
removing the soft suede boots that looked so wrong with
Anamaria’s dress. She definitely needed the rest, but she could
live without the talking afterward. He had questions she
couldn’t answer, some because she’d held the secrets too long,
others because she simply didn’t know.
Such as had she been driving her car when it struck Martha?
Had she done it deliberately?
Dear God, had she murdered her mother?
After wandering through the house four times, Tommy
stopped in the bathroom, laying out a new toothbrush and
comb, along with clean towels. Back in the living room, he
dropped down on the couch, stretched out and shoved a pillow
under his head. He turned on the television, but kept the sound
muted so it wouldn’t disturb Ellie in the next room. There had
been a few creaks of the bedsprings, then nothing but silence.
She’d looked exhausted. Hangovers could do that to a person.
When he’d told Decker he wanted time off, the lieutenant
hadn’t even blinked.
You gonna work with Robbie?
no reaction when Tommy said yes.
Conflicts of interest were different in a small town. Cops
investigated people they knew; judges sat on trials involving
acquaintances and neighbors. The district attorney would argue
a case in court, then have the defense lawyer and his family over
for a cookout in the evening. Decker had no problem with one
of his detectives trying to prove the innocence of a suspect
another of his detectives was trying to nail for a felony.
After all, cops were supposed to build a case against the
guilty suspect, not the likely one, not the easy one, and for damn
sure not the innocent one.
Which of those was Ellie?
No doubt she had secrets. No doubt she’d lied to him. And
if she’d lied about where she was from, she’d probably lied
about something else.
Maybe everything. Maybe she wasn’t the woman he be-
lieved her to be. Maybe he didn’t know squat about her—who
she was, what she was capable of. Maybe he’d been in love all
this time with a total stranger.
He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. Okay, so she
might have lied about some stuff, but the person she was, deep
down inside… He
that person. Knew she was good and
sweet and generous and passionate and caring. Knew she would
never physically hurt anyone.
He stared at the TV, barely registering the NASCAR race on
Cars going round and round,
Ellie used to tease.
rather watch fishing.
Fishing hadn’t really been her thing,
114 Passion to Die For
either, certainly not on TV, but kicked back in the boat, face
tilted to the sun, a cooling breeze ruffling her hair and a bottle
of cold water in her hand… They’d passed more than a few lazy
afternoons that way.
Last night’s confrontation with Martha, and the meeting
they’d scheduled for today, had really upset her. They’d no
more been planning to relive old times than Tommy was
going to take up with his seventh-grade girlfriend. Another
lie from Ellie.
The first thing he and/or Robbie had to do was make her
understand that if she kept it up, she would lie herself right into
a prison cell.
Ellie in jail. It sounded so ridiculous that he couldn’t even
form the image.
He had no idea how many laps the cars had made on the silent
television when the bedroom door creaked. Ellie came out, bare-
footed, dress wrinkled, and padded down the hall to the bath-
room. A few minutes later, she walked as far as the living room
door, her hair combed and her face washed. Still, she looked
tired, stunned and hungover. “Are you hungry?” he asked.
She nodded, and he got to his feet, heading to the kitchen.
Though his back was to the door, he knew the moment she
followed him in. He turned on the oven, then took a pizza from
the freezer, handmade the way Pops had taught him. Back in
Italy, Pops’s family had been in the restaurant business for gen-
erations. He might have done the same here in Copper Lake if
Grandma had lived long enough to help him.
“How do you feel?” he asked as he peeled off plastic wrap,
then set the pizza on a battered pan.
“Alcohol never makes you feel better.”
He slid the pan into the oven, set the timer, then turned to
face her. She was standing beside the kitchen table, looking vul-
nerable and ragged.
“My mother was a drunk.” Pretty much everyone who
knew him knew that, but he and Ellie hadn’t talked about it
much. It had always been a one-sided conversation, and
before long she had changed the subject or, anticipating it,
he had. “Lilah drank…I don’t know. To ease some pain that
no one knew about. To handle her unhappiness. To cope with
“I have a few vague memories of her smiling and laughing,
playing with me, dancing with my dad. But mostly I remember
her sitting and staring with a drink in her hand. I could go to
bed at night and she’d be sitting on the couch, staring at nothing,
and I swear to God, when I got up the next morning, the only
thing different was the level of whiskey in the bottle. She
always just sat there and looked at things no one else could see,
went places in her head that no one else could go.”
And then one day,
went someplace else. She’d taken her
clothes and a photograph of the family, and no one had ever
seen her again.
Just as Ellie had intended for no one to ever see her again.
Before the stabbing pain could completely grip him, she sat
down and quietly said, “My mother was a drunk, too.”
It was momentous—her volunteering something private that
not only sounded but
like truth. Still, he opted for cynicism
over surprise or being impressed that she’d confided
. “The mother you grew up with in Charleston? Or the one
you grew up with in Atlanta?”
Her attempt at smiling was phony and a failure. “Okay, now
you know the dirty truth. I’m from Atlanta. I lived there until I
was eighteen. After that, I settled in Charleston until I came here.”
“Why lie about it?”
She shrugged carelessly, another phony effort. “My life in
116 Passion to Die For
Atlanta was nothing special. My fantasy life in Charleston
made for a better story.”
He studied her for a time before turning away to take glasses
from the cabinet and ice from the freezer. Her fantasy life
hadn’t been a better story. It had been normal. Average. The
kind of life he and everyone else she knew in Copper Lake
could relate to.
Meaning that her real upbringing was something most of
After carrying the glasses to the table, he got a pitcher of
homemade tea from the refrigerator. Mariccis didn’t eat or
drink instant anything. He’d brewed it the day before, strong
the way he liked it, without sugar the way Ellie liked it. Four-
year habits were hard to break, especially when he didn’t want
to break them.
“Are your parents really dead?” he asked as he poured the tea.
She looked away, and for the second time that day, some-
thing like guilt darkened her eyes. “Yes.”
“And Martha was connected to them.”
She wrapped her fingers around the glass, turning it in circles
that seemed nervous in spite of their slow control. When it
became clear that she wasn’t going to answer, instead of
pushing, he chose another question. “What made you decide
to get drunk last night?”
A question he sensed she felt more comfortable with. “I
didn’t intend to. I rarely drink. That smell—rum right out of
the bottle, beer spilled on the carpet, tequila freshly puked
up—that’s the strongest memory I have of my childhood. I can
hardly remember either of my parents without a cigarette in one
hand and booze in the other. It was as natural to them as breath-
ing. I didn’t want to be like them.”
Some children of alcoholics became alcoholics themselves
natural to them. Others never went past the first
or second drink, because they never got over the revulsion, the
anger, the resentment, the fear. Those last few months before
his mother left, when he’d found her bottles, he’d poured them
down the sink, believing that would make her stop, would make
her a better mother. Of course, she’d just bought more.
“Why last night? You’re thirty years old. True?”
Cheeks flushed, she nodded.
“You’ve never been drunk before. You’ve never even fin-
ished a glass of wine before. Why get drunk last night?”
“I didn’t mean to,” she repeated. “I just wanted a few sips.
I was anxious. I thought it would help me relax.”
“About meeting Martha today?”
She shook her head, stared hard at the tabletop and mur-
mured, “About leaving.”
The buzz of the oven timer gave him an excuse not to
respond right away. Using a mitt, he pulled the pan from the
oven, then set it on the stove. The crust was thin and crispy, and
heavy with toppings: vegetables all over with Canadian bacon
on one half, sausage and anchovies on the other. Her favorite
and his. Old habits.
After digging through a drawer for the pizza cutter, he tried to
make his voice neutral when he asked, “Where were you going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were you coming back?”
Her shrug wasn’t the fake one she’d given earlier, but a
smaller, more vulnerable lift of her shoulders. “Probably not.”
“Why?” For this question he turned his back to her, focusing
instead on cutting the pizza into neat slices. It was hard enough
talking calmly to her about her plan to disappear. He didn’t want
to watch her consider a lie over the truth, or choose to give no
answer at all, as if it weren’t important enough to bother. He
118 Passion to Die For
didn’t want to see that she could have run off, leaving the
people who loved her sick with worry.
He didn’t want to look at her and see his mother.
She was silent a long time, and when she did speak, her voice
was unsteady. “Martha brought back a lot of memories that I
wanted to stay forgotten.You’ve probably guessed that my child-
hood wasn’t as idyllic as I portrayed it. I prefer not to remember
it. It was another life. I was another person. But she was planning
to stay here. Every time I saw her, every time I heard her name
or even thought about her…it was easier to leave.”
Tommy dished the pizza onto plates. He set one in front of
Ellie, the other at his own place, sat down and stared across the
table at her. “Easier,” he repeated bitterly. “Easier to run out on
the people who love you than to deal with a few bad memories?
The past is over and done, Ellie. It can’t hurt you now.”
Her smile was thin. “Spoken like a man who doesn’t have
a past. Your childhood really was idyllic. You grew up in a nice
little town with a father who loved you, a grandfather who
adored you, friends, neighbors, everyone cared about you—”
“And a mother who abandoned me. Just like you were planning
to. How could my childhood be perfect without her in it?”
“You had plenty of other people in your life.”
“I have plenty of other people now, but do you think that
makes me miss you any less?”
She stared at him. He knew she wasn’t surprised that he still
missed her, still wanted her—damn it to hell, still loved her. She
knew him far better than he knew her. He had no secrets. What
you saw was what you got. It had taken a lot of years for him
to fall in love; it would take even more time for him to fall out.
“So you were going to go off someplace where we could
never find you, where we could never know if you were even
alive, and what? Start all over again? A new life, a new business,
new friends, a new man?” He snorted derisively. “Who knows?
You could have ended up next door to my mother. Two weak
cowards, living in anonymity, hiding from the only people who
give a damn about them.”
After a moment, he muttered, “Eat your pizza before it gets
cold,” and took a big bite of his own. The sauce was hot on his
tongue, the anchovies salty, the cheese stringy, and he barely
noticed because along with all those other things he still was,
he was also still pissed.
Ellie ate cautiously at first, making certain her stomach
would tolerate the pie. After two pieces, she picked at the third,
scooping the toppings off, breaking off the crispier outer rim
and leaving an empty, misshapen crust on the plate. She wiped
her fingers on a napkin, drank her tea, then sat back, arms
folded across her chest. She looked closed off, detached, and
her voice sounded it. “So how does this work? Anything I tell
you, you tell Robbie and Kiki?”
He shrugged. He’d never been in this situation before.
Robbie, yeah, Tommy would keep him informed. Kiki? He
didn’t know. Working or not, he was still a cop; if he had knowl-
edge of a crime, he had to share it with the investigating officer.
Ellie told him?
“I can’t answer that until I hear what you’re going to say.”
Of course, that was too late for her if the information was
She nodded as if his answer was no more than she’d expected.
“This—” she gestured between them “—is a bad idea.”
“You’d prefer to bunk down in a jail cell?” Given a chance,
she would make a run for it. He was pretty sure of that. Robbie
and Anamaria didn’t have room for her at the condo; Jamie and
Russ couldn’t keep a close watch on her; Carmen had too much
going on with her husband and five kids. Staying with him
might not be her first choice, but it was the only one guaran-
teed to keep her in town.
120 Passion to Die For
Before she could answer, his cell phone rang. He fished it
out, saw Kiki’s number and considered letting it go to voice
mail. Whining or bad news—that was all he’d get from her, and
he wasn’t up for either at the moment. But, scooping up the last
piece of pizza on his plate, he flipped open the phone, left the
chair and went to stand at the back door, gazing out into the
yard. “This is Maricci.”
Behind him a chair scraped, and he shifted just enough to
see Ellie carrying their plates to the sink.
“Hey, do me a favor,” Kiki said. “Ask my suspect a ques-
tion for me.”
“Yeah, sure, what?”
“What’s her name?”
Blankly he bit off a chunk of pizza, then talked around it.
“What do you mean? You know—”
“Ellen Leigh Chase is dead. Has been for over fifteen years.”
His fingers tightened around the phone, and the pizza
suddenly seemed the weight and size of a boulder in his stomach.
He dropped the rest of the piece in the trash can in the utility
room, then wiped his fingers on his shirt. “There must be—”
“No mistake. Ellen Chase, born thirty years ago in Atlanta,
died sixteen years ago in a pile-up on I-20, same city. Then, five
years later, same name, same Social Security number, began
attending the University of South Carolina, working at a posh
restaurant in Charleston, then running a restaurant in Copper
Lake.” The triumph in Kiki’s voice made it more annoying
than usual. So did the distrust. “Find out who she is, Tommy,
or bring her in. Better yet, forget asking and I’ll bring her in.
In handcuffs and leg irons.”
“You know what you can do with your handcuffs and your
leg irons. I’ll call you back.”
He shut the phone too hard, then turned to look at Ellie.
She’d rinsed the dishes and stacked them neatly in the sink,
thrown away the dirty napkins and pizza crusts and wiped the
counters and the table with a damp cloth. Now she squirted
lotion from the bottle beside the sink—her brand, her bottle—
into her hands and waited for him to say or do something.
He wanted to believe Kiki was wrong, but running a name
and Social Security number was simple enough for a monkey
to do. If the computer said the Ellen Leigh Chase belonging to
that number was dead, she was dead.
So who the hell was standing in his kitchen? Who the hell
had he been in love with all this time?
More lies. Bigger lies.
He’d thought she wasn’t capable of murder, but how could
he know that when he didn’t even know something as simple
as her name?
But Martha Dempsey had known. Martha had known her
name, her past, all the secrets she’d done such a damn good job
of hiding. Martha had been a threat to those secrets, and now
she was dead.
Ellie rubbed the last bit of lotion into her skin, then hugged
her middle. “I take it that was bad news. Is Kiki on her way to
He began walking toward her, his steps measured, his muscles
taut. “She may not have to. I may do it myself.” In as conversa-
tional a tone as he could manage, he asked, “Who are you?”
She didn’t blush like most people. Her cheeks turned a
delicate shade of rose that, rather than guilt or embarrassment,
damn near screamed out
. Any rational person would
look at her—her blond hair, big brown eyes, that pretty little
flush—and know she couldn’t possibly have any deep, dark
secrets, certainly none that could lead to murder. Any discern-
ing person would trust her in all the things that mattered, and
all the things that didn’t matter, too.
But she’d been lying since the day she’d come to Copper
122 Passion to Die For
I’m Ellie Chase
. Her first words to virtually everyone
she’d met, including him, had been a lie.
When he came near, she took a step back, continuing to
retreat as he advanced. The counter stopped her; she could go
no farther, but he kept moving until she was trapped, his
prisoner, cabinets at her back, his body in front, his arms at her
sides. His face was so close to hers that she blinked, having
trouble focusing, but that just made him move a breath closer.
“Ellen Chase is dead,” he said in a low, angry voice. “Who
in God’s name are you?”
Ellie had dreaded this day for so many years, from the very
first time she’d ever said the words: My name is Ellen Chase.
She’d been alone with Randolph Aiken that first time, when he’d
given her the documentation—birth certificate, driver’s license,
Social Security card—that changed her from Bethany to Ellen.
The real Ellen, he’d told her, was dead. From that moment on,
she’d convinced herself that the real Bethany was dead, too.
Tommy was so close, but too angry to touch her. She wished
he would. Wished he’d lean his body against hers. Wrap his
arms around her. Pull her head onto his shoulder. Tell her every-
thing would be okay because he was there.
But that wasn’t going to happen. She had only herself to get
through this mess.
And she finally had to share the secrets that had gotten her
into it in the first place. Some naive part of her had hoped they
124 Passion to Die For
would die with Martha, but her realistic side had known that
wasn’t going to happen. She knew it had only been a matter of
time before the police would have found out that Ellie Chase
was a liar and a fraud. They would run her fingerprints and
discover her real name, her real connection to Martha, her real
past. Tommy could hear it from Kiki or from her.
She uncurled one hand from the other and gently touched
his arm. He flinched, his muscles knotting, his jaw clenching,
and with an inward flinch of her own, she drew back. “Can we
His breathing shallow and controlled, he took a few steps
back, then gestured toward the door and the deck beyond.
The wood of the deck was silvered and worn, with wide
steps leading down into the yard. Ellie sat down on the top one.
The wood was warm against her feet, the sun shining down on
her bare arms. Tommy’s idea of yard work consisted of mow-
ing. There were no flower beds to soften the edges of the deck,
leaves were scattered across the grass and the azaleas that
bordered the yard on three sides hadn’t been pruned in years.
In bloom in the spring, they were a gorgeous sight.
He walked past her to stand in the grass below, hands on
his hips, a scowl on his face. “Should I call Robbie for the
His sarcasm hurt, but she hid it. She knew so much more
about hiding than revealing.
Of course Robbie would know. Everyone would. By now,
she was the latest topic of gossip all over town. Conversations
would stop when she came around, or whispers would start.
you hear… Do you know… Can you believe…
Then the snubs
and the cold shoulders, until one day she would leave town and
no one would care.
If Kiki didn’t put her in jail first.
“No.” This first time, this hardest time, she would tell only
Tommy. Lacing her fingers together tightly in her lap, she said,
“Once upon a time—”
“It’s not a damn fairy tale,” he growled.
No. More like a horror movie.
She nodded and adopted a more fitting somber tone. “I grew
up in Atlanta, an only child, in a house on Fairfax Street with
my mother and father. They didn’t choose to be parents, neither
before I was born nor after. I was an accident, and they did the
least they could to deal with it.”
You had a roof over your head, food to eat and clothes on
Martha had pointed out last week.
What more could
a kid ask for?
“My parents weren’t strict. They weren’t interested enough
to be. As long as I didn’t cause any problems for them, they
didn’t care what I did. As I got older, I went to school, I hung
out with my best friend, Cheryl, and I did my best to minimize
the time I spent at home. My father worked and drank, and my
mother stayed home and drank.
“One evening I went to Cheryl’s house to study for a mid-
semester exam—at least, that was the plan. But she had been
invited to a party by her boyfriend, and she persuaded me to
go. I didn’t even know she
Smiling faintly, she stared at a thin spot in the grass. She’d
thought she and Cheryl shared everything. Her friend was the
only one who knew the details of Ellie’s life at home; she knew
about all the fights Cheryl had with her parents. But she didn’t
know Cheryl was seeing a twenty-one-year-old man with
whom she was having sex on a regular basis.
