Not Guiltyby Patricia MacDonald
When Keely Bennett's world is shattered by the suicide of her beloved husband, Richard, she and her nine-year-old son Dylan have to start over. Her late husband's childhood friend, Mark Weaver, helps Keely settle Richard's affairs and sweeps her into a whirlwind romance -- and eventually a comfortable suburban lifestyle that includes marriage and a beautiful baby girl… See more details below
When Keely Bennett's world is shattered by the suicide of her beloved husband, Richard, she and her nine-year-old son Dylan have to start over. Her late husband's childhood friend, Mark Weaver, helps Keely settle Richard's affairs and sweeps her into a whirlwind romance -- and eventually a comfortable suburban lifestyle that includes marriage and a beautiful baby girl.
The darkness that clouded Keely's past has all but vanished. Yet Dylan, now a teenager, remains distant, brooding and resentful of his stepfather and baby sister, Abby. Then history repeats itself, and her life is once again thrown into chaos. But Keely's nightmare is just beginningŠfor the authorities are looking for a murderer, and they already have a prime suspect: Dylan.
Refusing to believe her son is a killer, Keely vows to clear his name. But the prosecutor has a personal stake in seeing Dylan convicted -- and her pleas for help from the police fall on deaf ears. To save her son, Keely must rely on herself. But she is far from alone; someone is watching her every move. When her investigation threatens to uncover a conspiracy of secrets and corruption, she is suddenly plunged into the path of danger -- and into the sights of a ruthless killer who will stop at nothing to ensure the truth stays buried forever....
Seamlessly weaving a psychological portrait of the bond between a mother and son with the breathless intrigue of a murder mystery, Not Guilty is a novel that finds Patricia MacDonald at the height of her celebrated powers.
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Read an Excerpt
Abby Weaver relinquished her secure hold on the leg of the pine farmhouse table and lurched across the black-and-white checkerboard floor. Reaching her destination, she grasped her mother's leg and gazed back in amazement at the distance she had traveled.
"Well, look at you!" Keely Weaver turned away from the kitchen sink, dried her soapy hands, and bent down to pick up her year-old baby, nuzzling the warm, springy flesh of her cheek. Abby laughed, delighted with herself and with her mother's response.
"What a big girl you're getting to be," said Keely, burying her face in the soft, cotton T-shirt that Abby wore and rubbing her nose against the baby's tummy in a way guaranteed to make Abby squeal with giggles. "Yes, you are. Yes, you are."
"What are my favorite girls up to?" asked Mark Weaver, coming into the kitchen and lifting the baby from her mother's arms. He held his daughter against his chest, the sleeves of his pin-striped business shirt now rolled up, and kissed her over and over again on her sparse, silky hair. "Are you making your mommy laugh?" he asked, looking the baby intently in the eye, and cupping his large, tanned hand around her little head. The gold of his wedding ring glinted in the last rays of the sunset coming in through the wall of windows in their kitchen.
"She's been practicing her freestyle," Keely observed, smiling at the sight of the two of them. Mark was an attorney -- sleek, handsome, and renowned for the intractability of his arguments. But around his baby daughter, he was about as ruthless as a bowl of pudding. Mark was driven about his work, but he changed gears instantly the moment his gaze landed on the fuzzy head and shining eyes of his baby girl. At his office and in the courthouse, people joked about the way he would whip out her picture and insist that they admire the most beautiful baby ever born.
"How could you be walking already?" he asked Abby in wonderment as she poked one of her stubby fingers between his lips. He pretended to chew on it for a moment, then gently enveloped her tiny hand in his. "Next thing you know, you'll be wanting a dress for the prom."
Keely sighed and nodded. "It's true. It'll be here before you know it." Even as she said it, a thought about Dylan dimmed her spirits like a cloud dims the light of the moon.
Seeming to sense the change in her, Mark reached out his free arm and included his wife in the embrace. "That was a great dinner," he said. "I know this is a terribly old-fashioned thing to say, but I love having my family here waiting for me at the end of the day, and a wonderful dinner on the table."
"Meet the Flintstones," Keely said, pretending to be annoyed with him. But Mark was not fooled. He drew her closer and kissed her, to their baby's delight.
"You know I don't mean it like that," he said.
"You did, and you know it," she teased him.
"No. Really. If you want to go back to work, I'm for it. Although I admit I'll be a little jealous to have all those teenage boys wanting to be teacher's pet."
