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Authors: Anne Stuart

Tags: #Romantic Suspense / romance, #Adventure, #kickass heroine, #rock and roll hero, #Latin America, #golden age of romance

Darkness before the Dawn

BOOK: Darkness before the Dawn
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DARKNESS
BEFORE
the
DAWN

 

Anne Stuart

 

Copyright © Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge, 1987

Contents
 

Copyright

Prologue

Chapter one

Chapter two

Chapter three

Chapter four

Chapter five

Chapter six

Chapter seven

Chapter eight

Chapter nine

Chapter ten

Chapter eleven

Chapter twelve

Chapter thirteen

Chapter fourteen

Chapter fifteen

Chapter sixteen

Chapter seventeen

Chapter eighteen

Chapter nineteen

Chapter twenty

Chapter twenty-one

Chapter twenty-two

prologue
 

Maggie Bennett lay alone in the king-size bed. She’d been alone for two endless years, ever since Mack Pulaski had been gunned down on a street in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. And she planned to remain alone for the rest of her life.

At the time, she’d been upstairs in the converted shipbuilder’s mansion they’d bought, taking a shower and daydreaming of babies, when she heard the gunfire. Even through the pounding water and the thick walls of the nineteenth-century house, she had heard it—and had heard the screams. And she had known what had happened.

She’d raced out of the house, desperate to reach him in time. But the people who had been looking for them for the last year and a half had been thorough. He lay there on the sidewalk in a pool of blood, his eyes wide and staring and curiously peaceful. The April sunshine was beating down, the sky was blue, and the smell of the sea had mixed with the smell of blood, overlaid with the scent of fresh lilacs. Maggie sank down beside him, putting a hand to his still-warm skin, and closed his eyes—those warm, laughing eyes that would laugh no more. And she knelt there in the pool of blood until someone pulled her away.

She’d drawn her strength around her like a protective blanket. Her mother and sisters had flocked to her side, but it was Maggie who had comforted them in their tears and Maggie who had taken over the arrangements and assured her family that it would, eventually, be all right.

And curiously enough, she now thought, turning again in their bed that she hadn’t been able to part with, it was all
right. For the first month, when she’d returned to New York, she’d slept on the couch rather than face the bed she’d shared for too short a time with Mack. But before long, she’d exerted her common sense, and now she was glad she’d kept the bed. She could remember Mack with warmth and joy and love, but she had the sorrow away where it belonged.
Better to have loved and lost
, she often told herself, taking comfort in the old cliché.

It was three in the morning. She could hear the never-ending New York City traffic outside her apartment, a constant companion to her nights. Most of the time she slept soundly, untroubled by dreams. But every now and then, when her strength was at low, she’d awaken in the darkness and remember, and fresh pain would sear through her. Then she’d have to remind herself once again,
Better to have loved and lost

Tomorrow she’d be in Chicago, taking her first vacation in two years. Her sister Kate needed her, and Maggie was never one to ignore someone’s needs. It must have been the thought of Chicago that had started it again, she thought, burrowing down beneath the cool cotton sheets. Mack had grown up on Chicago’s mean streets. Maggie had managed to avoid it since his death, but Kate needed her, and she could avoid it no longer.
Blood is thicker than water
, she thought, adding another cliché to the pile. How tediously trite and maudlin she was getting in her old age.

She rolled over on the bed and stared up into the darkness that surrounded her like a shroud. There was one more cliché, and it was by far her favorite.
Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness
. And she leaned over and turned on the bedside light.

one
 

“There’s a dead man in my bathtub!”

Maggie just stood there and looked at her younger sister, Kate, standing in the doorway of her Chicago apartment. Kate had always been the practical one, the calm, steady, efficient one. She was the only daughter who hadn’t inherited the infamous aquamarine eyes. Instead, hers were plain brown—unblinking, nice, but definitely brown. Her hair was brown, too; her face was attractive but nondescript, and she dressed more with propriety than with imagination. Fair Isle sweaters and discreet pearls were her style more than the urban guerilla chic that Maggie favored.