She’d been so naive.
“Everyone at the party was older. There was a lot of alcohol,
a lot of drugs, and a fight broke out. Someone called the police,
and when they came, someone slipped some meth into my
purse. No one believed me when I said the drugs weren’t mine.
126 Passion to Die For
We were at a party with all these older people, known drug
dealers, everyone with arrest records except Cheryl and me.
They looked at where I was and who I was with, and they
assumed I was guilty. You know how cops are.”
Tommy’s tension ratcheted up a notch with the comment.
“I got arrested, the police called my parents and they refused
to pick me up. I spent the night in jail, and when I was finally
released the next morning, my mother wouldn’t let me in the
house. By the time I got out of jail, she’d already removed every
sign of me from the house—my clothes, my books, the photo-
graphs of me. She’d boxed everything up and watched the trash
guys haul it off. She told me they’d never wanted a kid, and they
damn sure didn’t want a kid who got into trouble with the cops.
And then she closed and locked the door in my face.”
She dared another look at Tommy and saw sympathy in
his dark eyes.
“I went to Cheryl’s house, but she wouldn’t let me in, either,
and she couldn’t look me in the eye. I finally figured out she
was the one who’d stashed the drugs in my purse. I begged her
to tell the truth because it was destroying my life, and she
said…” Her voice faltered. She’d expected nothing from her
parents and hadn’t been surprised to get it. But Cheryl had been
her best friend. She’d been the one person Ellie had thought
would never let her down. “She said, ‘Better you than me,’ and
she went back into the house and just left me there, with
nowhere to go, no money, no family, no friends.”
It hadn’t been the first time she’d been betrayed, or the last,
but maybe the worst. She’d never trusted anyone the way she’d
trusted Cheryl. Not her parents, not Tommy, not Randolph
Aiken or Anamaria or Robbie or Jamie.
But she was trusting Tommy with this story.
Though not by choice.
“I was fifteen, and I was homeless. I slept the first three
nights hidden between the trash cans in the alley behind my
parents’ house. I shoplifted food and huddled in corners, and
my parents lived their lives as if I had never existed. On the
fourth day, I tried to get my mother to let me come home, and
she threw an empty whiskey bottle at me.” Ellie fingered her
left temple, imagining she could still feel the split skin and the
trickle of blood. “So I moved on. I left our neighborhood—I
was too ashamed to see people I knew—and eventually I met
other kids who were on their own. They taught me what I
needed to survive.”
Tommy looked as if he’d turned to stone, a scowl etched into
his face, his gaze distant and dark. The only signs of life were
the muscle that clenched in his jaw and the faintest movement
in his throat when he swallowed. Clearly he’d had no idea what
her great reveal was going to be, and just as clearly he didn’t
like it. He didn’t want to hear more. Didn’t want to know her
secrets, after all.
But now that she had started, she couldn’t stop.
“You’re a cop, Tommy,” she said quietly. “You know what
I mean by ‘survive.’ I snatched purses. I picked pockets. I ran
errands for drug dealers. And when none of that was enough,
when I got desperate enough, I began having sex with them.
With anyone who had the money.”
That muscle was so tight that it looked as if it might snap.
She drew a breath, straightened her shoulders and said aloud
words she’d never imagined herself saying. “I was a prostitute,
Tommy. My real name is Bethany Ann, and Martha Dempsey
Tommy was sick.
Not just surprised or stunned, but churning-in-his-stomach,
going-to-lose-his-lunch sick. He’d heard lots of sad stories. He
knew the god-awful things parents could do to their kids, strong
128 Passion to Die For
people could do to vulnerable people, but he’d never imag-
ined… He’d never suspected.
His muscles on the verge of spasm from being too taut for
too long, he stiffly turned and sank onto the third step, halfway
between Ellie and the grass. She was barely a blur in his peri-
pheral vision, but he could hear her shallow breathing. He
could feel the tension radiating around her. He could damn near
taste the coppery flavor of dread, nervousness, fear.
Ellie, Ellen Leigh Chase, the woman he’d fallen in love with
practically the first time he’d seen her, the woman he’d wanted
to marry and have kids with and grow old with, was Martha
Dempsey’s daughter. Bethany Ann Dempsey. Teenage thief
If he thought about that too hard, he really would lose his
He wished she hadn’t told him anything. Wished he’d never
asked her questions.
Wished he’d never met her.
. He would never wish her out of his life.
Though he’d wish a different life for her. A different past.
One that wasn’t so…awful.
“So now you know—” Her voice wobbled, and she drew a
sharp breath. “Now you know pretty much everything. I bet you
regret asking, don’t you?”
He should turn around, look her in the eye and say,
matter. It doesn’t change anything.
But it gave her a motive to kill Martha Dempsey. She’d hidden
from her past a long time—a new name, a new life, a fantasy
upbringing that couldn’t have been more normal. If Martha had
threatened to reveal everything… Why else would she have
come to Copper Lake? Certainly not to make amends. Not out
of motherly concern for her only child. She’d wanted something
from Ellie—money, most likely; support—and she’d been will-
ing to do whatever was necessary to get it. She’d deserved to die
for what she’d done to her fifteen-year-old daughter.
He pictured the woman he’d spent too much time with the
past few days—the gray hair, the unhealthy color, the stale
stink of cigarettes and booze so pervasive that it had become a
part of her. Smug, mean, calculating. Ellie’s mother.
The name didn’t fit her. She didn’t look like a Bethany,
didn’t feel like one. He couldn’t imagine calling her that, or her
answering to it. Bethany had died a long time ago, destroyed
by indifference and betrayal and abandonment. The woman
sitting behind him, waiting for a response from him, could
never be as innocent and naive as a Bethany.
Damned if he knew what response to make.
“Please say something, Tommy.” Again her voice quavered,
a plea from a woman who never pleaded.
He dragged his fingers through his hair, then shook his head.
“I need to…” Think. Process it all. Look at it unemotionally,
like a cop. Just the facts.
He needed time to absorb that Ellie-he’d-wanted-to-marry was
a liar, a fabrication, a desperate kid who’d done desperate things.
He had to look at just how desperate those things had gotten.
Did it matter to him that she’d been a prostitute? That the
same great-sex stuff she’d done with him, she’d done with
With anyone who had the money.
Had she killed her mother?
And did that really matter?
Tommy shoved himself to his feet and turned toward her but
couldn’t quite meet her gaze. “I can’t— I really need to—”
He sensed rather than saw her hurt. Damn it to hell, all she
needed right now was meaningless words.
It’s all right. We’ll
130 Passion to Die For
deal with it.
But he didn’t know if anything was all right, if they
could deal with anything.
Pivoting, he stalked across the grass and jerked his cell
phone from his pocket. Speed-dial number one: Robbie. “Get
over here to the house,” he said sharply. “I’ve got to go out,
and someone needs to watch—” Instead of saying either name,
he hung up.
“Well.” The sound was more sigh than word, heavy with dis-
appointment, and he knew he’d officially joined the long line
of people who’d let her down.
Easing to her feet as if sudden movement might hurt, Ellie
crossed the deck and went back inside the house. A moment
later, he followed, hearing snatches of TV shows as she flipped
through the channels.
It took Robbie and Anamaria five minutes to get there.
Tommy waited in the kitchen, listening for the sound of the
Corvette, trying not to hear the echo of Ellie’s words.
say something, Tommy.
Anything would have done.
Wow. I’m sorry. That was
tough. That’s in the past. It’s okay.
Like an idiot, he couldn’t
manage even that.
By the time Robbie and Anamaria reached the steps, Tommy
was halfway across the porch. Anamaria’s hand brushed his arm
as he passed, but he didn’t slow. “I’ll be back later.”
“Hey.” Robbie spun around and trailed him to the SUV.
“What’s going on?”
“I have to go somewhere.”
Damned if I know.
With a shrug, he climbed into the truck
and slammed the door.
Robbie stood in the driveway, scowling at him, as he backed
out, then drove away.
After too much aimless wandering, both physical and men-
tal, he found himself sitting in the parking lot of the Morning-
side Nursing Center. Pops’s room was near the back, but he
wouldn’t be in there on a day like this. Tommy cut through to
the nearest rear exit, then headed for a quiet corner with a table
and four chairs in the shade of a maple tree. Pops sat in one of
the chairs, his walker to one side, a checkerboard folded up in
its box on the table in front of him. He held the Sunday paper
on his lap, but he was watching a group of blue-haired women
a few yards away instead of reading.
When Tommy slid into the chair to his left, Pops grinned.
“That Dorothy Abernathy is quite a looker, even as old as she is.”
“She’s younger than you are.”
“Yeah, but men age better.” Pops shifted his gaze to Tommy.
“Present company excepted. You look like hell.”
“It’s been a long day. Where’s Dad?”
“Already been here and gone. I whipped him at checkers
again.” He gestured to the set, then said, “We missed you at
church this morning.”
“You haven’t seen me at church on Sunday in longer than
either of us can remember.”
Pops shook one bony finger. “Your memory might be failing,
but mine is as clear as ever. Father O’Rourke told us about that
poor woman. Is that why you’ve had a long day?”
Poor Martha? Like hell. A better description would be poor
excuse for a human being. “Yeah. But I’m off the case.”
Tommy leaned back in the chair, exhausted, and it settled
an inch or two deeper into the earth. “Because it appears that
the prime suspect is Ellie.”
Pops snorted in utter dismissal. “Ellie wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
To him, it had been so simple: they loved
each other. Getting married was the next step, then having kids.
Even though she’d never said it, he’d always believed she loved
132 Passion to Die For
him. The way she looked at him, touched him, smiled at him,
made love with him…
But love required trust, and she had none to give.
Pops folded the newspaper and swatted it down on the table.
believe Ellie is guilty.”
Did he? Martha had thrown her teenage daughter out on the
streets, knowing what her options would be for survival. Then,
when Ellie not only survived but prospered, she’d hunted her
down and threatened her. Ellie had had too much to drink, and
those same survival instincts her mother had forced on her
might have kicked in. Might have led her to drive home. Might
have caused her to flee the accident scene. Might have blacked
out the details of the accident.
Or she might be guilty of nothing more than wishing her
Leaving the question unanswered, he asked one of his own.
“What do you do, Pops, when you find out that everything a
person’s ever told you is a lie?”
“What kind of lies? Big ones or little ones? Making excuses
for things they’ve done or lying for their own benefit or cover-
ing things they’re ashamed of?”
Tommy shrugged. Ellie hadn’t made excuses. She’d done
what she had to to survive, and she hadn’t benefitted, unless
being treated as a regular person counted. But she was ashamed
of the past, or she wouldn’t have created the fantasy life with
Pops’s gaze narrowed, and after a moment, his mouth
thinned. “Found out something about Ellie you’d rather not
He nodded. Hell, yeah, he preferred thinking that she’d had
the fantasy life—a regular home, regular parents who loved her,
nothing out of the ordinary. He didn’t want to know that she’d
been on her own, scared, hungry, homeless, desperate.
“Is this stuff she’s done since you met her?”
“Does it change who you think she is?”
Tilting his head back, Tommy gazed into the branches of the
tree overhead. There was just enough breeze to flutter the
leaves, to make a soothing rustle that could, and often did on
lazy afternoons with Pops, lull a person to sleep.
He’d always thought Ellie was beautiful. Nice. Sweet. Intel-
ligent. Capable. Incredibly sexy. A little guarded. A little
distant. Did he think any differently now?
“No. It doesn’t change anything.” Though now he could add
strong and resilient and tough to the list.
“Does it change the way you feel about her?”
He hated that life had been so unfair. He was angry about
what her parents and her so-called friend had done to her. It hurt
that she’d had to learn so many ugly lessons all at once, and it
hurt like hell knowing that she’d lived half her life unable to
trust anyone with something as basic as her name.
“No,” he said quietly, regretfully. “I still love her. But now
I understand why she…” Why she didn’t trust him enough to
let herself love him back. Why she’d been so willing to give up
everything and run away. Why she’d never wanted a commit-
ment, not from him, not to him.
I wish to God you were dead,
she’d said to Martha last night.
It was fifteen years late in coming, but Martha had finally
gotten what she deserved.
“Well?” Pops prodded. “You gonna sit here with an old man
all day, or go try to make things right with that pretty girl of
yours? You know, I’d like to hold my first great-grandbaby at
least once before I die.”
Tommy didn’t bother pointing out to him that Ellie wasn’t
his and really never had been. He didn’t tell Pops that the odds
of them ever having kids were so damn slim that they were non-
134 Passion to Die For
existent. They had been from the beginning, but he’d let his
hopes blind him.
Was he blinded now?
He knew the past she’d wanted so much to keep hidden. He
knew Kiki was determined to make a case against her for
Martha’s death. He knew she might conceivably be guilty—not
of murder, but of hit-and-run. Of driving under the influence,
bad judgment and impaired thinking. He knew she would never
deliberately take another person’s life.
And nothing he knew changed the way he felt. None of it
changed what he had to do.
Rising from the chair, he bent and hugged his grandfather.
“I’ve got to go, Pops. I’ve got to see someone.”
Ellie. There was something he had to tell her.
It’s all right. We’ll deal with it.
Ellie pretended she didn’t know to the minute how long
Tommy had been gone, but it was a lie. She’d watched televi-
sion and talked with Robbie and Anamaria, but the entire time
a clock had been ticking in her head: one minute, two, five, ten,
When a car pulled into the driveway and, a moment later, a
door closed, she stiffened. One hundred eighty-eight minutes,
give or take a few seconds. It had taken more than three hours
for him to decide he could stomach facing her again.
His steps were quiet as he crossed the porch. There were two
small thuds; then the door swung open and he came inside,
carrying the suitcases and the canvas bags she’d stashed in her
car the afternoon before. He set them in the hallway near Pops’s
room, then stopped in the living room doorway. He didn’t look
eager to talk to any of them.
“Help me up off this couch,” Anamaria said, extending her
hand to Robbie. He got to his feet with the natural grace all Cal-
loways shared—one of the perks of good breeding—took her
hand and pulled her easily to her feet.
“I’ll call you later,” Robbie said as he passed Tommy on the
way to the front door, squeezing his shoulder.
later,” Anamaria said to Ellie before her hus-
band tugged her around the corner.
An instant later, the door closed again, and suddenly the
house seemed very small, very close. Ellie was already huddled
in the armchair, her feet drawn up beside her, hugging a faded
patchwork pillow. She tried to make herself a little smaller, a
little less noticeable. As if any man could fail to notice a full-
grown woman in his living room.
After a time, Tommy moved farther into the room. He picked
up the remote and turned off the television, then hesitated, the
length of the coffee table between them.
She should say something flippant, something light, as if a
few hours ago she hadn’t confided her darkest secrets to him
and he hadn’t run screaming in the other direction.
Okay, to be fair, they were her next-to-darkest secrets, and
he hadn’t screamed. But he had certainly run. She’d done it
enough in her lifetime to recognize it.
He shifted his weight side to side, shoved both hands into
his hip pockets, then asked, “Did you tell Robbie…?”
He couldn’t even say it.
That Martha was your mother, that
you were a prostitute, you were in and out of jail, you were
homeless, worthless, a nobody?
And she didn’t say it, either.
She simply nodded before asking her own question. “Did you
tell Kiki?” Her bags had been in the car, and Kiki had control
over the car. He must have seen her, talked to her. Repeated
Ellie’s secrets to her.
“Only the last part. That your name was Bethany and Martha
was your mother. The rest…” He shrugged awkwardly.
Anamaria and Robbie had been sympathetic, understanding,
136 Passion to Die For
insisting it made no difference, though Ellie wasn’t convinced.
When someone told you something that shocked you, you
murmured the appropriate words, but it was your behavior that
told the truth. Maybe it really wouldn’t change the way they
felt about her; maybe they would remain her friends, or maybe
they wouldn’t. Only time would tell.
The truth had mattered to Tommy, and it would damn well
matter to Kiki. It would give her a motive for murder once she
found out the rest, which would happen sometime today, maybe
tomorrow if Ellie was lucky, when they ran a criminal history
on Bethany Ann Dempsey.
She’d dated a cop too long, she thought, choking back the hys-
terical urge to laugh. She’d picked up the terminology and knew
the process undergone by suspects once they’d been arrested. If
Kiki got her way, it was only a matter of time before she got to
experience it firsthand instead of only in Tommy’s stories.
“So now they know I have a motive, to go along with the
dented car and the blood on my clothes.” She swallowed hard.
Robbie had been very positive and encouraging, and Anamaria
couldn’t have been more supportive. But Ellie wanted, needed
to know the odds from someone who knew.
Her voice was smaller than she wanted it to be, and shakier,
too. “Are they going to charge me?”
Tommy stiffened, and his gaze shifted away briefly before
returning to her. “I’d say yes.”
His answer didn’t surprise her; she’d known it deep inside.
She’d just hoped…and been disappointed. The reason she’d
given up hoping fifteen years ago. “Did I do it? Did I run my
mother down in the road?”
Finally he moved, coming to sit on the coffee table in front
of her. The smell of his cologne was faint, having been applied
hours ago, and a heavy growth of stubble darkened his jaw. He
looked handsome, worn out and oh, so serious. “If you did, it
was an accident. It was late, dark. She was wearing dark
clothes. She’d been drinking. She was probably weaving down
the middle of the street.”
It was a picture she could envision too easily. Because she’d
actually seen it? The possibility made her shudder.
“I don’t believe—” He broke off abruptly, staring hard at her,
then slowly, thoughtfully repeated the words. “I don’t believe
you did it. Accident or not. Drunk or not. I don’t believe you
could get so drunk that you could run over a woman in the street,
get out of the car, go to her and not realize what you’d done.”
“Alcoholics have blackouts all the time,” she whispered,
stunned that he sounded so sure when
didn’t have a clue.
“You’re not an alcoholic. If you got so drunk that you
couldn’t remember a damn thing all night long, would you
have been able to leave the restaurant without being seen, get
in your car and drive across town, run over Martha, then drive
back across town and reenter the restaurant, again without
“Do you know for sure that no one saw me leave or come
“Decker told me when I picked up your stuff. They’ve inter-
viewed the kitchen staff and were starting on the waiters.”
