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''I know,I know. Men are great as long as you don't trust them.'' Judy sat in her office chair, her Mylar aerobic shoes propped up on her computer desk in a corner of her living room.
Gina Santori, a bright, imaginative nineteen-year-old who was taking Judy's night class in fiction writing at the high school, had called for characterization advice, and the conversation had gotten around to real men rather than fictional ones.
''I love K.J.,'' Gina said with a sigh, ''but with that cartoonist's turn of mind, he sees everything as a joke. I think our relationship is just one prolonged comic strip. I can't get him to discuss anything seriously.''
''Then don't push it. You're too young to be thinking seriously about anything, anyway.''
''That's what my father keeps telling me, but I think it's because he likes having me work with him.'' Her voice took on a wry note. ''I think you lose your appeal with prospective dates, though, when they ask you what you do and you have to reply, 'I'm in construction with my father.' At least Dad's a man I can trust. Thanks, Judy. Got to get to work.''
''Call me anytime.'' Judy dropped her feet to the carpet and booted up the computer. ''What are you guys working on today?''
''We're doing some renovations to the Yes! Yogurt offices.''
''Mmm. Have a cone of Caramel Chocolate Cookie for me.''
Judy propped her feet up again, moved the keyboard to her lap and clicked her way through the options offered on her monitor until she found the Murder by Marriage file.
She settled down to it with a sense of satisfaction. Her latest book was developing a pulse of its own and had a power she thought her first book lacked.
In the ten pages she'd inished yesterday, her heroine, a pediatrician, was beginning to suspect that her husband of six weeks, an attorney who'd defended her in a wrongful death suit, had murdered her first husband.
Today the heroine would deal with the suspicion and try to decide what to do while her husband wandered in and out of their bedroom and sauna, trying to convince her that they should take the honeymoon they'd delayed and go to Cozumel. She would vacillate between thinking she was crazy to suspect him, and remembering the many details that pointed to his guilt.
Judy saw the setting in her mind: a lush condo with every amenity, a white bedroom illed with pillows and billowing sheer curtains.
Then suddenly the mental image was superimposed with that of a rough cabin in a snowy wilderness. She could see her sister, Daphne, at the window, watching the landscape in concern, her toddler in her arms.
Judy closed her eyes and let the frustrated worry course through her. There was nothing else she could do. Her sister and her niece were in hiding somewhere under the protection of her sister's lover, Vic Estevez, the former DEA agent turned private investigator who'd rushed them out of town at the first sign of danger.
That had been a month ago. Vic hadn't told anyone where he was taking them. Anyone except Rob Friedman, who'd helped them make their escape. The only clue Judy had to their location was that Vic had had them pack warm clothes.
Next to the anguish of not knowing where her sister was, Judy considered the fact that Rob knew a festering annoyance she could hardly tolerate.
She disliked the newspaper publisher with a sincerity that was heartfelt and complete. He represented everything she'd come to distrust and despise at an early age. And to top that off, he'd critiqued her first book in the Tyler Citizen and called it ''predictable and verbose.''
She would not forgive him in this lifetime for either offense.
But she had to get some work done. Daphne and Jennifer were safe with Vic, even if Judy didn't know where they were, and she could do nothing about their situation until Rob got things rolling. And he could do nothing until he heard from Dave Heath.
Rob had explained the auto-salvage-shop search to her, and though she understood the tedious nature of it, she was growing impatient with the wait. She wanted to take action. She wanted to bring Daphne and Jenny home.
But all she could do at the moment was keep writing and trust that Vic's P.I. friend would finally come through for them. For someone who seldom trusted anyone, that was a tall order.
Closing her eyes, Judy tried to clear her mind and put herself back in the ictional white bedroom and the domestic discussion with its simmering undercurrents. She was almost there when the doorbell rang. The melodic ring was followed by several sharp raps on the door.
''This is going to be one of those days,'' she grumbled to herself as she lowered her feet, put the keyboard on the desk, went to the door and pulled it open.
She knew instantly that it was not going to be ''one of those days.'' It was the day. Rob had insisted it would come, but she hadn't been so sure. It was going to be hard to admit to him that he'd been right.
''Judith Woodruff Lowery?''
The question was asked by a gray-haired woman Judy guessed to be in her early sixties. She was swathed in a fox fur coat, and there was a giant diamond on the veiny hand that held the coat closed at her throat.
She had perfect symmetry of featureslightly but expertly made-up aquamarine eyes, an aquiline nose, a thin-lipped mouth colored in a very contemporary shade of red. But the overall effect did not produce beauty. It was too cold for that, too empty.
