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Linnea Sorensen hated being interrupted by phone calls during dinnertime.
This was why she not only had caller ID, she had an answering machine instead of voice mail. She could not only tell who was calling, she could find out what that person wanted before she decided whether to answer.
This morning, she'd put chicken paprika to cook in her slow cooker. Thank goodness because she was starved. She'd worked a full day at the library, then on her way home had had to walk the Millers' two Irish setters, rain or no rain. Having been bored all day, they were thrilled to go outside, which meant they bounded and dove into the neighbor's shrubbery and got tangled with each other. Her shoulders ached from the dogs' straining against their leashes. Of course, she had to go back before bedtime, but this time she could stand on the stoop and let them out in the tiny yard for a last chance to pee.
Wet, tired and chilled as she was, Linnea showered the minute she got home. She reluctantly put on a sweatshirt and jeans instead of her pajamas, dried her hair and then gratefully dished up dinner. She was just inhaling the glorious aroma and picking up her fork when the damn phone rang.
Of course it was her parents' number that appeared. She was not talking to her mother right this minute.
Except that the distraught voice she heard hardly sounded like her mother.
"Linnea? Are you home? Something terrible has happened. Finn just called and—" She made a ragged sound that might have been a sob. "He says Tess is dead. That—that she fell and hit her head and…"
Linnea dropped the fork and grabbed the phone. "Mom?"
"Oh, thank goodness! You are there!"
"Tess is dead?" Honestly, Linnea liked her sister-in-law, Tess, better than she did her own brother.
"Surely he's wrong, but…he was dreadfully upset. He says the police are there, and he wanted me to come and get Hanna. Your father isn't feeling well. Can you possibly take her home with you tonight, Linnea? Until we know what's happening?"
"Well, of course I can. He'd already picked her up from after-school care?"
"He said she's there. I pray he's kept her in her room so she doesn't know what's going on. Will you go now?"
"I'm on my way. I'll call you when I know something." Hands shaking, Linnea dumped the food back in the slow cooker and put the lid on. She slipped her feet into rubber clogs, grabbed her coat and purse and went out the door again.
Although she and Finn both lived in Seattle, it might as well have been in different worlds. His four-thousand-square-foot faux-Tudor home, which boasted a media room and five bathrooms, was in upscale Laurelhurst; her own two-bedroom cottage was in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Seattle. With the dark night and wet streets, the drive to Finn's took her over half an hour. The entire way, her anxiety kept her hands tight on the wheel and her thoughts bouncing off each other, never settling.
Could Tess really be dead? Just from stumbling and hitting her head? What had she hit it on? A corner of the kitchen counter? Or their raised slate fireplace hearth? Mom had worried so about that hearth when Hanna was little. But people didn't die that foolishly and…meaning-lessly. Did they? And why were the police there? Did they always come when the death wasn't something obvious and expected, like an eighty-year-old with coronary disease having a heart attack?
Poor Hanna! Linnea adored her six-year-old niece, who—she sometimes swore—took after her more than either her mother or father. Not that Hanna was timid, exactly, but she was quiet and thoughtful. She often daydreamed, which annoyed her father no end. Finn was brilliant and ambitious, impatient with woolgathering and anyone whom he deemed "dense." Tess, a successful interior designer, was creative but also tempestuous. In her own way, she had as strong a personality as Finn did. Hanna, it often seemed to Linnea, was a bit of a changeling.
Linnea saw the flashing lights when she was still a couple of blocks away from her brother's house. The street was blocked at the corner, although officers were removing the barricade to let a fire truck lumber out. As she hesitated, the lights atop an ambulance went off, and it, too, started up and followed the fire truck.
Her heart constricted. Was Tess in the ambulance? But it definitely wasn't speeding toward a hospital, which must mean Finn had been right. By the time he got home, it must have been too late to save her. Linnea hated the idea that he and Hanna had walked in the door and found Tess on the floor. She had a heartrending image of the little girl crying, "Mommy!" and running to her mother's still, prone body.
People gathered in clusters on the sidewalks, all staring as if hypnotized toward Finn's house. Neighbors? They were weirdly lit, seemingly by strobe lights—red, blue, white. Blink, blink, blink.
Linnea stopped at the barricade and rolled down her window when the uniformed officer walked up to her car.
"Ma'am, do you live on this street?"