Leaving unnoticed through the kitchen during business
hours would be close to impossible. She always spoke to the
staff when she went into the kitchen; they expected it. And they
were never overly busy the night of the Halloween festival—
enough to make staying open profitable, not enough to keep the
staff from noticing their boss walking through their workspace.
But she could have gone out the front door. They would have
assumed she was returning to the booth, so no one would have
watched to see her circle the building and enter the parking lot
from the alley. All the while so intoxicated that she didn’t know
what she was doing. And why would she have headed to the
138 Passion to Die For
house? She’d already packed everything she wanted; she’d
locked up the place and said goodbye that afternoon. There was
no reason to go back
“Did they talk to Deryl, the bartender?”
“He said he served you one drink. A pumpkin-spice ale. Said
you sat in the corner booth with a witch while you drank it, left
right after she did, and he didn’t see you again. He didn’t rec-
ognize the witch’s voice, but he said it was a good costume with
a real heavy makeup job.”
It was a scary thing, missing hours from her life, having
other people know more about what she did during those hours
than she did. It was even scarier having missing hours where
no one knew what she’d done.
“What if I did it?” she whispered.
Tommy’s mouth thinned. “You didn’t.”
“But what if I did? Even if no one saw me leave the restau-
rant, apparently I did. My car was on the other side of town. It
was used to kill Martha. How would it have gotten there if I
didn’t drive it?”
“Someone else drove it.”
She would love to believe that she’d crashed on the office sofa
as soon as the ale took effect and that someone had lifted her keys
and helped himself to her car. But who? People didn’t just come
into her office…though they could. She hadn’t locked the door
since the time she and Tommy had made love in there on his
lunch break last spring. Someone could have walked in, found
her passed out and taken her keys, then brought them back.
“Who would want to kill Martha and make it look as if I did
Tommy scowled, looking fierce in spite of his fatigue. “I
doubt that anyone who knew her would regret that she’s dead.”
That was probably true. Ellie didn’t regret it, except for the
fact that suspicion had been cast on her. She would say that
made her a terrible daughter, but the last time she’d begged
Martha to let her come home, her mother had called her a filthy
You’re no daughter of mine.
Blood couldn’t make up for years of neglect, bitterness
“As for blaming you…every smart killer wants the blame to
fall on somebody else. You’re an easy choice. Everyone in
town who saw you with Martha knew there was something ugly
It was hard to be discreet when fear and disgust reeked from
your very pores.
“Is there anyone Decker should be looking at?” Tommy
asked. “Another relative, a friend, someone who might have
come here with her, an enemy who might have followed her?”
“I’ve had no contact with her for almost half my life. She
and my father were never close to their families. Her parents
lived ten miles away, and I saw them maybe five times in fifteen
years. She had a brother and two sisters, but we never saw them,
either. I never even met their kids.”
Silence settled between them while he scrubbed his face
with his palms, then got to his feet. He disappeared into the
kitchen and returned a moment later with a cold bottle of water.
He offered it, she shook her head and he twisted off the cap to
gulp down half of it.
“She was blackmailing you, wasn’t she?”
Heat flushed Ellie, making her shift uncomfortably. “Yes.
She wanted her name on the house and the business, to live
with me and play the gracious hostess at the restaurant and
spend my money.”
“Or she would tell…” He gestured, an oddly graceful motion
considering that it was filling in for words he still couldn’t
bring himself to say. “Did you really believe it would make a
difference, Ellie? That anybody who knows you would care?”
140 Passion to Die For
she wanted to remind him. She’d seen the shock,
the revulsion. He couldn’t have gotten away from her quickly
enough, and he was the one who’d said he loved her.
For the first fifteen years of her life, she’d been told and
shown time and again that she was nothing. Her parents had
had no use for her; her best friend had helped destroy her; cus-
tomers had beaten her, stolen from her and debased her; people
with normal lives had kept their distance from her as if being
homeless and poor and a prostitute might be contagious.
She was deeply ashamed of who she had been and what she
had done. Living like that had been too painful; part of her had
just wanted to curl up somewhere and die.
And part of her had struggled like hell to put those years
behind her, to make herself into a new person who was, on the
surface, no different than anyone else. She’d worked hard to
forget that Bethany Ann Dempsey had ever existed. She’d never
wanted the person she’d become tainted by even the memory
of who she’d once been.
“Yes,” she said flatly. “It makes a difference.”
“You’re wrong,” he replied just as flatly. “It was a hell of a
thing for you to go through, but it doesn’t change anything.
You’re still the same woman you were yesterday. You’re still
the woman that people in this town know and like and respect.”
She shook her head. “Only because they don’t know yet. But
it’ll come out, and it will matter.”
He stared at her a long time before grimly shaking his own
head. “You don’t cut people any slack, do you, Ellie? And you
don’t cut yourself any. You were in a bad situation, and you did
what you had to to survive. If anyone holds that against you
now, it’s their loss, not yours.”
He rubbed one hand over his face again. “I need to lie down.
Promise me you won’t leave.”
He was asking for a promise from a woman who had lied to
him from the first time they’d met. If she said she wouldn’t run
away, he was willing to trust her and leave her free to do just
that. The thought made a lump form in her throat. “I won’t,”
she said, her voice hoarse.
With an accepting nod, he went to the hall, then turned back.
“It’ll be okay, Ellie. We’ll make it so.”
For the first time in days, she felt a moment of overwhelming
peace. It wouldn’t last long. Kiki would arrest her for Martha’s
death, the gossip would start and life as she knew it would end.
But for this moment, she wasn’t alone. She felt safe. And
even though she knew better, even though it always made the
disappointment worse, for this moment she hoped.
fter a long, awkward evening, Tommy had been glad to get
to bed. But even despite his nap that afternoon, morning came
too soon. The beep of his alarm was followed a moment later
by the sound of the shower coming on in the bathroom next
door. He rolled onto his side and stared at the dim rectangle of
light that was the window.
Of course Ellie was planning to go to work as if nothing had
happened. If he’d thought about it, he would have been surprised
by any other action on her part. But he hadn’t thought about it.
He forced himself out of bed and went into the kitchen for a
bottle of water. Though he was up at five every day but Saturdays,
he wasn’t a quick starter. It was sheer will that kept him moving
most mornings, getting into his running clothes and shoes and
setting off for the river trail and five miles to kick his brain into
gear. There would be no run this morning, but no crawling back
into bed, either, not unless he could persuade Ellie to go with him.
Now, there was a thought to get his blood pumping.
He’d showered and shaved the night before; by the time she
came out of the bathroom, he was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.
She gave him a tight smile on her way back to Pops’s room, closed
the door, then came out again ten minutes later ready to leave.
“You don’t have to go in,” he said as he locked the front door
“This is my job. It’s what I do.”
“No one will think less of you if—” He broke off at the sharp
look she gave him, barely visible in the thin illumination of the
Desperation and low self-esteem: the biggest reasons
women wound up in the sex trade. Teenage girls who were
thrown out by their families or who ran away because of
problems at home lacked the confidence that might allow them
to find some other way to survive. They were befriended by the
other working girls, targeted by the pimps, easy marks because
all they wanted was to stay alive and to matter to someone.
Ellie’s parents deserved to burn in hell for what they’d
done to her.
They drove the few minutes downtown in silence. He parked
in her usual space, then followed her up the steps to the rear
entrance. A lone light shone down directly overhead as she
unlocked and opened the door. Then she paused. “You can go
run. I’ll be here.”
“That’s not why I’m staying,” he said, and it was true. He
was sticking close today in case she needed the support, in case
folks proved him wrong or Kiki came by to arrest her.
With a nod, she went in, turning on lights, starting coffee.
“This place is spooky when it’s empty.”
She smiled for real this time. “No, it’s not. It’s the closest
thing I’ve ever had to a home.”
And that was just sad.
144 Passion to Die For
When the coffee was ready, Ellie poured two cups and stirred
in sweetener, handed one to him, then left the kitchen. Instead
of heading straight to her office, she stopped just outside the bar.
One light was on over the bar itself, casting deep shadows
around the edges of the room. Her fingers gripped the coffee
mug tightly, and her gaze was narrowed. Trying to remember
Saturday night? Walking through the arched opening, talking
to Deryl, sitting in one of the back booths with the woman
dressed as a witch.
With a shudder, she turned away and went to her office,
switched on the lights and sat down at the desk. Tommy sat in
the chair nearest her. “I have no doubt Martha was devious
enough to plan the blackmail scheme by herself, but was she
smart enough to get proof of your background? Was she smart
enough to find you?”
Ellie stared down into her coffee. “Wednesday night, the first
time I saw her, she gave me copies of all my arrest reports, the
photographs taken by the police, everything.”
He remembered talking to her in the gazebo later that night,
hearing the rustle of paper beneath her coat when she stood up.
“She didn’t get copies of arrest reports and booking photos of
a minor legally.”
“Legally or not, she had them. As for finding me, I asked her
how she’d done it, and she grinned and said, ‘I have my sources.’”
What kind of sources did an unemployed alcoholic woman
have? “Did you change your name legally?”
“Did you keep in touch with anyone from Atlanta? Maybe
someone you knew happened to come into the restaurant?”
“There was no one to stay in touch with. And if someone I
knew had come here, I would have hidden in the storeroom until
“Provided you saw them before they saw you.”
Her nod was regretful. “When Jeffrey reserved the private
dining room for Jared’s birthday party, I didn’t realize he would
be inviting all those lawyers and judges and clients from
Atlanta. I spent the whole evening in a panic that some assis-
tant D.A. or judge would remember me.”
Maybe one of them had. Maybe an old friend of Martha’s
had happened to pass through Copper Lake on her way some-
place and recognized Ellie. Or maybe Martha had hired
someone to find her. It wouldn’t have been easy, but it was
“Do you ever think about finding your mother?” Ellie asked
The change in subject surprised him, but he went with it. He
supposed there was only so much focusing on her own troubles
she could bear. “Sure. But I’ve never tried.”
“She left us. She never called, never sent a note saying ‘I’m
okay,’ never wanted to know how we were doing without her.
If I found out she was dead, that maybe she’d wound up on the
streets and died all alone, I’d feel really crappy. And if I found
out she’d gotten sober and made a new life for herself that didn’t
have room for us, I’d feel really crappy. And if she’s still
drinking, still miserable, still not able to cope…” He shrugged.
“It’s better not knowing.”
She nodded a sad agreement. “Better for everyone. I never
wanted anyone to know I used to be a hooker, and I bet
everyone who now knows wishes they didn’t. Except Kiki. She
probably got a kick out of it.”
Abruptly she pushed away from her desk. “I’d better see if
Ramona needs any help.”
Tommy hadn’t heard Ramona Jackson, baker of prize-
winning biscuits, breads and cheesecakes, come in, but no
146 Passion to Die For
doubt Ellie knew her employees’ routines as well as her own.
Figuring she needed a break from him as well as the conversa-
tion, he let her go, settled back and drank his coffee.
By noon he’d had four cups of coffee, a full breakfast and a
hefty serving of Ramona’s new recipe for banana-caramel
cheesecake. Ellie was hiding as much as possible from both
customers and staff, and when she did have to deal with them,
she was edgy and couldn’t meet their gazes. When Lieutenant
Decker came in a few minutes after twelve, she blanched and
went stiff, then looked relieved when he beckoned Tommy out
of the office.
“I got a break,” Decker said once they’d reached the
“Someone confessed to stealing Ellie’s car and running
down the old hag?”
“No. Isaacs’s father had a heart attack while in Charlotte on
business. She’s gone up there with her mother.” Decker raised
one hand to stop Tommy from responding. “It’s a minor heart
attack, from what I understand, but anything that gets her out
of my way is good.”
Tommy couldn’t help defending her, even if he shared the
lieutenant’s sentiments. “It’s her first major case. She wants to
close it quickly and make a good impression.”
“I’d be more impressed if she wasn’t so narrow-minded. I
know she’s best friends with Sophy, who has a thing for you,
and you’ve got one for Ellie, but there’s no room for bias in this
business. She should have asked to be reassigned the same
time you did.”
“You can remove her,” Tommy pointed out.
“Or I can work with her and, if not teach her something, then
at least keep a tight rein on her.”
Decker removed a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket,
looked at it a moment, then put it back. Thirty hours earlier,
Tommy had stood in the same place and tried to smoke his very
last cigarette. Only his shaky hands and Robbie’s interference
had stopped him. Today he didn’t feel even the faintest desire.
After a moment, Decker gave him a sideways glance. “You
know about her life as Bethany.”
“She thinks it’ll change the way people think of her.”
“It will with some of them.” Decker lowered himself to sit
on the edge of the dock. Tommy joined him. “I worked narcot-
ics in Dallas for five years. A lot of my informants were pros-
titutes. Most people didn’t think much of them, and they didn’t
think much of themselves. It didn’t matter whether they were
doing twenty-dollar blow jobs in a car or thousand-dollar-an-
hour hookups in a fancy hotel, they all wanted the same thing—
to get out and make a new life someplace where no one would
ever know what they’d done before. And if they got that new
life, their biggest fear was people finding out about the old one.”
“It’s no one’s business what she did,” Tommy said with a scowl.
“I agree. But Ellie’s dreaded this for fifteen years. She’s
always had the fear, and you know Martha Dempsey played on
it. She probably always told the kid she wasn’t worth a damn,
and no doubt it was easy to convince her that everyone else
would think the same thing.”
“I don’t believe Ellie’s guilty.”
Decker shrugged. “The lab geeks are looking at the car and
the clothes. If there’s anything to find, they’ll find it. Robinson’s
meeting me here.” He glanced at his watch. “She’s late.”
“She’s always late.” Even as Tommy spoke, a county SUV
pulled into the lot. Marnie Robinson climbed out, lifted a kit
from the back of the vehicle, then approached them, her strides
long but unhurried.
“I’m here,” she said unnecessarily. Decker made a show of
148 Passion to Die For
looking at his watch again, but she ignored him. “Where’s the
“Inside,” Decker said.
“Through the kitchen and to the right,” Tommy explained.
“Where’s the kitchen?”
He jumped to the ground and led the way to the steps.
“Haven’t you ever been here?”
“I don’t eat out.” Her expression was dead serious when he
held the door for her. “Germs.”
“Wonder what else she doesn’t do,” Decker murmured.
The lights were on in the bar, though they didn’t provide
much illumination. Deryl was behind the gleaming length of
mahogany, mixing up a drink that looked disgustingly like raw
egg yolks. “Hey, Lieutenant. Detective.” His gaze flickered
over Robinson. “Lab rat.”
She ignored him, too.
Decker led Markham through a recitation of Ellie’s time in
the bar Saturday night, having him show where the witch had
sat before Ellie came in, which booth they’d occupied, which
side each woman had taken.
“You clean the tables every night after closing?” Tommy
asked as Robinson took out a variety of fingerprint powders.
“Yeah. And I wiped this one down as soon as they left
because Ellie spilled her drink. Sorry.”
Robinson continued, bypassing the tabletop for the inch-high
lip that surrounded it and the bench where the witch had sat.
“She had one ale, probably twelve ounces, and spilled part
of that,” Decker remarked. “How much?”
“I don’t know,” Markham replied. “Most of it went on her
clothes, but I cleaned up maybe two ounces from the table.”
Tommy leaned against the bar, staring into the distance.
Markham went back to his egg-yolk sludge, and Decker came
to stand beside Tommy. “You thinking what I am?”
“There’s no way Ellie got blackout-drunk from less than one
Decker nodded. “So, unless she went someplace else when
she left here and tied one on, there might be another reason for
her memory loss.”
“Hey, Markham,” Tommy called over his shoulder. “Did
Ellie pick up her drink or did you take it to her?”
“I was going to, but the witch offered because I was busy.”
The perfect opportunity to dump something into the glass,
give it a swirl or two, then present it to an unsuspecting victim.
Guys in bars did it to girls all the time. “If she was drugged,
then she couldn’t have been driving the car when Martha died.”
Saying the words aloud sent a rush of relief through Tommy.
He’d thought she was innocent—had realized it like a thump
to the head when he’d sat on the coffee table the afternoon
before and said,
I don’t believe you did it.
Still, it was one thing
for him to believe in her innocence, another entirely if the
evidence supported it.
“Okay, let’s go to the hospital and get her blood drawn,” Decker
said. “It may be too late for anything to show up, but—”
“The drug of choice for this purpose, because of its ready
availability, is flunitrazepam, also known as Rohypnol,” Robin-
son said without looking up from the prints she was collecting.
“It’s usually gone from the blood within six hours, but can be
found in the urine for twenty-four to seventy-two hours,
depending on the person’s metabolic rate and how often and
how much she urinates.”
It had been about forty hours, so they were out of luck with
the blood. They might get a hit on a urine test, though.
“However,” Robinson went on, “if she spilled the drink on
her clothes, then we should find some residue on the fabric. All
we’ve looked at is the bloodstain, which belonged to the victim,
by the way. I doubt the tech even noticed the other stain.”
150 Passion to Die For
“Let’s take her over to the hospital anyway,” Decker said.
“Just in case.”
There usually was no “just in case” with Robinson; she was
always right. But Tommy was feeling pretty hopeful as he and
Decker made their way to Ellie’s office. The lab
traces of a drug in the stain on her clothing, and she would have
the satisfaction of knowing she didn’t kill her mother.
So who did kill Martha Dempsey, and why were they
blaming it on Ellie?
She wasn’t a killer.
Though there had been no evidence of drugs in Ellie’s blood,
the lab had found traces of Rohypnol in her urine and in the
alcohol staining the skirt and the shawl she’d worn Saturday
night. Tommy’s theory was straightforward: the well-dressed
witch had drugged Ellie’s drink, then yanked a few strands of
hair from her wig, borrowed her car, run over Martha and
returned the car. Unfortunately, though several of the waitresses
had seen the witch, too, none had recognized her.
Ellie should have been more relieved. In truth, she just felt
raw. All day long, she’d been on edge, feeling as if she must
have a whole array of scarlet letters tattooed on her forehead:
less and whore, two of her mother’s favorite words.
looked at her any differently? She couldn’t say, because she’d
been too ashamed to look back at them.
But everything had certainly felt different. Having a detec-
tive—even if it was Tommy—shadow her every move, A. J.