But at that moment, standing barefoot in the doorway of her apartment, her brown hair a tangled mass around her pale face, her usually calm brown eyes were completely panicked.

“What did you say?” Maggie asked, still staring at her sister in bemusement.

“I said there’s a dead man in my bathtub! Don’t just stand there, Maggie!” she shrieked, her usually even tones thrown to the four winds. “Come in and help me!” She grabbed Maggie’s arm and dragged her into the apartment with strength that was surprising, given that she was shorter and more fragile than her sister.

“Calm down, Kate,” Maggie said, automatically efficient. “Sit down and explain to me what the hell is going on. Where’s the baby?”

“I took her downstairs to Mrs. Gilliam. She baby-sits for her—Maggie, I don’t want to talk about my domestic arrangements!” Her voice was rising again. Maggie pushed her
down onto one of the overstuffed sofas in the stylish living room.

“And I don’t want to hear about your domestic arrangements,” she agreed. “I want you to tell me about the man in your bathtub. But first I think you need a drink.”

“Maggie—”

But Maggie had already left her, heading down the narrow corridor to the huge old kitchen with its mammoth ice-making refrigerator. She’d always liked the apartment Kate had shared with her husband. It was huge and prewar, with wonderfully elegant spaces that had taken to modernization with enthusiasm. No expense had been spared, and the place was a showpiece. At least Brian had left her with that much.

She poured each of them a generous glass of whiskey, added a token cube of ice, and headed back to the living room. She detoured to check the bathroom.

Well, Kate was right. There most definitely was a dead man in her bathtub. He’d been shot once, execution style, in the head, and it had made very little mess. Still, it had been a violent death, and Maggie had to grab for calmness that she wasn’t quite sure she had. She took a gulp of whiskey as she stared down at the corpse. He’d been a handsome man, and the soiled suit was expensive. She had never seen him before in her life. She wondered if Kate could make the same claim.

“You’re right,” she said, returning to Kate in the living room and handing her her glass of whiskey. “There is a dead man in your bathtub.”

Kate drained the whiskey in one gulp, choking slightly. The color came back into her ashen face. Maggie noticed that her small hands were trembling. “What did you think, I was making it up?” she snapped back. “What am I going to do?”

“Do you know him?”

“Of course I know him! Do you think I’d have a dead stranger in my tub?” she demanded in outrage. “His name is Francis Ackroyd. We work together at the studio—or we used to. I guess we won’t be now. Is there any more whiskey?”

“I’ll get the bottle. Just sit there, Kate. I’ll be right back.”

But Kate wasn’t there when Maggie returned. Maggie looked toward the apartment door, but it was still tightly shut. And then she headed back to the bathroom.

Kate was leaning against the door jamb, her face pale again. “I can’t understand why anyone would do this,” she said in a small voice that was little more than a whisper.

“Come away, Kate,” Maggie said, putting a gentle but inexorable hand on her arm. “We can talk in the living room.”

“I don’t understand,” she said again. And then she made a terrible face. “What is that awful smell?”

Maggie didn’t want to tell her, but Kate wasn’t showing any signs of moving, and the sight in front of them wasn’t the most attractive. “When someone dies violently, their bladder and bowels empty,” she said in her most pragmatic tone.

“Oh, God,” Kate said in a strangled voice. And clapping a hand over her mouth, she stumbled away in the direction of her bedroom. From the gagging sounds she heard, Maggie guessed that Kate was heading for the other bathroom. Reaching out, she shut the door and the body of Francis Ackroyd out of sight and followed her sister.

“I need another drink,” Kate announced when she’d finally managed to stagger from the bathroom on unsteady feet.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Maggie said. “Some weak tea, perhaps—”

“I need another drink. If we’re going to take care of the body, I need more than weak tea to put strength in me,” Kate said with a trace of her usual self-possession.

“Take care of the body?” Maggie echoed faintly. “What do you mean?”

“Have you forgotten? I’m in the middle of the nastiest custody fight this side of Gloria Vanderbilt. Brian will crucify me if this comes out. We’ve got to hide the body.”

“Kate!”

