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"Why is he coming back now?"
Aunt Kate put her morning cup of Earl Grey back in the saucer as she asked the question for what had to be the twentieth time since they'd heard the news, her faded blue eyes puckered with distress. December sunlight streamed through the lace curtains on the bay window in the breakfast room, casting into sharp relief the veins that stood out on her hand, pressed to the polished tabletop.
"I don't know, Aunt Kate."
Love swept through Dinah Westlake, obliterating her own fears about Marc Devlin's return to Charleston. She covered the trembling hand with her own, trying to infuse her great-aunt with her own warmth. Anger sparked. Marc shouldn't come back, upsetting their lives once again.
"Maybe he just wants to sell the house since the Farriers moved out."Aunt Kate sounded hopeful, and she glanced toward the front window and the house that stood across the street in the quiet Charleston historic block.
Annabel's house. The house where Annabel died. Dinah forced herself to focus on the question. "I suppose so. Do you know if he's bringing Court?"
Her cousin Annabel's son had been three when she'd seen him last, and now he was thirteen. She remembered a soft, cuddly child who'd snuggled up next to her, begging for just one more bedtime story. It was unlikely that Courtney would want or need anything from her now.
"I don't know." Aunt Kate's lips firmed into a thin line. "I hope not."
Dinah blinked. "Don't you want to see Courtney?" This visit was the first indication that Marc would let his son have a relationship with his mother's kin that consisted of more than letters, gifts and brief thank-you notes.
Tears threatened tospill over onto her great-aunt's soft cheeks. "Of course I do. But that poor child shouldn't be exposed to the house where his mother died, even if it means I never see him again."
"Aunt Kate--" Dinah's words died. She couldn't say anything that would make a difference, because she understood only too well what her aunt felt. She, too, had not been back in that house since Annabel's funeral.
Except in the occasional nightmare. Then, she stood again on the graceful curving staircase of Annabel and Marc's house, looking down toward the dim hallway, hearing angry voices from the front parlor. Knowing something terrible was about to happen. Unable to prevent it.
"Everyone will start talking about Annabel's death again." Aunt Kate touched a lacy handkerchief to her eyes, unable as always to say the uglier word. Murder. "Just when it's forgotten, people will start to talk again."
Something recoiled in Dinah. It seemed so disloyal never to talk about Annabel. Still, if that was how Aunt Kate dealt with the pain, maybe it was better than having nightmares.
She slid her chair back, patting her aunt's hand. "Don't worry about it too much. I'm sure people are so busy getting ready for the Christmas holidays that Marc will have been and gone before anyone takes notice."
Her aunt clasped her hand firmly. "You're not going to the office today, are you? Dinah, you have to stay home. What if he comes?"
It was no use pointing out to her that Dinah was going to police headquarters, not an office. Aunt Kate couldn't possibly refer to her as a forensic artist. In Aunt Kate's mind, a Charleston lady devoted herself to the church, charity and society, not necessarily in that order.
"I thought I'd check in this morning." As a freelance police artist she only worked when called on, but she'd found it helped her acceptance with the detectives to remind them of her presence now and then.
"Please, Dinah. Stay home today."
Her hesitation lasted only an instant. Aunt Kate had taken care of her. Now it was her turn. She bent to press her cheek against Aunt Kate's.
"Of course I will, if that's what you want. But given the way he's cut ties with us, I don't expect Marcus Devlin to show up on our doorstep anytime soon."
Was she being a complete coward? Maybe so. But she'd fought her way back from the terror of the night Annabel died, and she had no desire to revisit that dreadful time.
Please, God. Please let me forget.
That was a petition that was hardly likely to be granted, now that Marc Devlin was coming home.
After helping her aunt to the sunroom that looked over her garden, where she would doze in the winter sunshine, Dinah cleared the breakfast dishes. It was one of the few things Alice Jones, her aunt's devoted housekeeper, allowed her to do to help.
Alice was nearly as old as her great-aunt, and the two of them couldn't hope to stay on in the elegant, inconvenient antebellum house on Tradd Street if she weren't here. She wasn't even sure when she'd gone from being the cosseted little girl of the house to being the caretaker, but she didn't see the situation changing anytime soon, and she wouldn't want it to.
A sound disturbed the morning quiet. Someone wielded the brass dolphin knocker on the front door with brisk energy. It could be anyone. Her stomach tightened; the back of her neck prickled. Instinct said it was Marc.
Heart thudding, she crossed the Oriental carpet that had covered the hall floor for a hundred years or so. She turned the brass doorknob and opened the door.
Instinct was right. Her cousin's husband stood on the covered veranda, hand arrested halfway to the knocker.A shaft of winter sunlight, filtered through the branches of the magnolia tree, struck hair that was still glossy black.
For a moment, Dinah could only stare. It was Marc, of course, but in another sense it wasn't. This wasn't the intent, idealistic young prosecutor her teenage dreams had idolized.
"Dinah." He spoke first, his deep voice breaking the spell that held her silent. "It's been a long time."