Decker bringing a technician into her restaurant to treat it as if
it were a crime scene, Tommy and A.J. escorting her to the
emergency room to have her blood drawn… She hadn’t escaped
the sensation of gazes following her, judging her, until they’d
returned to Tommy’s house soon after the dinner rush started.
a rush—a thirty-minute wait for a table, unusual
for a Monday night. Murders were few and far between in
Copper Lake; people wanted to check out the suspect in the
latest. Prostitutes were few and far between there, too; maybe
that was their interest in her. Maybe they’d thought her own res-
taurant was the best place to hear the latest gossip, or they
wanted to supplement their own gossip.
Why, I saw her last
night, and she looked like she couldn’t care less about all the
She looked pretty ragged, so it must be true. A thief and
a whore in our midst! How did we not see it sooner?
Carmen had advised, and after a long day, Ellie
had been happy to obey. After all, she wasn’t of any use to the
staff when she was afraid to leave her office. Now she sat at the
table that filled Tommy’s small dining room, the remains of
dinner in front of her. Anamaria and Robbie had come over,
bringing the food with them, a spicy recipe passed down
through generations of Anamaria’s family from one of her
Cuban or Haitian ancestors. Ellie had eaten her share but
remembered nothing else about it.
“Let’s let the men do dishes,” Anamaria said, bumping
against Ellie’s shoulder to get her attention. “We’ll take our tea
out on the deck and enjoy knowing that they’re doing the work.”
Gratefully Ellie followed her out. All Tommy and Robbie
had talked about was the case, until she thought her head might
explode. She was so sick of thinking, talking, wondering,
worrying. She just wanted…
She wanted life to go back to the way it was before Martha
had shown up in town. No, to the way it was a year ago, when
Tommy was still satisfied with what she could give him. She’d
loved having him in her life, loved the sex and the companion-
ship and loving him and being loved by him.
Loving him. She’d never told him. She’d always been fearful
of her past, of being hurt, betrayed, abandoned, outed. If she
152 Passion to Die For
never acknowledged, even to herself, that she loved him, then
somehow she would be safer. He could break up with her,
which he had, but as long as she’d never said
I love you,
heart wouldn’t break.
Her logic had been a bit faulty.
The evening was cool, the tea hot in sturdy porcelain mugs.
They sat side by side on the steps, Anamaria easing herself
down with a laugh. “Mama Odette says I’m gonna be big as a
house before this girl comes. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a
second one in there, hiding behind the first.”
“You’re a lucky woman,” Ellie said quietly.
“So are you.”
She resisted declaring her disagreement with a vehement
snort. She had been lucky for five years. But luck couldn’t last
forever, neither good nor bad.
This, too, shall pass.
But what would she have left when it was over?
Anamaria gave her a sidelong look. “Have I ever told you
about my mother?” She briefly paused for Ellie’s
name was Glory, and she was a beautiful woman. She was also
a kept woman. At least, that’s what some people called her.
Easy, slut, whore…different people, different names. But that
was how she supported herself and me. She always had a
handful of regular clients, and she saw them once or twice or
five times a month. She satisfied them sexually, and they sat-
isfied her financially.”
Ellie had known most of the girls working her territory
fifteen years ago, had been friends with some and disliked
others. But she’d never known anyone who’d escaped the
streets and made it into the world of escort or mistress. It was
safer sex, more money, less humiliating, but it was still prosti-
tution. “Why did she do it?”
“She liked men, she liked sex and she liked money. Much
more frivolous reasons than yours.” Anamaria’s shrug was a
blur in Ellie’s peripheral vision. “She had choices. She was
smart and clever and a good psychic. She turned down more
marriage proposals than most women ever get. She had no
need of a husband. She wanted to live life on her terms, and if
anyone disapproved, she laughed in their faces.”
“And yet you got married.”
“I’m living life on
terms.” Anamaria’s sweet smile faded
as she laid her hand on Ellie’s arm. “Mama chose that life for
herself, and she accepted the consequences that came with it.
You didn’t have a choice, Ellie. You didn’t run away from
home, you didn’t want to live on the streets, you didn’t want to
have sex with strangers. You’ve already paid dearly for the
misfortune of having bad parents. You can’t keep punishing
yourself for it.”
Ellie stared off into the shadows, blinking to clear her eyes.
“Before everything fell apart, I was looking at colleges and
scholarships and grants. I wanted to be a doctor or a teacher. I
planned to get established in my career, then fall in love and
get married and have children. I was going to live in a small
town, in a house with a picket fence, with bicycles in the front
yard and a puppy in the back. I wanted the kind of family and
home I’d never had, and I really believed I could have it, if I
just worked hard enough.
“Then, in less than twenty-four hours, I lost every dream I’d
ever had. My future shrank from all these huge possibilities
down to one—staying alive for another day.” She glanced at
Anamaria, getting an impression of sympathy, but she couldn’t
hold the look for more than a second. “I had always been such
a good girl with this huge fear of retribution. I never broke the
rules, disrespected a teacher, told a lie or cheated on an assign-
ment. The kids called me Goody Two-shoes. Afterward, every
time I got arrested, every time I broke another law, even if it
was the difference between surviving or not, I was so ashamed.”
154 Passion to Die For
“That was because you had a conscience,” Anamaria said
quietly. “You knew the difference between right and wrong, and
you cared. If you were a bad person, Ellie, you wouldn’t have
been ashamed, you wouldn’t have feared retribution and you
wouldn’t have lived an honest, moral life ever since.”
“But I did so much awful stuff,” Ellie whispered. And not
just on the street. She’d committed her biggest sin after getting
off the streets, after months of living in a trendy condo, wearing
the nicest clothes she’d ever owned and eating at Atlanta’s best
“You had two choices, Ellie—fight for yourself by doing what
was necessary to survive, or give up and become just one more
kid who died tragically young.” Anamaria moved close enough
to slide her arm around Ellie’s shoulders. “Let me tell you, giving
up would have been a tragic loss for all of us who love you.”
Ellie resisted a moment, the old habit of trying to hold back,
then sank into Anamaria’s embrace. Her friend smelled of
tropical flowers and cocoa butter, and a wealth of positive
emotion radiated from her, warming Ellie, taking the sharp
edge off her own feelings.
Baby Gloriane was never going to lack for love and protec-
tion and a safe place in her mother’s arms. Martha had never
offered any of that to Ellie, and at eighteen, Ellie had known
nothing she could offer her own little girl would be enough. She
was too broken. Too damaged.
The back door opened with a creak, and Ellie quickly swiped
her hand across her eyes. It was Robbie, though, and he didn’t
step out. “Annie, we need to go, babe.”
Anamaria’s arm tightened for a moment around Ellie; then
she let go and, with one hand on the railing, pulled herself to
her feet. She paused a moment, her hand stretched out to but
not touching Ellie. “You’ll come through this, intact, stronger
than ever and happy. Really happy.”
Ellie’s smile was unsteady. “Is that a vision or wishful
“The great-great-granddaughter of Queen Moon does not
engage in wishful thinking,” she intoned before lightening up.
“Take it as you will. Just know that I’ll say ‘I told you so’ when
it comes true.”
“I’ll be happy to hear it.”
it came true.
Ellie said goodbye to Robbie, then directed her gaze out into
the night again. It was a bit too chilly for comfort now that
Anamaria was gone, but it was quiet. Peaceful. She desperately
needed quiet and peace.
The sound of car doors closing echoed loudly in the dark-
ness. A moment later, the back door opened again, footsteps
moving across the deck. Something warm brushed her as
Tommy wrapped the afghan from the sofa around her shoul-
ders before sitting next to her.
The yarn was soft, fuzzy and smelled comfortingly of his
cologne. She buried her face in it, breathing deeply of the fra-
grance that had once been such a part of her life. It had made
her feel warm, desired, happy, loved, aroused.
Aware of him sitting so close but, like her, gazing into the
dark, Ellie straightened her shoulders, grasping the ends of the
afghan like a shawl. “The great-great-granddaughter of Queen
Moon says I’m going to come out of this mess a happy woman.”
He glanced at her, his expression unreadable. “I tend to believe
what Anamaria says.” Then, after a time… “What do you say?”
She tried for a light note, because there was absolutely nothing
light about the way she was feeling. “She’s terribly optimistic.”
“That’s just another way of saying hopeful, and that’s not a
bad thing, Ellie. You could use a little hope yourself.”
“I hoped for a long time, Tommy. I hoped I would get a
scholarship so I could go to college. I hoped I would move out
156 Passion to Die For
of my parents’ house and never see them again. When they
threw me out, I hoped they would let me come back, because I
didn’t have what it took to be on my own. I hoped I didn’t get
caught stealing. When I was running errands for drug dealers,
I hoped I didn’t get caught in a drive-by shooting or a drug bust.
I hoped I’d never have to sell my body, and I hoped and prayed
the second time wouldn’t be even a fraction as painful and
horrible as the first. I kept hoping and hoping until I finally
learned—if you never hope for anything, you won’t be disap-
“That’s tough on your spirit,” he murmured.
“Not as tough as always being disappointed.” That had broken
her spirit: the realization that she couldn’t have a normal life. For
whatever reason, God or the Fates had decided she didn’t deserve
it. How could she have hope for anything after learning that?
Tommy’s hand went to his shirt pocket, looking for a ciga-
rette that wasn’t there, she surmised, smiling humorlessly. What
was it about her that made people want to slowly poison them-
selves? Her father, her mother, Tommy…
He shifted on the steps to face her, the newel post at his back.
“I know our parents and our childhoods have a huge impact on
who we become and what we do and how we feel about ourselves.
I know your parents put you through hell, and I understand what
that did to you inside. But at the same time, I just want to say get
over it.You’re a beautiful, intelligent, successful woman.You have
your own house, your own business, friends and people who
respect you. Even if you’d really had the fantasy upbringing that
you claimed, you’d be a success by anyone’s standards. But con-
sidering your real background, it’s nothing less than amazing.
“You’ve got so much to be proud of, Ellie. You not only
survived, but you thrived. Whether in spite of your past or
because of it, you’ve done damn good. Robbie and Anamaria
and I—we’re proud of you. Why can’t you be?”
There were few moments in life that she remembered with
pride. No one else had ever been proud of her; why should she
be impressed with her own accomplishments? She’d done
nothing special. She
Except, maybe, in Tommy’s eyes.
The thought brought tears to her own eyes. “Really?” she ques-
tioned, forcing cynicism into her voice because his words gave
rise to a bit of hope deep inside her, and, as she’d just told him,
never hoping was better than being disappointed. “Which me are
you proud of? The kid whose parents couldn’t love her? The girl
with the arrest record a mile long? The teenage prostitute? The
one who created a false identity? The one who lied to you about
everything? The one who kept pushing you away because she had
nothing to give? Which me are you so damn proud of?”
He reached out then and touched her, his fingers warm
against her cheek, his touch light and gentle and so familiar,
God help her, that she wanted to curl into it. “You can’t separate
them, Ellie. They’re all you. They all combine to make you the
woman you are now. How could I love one of them without
loving all of them?”
She stared at him. The smart thing to do was ignore his
words. Get up, walk into the house and shut herself away in her
bedroom. Pretend the words had never been spoken. She
summoned the strength to do just that, but instead of rising from
the steps, she raised one hand to clasp his wrist. Instead of
walking away, she asked, “You can still say that?”
He smiled ruefully. “Only because it’s true. Hell, Ellie, I’ve
loved you practically since the day we met.”
“But you never really knew me.”
“I’ve always known the things that matter. All this stuff…it’s
just background. I’m glad I know, but it doesn’t change anything.”
Her stomach knotted, and something fluttered in her chest,
panic trying to find a way out, as she forced a breath.
158 Passion to Die For
“Well…before you swear to that, let me tell you the last bit of
background, because it might change everything. Let me tell
you about the baby girl I gave away for fifty thousand dollars.”
There was this guy…
A lot of hard-luck stories started out that way, and Tommy
had heard his share. Sometimes he’d empathized; sometimes
he’d wondered how women could be so easily fooled; but never
had he dreaded the details as much as he did now. If Ellie had
kept this secret after confiding everything else, it must be seri-
ously important to her, and that made it just as important to him.
She’d expected him to turn away from her after hearing the truth
about her criminal history, but he hadn’t. Apparently, she
thought this truth might accomplish what the other hadn’t.
“I was seventeen, still on the streets, and I’d met my quota
for the night. It was cold, so I went to this all-night diner to get
a cup of coffee.” Unlike before, when she’d hardly been able
to look at him, she kept her gaze locked on him, searching for
the slightest change in expression. It was an effort, but he kept
his face blank and his posture relaxed while he listened.
“His name was Andrew. He’d been out partying and stopped
there on his way home for some food. He so obviously didn’t
belong in that part of town. His clothes, his watch, his
car…there were dollar signs practically dancing in the air
around him. He sat at the table next to mine and struck up a
conversation, and we talked for more than two hours.”
It was easy to imagine: a vulnerable girl whose only value
to anyone was sex and a rich man interested in her, not her body.
He’d probably bought her coffee, flirted with her and made her
feel like any teenage girl on a date with her biggest crush.
“He asked me to come back the next night and the night after
that. The fourth night, I went home with him. He was the first
man I—” Her mouth flattened, and she swallowed hard. “The
first man I wanted to have sex with. To—to make love with.
He was everything I’d dreamed of before…” Her shrug said
what she didn’t: before she lost her virginity to a john who’d
made her pray that the next time wouldn’t hurt so bad.
“I wanted so much to be saved, and he wanted to do it. He
rented a condo for me, bought me fabulous clothes and gave
me more money than I’d ever seen. He said he loved me and
he wanted to marry me.” Her smile was thin and painful. “This
rich, gorgeous guy wanted to marry
. It was incredible. Like
Julia Roberts in
was a fairy tale.
And they lived happily
. Ellie’s Prince Charming had turned into a toad.
“I was so much in love and so blissfully unaware. When I
got pregnant, I thought life couldn’t be any more perfect. I told
him, and…” Even after so many years, there was a faint under-
current of hurt in her voice. “He walked out on me.”
Tommy let his gaze drop to her hands, wrapped tightly in
the fringe of the afghan. He didn’t want to hear any more; it
was all in the past; it didn’t matter.
But of course it did. To her. To him.
“He quit paying the rent on the condo, so I had to move out.
I’d saved some of the money he’d given me, and I sold every-
thing he’d bought for me, so I managed to get by for a while.
I was seven months pregnant when the money ran out. I didn’t
know what to do. I tried to get in touch with him, but he
wouldn’t return my calls. Finally, I threatened to show up at his
family home in Athens. The next day, his uncle, who was also
his attorney, contacted me.
“Part of his uncle’s job was cleaning up Andrew’s messes,”
she went on, her tone cool and detached. “You see, he was
already married to a woman from a family as influential as his
own. And I wasn’t the first underage girl he’d gotten pregnant.
In fact, Uncle Randolph had the routine down pat. He moved
160 Passion to Die For
me into an apartment in Alpharetta. He paid my living expenses.
He promised to find a really good home for the baby, and he
gave me fifty thousand dollars in exchange for forgetting that
She’d been in love with another man. She’d given birth to
another man’s child. And for four and a half years, she’d refused
to even consider marrying Tommy. Because she hadn’t loved
him? Because she couldn’t love him?
Or because the first bastard had hurt her too damn much to
risk it again?
If you never hope for anything, you won’t be disappointed.
The biggest part of her life had been nothing but one disap-
pointment after another.
“I had a girl.” Ellie’s voice was hollow, insubstantial in the
night. “She was seventeen inches long and she weighed eight
pounds, and I held her for a minute. I kissed her and told her I
loved her and I was giving her up for her own good. Then I
handed her back to the nurse, and…I died a little inside.”
Her last words were barely a whisper; then she fell silent,
waiting for him to say something.
For five years he’d wanted intimacy with her. To know every-
thing about her. To become a part of her. To make her a part of
himself. Who knew intimacy could hurt as much as the lack of it?
His voice was ragged when he finally spoke. “Is that it? No
She stared at him.
“Because I can take just about anything, Ellie, but it’s kind
of hard taking it all at once.”
One slender hand slid out from under the shawl, and she
wrapped her fingers tightly around his. “Did you listen to what
I said, Tommy? I gave up my baby girl. I traded her and the
promise of secrecy for money. I abandoned her, just like your
mother left you.”
He twisted his hand so he held hers. “You were a child who
gave your own child a chance at a better life. My mother was
older than you are now, and she walked away from her family
because it suited her. It’s not the same, and you know it. You
loved your baby enough to leave. My mother didn’t love me
enough to stay.”
She tried to push away, so he caught both her hands in his.
“I couldn’t take care of her,” she said, her voice thick with tears.
“I couldn’t even take care of myself.”
“But you did take care of her, Ellie. You gave her to someone
who would love her and protect her and give her all the things
you never had.” She’d broken her own heart, and just listening
to her talk about it damn near broke his.
The tension holding her stiff eased a bit.
“I wish like hell things had been different for you. I wish
you’d never had to go through all that crap. I wish you’d had a
boringly normal life with no worries more important than
whether the boy you liked was going to ask you to the prom.
But like I keep telling you, it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, and I’d
really like to break this Andrew guy in half. But it’s in the past.
It doesn’t matter.”
The look in her eyes was faint and alien, for her at least. He
saw it in his own eyes every time he looked in the mirror. “It
doesn’t bother you that I was in love with him?” she asked with
the slightest undertone of hope.
He brushed a strand of her pale blond hair back before
grinning crookedly. “You were twenty-five when we met. I never
expected to be the first guy you loved. I just hoped to be the last.”
For a moment she showed no response. She just looked at
him, her expression puzzled, as if she wanted to believe what
he was saying but couldn’t quite. Then, with a shudder, she
pulled the afghan closer, huddling into it, looking lost and vul-
nerable and confused. “I—I—”
162 Passion to Die For
Jumping to her feet, she rushed across the deck and inside
the house, closing the back door hard but not before he heard
the small choke of a half-swallowed sob.
Eyes closed, head falling back, Tommy breathed loudly. As
he’d told her, he could take just about anything. But it damn
sure wasn’t easy.
Not that Ellie had ever been easy, he thought with a thin smile.
But she was worth it. The two of them
—if they could
work out a together—was worth all the heartache in the world.
fter a restless night, Ellie was up early Tuesday morning.
