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Emily Tarell stood in the wide entryway of her executive home, one hand on the staircase banister. The rich parquet floor gleamed under light cascading from the crystal chandelier. Emily loved that polished look of molten gold. But tonight it almost mocked her. Its sheen was too bright, too perfect for the stain that had soiled this house and the Tarell family business. A chill traced spindly fingers between Emily's shoulder blades. She watched as the carved wooden door to her husband's private study began to close. At the last moment Don angled his head through the narrowing space to give her one of his now-don't-worry-dear looks.
Little good that did. Emily could not shake the darkling premonition that hovered about her shoulders, ghost-whispering the approach of unseen evil. It rasped and sputtered, heard yet not heard, cautions uttered across a chasm.
Sometimes Don was just too bighearted. Too quick to forgive. If he'd listened to her, Bill Bland would be interrogated by the police in a dirty little room down at the station instead of settled into an easy chair in his boss's home study.
Click. The door latched, shutting off the four men.
Emily swallowed. What should she do now? She couldn't just stand there, waiting, haunted by the sibilance of broiling wrath. She'd already been far too obvious with her emotions, answering the door with a nervous hello to Peter Dessinger, barely able to look Bill Bland in the eye when he'd arrived a half hour later. If Bill hadn't known he'd been caught, he knew it now, just by her transparency. Her son, Edwin, had nodded to Emily, mouthing, It'll be okay. Just like his dad. Both soothing her, even as they refused to heed her sense that something, something slithered toward them, looking to consume. Hadn't the same feeling writhed in the pit of her stomach the day Wade had his accident?
Emily pushed away from the banister and headed for the kitchen, her flat-heeled shoes shushing against the hardwood floor. Some herbal tea was what she needed. Calming spearmint flavor. Then she would sit in the family room with a book. No television. That way she could keep an ear cocked toward the study for a raised voice, any sign of how the confrontation was going. She selected a tea bag from a glazed canister and dropped it into the bottom of her favorite mug. The one Wade gave her for a birthday when he was twelve.
Emily steeled herself against the familiar wash of emotions as she filled the teakettle with water. Her youngest son was killed in a car wreck a little over a year ago. Just back from his sophomore year at college, he drove off to meet up with some of his high school buddies ... and never returned. The pain of that loss would never subside.
Firming her lips, she pushed the heart-ripping thoughts away. She couldn't deal with them right now, on this night.
Not a sound emanated from the study. Emily strained to listen. The silence snapped and clacked in her ears. What were they doing in there? Had Don told Bill that they'd uncovered his embezzlement? That his sinful trail was undeniable?
Whatever would Bill do?
Tea made, Emily made her way into the family room, aware of her own breathing-of the catch she felt in the back of her throat. She lowered herself onto the couch, set her cup down on an end table, then stared at the brick fireplace. She'd forgotten to choose a novel from the bookcases lining the walls. No matter; she couldn't concentrate enough to read.
That premonition eeling through her ...
Her last look at Wade's smiling face before he got into that car ...
Stop it, Emily. You're overreacting.
She clenched her drink, staring without seeing at the plush blue carpet. The house was so still. What could-?
The furious sound shattered the air. Emily froze. What was that? It sounded almost-
The long, muffled cry squeezed her heart. Edwin's voice, but as she'd never heard it, raucous and distorted with shock.
A second bang split through her ears.
Emily dropped her tea. The near-boiling liquid leached through her slacks and attacked her legs with the bite of a thousand fire ants. Her mind scrambled to rationalize, to tell herself that what she'd heard could not be.
Get up, get up!
By some strength outside herself she shoved to her feet, stumbled around the end table, the couch. She raced across the shining parquet, nearly slipping, and jerked open the study door.
In a brain-searing instant, she took in the scene. Don, crumpled on the floor by his desk. Peter sprawled on the couch. Edwin on top of Bill Bland, her son fighting for his life.
"Mom, get away!"
Edwin's and Bill's hands flailed between their bodies, fighting over something. In the blur of movement, she couldn't see the object until it was knocked aside. A gun! It hit the floor with a dull thud, then spun. Bill's right hand scrabbled for it. Missed. Skittered again like a frenetic spider seeking prey, fingers closing around the barrel. He yanked the weapon up and smashed the butt end into Edwin's cheek.