"Oh, stop it," she said, but she smiled. "Teenage boys are not interested in the likes of me."
"Any man would be interested in a woman like you," he said.
She blushed, amazed as always by his frank adoration. She hadn't given much thought to her appearance lately. Luckily, she had regained her trim figure soon after Abby's birth, and her skin still glowed with the remains of a summer tan. But she wore no makeup, and her silvery blond hair was twisted into a formless knot. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Not every man's idea of a siren, she thought. "Well, I'm glad you think so," she said. "But really, I'm not ready to go back to teaching yet. There's still so much to do around here. And it's important for me to be with Abby in these early years." Then she reached out and ran a finger pensively down Abby's cheek. "A mom is like a mirror at this age. I'd forgotten -- it's been so long since Dylan was small. Every tiny accomplishment, they look to you for approval. I feel like she's programming that little computer in there for life. And every day brings changes, a thousand little decisions about how to negotiate in the world. She needs that constant attention. And of course, Dylan needs the extra time right now, too..."
"Well, in this day and age, I think it's the greatest luxury you can give a kid -- a mother to be there whenever you need her. And even when you don't. I can speak with authority on this subject."
She knew what he meant. His parents had died in a boating accident when he was only four years old, and he hadn't been adopted by Lucas and Betsy Weaver until he was sixteen. His stories of the years in between reminded her of something out of Dickens.
"I just worry that it gets lonesome for you here sometimes," he continued. "You don't know anyone. You're kind of isolated out here..."
"It's true," she said, thinking wistfully of the easy camaraderie she'd had with her fellow teachers when she taught school back in Michigan. "Sometimes I feel a little bit...cut off from people. But it's only temporary. And this is a gilded cage, I must admit." She would not have believed, in those dark days after Richard's death, that she would ever end up living in a house like this one, with a new husband and a baby. She had been steeped in guilt, blaming herself for failing Richard, for not preventing him from taking that ultimate, drastic step. She shuddered at the memory and then banished it, looking around with satisfaction at the beautiful old kitchen, discreetly renovated to suit the most demanding chef, and then glanced out the bank of windows at the rolling lawn, still green in the September twilight, at the elegant patio and the pool. Through the locked gate that surrounded the pool, she saw the familiar shape of Dylan's skateboard, resting near the edge. Her frown returned. How many times do I have to tell him? she thought, exasperated.
"What's the matter?" Mark asked.
Keely shook her head and extricated himself from his embrace. "Oh, it's Dylan. He left his skateboard out by the pool again. I've told him time and again that it's dangerous to leave it out there. It goes in the garage when he's not using it."
Mark refrained, as ever, from criticizing his stepson. He never tried to make her feel that she was somehow remiss in the raising of her son. It was something Keely appreciated, although she often felt a sense of helpless frustration at the changes that had come over her boy these last few years. "He's got a lot on his mind. Where are you going?" Mark asked as she walked away from him.
"I'm going to call him to come down. He's still got to do his homework." School had started only a few weeks ago, and they were all adjusting to the new schedule and the constant assignments that had to be finished.
"I'll help him with it," Mark said.
Keely regarded him fondly. "You are a patient soul," she said.
"Hey, I was fourteen once. I still remember what it was like to be at the mercy of all those raging hormones. I got into all kinds of trouble in those days. It's a wonder I didn't drop out of high school."
"Especially since you didn't have anyone to help you," Keely observed sympathetically. Keely was constantly amazed at how Mark had managed to become such a success in life, considering his childhood. If anything, it only seemed to make him more compassionate when it came to Dylan.
"I wasn't completely on my own. A couple of people helped me," he insisted. "I had a couple of teachers who tried to make things better for me. And all my foster parents weren't bad. And, of course, there was Lucas."
Keely nodded. Lucas Weaver was Mark's hero -- a self-made man from a rugged background who had seen something worth saving in Mark, a known juvenile delinquent whom he'd represented pro bono in a vandalism case. Lucas and his wife, Betsy, ended up adopting the troubled boy. Lucas shepherded Mark through college and law school and finally, when he passed the bar, invited Mark to join his law firm. Mark was ever mindful of his enormous debt to Lucas, who had perhaps seen a reflection of himself in Mark and discerned that there was something worth saving in the rebellious teenager.