She looked worn-out when she studied herself in the mirror;
makeup couldn’t hide the shadows beneath her eyes or the
lines at the corners of her mouth. But there was something dif-
ferent in her face this morning: doubt.
She’d told Tommy everything, and he’d said it didn’t matter.
Her worst memories and most painful secrets, her flaws and
insecurities and her ugly past, and to him it was just back-
ground. It didn’t change the way he looked at her. Didn’t
change the way he thought of her. He still found her worthy.
How incredible was that?
Maybe he was right—Anamaria and Robbie, too. Maybe her
parents had lied to her all those years and she did deserve love
and respect and friendship and a normal life.
Maybe she was a better person than she’d given herself
164 Passion to Die For
Tommy slept in, probably the first weekday morning in his
adult life, and, unsettled inside, she let him. She fixed a cup of
coffee, found a protein bar in the cabinet—the only thing in the
kitchen that even came close to breakfast food—then wrapped
the afghan around her shoulders and went outside to sit in a
rocker on the front porch.
The morning was still, the streetlamps buzzing, a few house-
lights on here and there. Occasionally a car passed at the end
of the block, or a boat on the nearby river, but mostly it was
quiet. Chilly. Soothing.
She’d finished with breakfast but was still rocking slowly,
the empty coffee mug cradled in her hands, when a dark vehicle
turned onto the street. The headlights flashed across her as the
driver pulled into the driveway; an instant later, the engine cut
off. A. J. Decker climbed out, pushing the door shut with a con-
trolled thud, then joined her on the porch, leaning against the
railing in front of her.
He looked as if he’d had a restless night, too. Short as his
hair was, it stood on end, and he wore a layer of weariness as
easily as his leather jacket.
“Where’s Maricci?” As if in deference to the quiet morning,
A.J.’s words were pitched low. His voice was gravelly, as if it,
too, needed rest.
“Not up yet when I came out.”
“So this is how he keeps an eye on a flight risk.”
She smiled faintly. “I’m not a flight risk. Not anymore.”
“Since you slipped a little in your position as our primary
“Since the truth began coming out.” Actually, since Sunday
afternoon, when Tommy asked for her promise that she
wouldn’t leave. When he’d shown his willingness to trust her.
“‘And the truth shall set you free.’” There was a hint of
cynicism to his voice.
Again she smiled. “I associated a lot of things with telling
the truth—horror, fear, revulsion, disappointment—but not
freedom. But it is freeing in a way. The thing I feared most has
happened. People know the worst. What they do with it…”
“Is out of your control. Anyone who has a problem with it
isn’t worth having around anyway.” He rubbed one hand across
his face. “I got a report from the lab on your car.”
“Good news or bad?” The voice came from behind Ellie an
instant before the screen door creaked open and Tommy came
out. He wore jeans and a Clemson T-shirt, faded and snug, and
his feet were bare. If he realized it was too chilly for bare feet
and arms, he didn’t show it.
A.J. acknowledged him by directing his reply to Tommy. “It
was definitely the car used to run down Martha Dempsey. The
blood on the hood, the flecks of paint on her body, the fibers
caught in the dent—all match. But there aren’t any fingerprints.
Not on the steering wheel, the gearshift or the door handle.”
Tommy grunted as he lifted himself onto a section of
Ellie looked from one man to the other. “Did you expect to
“We expected to find yours,” A.J. answered. “You do drive
the car every day.”
“It suggests that you weren’t the last person to drive it, that
whoever was wiped it clean,” Tommy added.
“Or that you wiped the prints in the hopes that we would
assume someone else had done it.”
Maybe it was the early hour, or maybe her mind just wasn’t
devious enough, but it took her a moment to understand what
they meant. If she’d been the one to kill Martha, there would
have been no need to get rid of the fingerprints; hers were
supposed to be there. The only logical reason to clean them
away was if they didn’t belong. Or to build an alibi.
166 Passion to Die For
“And then what? I went back to the restaurant and drugged
myself to make myself look innocent?” She’d meant to be
flippant, but it came out laced with panic instead. The coffee
cup shifted as her fingers went numb. Drawing a breath, she
carefully set it on the floor, then clasped her hands together.
She’d taken such relief in finding out that her drink had been
drugged; she’d seen it as proof that she hadn’t been involved
in Martha’s death.
But in truth, her involvement was still a possibility. Those
nine hours were still missing. She had no clue what she’d done.
Her mouth didn’t want to open, her voice to form the words,
but she forced them. “Oh God. You’re saying I might have
killed my mother and tried to throw off the police.”
“No.” Both men answered at once, Tommy’s tone more
emphatic than A.J.’s.
“We know what time you had the drink,” A.J. explained,
“and we know what time the victim died. By then, you would
have needed help keeping your eyes open. There’s no way you
could have been driving that car.”
Unless the drug was another part of her plan. What if there’d
been nothing in her ale at the bar but ale, if she’d mixed the drug
in later and poured it on her clothes to make it appear as a spill?
What if she really had slipped out of the restaurant, killed
Martha, wiped the car clean, drugged herself—
Suddenly Tommy’s foot landed on the arm of the chair,
stopping her agitated rocking, and he scowled at her. “Stop it.You
didn’t come up with some elaborate scheme to kill your mother.
This was premeditated. Whoever killed Martha planned to do it,
and planned to frame you. She had the drug ready. She made sure
you were out of the way, and then she hung back and watched
Martha until she had her chance.” His look was supremely
annoyed. “You don’t even know how to get hold of Rohypnol.”
He was right. In her time on the streets, she could have
gotten anything. But that was a long time ago. She didn’t have
a clue where to look today. Didn’t want a clue.
He took her silence as agreement. “Your memory loss affects
only the hours after you were drugged. Everything before then
and since is clear. If you’d planned to murder Martha, you
would remember it.”
There wasn’t a blank time in her entire life except for those
hours. She could recite every detail of Saturday evening, right
up to the time she’d talked to Deryl at the bar.
Tommy was right. She would remember.
“In other news,” A.J. said, drawing her attention back to him,
“I asked a cop friend in Atlanta to go by the victim’s house yes-
terday and talk to her neighbors. The house had been broken
into and ransacked. No one saw or heard anything, and there’s
no way to tell if anything’s missing. It could have been some
lowlife who plans his burglaries with the obituaries, or it could
have been the killer.”
Retrieving anything that might connect the killer to Martha.
Huddled inside the afghan, breathing steadily of Tommy’s
scent, Ellie tried to force even the faintest of memories of the
witch she’d drunk with in the bar. For God’s sake, she’d sat
across from the woman, chatting with her, and the whole
time, the woman had been biding her time until she could kill
And thanks to the drug, Ellie couldn’t remember a thing.
The woman must have been a coldhearted snake. Of
course, that was an apt description of Martha, too. Like gravi-
tated to like.
“Did they find anything having to do with me at Martha’s
house?” she asked hesitantly.
A.J. looked away a moment, as if he’d rather not answer,
then shook his head. “Nothing.”
No copies of her arrest reports or booking photos. No
168 Passion to Die For
school pictures of her, no baby pictures. No reminders of the
daughter Martha had abandoned until, suddenly, she’d found
a new use for her.
It didn’t hurt as much as she might have expected.
“When I first saw her, she had copies of my arrest record.”
“We didn’t find them. Not at her house, not on her and not
at the bed-and-breakfast,” A.J. said. “I’m guessing the killer
gave them to her and also took them away.”
“Who would have access to that information?”
“The police,” Tommy answered. “The court. The public
She smiled thinly. She’d had a different lawyer for each
arrest, usually young, earnest people who’d still believed they
could make a difference in their clients’ lives.
one of the other girls had told her.
They don’t last long.
Nobody in Ellie’s experience had lasted long.
Then she glanced at Tommy and amended that. He’d stuck
with her long after any reasonable man would have walked
away. Four and a half years, ups and downs, good and bad, he’d
been there. And when things had gotten really bad, he’d come
back. He’d believed in her, helped her to believe in herself.
“Jared and Jeffrey didn’t see anyone at the bed-and-
breakfast?” she asked.
“Martha’s room had a private entrance,” A.J. replied. “As far
as they know, she didn’t have any visitors. The last time they
saw her was around seven Saturday evening.”
Tommy slid to his feet, then leaned against the rail. “If her
killer was also her accomplice, she must have taken Martha’s
key, cleaned out her room, then returned the key before her
body was discovered.”
A coldhearted snake. Ellie huddled deeper into the afghan.
A.J. shrugged. “We keep asking questions. Looking for
answers. Try to find someone else with as much reason to want
the victim dead as you had.”
Her stomach knotting, Ellie abruptly rose and went inside
the house, leaving the door open and the two men talking
quietly behind her. She didn’t slow until she was in the dark-
ened kitchen, muscles clenched, nausea swirling inside her,
standing at the sink, staring out the window at nothing.
She wasn’t off the prime suspect list yet. Right now an
argument could be made for her guilt as easily as her innocence.
Lack of fingerprints on the car? The killer wiped it clean, or
she did. The drugs in her system? Slipped by the killer into her
drink, or taken deliberately on her own after the murder.
Motive? Martha’s blackmail accomplice had wanted to silence
her, or a bitter, angry daughter had wanted to end the blackmail.
Without Martha’s copies of the arrest records, Ellie couldn’t
even prove there’d been a blackmail attempt. As far as Tommy
and A.J. knew, she could have made that up to provide another
suspect for the killing.
As far as
knew, she could be guilty.
The screen door closed, then the front door. A moment later
bare feet sounded on the floor, muffled on ancient rugs, sharper
on wood. The steps came straight to her, and before she could
react, before she could even stiffen, Tommy wrapped his arms
around her from behind.
She didn’t think about pushing him away, as she’d been
doing for far too long. She leaned back against him, immedi-
ately feeling the heat of his body through the afghan, and lifted
her hands to clasp his. “I hate this.”
“I could be guilty.”
“No, you couldn’t.”
“Those nine hours I lost…”
“They were taken from you,” he corrected. “By the killer.”
170 Passion to Die For
“I want them back.”
His breath rustled her hair. “That’s probably not going to
The doctor had told her that at the hospital the day before. It
wasn’t fair. Things she would dearly love to forget remained
crystal clear in her mind after fifteen years, and events she des-
perately needed to remember would likely remain a blank forever.
Tommy sighed again. “Decker said the medical examiner is
releasing Martha’s body today. What do you want to do?”
Do? What was there to—
A funeral. Burial. That was what daughters normally did
when their mothers died. She’d never imagined picking out a
casket for Martha, had never imagined even knowing when
either of her parents died. “I suppose she should be buried next
to my father.” Her voice took on a thick, clogged quality. “I
don’t even know where that is.”
“I’ll find out.” His mouth nuzzled closer to her ear. “It’s okay
to cry, Ellie. She may have been lousy at it, but she was still
She opened her mouth to insist that she had no tears to shed
over the mother she’d never had, but a sob came out instead.
She turned in his arms until they were facing, her cheek pressing
against his shirt, and she wept angry, bitter, heartsore tears. A
lousy mother, a lousy father, a lousy family. Her only remain-
ing relatives were total strangers, sharing nothing with her but
genetics. She was thirty and alone in a way she’d never been.
Though she’d been alone in all the ways that mattered for
half her life, she deserved better than that. She didn’t mourn
Martha’s death. She was just mourning what should have been.
When the tears slowed, she raised her head to look at Tommy
in the lightening room. “A.J.’s wrong. I didn’t want her dead.
Just out of my life.”
“He knows that. He’s just thinking like a cop.”
She swiped one hand across her cheeks to dry them. “And
what are you thinking like?”
Tommy stared at her a long, still moment, his face mere
inches away, his dark gaze steady and intense. Something
passed through it—hesitation, doubt—then he quietly an-
swered, “A man who loves you.”
She’d heard the words from him before and had treasured
them every time, but she’d known they were always based
on fantasy: the woman he thought she was, the normal, aver-
age, undamaged woman she’d pretended to be. But now he
knew that woman had never existed, and he could still talk
about her and love in the same breath. He could still sound
as if he meant it.
Her hand trembled when she lifted it to his face, when she
grazed her fingers across his cheek. He’d showered and shaved
while she was out on the porch; he smelled of soap and
shampoo, and his jaw was smooth as silk. He was unbearably
handsome, and serious, and good, and he loved her.
did it matter if her mother and father hadn’t? What did anyone
matter besides him?
Ellie rose onto her toes, her lips following the same trail her
fingers had taken, touching his cheek here, brushing his jaw
there, stroking her tongue across that sensitive spot at the corner
of his mouth. He remained motionless a moment, and for one
panicked instant, she wondered if loving her despite the fact that
she’d been a prostitute and making love to her knowing she’d
been a prostitute were two different matters for him.
Then he turned his head the few inches necessary to claim
her mouth, and he pulled her closer, hard against his body,
against his arousal, and the panic faded.
Since he’d held her, since he’d kissed her, since
she’d felt safe in his arms. So long since she’d felt his warmth
and savored just the pure sweetness of him, and always before,
172 Passion to Die For
no matter how right it seemed, she’d felt unworthy. This
morning she felt as if she’d come home.
She didn’t know if she initiated the kiss or he did, but
suddenly his lips were on hers, his tongue probing, his mouth
stealing the very breath from her. She clung to him, lost herself
in him, protesting with a soft whimper when he broke away and
pulled back far enough to gaze down at her.
“The first time I saw you…” His voice was hoarse, unsteady,
his breathing ragged. “Someone had reported an intruder at the
old general store. The front door was locked, so I went around
to the back. When I went in, you were standing where the bar
is now, turning around slowly with your arms open wide and
this look on your face, and I thought, ‘Damn, she’s beautiful.’”
He touched one hand gently to her cheek. “And, ‘Damn, she’s
hot.’” His fingers brushed across her jaw to her throat. “And,
‘Damn, I want her.’” Warm and callused, they skimmed the
neckline of her shirt and made her skin ripple. “That’s never
changed, Ellie. It never will.”
What an incredibly lovely word, ranking right up
the kind a woman could wrap
around herself and delight in.
To keep the tears at bay, she asked, “What look?”
He loosened the top button of her shirt, then the second,
touching her more than was necessary, less than she needed.
“Happiness. You were totally, unquestionably happy.”
She remembered the day, of course. She’d just signed the
papers on the building, taking on a debt that, ten years earlier,
would have seemed impossible. To save money, she was going
to live in the cramped rooms above the restaurant, now an
elegant private dining room, and she was committing to a future
of long days and hard work. But she’d allowed herself that one
moment of pure bliss. She’d had a dream and the chance to
make it come true. More than she’d had for so many years.
With her top unbuttoned, his hands were at her waist now,
and he was slowly backing her against the counter as his mouth
teased back and forth along her jaw. An intense desire to sur-
render completely to the sensation—to stop talking, stop
thinking—made her voice thin when she pushed ahead.
“I looked at you and thought, ‘God, he’s gorgeous.’ And
then you showed me your badge, and I just wanted to run
away and hide.”
“I never knew. Not then. Not the first time we kissed. Not
the first time you tempted me upstairs and into your bed.”
Her laugh startled her. “You talk as if some time actually
passed between all that. And I think you were the one doing
“Twenty-six hours. And you definitely were the seducer.
All I did was kiss you—” he did it again “—and touch you
here—” he brushed her throat again “—and here—”
The thin silk and lace of her bra provided no barrier to his
caress. She felt every degree of heat in his palm and every
scrape of his rough skin. Her nipple swelled before he reached
it, the ache intensifying when he ducked his head to kiss it.
“And you suggested we go upstairs to your bedroom. It was
your idea.” His grin was smug, sexy, at odds with the fierce
hunger in his eyes.
“Because I didn’t want to have sex in the kitchen,” she
“And here we are in the kitchen again. Do you still prefer
beds over countertops?”
His breath feathered over her ear, making her shiver. “Lucky
me. I have one just a few yards away.” Taking her hand, he led
her out of the kitchen, a quick turn through the hall, into his
bedroom and straight to the bed.
His kiss was leisurely, lazy, as if he knew they had the rest
174 Passion to Die For
of their lives to enjoy it. He nuzzled her mouth, wet her lips
with his tongue, then nipped her lower lip before sliding his
Lifting hands that trembled, she skimmed her palms across
his cheeks, then down to his chest, broad and muscular, tapering
to a narrow waist and narrower hips. The cotton of his shirt was
soft and fitted snugly. She curled her fingers in it and tugged it
free of his jeans. When she slid her hands underneath to the
heated silk of his skin, over rock-hard muscles and flat nipples,
then swept back down to the button of his jeans, he made a
guttural sound and his tongue stabbed deeper. When she
managed, with much fumbling, to undo the button and zipper,
his groan vibrated through her.
He caught her wrist, pulled her hand away from his arousal
and undid her own button and zipper. They broke apart long
enough to shuck the rest of their clothes and find a condom in the
nightstand drawer, then tumbled onto the bed in a tangle of limbs.
He pushed into her, quick, hard, deep, no longer interested
in taking his time. She savored the connection for a moment,
the familiar warmth, then arched her hips, rubbing tantalizingly
against his length, drawing another groan from him.
With one hand on either side of her head, he braced himself
above her, staring down at her, his gaze dark. “God, I’ve
Once more tears stung her eyes. She’d cried during sex
before, but never good tears. She’d wept every one of the first
dozen times, until something inside her had died and she’d just
gone numb in its place.
Nothing was numb now. Her nerves tingled, her muscles
contracted, her nipples hardened. Heat flowed with her blood,
and her heartbeat competed with the ragged rasp of her breath-
ing to echo in her ears. She felt alive. Desired.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she whispered. “I never meant to hurt
He lowered himself until his forehead rested, warm and
damp, against hers. “I know.”
“I was just…” Her throat clogged, and she dashed away a tear
before touching his face. He turned to press a kiss to her palm.
“Afraid,” he finished for her. “I understand. But from now on,
when you’re afraid, you come to me. Don’t push me away. Let
me be strong when you need it, and you be strong when I do.”
Her smile was teary, her lungs tight, and though she tried to
tease, there was a hiccup in her voice. “When have you ever
needed someone else’s strength?”
“Every day of my life, darlin’. Especially—” his breath
hitched, and his voice turned dark and strained “—right now.