"Aahh!" Edwin's face contorted, his hands flying toward the wound. Bill gave a mighty shove and pushed him off. Rising to a crouch, Bill scuttled for the door. Edwin caught him by an ankle, crashing him again to the floor. Bill's head hit the hardwood with a smack.
Emily melted away from him into the door frame.
Both dazed men lurched to their feet. Bill still held the gun by the barrel. Edwin lunged. With an awkward two-step, Bill swayed out of his reach and veered toward the door. His glazed eyes locked with Emily's, and in that split second she saw the fear in his murderous soul. He knew Edwin would kill him for what he'd done.
Before Edwin could launch again, Bill stumbled past Emily and through the hallway. He wrenched open the front door and pounded down the porch steps.
Edwin started after him.
"No!" Emily threw herself in his path. "He's got a gun!"
Her son hunched before her, breathing hard, indecision jagging furrows across his forehead. Outside, a car engine gunned. Tires squealed away. Edwin's shoulders sagged. He blinked once, twice, then turned toward his father. Grim resolve firmed his face. Together he and Emily staggered toward Don, sinking to their knees on either side of the still form. Emily had to shuffle backward as Edwin turned Don onto his back.
"Dad, Dad!" Edwin pushed fingers against his father's neck, feeling for a pulse. A keen rose in Emily's throat. Blood stained the front of Don's shirt, a bullet hole over his heart.
"No, no, no, no, no," gurgled a voice that could not be her own, a voice that would leak from a drowning woman. Emily cast herself across her husband's chest.
"Mom, get back! Let me see if I can help him!"
Edwin pushed her shoulder, and she lifted away, hands up and trembling in the air. She waited for Don to say something, for his eyelids to flicker, for something to tell her he still lived. In vain Edwin again sought a pulse from his father's neck, his wrist. He grabbed his dad's face, fingers digging into the cheeks, and shook it.
"Dad! Come on, Dad, come on!"
Sobs gurgling in his throat, he tore open his father's dress shirt, popping the buttons. Deep red stained the T-shirt beneath. Edwin yanked it up, exposing a fatal wound. "No, no." He pressed his palm against it and rubbed, as if to erase it, erase the unthinkable events of the last two minutes.
It's so small. The thought echoed in Emily's head. So small. A wound this compact, this neat, could spill so much blood? Could take away her husband, her life?
Edwin fell back on his haunches, blood on his hands. "He's gone." The words squeezed from his throat.
Emily blinked rapidly, trying to form words, to think. Cold acid dribbled through her veins, eating away her energy.
Edwin's chest heaved. He drew a palm across his mouth, smearing blood onto his mouth and chin. "I've got to ... There's ..."
Shaking his head, he pushed to his feet and made his way across the room. Emily crouched on the floor and hugged herself, dazed eyes following her son's movements toward Peter Dessinger. Peter slumped over on the couch, one hand trapped beneath his torso, the other dangling toward the floor. His neck twisted at an odd angle, his face half buried in the cushions.
He's dead too. The knowledge blew through Emily. Don's dead. Peter's dead. Wade's dead.
Distantly, she watched Edwin ease Peter's body onto the floor, examine a bullet hole in the center of his forehead. Peter's eyes were wide open and fixed.
Nausea slimed into Emily's throat. She barely had time to turn her head away from Don before she threw up. When her stomach held nothing more, she dry heaved.
She could hear Edwin beating the floor with his fist, crying, "No, no." Then she sensed him pushing to his feet, his denials intensifying, anger mounting. Still she held her sides, jaw open and gagging. Edwin's cries churned into waves of rage that crashed him through the room, sweeping knickknacks off tables, throwing books, overturning a chair.
"I'll kill him!" A figurine smashed into a hundred pieces against the wall. "I'll kill him!"
Emily listed to one side, shrinking into herself. Trying to block out the guttural threats, the smell of vomit and blood. Through a blur she saw her son drag himself to the doorway of the study. "I'm going after him." The words cut from his throat.
"Edwin." Her voice shook, a mere whisper. "No."
"Call 911. I'm going after him."
Her son never looked back. He shoved himself over the study threshold and toward the open front door. Emily wailed as his footsteps slapped down the front sidewalk and melted into the dusk.
Excerpted from Stain of Guilt by Brandilyn Collins Copyright © 2004 by Brandilyn Collins. Excerpted by permission.
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