"No, I'm Linnea Sorensen. That's my brother's house? Finn? He called me…well, really he called my mother…" He doesn't care. More strongly, she finished, "I'm here to pick up my six-year-old niece. She shouldn't be here with…with whatever's happened."
"One moment, Ms. Sorensen." He stepped away and murmured into a walkie-talkie. When he came back, he said, "I'm going to let you through."
She gave a jerky nod and rolled up her window. When he pulled the barricade aside, she drove through the opening. People's heads turned as her car inched forward until she stopped behind one of—oh, God—five police cars. Why would there be so many, just because Tess tripped and hit her head?
With trepidation Linnea got out and went toward the house. Almost immediately, another uniformed officer stopped her, then passed her forward. She was walking up the driveway when the front door opened and her brother appeared, police officers on each side and behind him. With shock she realized that he was handcuffed.
Finn Sorensen was a big, fit, handsome man, his dark blond hair sun-streaked. He had such charisma other people tended to disappear in his presence.
Linnea most of all.
Still wearing dark dress pants and a white shirt, he'd shed the tie and suitcoat, probably when he got home earlier. He was in a towering rage, she saw, storming down the front steps as if he were dragging the two officers behind. In comparison, they were stolid and uninteresting, their faces very nearly expressionless.
Finn was halfway to the street when he saw Linnea. He stopped, his angry gaze making her feel about two feet tall.
"As you can see," he said in an icy voice, "these idiots have jumped to conclusions. Tell Mom and Dad I'll call Nunley as soon as I get to the jail. They don't need to worry about it. I'll be out before morning and filing a lawsuit against these cretins before they start chowing down their noon fries and burgers." His tone was scathing, dismissive. The two men listened with no apparent reaction.
"Is—is Tess really dead?" Linnea asked.
"Yes. She fell." His lips drew back in a snarl. "As I keep trying to explain."
"I'm so sorry, Finn."
"You'll take care of Hanna," he snapped, as if her obedience was a given, and walked past her with the two men each gripping one of his elbows.
Oh, Lord! Had Hanna seen her father arrested on top of the awful discovery of her mother's body? Linnea rushed up the steps, stopped inside by a plainclothes officer. He wore a rumpled brown suit, his badge clipped to his belt. She could see that he had a gun in a black holster at his side, too.
"Yes. I'm here for Hanna."
"Your niece is upstairs in her bedroom. A female officer is with her."
Hanna must be terrified.
She bit her lip. "It's true? My sister-in-law is dead?"
"I'm afraid so," he said, with surprising gentleness.
"She hit her head?"
"In the course of an argument with your brother. Did they fight often, Ms.—I'm afraid I didn't catch your first name."
"Linnea," she told him. "And it's true that Finn and Tess had arguments, but that's all they were. They yelled, then made up. Finn never hit her or anything like that." At least, she thought privately, that she knew about.
"I'm afraid they won't be making up this time."
She went very still. "Is she—her body, um, has she been taken away yet?"
He shook his head, his eyes uncomfortably watchful. "No, but if you go straight upstairs, you won't see her."
A shuddery breath escaped her. "All right." She hesitated. "Do you know…Did Hanna see her?"
"We don't think so. She says that she heard Mommy and Daddy yelling and she doesn't like to listen."
Linnea actually shuddered at the image that conjured. How often had Hanna huddled in her room trying not to listen to her parents screaming at each other? At the same time, Linnea was hugely relieved to know that Hanna hadn't seen any of the final, violent scene.
"Does she know?"
"That her mother's dead? Yes, insofar as a child her age can understand."
"Okay." She closed her eyes for a moment, girded herself, then started up the stairs.
At the top, she could see into the master suite at the end of the hall. She could make out a corner of the bed, smoothly made. It might be that neither Tess nor Finn had gotten this far; both were workaholics who rarely walked in the door before six or seven in the evening. They might have started arguing the minute they got home.
Hanna's door was closed. Linnea rapped lightly, then opened it. A uniformed woman sat on the bed. The six-year-old was on the floor, back to the bed, her knees drawn up and her arms hugging her legs tightly.
Her niece leaped to her feet and flung herself at Linnea. "Aunt Linnie! They said Grandma was coming, but I wanted you!"
They hugged tightly, Hanna's arms around Linnea's waist. "I was so scared," she mumbled.