I can’t… Damn it, not yet …”
She knew just how to make him finish quickly—how to
move against him, how to clench muscles deep inside around
him, how to make his body stiffen and his breath stop and his
vision go dark.
And he knew exactly how to do the same to her. Her gasp
was soundless, heat flaring through her like wildfire, everything
quivering and trembling as sensation grew wickedly sharp,
clawing, then exploding. She clung to him, eyes squeezed shut,
body damn near humming, and he held her through his own
orgasm, offering thick guttural words that were little more than
a soothing whisper underlying the pounding of her heart.
God, I’ve missed you,
he’d said, and tears seeped from her
eyes as she pressed her face to his shoulder.
She’d been worth missing.
Instead of growing lighter outside, sometime in the last half
hour, it had gotten darker, and now thunder rumbled somewhere
176 Passion to Die For
far off. In Tommy’s opinion, it was a good morning for staying
in bed. Sleep an hour or two, make love again, listen to the rain…
Ellie was so still that he might have thought she was asleep
if he hadn’t known better. Good sex made some women
drowsy, but it always left her wanting to talk. It was nice
knowing that about her.
It was better knowing everything else.
He lay on his side, snuggled skin to skin with her, her soft
murmur vibrating through him. His right arm was over her
waist, and her silky blond hair was just a breath from his mouth,
too tempting to ignore, so he didn’t. Nuzzling it aside, breath-
ing in the fresh citrusy scent of her shampoo, he brought his
mouth near her ear. “You’re welcome.”
He didn’t ask what she was thanking him for. He could
think of a dozen answers she might give, and specifics didn’t
really matter. And she was welcome. In so many more ways
than the trite phrase implied.
The rain started then, and she breathed deeply as if she could
smell it through the closed windows. They’d made love in the
rain once. On the beach. In the middle of the day. It had been
a slow week at the deli, so they’d taken off for a few days at
one of South Carolina’s barrier islands. It had been an experi-
ence—torrential rain, surf pounding, no one in their little corner
of the world but them.
Sex in an unusual place had been more a novelty for him
than her, he now knew. But she’d had a choice with him. She’d
chosen to get involved with him, to be with him.
To not marry him.
“I still want to get married.”
She froze, but she didn’t try to pull away or change the
subject. Instead, she wriggled around until she was facing him,
in the process giving him the beginnings of another hard-on.
Her expression wasn’t the cool blank he’d grown accustomed
to whenever the subject came up. It was pretty damn wary. “Do
you still want to marry me?”
He collapsed on his back with a great dramatic grunt. “God,
you’re killing me. Of course I want to marry you. Would I be
here now if I was planning to propose to someone else?”
She didn’t answer but raised herself onto one elbow to see
“I’ve been telling you for about four years that I love you. I
want to marry you. I want to grow old with you.” He hesitated,
then went for broke. “I want to have kids with you, El. I want
it all.” He stared at her, searching for some response. Her
muscles didn’t tense. Her breath didn’t catch or her eyes fill
with tears. She didn’t jump out of bed and start searching for
her clothes. She just stared back at him.
His hand shook as he stroked her cheek. “The kids aren’t a
deal-breaker. If you can’t face that…it’s okay.”
They might have been the hardest words he’d ever said—
well, second to the ultimatum he’d given her six months ago.
He’d always been close to his father and to Pops; whenever he’d
imagined himself grown up and married, kids had always been
a part of the picture. He’d known practically from the begin-
ning with Ellie that he wanted those kids with her, and the desire
had only strengthened after his friends all started having babies.
But if it was a choice between Ellie and babies…hell, he’d
make a great uncle to all the Calloway kids. He could be satis-
fied with that, as long as he had Ellie.
“Wow.” She sank back down on the bed, her head resting on
his shoulder. For a time she just lay there, her breathing slow
and steady; then she quietly said, “I don’t even think of my baby
as my daughter. Is that awful?”
178 Passion to Die For
He wanted to talk about
babies, not the one she’d had
with the man she’d loved before him. But it was really part of
the same discussion. Her first daughter might have left a big
enough hole in her heart that she couldn’t bear to have a second.
“No. You gave her parents. She was your baby, but she’s their
daughter.” And though he would have said it anyway, he
believed it. Even if it did make him wonder: did his mother still
think of him as her son, or was he just the little boy in her past?
“She lives in Marietta. She’s got an older brother and a
younger sister who are also adopted. She goes to a private
school and studies gymnastics and dance and goes to cheerlead-
ing camp every summer.”
“Have you met her?”
“No. But Randolph Aiken, Andrew’s lawyer, knows the
family, and he gives me updates if I ask for them.” She paused
as lightning flashed, then thunder shook the house. When she
went on, her tone was resigned. “I don’t ask anymore.”
Anyone who’d grown up in Georgia knew the Aiken name.
They’d owned plantations before the Civil War, had survived
the conflict with most of their fortune intact and been quick to
expand their business interests after the war. They were the
Calloway family on a grander scale.
Which meant that the bastard who had broken Ellie’s heart
was Andrew Aiken III. He chaired the Aiken Foundation, which
seemed to mostly involve handing out checks to worthy char-
ities, hosting fund-raisers and getting his picture taken a lot with
I threatened to show up at his family home.
Said home being
nothing less than a mansion, visited by everyone who was
anyone, site of a ball hosted every year by the governor. The
idea of his pregnant, seventeen-year-old ex-prostitute mistress
inviting herself onto hallowed Aiken ground must have put the
fear of God into ol’ Andy.
Tommy wished he could have the chance to do the same.
Ellie unfolded his fingers that had clenched into a fist,
then clasped his hand in hers. “I never see him, either,” she
offered. “Oh, on TV, in the papers, in
but it’s like
seeing a familiar face, someone you can identify but you
don’t really know.”
“You don’t still have feelings for him?”
Her chuckle was short. “The last tender feeling I had for
Andrew died when I was seven months pregnant and had to beg
his uncle for money to keep myself alive long enough to give
birth to his baby.”
The image was painful. Had Andrew’s uncle treated her
with respect and human decency? Had he acknowledged that
the oh, so privileged Aiken family blood ran through the child
whose adoption he was arranging—whose mother he was
silencing? Or had he seen Ellie and the baby as just another of
his nephew’s messes to clean up?
Something nagged at the back of Tommy’s mind. Closing
his eyes, he took a few deep relaxing breaths, easier to do with
her naked and in his arms, and waited for the thought to become
clearer. Something about Ellie, the last few days, a phone call…
Friday evening, in the deli, while he’d waited for his to-go
Would you please ask Mr. Aiken to call me as soon as he
can? He has my numbers…it’s really important.
His muscles tightened as he met her gaze. “Which one of
them did you call Friday?”
“Randolph. I wanted to ask his advice—how did you know?”
“I was standing outside your office door, trying to find the
courage to either knock or walk away. I heard you leave a
message. You’ve stayed in touch with him all these years?”
She shrugged. “He didn’t approve of what Andrew did, or
of his own part in it. He knew I needed more than money to get
back on my feet, so he helped me find a place in Charleston.
180 Passion to Die For
He got me a job. He found the general store and suggested I
buy it, and he’s given me advice when I ask.”
“Does he do that with all of Andrew’s exes?”
“I don’t know. We never talked about the others.” She
smiled wryly. “Lawyer-client confidentiality. Scorned-lover
“What advice did you want this time?”
“I was leaving. I wanted him to handle selling the restau-
rant and the house so…”
So no one from Copper Lake would be in touch with her.
Jamie Munroe-Calloway had been Ellie’s lawyer since she’d
come to town. Had she worried that, client privilege or no,
Jamie would give up her location to save Tommy’s sanity?
“I would have found you.” He said it quietly, a promise. One
way or another, legal methods or not, he would have tracked
her down. He couldn’t have just let her disappear.
“I would have been stunned to think I was worth the effort.”
So softly that he had to hold his breath to hear, she went on.
“All I ever wanted was a normal life. But my parents and fate
and circumstance made sure I didn’t have that for a long time.
I thought I didn’t deserve it. But maybe…”
She lifted her gaze to his and said the sweetest words he’d
ever heard. Well, second sweetest. He hadn’t heard those yet,
though he didn’t need them to know they were true.
I love you.
“A baby. Your baby. I like the sound of that.”
He couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face. When
he’d first fallen in love with her, he’d just assumed that marriage
and a family were a given. Then she’d turned down his first
proposal, and he had thought that surely she would come
around in the near future. Finally he’d realized that the only
coming around to be done was by him; he had to accept that
she didn’t love him, or at least didn’t love him enough to marry
him and have his kids.
Good things come to those who wait,
Pops would say.
Tommy had waited long enough.
He lifted himself over her, covering her body with his,
pressing his erection against her. “Want to start trying now?”
he asked, his mouth brushing hers.
Twining her arms around his neck, she smiled a slow, sexy
smile. “I’d like that.”
Outside, the storm was intensifying. Inside, the room heated,
the air growing heavy and shocky. For the first time since, well,
their first time, they made love without a condom, and Tommy
found himself hoping that first time would be the charm, just
in case she had second thoughts. Not that he would be averse
to trying as often as necessary.
Not that he would lose out to second thoughts, or seventi-
eth. They belonged together. End of discussion.
She came first, and that was all he needed to finish. They
were lying side by side, their skin and the sheets and the air
itself damp with sweat and smelling of sex, when the phone
rang. He checked caller ID—the restaurant—and handed the
phone to her.
“Hey, Ramona,” she greeted. Did the baker hear that she was
short of breath? Did she catch that little quaver in Ellie’s voice?
“Sorry. I’m running a little late this morning.”
he mouthed, holding up his wrist so she could see
that it was 7:05. She rarely got to the deli later than 6:00 a.m.
By the time she showered—again—and dressed—again—she
was going to be nearly two hours late.
Leaving her to talk, he went into the bathroom and turned
on the water for his second shower. Sweaty and sticky from
head to toe, he adjusted the temperature to lukewarm, then
stepped under the spray. A few minutes later, the curtain opened
and Ellie slipped into the tub with him.
“Any chance you’re here to fulfill a few fantasies of mine?”
182 Passion to Die For
She smiled at the hopefulness in his voice. In the last six
months, he’d hardly ever seen her smiling. It was a really good
look for her.
“Ask me again this evening. Ramona’s not happy, and I try
very hard to keep my staff happy.”
“Yeah, you could keep my st—” He broke off when she shot
him a look and grinned instead.
She ducked under the spray, letting water stream over her
head, turning her hair a shade darker, spiking her lashes, cas-
cading over the perfect lines of her face. She was beautiful. He
loved her. And she loved him back.
No matter what else was going on, life was good.
hough the storm passed within an hour, the rain continued,
but it didn’t affect business at the deli. During the day, while
people were at work, they had to eat lunch somewhere.
At least, that was what Ellie preferred to believe, rather than
think the steady business had anything to do with her possible
involvement in Martha’s death.
Tommy had made a few calls from Ellie’s office that morn-
ing and located the cemetery in Atlanta where Oliver was
buried, and during the morning lull, he’d gone with her to the
funeral home to pick out a casket. There would be a graveside
service on Friday for any friends Martha might have had, but
Ellie hadn’t yet decided whether she would go. It seemed wrong
of a daughter to stay away from her mother’s funeral, no matter
how bad the relationship. But at the same time, it struck her as
hypocritical to attend, considering the circumstances at the
time Martha had died.
184 Passion to Die For
Now it was the afternoon lull, and the only customers were
in the front dining room. Balancing a tray as easily as she had
in her waitressing days, Ellie went into the back room, where
Tommy, Robbie and A.J. sat. The table already held four drinks,
napkins and sets of silverware. She handed out sandwiches—
a Reuben for Robbie, paninis for the rest of them—before
sliding into the empty chair.
A cop investigating a murder, one of his suspects, a second
cop who was dating said suspect and her defense attorney
having lunch and discussing the case. Only in a small town, she
thought as she took a bite of roasted veggies, creamy guaca-
mole and mozzarella.
“Do you know if Martha had any ties to Athens?” A.J. asked.
She shook her head.
“Do you have any?”
Underneath the table, Tommy’s knee bumped hers. On the
way to work, she’d asked him whether anyone else needed to
know about her and Andrew.
Don’t volunteer it,
don’t lie to keep it quiet. Lying makes you look guilty.
“I know a man there. A lawyer. He helped me get off the
“We pulled Martha’s phone records. There were a dozen
or so calls to and from numbers in Athens. She also made two
calls there from the Jasmine. All the Athens numbers are
A good way, she imagined, to keep calls from being traced
back. What was more anonymous than a pay phone?
“She couldn’t have called Randolph. He’s on an extended
vacation to Europe.”
A.J. took a bite of his roasted turkey sandwich. “This
lawyer…he knows your real name, the name you’re using now
and where you live?”
Ellie’s gut tightened. Randolph Aiken wouldn’t have betrayed
her. There wasn’t a lot she trusted in the world, but she trusted
“He wouldn’t be involved with this,” she insisted. “He’s got
too much to lose.”
“People will risk just about anything for the right amount of
money,” Robbie pointed out.
“He doesn’t need money.”
“How did you choose Ellen Chase for your new name?” A.J.
asked after a pause.
Ellie gazed past him to the herb garden out back. The mulch
that surrounded each bedraggled plant gleamed in the rain.
Everything would look so bright and renewed once the sun
came out again, but for now that reddish bark was the only bit
of color in a dreary scene.
“Randolph suggested it,” she said at last, hating that the
answer sounded almost like an indictment against him. “Ellen’s
parents were clients of his. She had died several years earlier.
He had her birth date, her Social Security number, and he
helped me get the necessary documents.”
“So he betrayed one client to help another,” A.J. said.
Though it sounded bad put that way, she emphatically shook
her head. “He wouldn’t have told Martha anything.” Over the
years, Randolph had spent a lot of Aiken money as well as his
own time and effort to make women like her disappear from
Andrew’s world. Outing Ellie as Bethany Dempsey increased
the risk of exposing Andrew as a two-timing pervert who liked
sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls.
A.J. wasn’t convinced, but instead of arguing, he asked,
“How do you think Martha found you?”
She’d finished half of her sandwich, but the rest didn’t hold
much appeal. Pushing the plate away a few inches, she rested
her arms in its place and repeated the theories she and Tommy
had come up with: that she’d been recognized by a guest from
186 Passion to Die For
Jared’s birthday party or some long-ago acquaintance who had
stopped at the deli on her way through town.
“You’ve been in the newspaper a few times,” Robbie added.
“And the deli was featured in that Southern food magazine.”
She’d forgotten about that. Good publicity, she’d thought at
the time. Besides, neither of her parents had ever read a news-
paper or magazine in their lives.
“I’m guessing it was coincidence,” she said with a shrug.
“More for Martha than anyone else,” A.J. said drily.
“Payback’s a bitch.” Tommy’s tone was just as dry.
“This lawyer…were you a client or just a social-conscience
A.J. was nothing if not dogged. She sighed. “He never rep-
resented me in court, but yes, I was a client.”
“Does he have a large practice?”
“I don’t know. It appears to be a successful one.” Over the
years, when she’d called Randolph, she’d spoken to a variety of
employees: paralegals, junior lawyers, secretaries and assistants.
Tommy picked up on the direction A.J. was heading. “So
there are other people in his office. People who have access to
his files, who maybe aren’t as ethical or as immune to the lure
of easy money.”
“I need his name,” A.J. demanded.
Ellie gazed at the herb garden again, feeling about as beaten
down as the plants looked. When Tommy squeezed her hand
reassuringly, her mouth curved up almost enough to be consid-
ered a smile. If everything went well, she would be both a wife
and a mother before a year was out—two things she hadn’t let
herself want since Andrew walked out on her.
If things didn’t go well, if District Attorney Tatum decided
the state’s case was strong enough, she’d be in prison before a
year was out. And considering that she had motive, means and
opportunity, to say nothing of nine missing hours, A.J.’s doubts
wouldn’t count for much with Tatum unless he could serve up
another suspect with an even stronger case.
“Randolph Aiken,” she said at last.
Robbie clearly recognized the name, his gaze narrowing
suspiciously. A.J. didn’t look as if it meant a thing to him, but
no doubt, soon after he got back to his office, he would know
more about Randolph than she did. He wasn’t the type to do
his job carelessly.
Lucky for her.
A.J. swigged down the last of his tea, then rose. “Got a check?”
She waved her free hand. “It’s on the house.”
“No, thanks,” he said as pleasantly as if saying
She often gave cops and sheriff’s deputies free food, but with
A.J. investigating her, she supposed it really wasn’t proper.
“Sherry will write it up for you at the front.”
He left with a curt nod, and silence fell over the table.
Robbie finally broke it, his voice cautious. “I’m guessing if
you know Randolph Aiken that you might have met him
through his nephew.”
Ellie’s face flushed, making her long for just a moment to
step out into the rain to cool down.
“You know about him?” Tommy asked hostilely.
Robbie shrugged. “From years ago. There were rumors, but
none of the girls ever came forward, and Aiken damn sure
never admitted anything. Story was that the family paid them
to forget his name.”
Ellie confirmed it with a nod. How many others had there
been? Enough for people to gossip about. Fewer than five?
More than ten? Had they all been pregnant, or had simple
seduction been enough to warrant Randolph’s intervention?
“If your mother’s information did come from someone in
188 Passion to Die For
Aiken’s office, there may be other blackmail victims out there,”
Other girls who’d fallen for Andrew’s pretty face and prettier
words, girls who’d been hungry and scared and desperate to
believe someone wanted them. Whose silence had been bought,
whose babies had been traded for the money to survive, whose
secrets were now being threatened. Ellie knew Randolph would
never stoop so low. But someone who worked for him? They
were total strangers to her. One of them could easily be the type
to threaten to destroy another person’s life for money. Her own
mother had been.
Tommy’s fingers tightened around hers. “Jesus.” He sounded
dismayed. He was part cynic—after six or eight months on the
job, all cops developed a cynical streak, he said—but she knew
there was a part of him, even after all he’d seen, that still thought
a small measure of decency wasn’t too much to ask of anyone.
After all she’d seen, she knew it was. But she loved him for
still expecting to find good in people. For finding it in her.
“What happens now?” she asked.