“I mean it, Maggie. Only for a couple of days at the most. We go back to court on Friday, and the judge has promised a ruling by then. It’ll be too late to do anything about it—”

“Kate, I’m a lawyer. I’m not going to go around obstructing the law by hiding murder victims—”

“Yes, you are,” Kate said. Her brown eyes filled up with tears. “This is my baby we’re talking about. I can’t lose her.”

“But why should you?”

“Francis Ackroyd and I had a huge fight this afternoon,” Kate said in a flat voice, “in the commissary at the studio, with at least twenty-five witnesses. I told him I wanted to kill him. I told him that very, very loudly.”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes. It’s only a couple of days, Maggie. We can dump him somewhere on the south side and cross our fingers—”

“They’d trace him straight back to you, Kate, especially if you had such a public fight. We’re just going to have to make sure no one finds him and starts asking embarrassing questions until the judge has ruled.”

Kate looked at her older sister with renewed respect. “What will we do with him?”

Maggie rose from the king-size bed that Kate had shared with Brian before he’d run off and married a twenty-year-old socialite who had forty million dollars more than Kate Zimmerman had. “Go and empty your refrigerator.”

“Oh, no, Maggie!” she moaned.

“Oh, yes. Anywhere else, and he’ll smell. And decompose, too, for that matter. At least in your refrigerator he’ll keep for a while.”

Kate turned around and headed back for the toilet. She slammed the door shut behind her.

Maggie shook her head. Disposing of Francis Ackroyd was the most immediate problem. But the moment they had him safely stashed, she was going to sit Kate down and get some straight answers out of her. Like what had they fought over? And when had the body appeared in her tub?

Not for a moment did she entertain the possibility that Kate had done it. Kate was strong, sturdy, fearless, and incorruptible—and completely squeamish. She could no more stick a gun at someone’s temple than she could hurt her baby, and
Maggie knew that very well. Someone had framed her, but there was no way she could deal with it until Kate had told her absolutely everything.

It must have had something to do with Kate’s job at Stoneham Studios. She’d worked for that small, independent movie studio for the last three years, even when Brian had insisted it wasn’t quite the thing for someone of her social background. But Kate had loved it and had clung to her career through thick and thin. Maggie now had to wonder whether it was going to prove her undoing after all.

Moving Francis wasn’t a pleasant job. Kate had dumped everything from the refrigerator into the garbage and had put the wire shelves in the utility room. Then she tried to beat a strategic retreat, but Maggie needed her to help to drag the late Francis, wrapped in the shower curtain, to the refrigerator. Fortunately, he’d been a small man, and he fit well enough. But the door wouldn’t stay closed, so she propped one of the kitchen chairs against it. Then she sank down into the chair.

It was moments like this, she thought, when one needed a cigarette—even when one didn’t smoke. Life’s little moments that were fraught with discomfort and despair. She’d considered taking up cigarettes after Mack’s death just for something to do, but at the last minute had decided against it. For one thing, every time she inhaled, she choked. For another, it interfered with her suddenly fanatical devotion to making her body as lean and fit as she possibly could. So no cigarettes. But right at that moment, she would have killed for one.

Kate paced back and forth, eyeing the refrigerator with great distrust. “What are you doing, sitting there?” she demanded.

“Keeping the door closed,” Maggie said wearily. “I don’t think this is going to work.”

“Why not? We can just go out to eat.”

“Kate, sooner or later—”

The sound of the doorbell shut Maggie’s mouth in mid-sentence.
It was an elegant, melodious, old-fashioned doorbell, but it cut across their nerves like a buzz saw.

“Who could that be at this hour?” Maggie demanded finally. She shoved the chair under the refrigerator door handle to make sure it wouldn’t pop open and spill out its macabre contents.

“It’s only eight thirty, Maggie,” Kate said, her voice a thin thread of sound. “It only feels like midnight.”

“You’d better answer it.” The gentle chimes echoed in the kitchen once more.

“Me?” Kate shrieked. “I can’t, Maggie!”

“It’s your apartment. The doorman knows we’re here. We can’t just hide away and not answer. Besides, it might be the baby-sitter.”