Judy knew she was face-to-face with Celeste Huntington, the woman she hoped to prove had murdered her sister's husband and was trying to steal away Daphne's child.
But Judy had to pretend she didn't know. She had to make Celeste believe Daphne had never been to Tyler, that Judy hadn't seen her sister since she'd run away from home at age fifteen.
Beside Celeste was a giant man in the uniform of a chauffeur. She guessed him to be middle-aged, though he had the muscular physique of a much younger man. Waiting at the limo were two other men in suits who looked as though they worked out at the same gym. Half the neighborhood, Judy noted, had come out to gawk at the limo.
She forced a cordial smile. ''Yes. I'm Judy Lowery. But I already have an Avon representative.'' She tried to close the door.
It came to an abrupt halt when the woman slapped a hand out to stop it, and the chauffeur backed up the action with a beefy arm.
''I am Celeste Huntington.'' There was a dramatic pause before the woman said her name. She obviously expected to cause fear, or at least concern.
Judy took special pleasure in looking blank. ''I am '' she said, pausing with the same emphasis, ''pleased to meet you. But what are you selling?''
The fox fur rose and fell as Celeste Huntington drew a breath. ''I'm your sister's mother-in-law. May we come in?''
Judy considered a moment. Rob's instruction if the woman did show up on her doorstep was that Judy should not let her inside under any circumstances until she'd called him.
But her life had become geared to thwarting Rob, so she opened the door widely. With a pretense of great surprise at Celeste's announcement, she invited her in.
She wasn't afraid of the woman. If she made one wrong move, Judy had no compunction about taking her on. She'd held Celeste's men off with a knife the night Daphne left.
Judy even pretended not to mind when the chauffeur followed Celeste inside, though the thought of taking him on was less appealing. He was built like Hulk Ho-gan, complete with bulging biceps, lantern jaw and straight, longish blond hair under his cap.
She gestured toward the sofa and sat on the arm of the matching chair. ''You know Diane?'' she asked with appropriate astonishment. ''You've seen her?''
Celeste shrugged off the fox coat, revealing a red wool suit that had to have a designer label. Its fit was exquisite.
''Come now, Judy,'' Celeste said, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning forward. ''Let's not play this game. I know Diane's been here using the name Daphne Sullivan, and that she's now run off with the man I hired to find her.''
Judy blinked at her. It paid, she thought, to write fiction. She knew just how indignant surprise should look and schooled her features to reflect it.
''I have no idea what you're talking about, Mrs. Huntington,'' she said. ''I haven't seen Diane since she ran away as a teenager. You're telling me she married your son?''
Judy watched for a lash in the woman's eyes, a betrayal of feeling for the son she'd inadvertently murdered when he'd taken the car she'd rigged to kill Daphne.
But there was nothing. Either the woman had all feelingseven griefunder complete control, or she had no feelings at all. She simply met Judy's eyes and held them.
''I know she was here for nine or ten months and ran off at the end of September. Now, I have a court order to assume custody of Jennifer. Where is she?''
Judy shook her head in puzzlement. ''Who is Jennifer?''
Celeste gave the chauffeur an exasperated glance. He shook his head and rolled his eyes.
Judy pretended not to notice.
''Jennifer,'' Celeste replied with a great show of patience, ''is Diane's daughter.''
Judy gasped. ''I have a niece?''
''You know you have a niece, dear,'' Celeste said calmly. ''You put her and her mother up here at your farmhouse in the country. Where is she?''
''How old is she?'' Judy asked, as though she hadn't even heard Celeste's reply.
Celeste was quiet a moment. Then she said, without a thread of sharpness in her tone, ''Judy, stop this. You know Jennifer is two and a half, that she spent almost a year here with her mother and that they're now hiding from me somewhere with Vic Estevez, my private detective.''
''Hiding from you?'' Judy asked. ''Why? And if my sister married your son and they had a child, where is he? Why isn't he here looking for her?''
That did it; a flash of something appeared in the woman's eyes. There for only an instant, it made Judy's blood run cold. It was a kind of evil hatred, a malevolence so intense she almost was afraid. Then she remembered how important it was to Daphne's and Jennifer's safety that Celeste not suspect it.
''They aren't divorced already, are they?'' she asked guilelessly.
''He's dead!'' Celeste shouted abruptly. Then she drew a breath, shrugged her shoulders to adjust the line of her suit and said again more quietly, ''My son is dead.''