It was Tommy who grudgingly answered, “Decker will
confirm that Aiken’s out of the country. He’ll track him down,
get a list of employees, check them out, try to find out about
any other clients worth blackmailing.”
Robbie snorted. “Probably everyone he’s ever represented.”
“And what do we do?” Ellie knew the answer before the men
“We wait,” Tommy said simply.
Another silence settled, this one hanging heavy until foot-
steps sounded in the corridor. Anamaria came around the
corner, smiling brightly when she saw them. She looked radiant
and gave off warmth and the subtle scent of cinnamon when
she hugged Ellie.
She bent to embrace Tommy from behind, then gave the
biggest hug to her husband before settling in the empty chair.
Her gaze shifted between Ellie and Tommy and their clasped
hands. “You two are good.”
It wasn’t a question, but Ellie nodded anyway. She didn’t
even consider telling her best friend that Tommy wanted to
marry her, or that she wanted to marry him back. Some news
needed to be savored a little before going public.
“Yeah,” she said, turning to find Tommy watching her.
“We’re very good.”
When the staff tried to send Ellie home before dinner, she
refused to go, and she didn’t hide in her office, either. Tommy
sat at a corner table, watching her move seemingly without
effort through her usual routine: chatting with diners, refilling
glasses and coffee cups, cashing out checks and seating new-
comers. He could see the tension in her, though, probably
because studying her had been his favorite pastime for five
years. Every time she felt a curious gaze lingering on her, her
spine stiffened, and each time a table of diners stopped talking
abruptly as she approached, something flashed in her eyes.
He hoped she noticed, though, that the majority of diners
were there for dinner, nothing more.
One who wasn’t was Louise Wetherby. Her restaurant down
the street might have class, Anamaria said, but Louise did not.
She sat at the table next to Tommy’s with her husband, a meek
man who rarely spoke or made eye contact with anyone, includ-
ing his wife.
Ellie had left the dining room when Louise turned her atten-
tion to him. “Are you on duty, Detective?”
Her gaze flicked from him to the table, empty except for a
glass of tea, then back. “You’re spending your evening off in
the restaurant owned by the woman suspected of killing Martha
190 Passion to Die For
Dempsey, not dining and watching Ellie Chase like a hawk, but
you’re not working. Uh-huh.”
The wise thing was to ignore her, and he did, letting his gaze
drift around the room as he took a drink.
But Louise Wetherby didn’t like being ignored. “It’s such a
shame. Martha was a lovely woman. Such a loss.”
He choked on his tea, coughing and sputtering. So much for
ignoring her. “A lovely woman? Martha Dempsey? Gray hair,
heavy smoker, mean eyes?”
Louise got huffy. “It’s rude to speak poorly of the dead. I
found Martha to be a charming, intelligent woman.”
She wouldn’t know charm if it bit her on the ass, Tommy
thought. Intelligence, either.
Louise’s own mean little eyes narrowed. “You used to be
involved with Ellie Chase, didn’t you?” The way she said
sounded as if they’d made a habit of having wild sex
on the courthouse steps. “Are you together again? Are you
foolish enough to believe that she didn’t run down that poor
woman in the street? Why, I heard from Benton Tatum just
today that it’s only a matter of time before he charges her. And
how will that look for you, Detective, having your girlfriend
His jaw tightened. “She hasn’t been arrested yet, and she
won’t be convicted.”
“You sound so sure of that. Why? Because she has an in with
the police department? Because you’re going to see to it that
something happens to the evi—”
Across the room, the door opened and Decker walked in.
Tommy shoved to his feet and walked away from Louise in
“Rude young man,” she said loudly enough to carry. “I’ll
certainly be complaining to the chief about this.”
“The old hag complains so much that the chief panics if you
just say her name around him,” Decker said quietly. “Can we
talk in Ellie’s office?”
“Sure.” Tommy led the way down the hall, swinging the door
open and switching on the light.
“Doesn’t she ever lock the door?”
“Only if she’s, uh, occupied.” Like the rare occasions when
the two of them had put the couch to good use. It had been a
long time since they’d done that, though. “According to Louise,
the D.A. says he’s planning to charge Ellie. Have you heard?”
“It’s an election year. Tatum wants to appear tough on crime.”
Which meant, yes, Decker had heard it. Tommy’s gut tight-
Ellie was innocent. He also knew innocence was
no protection against arrest, trial and conviction. If she had to
go to trial…God help them, if she had to go to prison…how
could either of them stand that?
“I talked to Aiken,” Decker went on. “Nice guy, consider-
ing it was two in the morning over there. He’s been in Europe
for a month and will be there six more weeks. Making up to the
wife for all the trips they didn’t take while he was still working.”
It took a minute for his last words to sink in. Tommy
frowned. “You mean, he’s retired?”
“Pretty much. His staff has all gone on to other jobs except
for one. Marie Jensen. She’s his secretary. Been with him for
twenty-some years. She’s transferring records to other lawyers,
getting everything on computer for storage, closing up the
office. She’s fifty-two. Divorced. No kids. She lives alone but
spends a lot of time at the nursing home where her mother lives.
Never been arrested, doesn’t have anything unusual on her
credit history, no more money in the bank than you’d expect,
goes to church on Sundays. She doesn’t have a new job lined
up yet. She’s considering her options.”
Tommy adjusted the window blinds so he could see out,
though the only view was the brick wall of the building next
192 Passion to Die For
door and, overhead, the night sky. “Have any of his other clients
had any problems?”
“Not that he knows of, but like I said, he’s been gone a
month. The only way most of them have to contact him is
“Where Marie is answering calls and taking messages.”
Tommy rubbed between his eyes where a headache was trying
to start. “What’s his gut instinct about her?”
“That she couldn’t be involved in something like this.”
“He never would have kept her on if he hadn’t trusted her
fully. But you and I both know that a lot of bad guys are capable
of hiding their true nature. People see what they want them to
see. And she could have been fully trustworthy until something
happened. Maybe her mother’s care is overwhelming her.
Maybe the idea of starting over at a new job at her age is too
much. Maybe she’s been tempted all along and finally gave in.”
Desperation could make a person do things she never would
have considered. Ellie was proof of that. But it was a big step
from blackmail to murder. Most blackmailers weren’t violent.
Desperation again: fear of getting caught, reluctance to go to
prison, leaving her mother alone. And when she had the perfect
suspect in her partner’s daughter…
Tommy turned away from the window and leaned against the
sill. “When did Martha make the two calls from the Jasmine?”
“Wednesday evening around six-fifteen and Saturday
morning. Ten forty-two.”
A few hours before she’d confronted Ellie for the first time and
again before she’d issued her demand for an answer the next day.
“Did Aiken mention that Ellie had left a couple of mes-
sages for him?”
“No. Said he hasn’t talked to her in eight or ten months.”
“Did he say when he last spoke to Marie?”
“Every Monday morning, our time, since he left, and again
on Thursdays. She gives him messages, he tells her what to do.”
“Ellie left messages for him last Friday. Said it was really
“Wonder why Jensen didn’t tell him,” Decker said sardoni-
cally as he pulled a paper folded in quarters from his pocket.
“I got this from Drivers Services. Look familiar?”
Tommy smoothed the folds, then studied the photograph of
Aiken’s secretary. She looked her age, pleasant, fairly unre-
markable. Her hair was too perfectly blond to be natural, her
cheeks plump, her smile warm.
Had she been at the Halloween festival? He had no clue.
But then, he had spent most of the evening watching Ellie, and
there’d been more than a few witches there. “If I saw her, I
“Forgettable is the best way for crooks to look.”
“Okay, so Marie Jensen knows her boss is retiring. It’s her
last chance to fatten up her own retirement plan. She knows
about—” Tommy broke off abruptly. He’d been about to say
the nephew’s girlfriends
. If the secretary was the blackmailer,
it would all come out in the end, but until then, he wouldn’t
break Ellie’s confidence. “She knows Ellie doesn’t want her
past coming out, so she recruits Martha for her blackmail. Why
use a partner? Why not approach Ellie directly?”
Decker sprawled on the sofa, legs stretched out, ankles
crossed over a rung on the chair that fronted the desk. “An extra
layer of protection between her and the crime. I bet Martha
didn’t have an idea in hell who she was dealing with. As far as
Ellie knew, as far as
know for sure, Martha was acting alone.
She could have talked about her partner until she was blue in
the face, but she wouldn’t have had a name or a face to put to
her, nothing but a bunch of pay phones to point to as proof.”
“Assuming Ellie’s not the only target, Jensen picks people who
194 Passion to Die For
are greedy enough to be the face guy but who can’t ID her. She
provides the material, they approach the target and she splits the
money with them, all the time staying anonymous to everyone.”
Decker nodded in agreement.
“So why kill Martha?”
“You said Ellie called Aiken Friday afternoon. Says it’s
important—she needs to talk to him right away. Jensen thinks
Ellie’s going to tell him about the blackmail. She can’t risk the
boss finding out that Ellie’s not the only client being targeted,
so she comes to Copper Lake, kills Martha, removing the only
possible link between herself and the blackmail, and, as a
bonus, she frames Ellie. She has to know that we’re going to
find out pretty quick that Ellie isn’t who she says she is, and
then we’re going to find out her criminal history. Desperate
people do desperate things.”
Less than thirty hours had passed between Ellie’s phone
calls to Aiken and Martha’s death. Not a lot of time to plan a
murder and a frame. But as murders went, hit-and-run was
fairly simple. The most difficult part of the plan would have
been getting her hands on the drug, and even that wouldn’t have
been tough for a resourceful woman. She lived in a college town
and had worked half her life for a criminal-defense attorney.
She had access to people who had access to just about anything.
“I wonder if she’s blackmailed other clients,” Tommy said.
“I wonder if she’s killed other partners.”
The thought made Tommy stiffen. They could be talking not
about a woman desperate for money, but a cold-blooded
murderer. Killing Martha might have been her plan all along;
she’d just been forced to do it before the payoff this time
because of Ellie’s attempt to contact Aiken.
Decker was thinking along the same lines. “Since Ellie’s calls
made Jensen act before, let’s have her call again. Tell her she
to talk to Aiken, that she’s found out things he’s got to know.”
“And she’ll reach him some other way if Jensen can’t get
hold of him.” The secretary would buy that. After all, she knew
about Ellie and her boss’s nephew.
“If she is the guilty one, she’ll come here to get rid of Ellie,
just like she got rid of Martha.”
Set up Ellie as a target for murder. Tommy’s hands were
clammy, and acid churned in his gut. Set up the woman he loved
to let some psychopath try to kill her. He wanted to object, to
say no way, but the choice wasn’t really his; it was Ellie’s. And
if they were prepared, if everything went right, her name would
be cleared and there would be no threat of arrest, trial or prison.
But if something went wrong…
But those weren’t the words that came out when he
finally got enough breath to power his voice.
“Let’s talk to her.”
It was nine-thirty Wednesday morning. The sun was shining,
and the air had a bit of a fall nip, just enough to remind a person
that winter, such as it was, was coming. If Ellie had her way,
she would be outside at that very moment, strolling through the
square, maybe stopping in at A Cuppa Joe for hot cocoa,
tapping on the window of Jamie’s office to wave hello or
admiring River’s Edge with its autumn-hued mums and pansies.
She wouldn’t be sitting in her office, surrounded by grim-
faced men. She wouldn’t be jittery and anxious, and she defi-
nitely wouldn’t be about to make a phone call that might result
in an attempt on her life.
Tommy was leaning against the wall behind her chair, his
pose relaxed, but she could feel the tension vibrating around
him. He’d been noncommittal about this phone call. He’d made
certain she understood the risks, and he’d promised she would
be safe, but he hadn’t tried to persuade or dissuade her. He’d
trusted her judgment to make the right choice.
196 Passion to Die For
She hoped she had.
Robbie sat on the couch, and A.J. was in the visitor chair. A
fourth man by the name of Galvez was finishing up his job of
wiring the phone to record the call. When he was done, he
nodded, and she picked up the phone, her hand trembling a bit
as she dialed.
A woman answered on the second ring. “Aiken Law Office.
This is Marie.”
“Hello, Marie, this is Ellie Chase. I called last week trying
to get hold of Mr. Aiken?”
“Oh, yes, Miss Chase. I’m sorry. Has he not called you back
“No, he hasn’t, and it’s really urgent that I speak to him. I
really don’t want to go into detail, but I, uh, found out some-
thing that he really needs to know. It could be terribly damaging
to him and everyone who works for him.”
There was a moment’s silence; then, confidence strong in
her voice, Marie said, “You can tell me anything, Miss Chase.
I’ve been Mr. Aiken’s right hand for twenty-seven years now.
I know everything that goes on in this office. And if I know what
the problem is, I can be sure it’s presented with the importance
it deserves.” A phony little laugh. “You’d be surprised what
some of our clients consider urgent. A parking ticket, an ex
being a day late with his child support, a daughter getting sus-
pended for one day from middle school. Not that I’m trivializ-
ing your problem, but you understand, it’s my job to prioritize
Mr. Aiken’s calls so I’m not bothering him halfway around the
world with truly minor issues.”
“Well…” Ellie wrapped the phone cord around one finger.
“I hate to make accusations, but…I think someone who works
for him is blackmailing me.”
There was utter silence for a few seconds; then Marie,
sounding hollow, said, “Oh my God. Of course I’ll contact Mr.
Aiken right away. It may take a while. He’s traveling, you
know, and there’s the time difference, and cell service isn’t
always reliable. But I’ll get your message to him and—”
Ellie interrupted. “You know, Marie, I shouldn’t have
involved you in this. After all, these people are your friends and
coworkers. I’ll just call Mr. Aiken myself. We’ve got some
mutual friends. I can get his cell number from one of them, and
if not, there’s always Andrew. I’m sure he would be happy to
help once he knows what’s going on.”
Another brief silence, then urgency: “Please don’t do that,
Miss Chase. I’ll reach Mr. Aiken, and he’ll call you right away.
“Thank you, Marie.” Ellie hung up and wiped her sweaty
palms on a napkin printed with Ellie’s Deli.
“Who is Andrew?” A.J. asked as Galvez dismantled the
“Randolph’s nephew.” Deliberately misleading the detec-
tive, she glanced at Robbie. “It helps to know people who know
people.” Let him assume that her knowledge of one rich
lawyer’s family came through another rich lawyer.
“I’ve got a friend in Athens keeping an eye on Jensen. If she
leaves, he’ll let us know.”
“You have friends everywhere, don’t you?” she asked, trying
to ease a little of the tension in the room.
A.J.’s shrug was accompanied by what might have been the
beginnings of a smile if it hadn’t faded so fast. “Did her voice
seem at all familiar?”
Ellie shook her head. She’d listened hard, but any recogni-
tion more likely would have been from talking to the woman
on the phone last Friday, not in the bar on Saturday. She’d
studied the photograph of Marie Jensen the day before, but had
drawn a blank there, too.
“Petrovski’s out back, and DeLong’s out front,” A.J. went
198 Passion to Die For
on. “Don’t set foot out of this building without one of them or
“She’s not going anywhere,” Tommy said from behind her,
and she felt no need to disagree. She could stay here in the deli,
with both doors guarded, for days if necessary.
She could stay with Tommy forever.
As the conversation went on around her, she stared at the
crumpled napkin, unable to focus on it. Marie Jensen was, by
all accounts, an ordinary woman. She’d had a good job and
made a comfortable life for herself and, in recent years, her
mother, and yet she’d dug through her boss’s files to locate
people who were vulnerable, to use their misfortunes for her
gain. After half a century of ordinariness, she’d turned to crime,
to betrayal and murder.
Ellie could more easily understand Martha’s greed. Oliver had
never been a great provider, but in the last few months without
him, she’d seen that a tough life was about to get tougher. No
doubt, she’d really believed that Ellie owed her; she’d justified
her actions as merely claiming what was rightfully hers.
But Marie Jensen didn’t need Ellie’s money to survive. A.J.
had told her Marie owned a nice house and a two-year-old car.
She took vacations twice a year and had money in savings and
in a retirement plan. She didn’t know Ellie, as Martha had. She
didn’t hate her, as Martha had.
And yet she was willing to destroy Ellie—first, for money; now,
if Tommy and A.J.’s theory was correct, to cover up her crimes.
What turned an ordinary woman into a killer?
If the guys’ theory was correct, she might get the chance to
ask the woman herself.
Less than an hour after everyone cleared out of her office,
A.J. called Tommy with the news that Marie Jensen had,
indeed, left her office soon after the phone call. His friend had
followed her to the post office and the bank before losing her
inside the mall. He’d returned to watch her car, but after three
hours with no sign of her, the consensus was that she’d left by
some other means.
The news made Tommy look grim and heightened Ellie’s
queasiness, even though every cop in town had Marie’s descrip-
tion. There were officers stationed outside the deli’s doors, and
Tommy was never more than a shout away. She was safe.
The hours dragged past. Business was better than good—
they served lunch to two buses of senior citizens who’d driven
over from Augusta to tour Calloway Plantation and River’s
Edge—but she just wanted the day to be over. She wanted to
go home, curl up in bed next to Tommy and sleep as if she didn’t
have a care in the world.
She wanted all of this to be over and done.
As long as she came out of it alive and free.
“You look tired. Why don’t you go home? I’ll close up for you.”
Ellie smiled faintly at Carmen. It wasn’t even seven yet, but
the assistant manager looked tired, too. With all that had
happened, she’d come in early the last three days and stayed
late the last two nights so Ellie wouldn’t have to. Working the
extra hours, along with caring for her five children, was obvi-
ously starting to wear on her. “Thanks, but I think it’s your turn
to cut out. Go home to your family.”
“They can take care of themselves for another night.”
“Go on,” Ellie urged. “I bet you haven’t even seen the kids
awake since Sunday.”
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing,” Carmen retorted with a
smirk. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather get out of here?”
“I’m sure.” As much as she’d like to be home in bed with
Tommy, it wasn’t as if she would feel any more relaxed at
home; she might as well be antsy here and give Carmen a break.
“Well, if you’re certain,” Carmen said, already heading
toward the kitchen.