Mark kissed Abby's head again and gazed out the windows at the deep turquoise of the pool, the manicured lawn of his property. "Without Lucas, I probably would have ended up in prison or dead somewhere by the side of the road. When I think about what he put up with from me...it seems little enough to be patient with Dylan. Besides, all these changes haven't been easy for him. I know that."
"Not every man would be so forgiving," she said. "I really appreciate it, Mark." The fact was that ever since Dylan had realized that the lawyer who was helping his mother was also courting her, he had been difficult to live with. "I know it's not easy living with those moods of his -- especially when he's not even your kid," said Keely apologetically.
"Don't say that," said Mark. "He is my kid. I think of him as mine. And I wouldn't trade places with any man in the world. I have exactly what I want in life."
"What is truly strange," she said wryly, "is that I know you mean it."
"More every day," he said seriously.
He had pursued her with the single-mindedness that he brought to his legal cases. The moment he'd set eyes on her, he'd seemed to know exactly what he wanted. Looking back on it, she wondered how he could have been so sure, so quickly. She'd been a wreck when she'd met him. She had brought Richard's body back here, to his home town of St. Vincent's Harbor, Maryland, for burial. Richard's widowed mother had been too distraught to travel all alone to Michigan, and besides, it had seemed the right thing to do. Mark, who had been friends with Richard in high school, had attended the funeral. He was one of many people who had turned out on that sad occasion. Keely didn't even remember meeting him that nightmarish weekend. But he remembered it all perfectly. He often said that he'd made up his mind before the funeral service was over that she would be his wife. What made his determination even more surprising was that he'd been engaged to another woman at the time.
"I feel the same way," Keely said, and it was true. In the early days of their relationship, she sometimes thought, secretly, that she was turning to him out of weariness and a fear of being alone. But each day that passed only made her more sure that she'd made the right decision in marrying him and had done so for the right reasons. "Well, let me go get Dylan," she said.
Keely walked out of the kitchen and through the dining room toward the foot of the stairs. The French doors at the end of the dining room were open out onto the patio. Keely automatically walked over to them and closed them. It wasn't safe, with Abby mobile now, to leave them open. Even with the pool gate locked, it made her uneasy.
This old stone house was elegant and beautiful, and she had fallen in love with it the minute she saw it. But Keely had been willing to forgo it when she saw that it had a pool. Mark didn't know much about children. He didn't realize how fast a toddler could get around. And what was worse, he didn't know how to swim. The boating accident that took his parents' lives had traumatized him so much that he never went into water any deeper than rain puddles. But once Mark saw how enchanted she was by the house, he'd insisted that they buy it, and nothing could dissuade him. We'll be careful, he'd assured her. We'll keep the gate locked. She'd tried to pretend that she didn't like the house all that much, but he was not fooled. He saw that she loved it, and that was enough. He would have given her the world if he could. He made no secret of it.
The renovation of the house had taken most of the last year, and they'd finally moved in during the month of June. The project had been costly. They'd be paying off the contractor's bills for quite a while. And it had been exhausting and time consuming as well. Loads of decisions, most of which Mark had left to Keely. But now that they had lived in the house for several months, it all seemed worthwhile. I'm a lucky woman, she thought. I thought my life was over and now...She sighed as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She put one hand on the walnut banister and called up the stairs. "Dylan..."
There was no answer for a few moments. Then his voice drifted down to her, the tone slightly irritable, as usual. "What?"
"Come on down here, sweetie. You haven't done your homework yet."
He muttered something she couldn't decipher.
"Right now," she said. "Come on."
Mark walked slowly by on his way to the living room, with Abby tottering in the lead. Keely smiled and followed them in, leaning against the archway. The living room also had French doors at the end, leading to the patio. "We'd better close those doors, honey. I don't want Abby getting out there."
"Don't worry," he said. "I've got my eye on her." Mark sat down on the floor in his suit pants and let Abby clamber on top of him, pretending she knocked him over onto the oriental rug. "Oh, you're strong," he told her. So she did it again.
"Your pants will be ruined," Keely chided him gently.
"These pants can take a joke," he said.