Judy was able to express genuine regret, because she knew Daphne had loved him. ''I'm sorry. Would you like a cup of coffee?''
Now Celeste looked at her as though Judy had just emerged from a saucer-shaped spacecraft. ''No,'' she replied evenly. ''I do not want coffee. I want Diane.''
''Well '' Judy made a show of thinking back. ''The last I heard of her, about ten years ago, was that she d gone to Las Vegas. You might try ''
Celeste apparently decided it was time to play her ace. She took the long snakeskin clutch bag that she'd deposited beside her on the sofa and turned it upside down on the coffee table. Bundles of bills fell onto the marred oak surface.
Judy saw Presidents Jefferson, McKinley and Cleveland on the one-hundred, ive-hundred and thousand-dollar bills.
''That's one hundred thousand dollars,'' Celeste said. She looked around the modest living room in disdain, then focused on Judy's eyes. ''I imagine you can use it. Murder by Moonlight hasn t exactly put you on the New York Times Bestseller List, has it?
The display of cash had little effect on Judy s performance, but the fact that Celeste had looked into her life far enough to assess her royalties was a little unsettling. Rob had warned that the woman would use all the resources at her disposal as she investigated her, and as Angus Watson, her spy in Tyler, observed her, but it was disturbing to be faced with the evidence.
''No, it hasn't,'' Judy admitted with what she hoped was modest acceptance, ''and I d love to be able to claim that money, but I m afraid you re mistaken about Diane's having been here. I haven't seen her for the last decade.''
Celeste stood and walked around the room, her designer suit looking out of place among Judy s eclectic collection of old furniture and memorabilia.
Judy watched her move among her things with a twinge of anger she worked very hard to suppress.
The woman touched a photo of Britt and her children on the mantel. ''Brittany Marshack,'' she said, turning to smile at Judy. The gesture was cold and somehow threatening. ''And Matt, Christy, David, Renee and Jacob.''
Judy smiled back, folding her arms to hide knotted fists. ''You know Britt? Then you probably know her husband, Jake. Big guy. Possessive. Protective.''
Celeste put the photo back and went to a low table that held a motley collection of angel figurines. ''Did I mention that I have connections at Bookcase Distributing?
A cash bribe, followed by a vague threat, followed by another bribe? Judy could hardly keep up.
''I d rather hear what else you know about my sister,'' Judy said. ''When did you last see her?''
Celeste leaned over the table, hands clasped behind her, as she studied the collection of berobed and winged figures. ''Your novel is a midlist title,'' she said absently, ''with nothing much to make it stand out from all the other books sandwiched between the hot lead titles and the standard, steadily selling backlist of well-known names. Let's face itif your sales don't improve, Minuteman Publishing isn t going to buy another title from you, even though you once worked for them.''
Judy knew that was true, and the prospect was always on her mind. ''How is it that you know so much about publishing?'' she asked innocently.
Celeste straightened from the table and shrugged, as though that was of no consequence. ''What matters is that I know important people in distribution. I can get your book talked up as a sleeper hit, get you mentioned on a few talk shows, perhapsgive you a second chance at the market. What do you say?''
Judy grinned. ''Sure. I'd love that.''
Celeste smiled, picked up a tall angel dressed in dark blue brocade and examined it with a well-manicured fingertip. ''Good. Consider it done. Now, where's Diane?
Judy blinked in a show of thickheaded confusion. ''I don't know. I just told you. The last I heard she went to Las
Celeste s eyes blazed cold ire for an instant before she slapped the angel viciously against a corner of the table. The delicate head and part of one wing flew off, and everything on the table toppled.
Judy didn t linch, but felt the blow as though it had been dealt to her, which she was certain was Celeste s intention. The gloves were off. Rob had been rightagain.
Celeste came toward her, the headless angel held up in the hand adorned with the large diamond. Her eyes were as clear as the stone, the hatred in them just as sparkling and cold. Her small mouth was set in a vicious sneer, her bottom lip twitching slightly.
''I will ask you one more time, she said, her voice a tremulous whisper, ''and if you don't answer me, Gunnar will ask you. I think you'll find his questions less comfortably phrased than mine. So, try to think, dear. Where is''
A knock on the back door cut off Celeste s question and was followed immediately by a wolf whistle and a young male voice calling, ''Judy! Where are you, light of my life?
Celeste backed away and Judy stood as a tall young man materialized in the doorway to the kitchen, a camera over his shoulder.
Celeste glowered at the chauffeur. ''You didn't post a man at the back door?'' she whispered harshly.
The big man looked distressed and embarrassed.