200 Passion to Die For
Ellie waited tables, helped in the kitchen and ordered
supplies. She posted the work schedule for the next week; then,
with Tommy’s help, she shut down the back dining room at
eight, wiped the tables, refilled the salt and pepper shakers and
mopped up. The whole time she couldn’t help wondering if
Marie Jensen was out there in the dark, watching through the
windows that stretched across the room, or if she’d decided, as
Ellie herself had a few days ago, to cut her losses and run.
“Petrovski’s out there.”
Ellie saw Tommy’s reflection in the glass a moment before
he bumped against her from behind. She leaned into him,
taking comfort in his warmth and solidness. “Poor guy. It’s
been a long day.”
“He got a two-hour break, and he volunteered for the overtime.”
She gazed at their image for a moment, then into the
darkness of the herb garden. “Where do you think she is?”
“Don’t have a clue. Maybe on the first plane to Rio.”
“Or maybe here in town.”
He nodded once, his chin bumping her head. “Maybe,” he
agreed. “Any chance you’ve changed your mind about bunking
in a jail cell?”
“I’ve been in jail more times than you want to know. I don’t
want to go back.”
“Not even for your own safety?”
“I’m safe with you.”
He exaggerated his usual Southern drawl. “I’m honored by
your faith in me.”
Not as honored as she was by his love for her, she thought
with a faint smile as she went back to work.
At eight forty-five the last diners left. At nine o’clock, the
front door was locked and by nine-fifteen, the last of the staff
had departed by the rear door. Ellie and Tommy worked
together, cleaning the main dining room, the bar, the bath-
rooms. All that was left was preparing the bank deposit. She’d
just settled at her desk to start that when his cell phone rang.
He greeted A.J., and her nerves tightened. When he swore,
her fingers clenched the ink pen tightly enough to make them
numb. “Let me know,” he said curtly before disconnecting.
“They had a disturbance call to Stormy’s Tavern. Shots fired,
a number of people down, including two officers.” His mouth
tightening, he dragged his fingers through his hair.
“You should go.”
“They don’t need me.”
“But you need to be there.”
Shaking his head, he jumped to his feet and paced the length
of the room, agitation rolling off him in waves. Officer-down calls
were the worst, he’d told her before. He didn’t just work with
these people; they were friends, partners, brothers on the job.
She laid the pen on top of a stack of twenties and moved to
block his path. Outside, sirens wailed, increasing as emergency
vehicles came nearer, then fading as they raced on past.
“Tommy, we’re the only two here. Pete Petrovski is still out
back. Someone else is out front. The place is locked up tight.
I couldn’t be safer. Go help where you’re needed.”
He hesitated, clearly torn, then abruptly kissed her. “I’ll be
“I’ll be waiting.”
Spinning around, he left the office, his footsteps sounding
oddly hollow in the quiet restaurant. The front door creaked,
better than a bell at announcing customers, and the murmur of
Tommy’s conversation with the officer silhouetted in the open
doorway filtered back to where she stood. Apparently satisfied
that all was well at the front, he secured the door, passed her
again with a gentle touch, then went into the kitchen. A moment
202 Passion to Die For
later, the back door closed with a thud, and she was truly alone
for the first time in four days.
This place is spooky when it’s empty,
he’d said Monday
morning, and she’d disagreed. From the moment she’d walked
through the front door that first day five years ago, she’d known
she and this building were meant for each other. It was a symbol
of how far she’d come. She felt at home there.
But it was just a little spooky tonight, she decided as she
closed the office door, locked it, then returned to her desk.
An occasional siren passed as she counted out cash and
coins, totaled checks and organized credit card receipts, and
she said a quick prayer between tasks. It had been a very good
day for the business; she was long past the point where she
could turn over much of the day-to-day responsibilities to
someone else and take time for herself. Spend time with
friends. With Tommy.
She slid the cash into a locking bank bag and zipped it shut
as a noise sounded from the rear of the building. Instinctively
she started, then realized Tommy must have forgotten some-
thing; he hadn’t been gone long enough to reach the bar on the
east edge of town, and Pete wouldn’t let just anyone enter.
Leaving the bag on the desk, she crossed to the door and
twisted the lock. “That was quick. Is everything—”
It wasn’t Tommy who stood in the hallway, face shadowed
by the dim lights burning there and in the bar. The woman was
about her height, though considerably heavier, and looked old
enough to be harmless.
The question of harmless didn’t apply to the pistol she carried.
“Hello, Ellie. Do you mind if I come in?”
Ellie backed away, and Marie Jensen advanced, closing the
door behind her. Her disguise was a good one: gray wig; heavy
makeup that gave her an aged, sallow look; dumpy shirt and
pants; ugly shoes. Except for the thin latex gloves she wore, she
looked like someone’s frumpy grandma.
“How did you get past the officers outside?”
“Oh, I’ve been here awhile, upstairs in that private room. I
walked in the front door, right past you and that cute little
detective boyfriend of yours, and neither of you ever looked
twice at me.”
The tour group, Ellie realized. There had been a few men,
but mostly it had been made up of women ranging from every-
hair-in-place to majorly frumpy. She would have fit right in.
“You couldn’t have known when you chose your disguise
that we would have sixty-eight seniors here for lunch,” Ellie
commented, surprised that her voice was steady.
“A happy coincidence. I love those. Don’t you?”
“The officer-down call from the bar…was that another coin-
cidence? Or did you make it?”
“‘This is Josie out at Stormy’s Tavern. Someone’s shootin’ up
the parkin’ lot,’” Marie said, her voice coarse, her accent thick.
“‘There’s people lying all over the place, and God Almighty, I
think them two cops are dead.’” She smirked. “I used to do com-
munity theater. I’m very good with makeup and dialects.”
Ellie kept her gaze locked on Marie while doing a frantic
mental search for a way out. Marie blocked the door. The
windows were big enough to crawl through, but they’d been
painted shut since before Ellie had moved in. The glass had
been in them decades longer, two panes sandwiching wire
mesh. Tough to break out.
Choices for weapons were limited, as well: a lamp near the
sofa, another on the desk, the telephone. Where was a heavy silver
candlestick when you needed one? Or a strong, experienced cop?
I’ll be back.
And she would be waiting, she’d told Tommy. Alive, she
204 Passion to Die For
Knees weakened by the alternative, she sank into the chair
behind the desk. What was in the drawers? Pens, paper clips,
a stapler. No letter opener; she preferred to tear the flap. A pair
of scissors with two-inch round-tipped blades, not likely to do
any real damage. Files, a thin Copper Lake phone book.
Heavy glasses and bottles in the bar, knives and rolling
pins and skillets in the kitchen. Makeshift weapons every-
where but here.
“Why did you pick me?” The quaver that had made her legs
unsteady had traveled up into her voice now.
“You fit my requirements.” Marie ticked them off on her
fingers. “Having the truth come out was your greatest fear. I
wanted money. You had it. I had the truth.” With a shrug as if
it were truly that simple, she slid a bag off her shoulder onto
the visitor chair. She lined up its contents on the far edge of the
desk: a bottle of wine, likely taken from the bar; a glass; a coffee
stirrer; a pill bottle half filled with powder; a manila file folder;
and a sheet of paper. “Why don’t you get some paper and copy
this note in your own handwriting.”
Slowly Ellie removed a notepad from the drawer, an ink pen
from another and slid Marie’s note closer.
My real name is Bethany Dempsey. Martha Dempsey
was my mother. I’d hidden from her for fifteen years, but
she found me and threatened to destroy my new life if I
didn’t give her everything. I couldn’t do it. I’d worked too
hard, and I hated her too much. So I killed her.
I thought it would be easy. It was only fair, after every-
thing she’d done to me. I didn’t expect to feel guilty. Just
relieved. But I can’t stand it. I can’t stand what she turned
me into. I can’t stand everyone knowing the truth about me.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
“I can’t write this,” Ellie said quietly.
Marie set the pistol on the chair seat, well out of reach, and
opened the pill bottle. The white powder inside was ground-up
pills, Ellie realized, to help speed their action. Marie dumped
a large dose of the powder into the wineglass, then filled the
glass two-thirds, stirring it until the powder dissolved.
Then she looked at Ellie. “You have two options, and
walking out of here isn’t one of them. You can copy that note
and drink this wine, go to sleep and never wake up, or you can
copy the note and blow your brains out. Keep in mind that it’s
probably your boyfriend who will find you. Do you want him
to find you resting in peace? Or a bloody mess?”
Ellie glanced at the wine, a pretty, deep red, showing no sign
of the fine powder dissolved in it. She had to believe she could
stall long enough, that Tommy would realize something was
wrong, that he would know she needed him.
But what if he didn’t get back in time? Which would haunt
him less: an overdose? Or a gunshot to the head?
That’s a no-brainer,
she could hear him saying with that dry
dark humor that got him through the tough times at work.
Still, she couldn’t make herself pick up the glass. She
reached for it, but her hand trembled too badly. She clasped her
fingers tightly together. “You’ll never get away—”
Marie swiftly raised the gun, the barrel cold and hard against
Ellie’s temple. She pressed just hard enough to make it bite into
the skin. “You’re not walking out of here, Ellie.” Her voice was
calm, oddly pleasant, sending a shiver through Ellie. “I’ve got
too much invested here. Too much to lose. Start. Drinking. Now.”
Ellie’s breath came, quick and shallow, but she couldn’t
move. Couldn’t reach for the glass. Couldn’t lift the pen.
Then Marie drew back the hammer, not much more than a
click, but the most frightening sound Ellie had ever heard. The
ice holding her motionless shattered and she picked up the
206 Passion to Die For
glass, sloshing droplets over her fingers as she raised it to her
mouth and sipped.
The pressure of the gun barrel against her temple didn’t ease
until the third drink. Slowly Marie withdrew, eased the hammer
down again, then looked around the office. “Keep drinking and
start writing. Where do you keep your important papers?”
“There’s a safe in the credenza.” Ellie gestured toward the
built-in piece behind her, sipped more wine, then picked up the
My real name is Bethany Dempsey.
Marie took the folder—and the gun, Ellie saw with disap-
pointment—to the credenza and opened doors until she found
the hidden safe. “Combination?”
Swiveling to face her, Ellie rattled off the numbers. A few
edges stuck out of the folder, enough to recognize the pages:
arrest reports. It was the original of the file she’d burned in her
fireplace a week ago, the original A.J. hadn’t been able to find
among Martha’s belongings.
Marie skimmed over the items in the safe, nothing of value
to her, then tossed the folder on top. For good measure, she
sprinkled a little powder from the pill bottle inside, too, before
closing the door and spinning the lock. “Drink. Write.”
Martha Dempsey was my mother.
“Why did you kill her?”
“She was greedy and stupid. I told her to get the cash and
get out, but she decided she wanted to stay here and be taken
care of. She made you suspicious enough to call Randolph.
Most blackmail victims are smart enough to keep their mouths
shut and pay up as soon as they can get the cash together. But
not you. No, you have to call your damned lawyer.”
Ellie tried to focus on the line she was writing. She was so
tired. Probably the wine on top of a long, stressful day. Then
the desire to giggle hit her: the wine was laced with enough
sedative to kill her. Yep, that could make her tired.
Her eyes were drooping shut when pain lanced through her
scalp. Holding a handful of Ellie’s hair, Marie gave her head a
vicious shake. “Finish the damn letter.”
I didn’t expect to feel guilty.
“Tommy will never believe…” The letters swayed on the
paper, and she blinked to hold them steady. “He’ll never
believe…” Something important, but what?
Marie snorted. “He’ll have your suicide note written in your
own hand. Your fingerprints will be on the wine bottle and the
glass. The file covered with Martha’s fingerprints is in your
safe. It may break his heart, but he’ll believe.”
Break his heart.
She’d done that before. Wouldn’t ever do
it again. Loved him. More than she’d ever loved…
Another drink, another line.
Last drink. Last line. It was a struggle, holding her head up,
keeping her eyes open, maintaining a grip on the pen, making
it move in legible lines.
I’m sorry. I’m sorrysorrysor
Stormy’s Tavern was located a mile and a half outside the
town proper, just fifty feet inside the city limits. Long before
the bar’s neon lights came into sight, the road, narrowed to two
lanes, became clogged with passersby and emergency vehicles
casting a ghostly blue and red glow into the air.
Waiting for a chance to pull into the parking lot, Tommy
stared at the scene. There were a lot of people milling around:
customers, employees, curious neighbors, emergency person-
nel. Voices carrying through the open window hummed with
excitement, but there was little activity. Paramedics and firemen
stood in small groups talking. Most of the cops were making a
halfhearted effort at crowd and traffic control, but there was no
sense of urgency, no shock, no adrenaline rushing.
No victims’ bodies lying on the parking lot.
There’d been no shooting.
208 Passion to Die For
Spinning the steering wheel in a tight circle, Tommy gunned
the engine, shooting across the lane in front of oncoming traffic.
The SUV rocked when the right wheels went off the pavement,
then again when they regained traction.
A damned diversion. Every cop on duty or off would
respond to an officer-down call, leaving the entire rest of the
town pretty much empty. It was easier to take out one or two
cops when backup was at least eight or ten minutes away.
He raced back toward the center of town, veering into the
opposite lane to pass slower-moving vehicles, jamming the brakes
when he couldn’t pass. His tires squealed through the turn onto
River Road, and the SUV bumped over the curb when he cut it
short angling into the alley. He skidded to a stop at the foot of the
deli’s rear steps and jumped out of the truck before the engine died.
In the shadows at the end of the lot, a car door opened and
Petrovski climbed out. “Hey, Maricci, everything okay?”
“Have you seen anything?”
“No, it’s been quiet. What about—”
“The shooting call was bogus. Find Gadney around front.
Make sure everything’s okay there.” As Petrovski reached for
his police radio, Tommy unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The deli was quiet, the same lights on as when he’d left. He
slid his gun from its holster, then moved silently through the
shadowy kitchen and into the broad hallway. Light shone from
underneath the office door. Nothing appeared out of place.
He eased up against the wall, reaching for the doorknob. If
he was overreacting, he was going to scare the hell out of Ellie.
But the hairs standing on end on the back of his neck and the
tightness in his gut were pretty good indicators that he wasn’t
Before his fingers closed around the knob, it turned from the
inside and the door opened. He jerked back, flat against the
wall, as a woman came out. She carried a tote bag and was
dressed in jeans and one of the Ellie’s Deli T-shirts the wait-
staff wore. Her hair was red, and she wore oversize glasses that
gave her a bug-eyed look. Together with the wig, they took ten
years off her age, but he knew that face. He’d been staring at a
picture of it off and on all day.
He extended his arm, gun pointing directly at Marie Jensen,
and stepped out of the shadows. She whirled around, her own
arm extended, her own gun aimed at him.
he thought in a panic, but he didn’t dare take his
gaze from her to look inside the room for Ellie.
Marie’s smile was as cold and empty as her eyes, at odds
with her warm drawl. “You’re too late, Detective. Poor Ellie.
So troubled over what she’s done.”
Fear surged inside him, but his hand remained steady. “Put
the gun down, Marie.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
She smiled again. “A person always has choices, Detec-
tive.” Her finger tightened on the trigger, and a curious look
came into her eyes. Triumph, maybe.
The shot was deafening in the contained space. Her body
spun backward into the doorway of the bar, landing facedown
on the wood floor. The gun was still in her grip, her finger still
on the trigger, but it was too late to pull it.
Tommy stared at her only an instant. He didn’t have to go
closer, didn’t have to check to know she was dead. A .45-
caliber bullet to the chest at close range…
Footsteps pounding into the kitchen nearly obscured the
whisper of sound from the office. Tommy spun around and
bolted into the room.
Ellie sat slumped at her desk, her hair hiding her face, one
arm dangling at her side. A wine bottle lay beneath her fingers,
red wine gurgling out, spreading across the desktop.
210 Passion to Die For
Oh God, oh God.
He found her pulse, thready,
slowing even as he checked. “Get your car, Pete!” he yelled
as he lifted her into his arms, then shoved the chair out of the
way and headed toward the hall, where Petrovski was staring,
green around the gills, at Jensen. “Move! We’ve got to get her
to the hospital.”
“Oh, man, it’s too late,” Petrovski said, then did a double
take when he saw Ellie. He dashed into the kitchen and out the
back door, and Tommy followed.
It wasn’t too late. He wouldn’t let it be. He couldn’t let it be.
He prayed all the way to the hospital.
Oh God, oh God, oh
Friday afternoon was sunny and warm, the sky an incredible
blue. Ellie stood next to a casket the color of ancient pewter, a
single red rose in her hand. She hadn’t thought to get flowers,
but Sara Calloway and her daughters-in-law had ordered them;
so had Tommy’s father and Pops.
The three Calloway boys and their wives stood some
distance back, giving her privacy. She’d been surprised that they
would attend; after all, they hadn’t known Martha.
But we know
Anamaria had said.
We’ll be there for you.
Tommy had offered to wait with them, but Ellie had clasped
his hand instead. She had lost consciousness Wednesday night
thinking she would never see him again. She needed him near.
“I didn’t love her,” she remarked.
“She gave you no reason to.”
And so many reasons not to. “She was a poor excuse for a
“But she was your mother.”
And Ellie had wanted to do what daughters did when their
mothers died: bury her. Show a moment’s respect for the rela-
tionship that might have been.
Promise herself that her own mother/child relationships
would be exactly what they should.
With a sigh, she laid the rose on the casket, then glanced
around. Martha was dead, and no one truly mourned. Marie
Jensen was dead. Randolph Aiken was on his way home to,
once again, clean up someone else’s messes. He’d already
located two other blackmail victims among his former clients.
Likely there were more.
What terrible events Martha had set in motion when she’d
thrown her teenage daughter out of the house fifteen years ago.
Tommy’s free hand, warm and solid, brushed her cheek.
“Are you all right?”
Ellie drew a deep breath, smelling flowers, fresh earth and
autumn leaves, then smiled at him. “I’m better than all right.”
A pause. “Are you?”
He’d shot suspects twice before, but neither had died. He
was pragmatic about it, though. If he hadn’t killed Marie, she
would have killed him. If her dying meant his living, it was a
“Yeah. I am.”
She smiled again, awed by the pure pleasure of looking at
him, touching him, talking to him. “I love you, you know.”
His grin was slow, brash and endearing as he slid his arm
around her shoulders and began walking with her to where
their friends waited. “I know, darlin’. I’ve always known. I’ve
just been waiting for you to figure it out.”