"I hope so," she said doubtfully. But she didn't really mind. In fact, she kind of liked the way he was so cavalier about his belongings. He bought expensive clothes because he needed them for his job. He enjoyed having this house, and a nice car, but she truly believed that none of it was that important to him. It was a trait she had noticed early in their relationship and, considering the deprivation of his childhood, she found it rather admirable. She suspected it was an attitude he'd picked up from Lucas, who had amassed wealth but seemed indifferent to his possessions, other than his beloved collection of Western memorabilia. Lucas retained a boyish enthusiasm for everything having to do with cowboys and the Wild West.
Keely had not known what to make of Mark at first. After she and Dylan returned to Michigan, after Richard's funeral, Mark had turned up at her door, ostensibly in town on a business trip, offering to help her with the many legal problems surrounding Richard's death -- for the sake of his old friendship with Richard, he had explained. Looking back on it, she hadn't really questioned his appearance at her door. She had taken it as an answer to her prayers.
The very first task Mark tackled for her was to go head-to-head with insurance investigators over Richard's life insurance policy. The company hadn't wanted to pay because Richard had indeed purchased the gun himself, and the police had described Richard's fatal wound as self-inflicted. Knowing Richard had committed suicide, and feeling guilty because of it, Keely had not been inclined to fight.
She could still picture Mark standing in her living room, brandishing the policy in his fist and shaking it at her while she and Dylan huddled together on the sofa. "Of course they are going to pay," he had said, indignant on her behalf. "Haven't you both suffered enough? You have a son who has to go to college. I'm going to make sure that they pay." Mark had outlined his strategy like an enthusiastic coach explaining a game plan. "There was no suicide note. Therefore, they have no proof of Richard's intentions." Keely tried not to let Mark see how much that fact upset her. How could Richard leave them like that, without even a word of regret or farewell? Mark continued with his pitch. "There have been a string of burglaries in the neighborhood this past year. I will convince them that Richard bought the gun to protect his family. And perhaps, because he was inexperienced with guns, he shot himself with this defensive weapon by accident. Self-inflicted, yes -- but accidental. Before I'm through, they'll have to pay you twice the value of the policy. Double indemnity, for an accident." Keely knew she should fight, but all she felt at the time was numbness and despair. Mark told her not to worry, that he would fight for her.
When he returned, after his meeting with the insurance investigators and executives, and announced that they had recommended that the company pay, she was stunned. It was as if Superman had swooped in to take care of her.
My superhero, she thought, smiling at the sight of him now, crawling around the rug with the baby. It hadn't been long after his confrontation with the insurance company that he had dropped the pretense of helping her out for the sake of Richard's memory and admitted his intention to win her heart. For a while she had resisted him, insisted that he leave her alone. She needed time to heal. But finally, his persistence won her over. They were married two years after Richard's death, and she was pregnant with Abby within the next year.
The ringing of the phone cut into her memories, and she turned back toward the kitchen. "I'll get it," she said, as she walked over and picked up the phone.
"Mrs. Weaver?" asked an unfamiliar woman's voice at the other end.
"My name is Susan Ambler. My son, Jake, is in your son's class at school."
Uh, oh, Keely thought. She felt a tightening in her stomach as she carried the phone into the kitchen. "Yes?" she asked warily.
The woman on the other end sighed. "Well, Jake came home today with a bike. It's a really beautiful new bike, and he claims that your son, Dylan, sold it to him for fifty dollars. Now, this is no fifty-dollar bike..."
Keely closed her eyes and shook her head. Mark had gone out himself and bought the bike for Dylan's birthday. It was an Italian racing bike far more expensive than what she would have bought. But Mark insisted that he needed it out here, far from the center of town where the streets were peaceful, where it was too far to walk to playgrounds or stores or to the homes of friends. Not that Dylan had really made any friends yet.
"Frankly, I'm...worried," said Susan Ambler, "that my son might have stolen it. Has Dylan mentioned it to you?"
"He didn't say anything about it," said Keely stiffly, knowing that the bike hadn't been stolen. That wasn't the kind of thing Dylan would neglect to mention. "Let me talk to him, and I'll get back to you." She took down the woman's address and phone number and then hung up.
She heard someone come in, and when she looked up, Dylan was standing in the kitchen doorway, his backpack dangling from one hand. He was dressed in a black Korn T-shirt and droopy denims that showed the waistband of his underwear. His head was shaved and his complexion was pale and blemished around the jawline. He wore a gold earring in one ear. His face seemed to be growing more angular by the day as his body morphed into adulthood. "I'm going to do my homework up in my room," he announced.