“Oh, God,” Kate moaned. She stumbled from the kitchen at a dead run. Maggie raced along behind her.

“Calm down, Kate. I just said it
might
be the baby-sitter. It’s probably someone selling Girl Scout cookies,” Maggie said. She caught Kate’s shoulder just as they reached the door. She turned Kate around and shook her with just enough force to make her sister’s eyes open wide. “I said calm down. If we’re going to carry this off, you’re going to have to get hold of yourself.” She gave her another shake for good measure. “Okay?”

Kate took a deep, shuddering breath. The doorbell rang again. Maggie could feel the tension run through her like a live current, but Kate’s usual strength of will had taken over. “Okay,” she said, and turned to look through the peephole. And then she sank down onto the carpet in the hall. “Help me, Maggie,” she said with a note of desperation in her voice. “It’s Brian.”

The gentle doorbell sound had deteriorated into a loud knocking. It was followed by the charming voice that had fooled more than one susceptible woman, but that had never fooled Maggie. “I know you’re in there, Kate. Come on, don’t be a child. Let me in.”

Maggie grabbed Kate’s wrist and hauled her upright. “If
you make it through this,” she hissed, “you’ll make it through anything. Don’t let Brian win, Kate.”

“Kate, I know you’re in there,” Brian continued. His voice was definitely becoming edgy. “If you don’t let me in, I’ll have the doorman do it. Old Fred’s always had a soft spot for me, and you know he’d do it in a flash.”

Slowly, Kate pushed her tangled hair back from her pale, sweating face. Her eyes were still wide and shocked, and her hands were trembling slightly. “Hold your horses, Brian,” she called out, and her voice sounded calm and prosaic. “You pick the damnedest times for social calls.” She took her time fumbling with the locks, and when she finally opened the door, there was a spot of color in either cheek, and to Maggie’s amazement, Kate simply looked tired and angry—not as if she’d spent the last hour throwing up and moving a corpse into her refrigerator.

“It’s about time!” Brian strode into the apartment, but he stopped short when he caught sight of Maggie. He was a good-looking man, and he knew it; he was a charming man, and he used it. It had always driven him crazy that Maggie hadn’t fallen prey to his charm. He immediately smiled his best smile at Maggie, bringing all his perfect teeth into play. “Maggie, how are you? You look terrific.”

She stood still for the wet-mouthed embrace she knew was coming. Brian had an almost pathological disregard for the trouble he caused. Not for one moment did he consider that the mudslinging custody battle he’d initiated dimmed his welcome from his ex-sister-in-law. Rudeness on her part didn’t make it sink in; ignoring him didn’t help, either. So Maggie stood still and let him reach up and slobber on her chin. She moved away as soon as his grip had slackened.

“What do you want, Brian?” Kate demanded from her post by the doorway. “We’re going back to court on Friday. Don’t you think this is an odd time for a social call?”

“It isn’t a social call. I came to see my daughter,” he said with quiet dignity that he’d perfected long before.

“Tough. You can’t see her till this is settled. You know that perfectly well. I don’t want her in the middle of this mess.”

“You always were a little pedant, Kate,” he said. “I miss Chrissie. Can’t you loosen up just long enough for me to say hi?”

“Chrissie’s not here,” Maggie said, noting the look of panic that briefly swept through Kate’s clear brown eyes. “We took her to the baby-sitter’s so we could have a chance to talk.”

“Why can’t you talk with the baby around?” Brian asked with a suspicious tone in his voice.

Maggie stared at him, a chilly, savage stare that had always intimidated Brian and did so now. “Because I needed to talk about … Mack—” She deliberately let her voice break. “And we didn’t think Chrissie needed to see her aunt Maggie so upset. You know she cries when other people cry.”

Brian looked at her skeptically. “Come off it, Maggie. Superwomen don’t cry.”

Francis Ackroyd almost got company in the refrigerator. Maggie felt her hands clench into fists, but she stood very still and let the rage wash over her and through her. “Good-bye, Brian,” she said calmly.

BOOK: Darkness before the Dawn
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