"Not by our choice," she said, before thinking about the implication.
The lines around his firm mouth deepened. "I know." He quirked one eyebrow, and the familiar movement broke through her sense of strangeness. "Are you going to let me come in?"
She felt her cheeks warm. What was she doing, keeping him standing on the veranda like a door-to-door salesperson? No matter how much his return distressed Aunt Kate, she couldn't treat him as anything but the cousin-in-law he'd always been to her.
She stepped back. "Please, come in." She grasped for the comfort of ingrained manners. "It's good to see you again, Marc."
He stepped into the wide center hallway, the movement seeming to stir the quiet air, and she had to suppress a gasp as pain gripped her heart. Forgotten? No, she hadn't forgotten at all. His presence brought her ten-year-old grief surging to life.
Was being here doing the same for him? She thought it might--his face had tightened, but that was all. He was better at hiding his feelings than he used to be.
She had to say something, anything, to bridge the silence. She took refuge in the ordinary. "Did you have a pleasant flight?"
He shrugged. "Not bad. I'd forgotten how warm South Carolina can be in December."
"That just shows how much of a Northerner you've become. Everyone here has been complaining that it's too cold."
His face relaxed into a half smile. "Wimp.You should try a Boston winter sometime to see what cold really is."
"No, thanks. I'll pass."
He had changed. He was ten years older, of course. Ten years would change anyone. He looked--successful, she supposed. Dress shirt, dark tie, a tweed jacket that fit smoothly over broad shoulders, a flash of gold at his wrist that was probably an expensive watch. Being a corporate attorney instead of a prosecutor must suit him.
But it wasn't so much the way he was dressed as the air about him--the air of a successful, accomplished man.
"Well?" He lifted that eyebrow again. "What's the verdict, Dinah?"
She wouldn't pretend to misunderstand him. "I was thinking that you talk faster than you used to."
He smiled. "I had to learn because no one would stick around long enough to hear what I had to say."
The smile was a reminder of the Marc she'd known. Dear Father, this is harder than I'd imagined it could be. Please, get me through it.
"Come into the parlor." However much she might wish he'd leave, she couldn't stand here in the hall with him.
She turned and walked into the small, perfectly appointed front parlor. He'd find this familiar, she supposed. Aunt Kate hadn't changed anything in seventy years, and she never would. Anything that showed wear was replaced with an exact duplicate. Aunt Kate didn't bother to decorate for Christmas much in recent years, but the white mantel bore its usual evergreen, magnolia leaves and holly, studded with the fat ivory candles that would be lit Christmas Eve.
Dinah sat on the Queen Anne love seat, gesturing to the wing chair opposite. Marc sat, leaning back, seeming very much at ease. But the lines on his face deepened, and his dark eyes hid secrets.
"You've changed." His comment startled her, but it shouldn't. Hadn't she just been thinking the same about him? No one stayed the same for ten years.
"I'm ten years older. That makes a difference." Especially when it was the difference between an immature teen and an adult woman.
He shook his head. "It's not just that. You're not shy anymore."
"I've learned to hide it better, that's all."
Marc would remember the shy, gawky teenager she'd once been. She could only hope he'd never noticed the crush she'd had on him.
"It's easy to see that you're blooming. How is Aunt Kate?"
And how, exactly, was she going to explain the fact that Aunt Kate wasn't coming in to greet him?
"She's...older, obviously. She'd deny it vehemently, but she's begun to fail a little."
"So you're taking care of her."
That's how it is in families, Marc. We take care of each other. We don't walk away, the way you did.
He frowned slightly, and she had the uncomfortable sense that he knew what she was thinking.
"Is she too frail to see me?"
Her careful evasion had led her just where she didn't want to be. "No. She just--"
She faltered to a halt. There wasn't any good way of saying that Aunt Kate didn't welcome his return.
"She just doesn't want to see me." His mouth thinned. "Tell me, does she think I killed Annabel?"
The blunt question shook her, and mentioning Annabel's name seemed to bring her into the room. For an instant Dinah heard the light tinkle of Annabel's laugh, caught a whiff of the sophisticated fragrance that had been Annabel's scent. Grief ripped through her, and she struggled to speak.
"I--I'm sure she doesn't think that." But did she? With her firm avoidance of the subject, Aunt Kate had managed never to say.
His dark gaze seemed to reject the feeble words. "What about you, Dinah? Do you think that?"
Before she could find the words, he shook his head. "Never mind. I don't suppose it matters."
She found the words then, at the pain in his voice. "I don't think you could have hurt Annabel."
How could anyone have hurt Annabel, have struck out and destroyed all that life, all that beauty?
His face seemed to relax a fraction. "Thank you. I'm selling the house. I suppose you guessed that."
"We thought that was probably why you'd come back," she said cautiously, not wanting to make it sound as if that was what she wanted.
"It's time. Having the Farriers rent the place all these years let me drift, but when they decided to move, I knew I had to do something about the house."