"I know, honey. I know."
It was several minutes before Hanna drew back, face wet. Linnea crouched to be at eye level.
Hanna sniffed. "Officer Bab—Bab—"
"Babayan," the dark-haired young woman supplied.
"She says Mommy is dead."
Grief clogged Linnea's throat. She had to swallow twice before she could say, "That's what they told me, too."
"That means…she won't ever come home again?"
Linnea hated having to be the one to make her beloved niece understand how final death was. "No. You remember when Confetti died."
Hanna bit her lip and nodded. The family's tortoise-shell cat had been twenty-one when she'd failed to wake up one morning.
"You saw her."
"Whatever made her Confetti wasn't there anymore. She'd left her body behind and…" Linnea hesitated only very briefly. She had doubts about what happened after death, but she wouldn't share them with Hannah. "She'd gone to heaven. Well, your mom has gone now, too. It wouldn't surprise me if Confetti was waiting there to get on her lap."
"I want Mommy here!" Hanna wailed. "I don't want her to be in heaven!"
Linnea pulled her into another embrace. "I know," she whispered. "I know. Oh, honey, I love you."
Eventually Hanna recovered enough to ask where her daddy was. Linnea explained that he was having to talk to the police about what happened. Hanna only nodded. Linnea had noticed before that she didn't go to her father with the uncomplicated trust she ought to feel for a parent. Finn loved his daughter, Linnea didn't doubt that, but he lacked the patience to be unfailingly gentle even for her sake.
"You're going to spend the night with me," she told Hanna. "Let's pack your suitcase right now. Just in case, why don't we take enough for you to stay for a couple of days?"
The police officer gave her a small nod of approval.
Hanna's small suitcase, thank goodness, was on the top shelf in her closet. Linnea packed enough clothes for three or four days, while her niece gathered favorite toys and games. Then while Linnea collected her toothbrush from the bathroom, Hanna put on her shoes.
"I'm ready," she said stoutly, looking very slight and terribly young. Her twin ponytails sagged, one lower than the other, strands of blond hair escaping to cling to her damp cheeks.
Ignoring the wrench at her heart, Linnea smiled at her. "Good. We'll have fun."
Officer Babayan followed them downstairs. Linnea steered Hanna straight for the front door, pausing only long enough to collect her pink coat from the closet in the entry. She noticed that the female police officer had very casually moved to block any view that Hanna might have of the great room where the Sorensens mainly lived.
Where Tess must have died.
Hanna almost gulped. Maybe she had hit her head on that sharp-edged hearth.
On the front porch, Hanna stopped in her tracks. "Why are there so many police cars here?"
"When they get a call saying someone is hurt, any officers who are near come rushing to find out if there's anything they can do. I guess there must have been a bunch of them this time."
Holding Hanna's hand, carrying a duffel bag of toys while Hanna pulled the pink wheeled suitcase, Linnea hurried her down the rainy walk and past several of those squad cars to her small compact. She put everything in the trunk, helped her niece buckle in and started the engine. She didn't like the fixed way Hanna stared toward those flashing lights and the open front door of her house with people going in and out.
As she backed out and drove up the block, Hanna's head swiveled so she could keep looking back. Linnea hated that she saw the neighbors clustered, staring.
Then the same officer pulled a sawhorse away to let Linnea's car through, and she was able to accelerate up the street until the flashing lights vanished from her rearview mirror.
Matthew Laughlin had barely risen from bed and was padding barefoot and shirtless to the small kitchen in his rented Kuwait City house when his phone rang.
Damn it, there had to be a problem on the job site; the offices weren't open yet, and it was currently late evening in the U.S.
He picked up the phone. "Laughlin."
The hollow quality of the long silence told him this call was originating in the United States after all. He relaxed; Tess did sometimes call at this god-awful hour. She was a night owl, and knew when to catch him at home.
But it was a man's voice he heard. "Mr. Laughlin? My name is Neal Delaney. I'm a detective with the Seattle Police Department."
Matt groped behind him for a stool and sank onto it. His hand tightened on the phone until the plastic creaked. "Tess? Tell me my sister is all right. And Hanna." God, Hanna. Had they been in a car accident?
Waiting out the silence stripped his nerves raw.
"I'm afraid I have bad news. Your sister is dead."
"How?" he asked in a hard voice. "What about Hanna?"