Keely folded her arms across her chest and looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Not so fast, buddy. I want to talk to you."
"What?" he asked defensively.
"I just got a phone call from Jake Ambler's mother," she said.
He glanced at her, and then squinted out the windows, shrugging his shoulders. "So?" he said.
"Don't you 'so' me," she said. "You know what she was calling about, don't you?"
Dylan shifted his weight and moved the backpack from one hand to another, meeting her gaze with his chin stuck out. He did not reply.
"She was wondering," said Keely, "if her son stole your bike by any chance. She found it hard to believe his story that he had purchased your brand-new Italian racing bike from you for fifty dollars."
Dylan chewed on the inside of his mouth and looked away, a bored expression on his face.
"Well?" she demanded.
He looked back at her, still not replying.
"Did you sell him your new bike for fifty dollars?"
"It's my bike," he said. "I can sell it if I want to."
Keely felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. "Dylan, what is the matter with you?"
"Nothing," he said. "What's the big deal?"
"Oh, no you don't. Don't you take that attitude with me. I want to know what is going on here. You know perfectly well that Mark went out and bought that bike for you because he knew it was exactly what you wanted."
"I don't want the stupid bike," Dylan retorted.
Keely came up close to him and pointed a finger at him. "Stop it, Dylan. You are acting like a brat, and I won't have it. I will not let you hurt Mark like this. He didn't do anything to deserve this except to be kind to you."
Dylan stared straight ahead and did not flinch at the proximity of her finger.
"Now you march upstairs and get that fifty dollars," Keely ordered. "We are going to go over to Jake Ambler's house and get your bike back."
"It's my money," Dylan protested.
Keely's blue eyes flashed with anger. She saw the defiance waver in his eyes.
"If you know what's good for you, you'll go up there and get it, right now," she said. "And keep quiet about it. I don't want Mark to know anything about this."
Dylan curled his lip and tossed his backpack on the table, where it landed with a loud thud. "It's not in my room," he said. "It's in here." He fished in the front pocket of the backpack and pulled out a handful of bills. "Here."
"You hold onto it," she said, grabbing the car keys from a peg beside the door. "You made the deal. Now you can explain to Jake's mother exactly why you have to take the bike back. Let me just tell Mark we're going." She walked into the dining room and called out, "Honey, I have to go out for a while." She walked back to where Dylan waited. He was wearing his favorite garment -- a worn leather bomber jacket that had once belonged to Richard. The lining was faded and ripped in the pockets, despite her constant mending. "It's warm out this evening," Keely said.
"I'm wearing it," said Dylan through gritted teeth.
Keely sighed and shook her head. "I hope he didn't already notice the bike was missing."
Mark came into the kitchen holding Abby. "What's going on?" he asked.
Keely glanced at him and then looked away. She hated to think how hurt he would be if he found out. She pressed her lips together and jingled the keys. "Dylan forgot something at a friend's house. We're just going to pick it up."
"Oh, okay," he said.
"Do you mind staying here with Abby? I know you probably have work to do."
"Of course not. Didn't you say you had to go to the mall? Why don't you go while you're out?"
"Oh, I can do it another time," she said.
"No, go. Take your time. It'll do you good to get out of the house. Don't worry about us."
Keely did need to do some shopping. Their anniversary was coming up, and she didn't have a single gift for him. It was difficult to shop with Abby in tow. "Maybe I will, if you don't mind," she said.
"Mind?" he said incredulously, nuzzling Abby's cheek. "Mind being here with my girl? Take as long as you need to. We'll have a good time."
Keely gave him a grateful smile and followed Dylan out to the SUV. She climbed into the driver's seat, and Dylan clambered in beside her, slamming the door as hard as he could.
"Put your seat belt on," she insisted.
Sullenly, he complied. She turned on the engine, then made a turn in the wide driveway. As she looked out her window, she saw Mark, still carrying Abby, come out and stand on the asphalt. Mark whispered something in Abby's ear, and then he lifted her little hand and waved it. Getting the idea, Abby began to wave, grasping her father's hair with her other hand so that he had to tilt his head toward the baby to avoid being scalped. The two of them wore matching, silly grins.
Waving back, Keely smiled ruefully at the sight of them. It's so much easier with a baby, she thought. They may wear you out, but they don't know how to hurt you yet.
Copyright © 2002 by Patricia Bourgeau
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