Authors: Julie Miller
Her chest puffed out, pushing the front of the sleeveless blouse she wore. “I am not your sweetheart. And don't think I don't remember you, Detective Krolikowski. I know you and your partner picked up my brother before he was arrested. That case is closed.”
“Maybe, but your fiancÃ©'s murder isn't. And we think you and your brother know something about it.”
“This is about Richard?” Her eyes widened. But when he thought she'd start that reticent eye contact thing again, she surprised him by actually taking a step closer to the edge of the porch. “Now we're finally getting to the point, aren't we? Are you accusing me again of poisoning him? So I'm a suspect, not a victim. And here I thought you'd shown up becauseâ”
“Because what?” He pulled the toy with a noose around its neck from behind his back and watched her sink back into the chair. “You want to tell us what the hell is going on with you?”
is an award-winning
bestselling author of breathtaking romantic suspenseâwith a National Readers' Choice Award and a Daphne du Maurier Award, among other prizes. She has also earned an
RT Book Reviews
Career Achievement Award. For a complete list of her books, monthly newsletter and more, go to
For my mom. It was challenging to write this book amongst unforeseen events that demanded my attention. But I wouldn't have traded your wonderful visit and recovery time for anything. I'm glad you're feeling better. I love you.
“Why did you kill that woman, Stephen?” Rosemary March asked, looking across the scarred-up table at her younger brother. “And don't tell me it was to rob her for drug money. I know that isn't who you are.”
Rosemary studied the twenty-eight-year-old man she'd done her best to raise after a small plane crash several years earlier had left them orphans. She tried to pretend there weren't a dozen pairs of eyes on her, watching through the observation windows around them. It was easier than pretending the Missouri State Penitentiary's tiny visitation room with its locked steel doors wasn't making her claustrophobic.
But it was impossible to ignore the clinking of the chains and cuffs that bound Stephen March's wrists and ankles together. “You ask me that every time you come to see me, Rosemary.”
“Because I'm not satisfied with the answers you've given me.” She ran her fingers beneath the collar of her floral-print blouse, telling herself it was the heat of the Missouri summer, and not any discomfiting leer from another prisoner or the unsettling mystery of why her brother would kill a woman he didn't know, that made beads of perspiration gather against her skin. “I hate seeing you in here.”
“You need to let it go. This is where I deserve to be. Trust me, sis. I was never going to amount to much on the outside.”
“That's not true. With your artistic talent you could haveâ”
“But I didn't.” He drummed his scarred fingers together at the edge of the table. For as long as she'd known him, he'd been hyper like thatâalways moving, always full of energy. Their father had gotten him into running cross-country and track; their mother had put a drawing pencil in his hand. Ultimately, though, neither outlet could compete with the meth addiction that had sent his life spiraling out of control. “Losing Mom and Dad was no excuse for me going off the deep end and not helping out. Especially when your fiancÃ©...” The drumming stopped abruptly. “Just know, I was really there for you when you needed me.”
“Needed you for what? If you had anything to do with Richard's murder, please tell me. You know I'll forgive you. We never used to keep secrets like this from each other. Please help me understand.”
“I kept you safe. That's the one thing I got right, the one thing I'm proud of. Even the Colonel would have finally been proud of me,” he added, referring to their father.
“Dad loved you,” Rosemary insisted.
“Maybe. But he wasn't real thrilled having a drug addict for a son, was he? But I took action. The way he would have.” His gaze darted around the room, as if checking for eavesdroppers, before his light brown eyes focused on her and he dropped his voice to a whisper. “For the last time, I killed that lady reporter to protect you.”
Understanding far more about tragedy and violence and not being able to protect herself and her loved ones more than she'd ever wanted to, Rosemary brushed aside the escaping wisps of her copper-red hair and leaned forward, pressing the argument. “Dad wouldn't have wanted you to commit murder. I didn't even know that woman. That's what doesn't make any sense. What kind of threat was she to me?”
Stephen groaned at her repeated demands for a straightforward explanation. He slumped back in his chair and nodded toward the family's current attorney standing outside the window behind her. “Why did you bring him?”
Fine. She'd let him change the topic. Although it was good to see Stephen clean and sober, he looked exhausted. Her younger brother had aged considerably in the months since he'd pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and been incarcerated, and she didn't want to add to his stress. She glanced over her shoulder to the brown-haired man in the suit and tie and returned his smile before facing her brother again. “Howard insisted on coming with me. He didn't want me driving back to Kansas City at night by myself. It was a kind offer.”
The drumming started again. “He reminds me too much of his brother. Are you sure he's treating you right?”
She flinched at the remembered shock of Richard Bratcher's open hand across her mouth putting an end to an argument they'd had over a memorial scholarship she'd wanted to set up in her parents' names. Seven years later, she could still taste the metallic tang of blood in her mouth that reminded her she'd made a colossal mistake in inviting the attorney into their lives, falling in love with him, trusting him. Rosemary inhaled a quiet breath and lifted her chin. Richard was dead and she'd become a pro at setting aside those horrible memories and pasting a facade of cool serenity on her face.
“They may look alike, but Howard isn't like his brother. Howard's never laid a hand on me. In fact, I think he feels so guilty about how Richard treated us when I was engaged to him that he goes out of his way to be helpful.”
“He's just keeping you close so you won't sue his law firm.”
“Maybe.” Initially, she'd been leery of Howard's offer to take over as the family's attorney. But he knew more than anyone else about the wrongful death and injury suit Richard Bratcher had filed against the aerospace manufacturer that built the faulty plane her father had flown on that fateful trip, and she couldn't stand to drag the suit out any longer than it had already lasted. Plus, he'd been nothing but a gentleman and rock-solid support through the continuing upheavals in her life. “Howard makes it easier to get in to see you. And he's responsible for keeping you in the infirmary wing to do your rehab instead of you being sent back to general lockup with the other prisoners.”
“Don't stick with him because of me. I can handle myself in here. I don't trust him, sis.”
Rosemary's smile became genuine. “You don't trust anybody.”
Stephen sat up straight and reached for her. At the last second, he remembered the guard at door and raised both hands to show they were empty. Rosemary held up her hands, as well, and got a nod of approval before reaching over the battered tabletop to hold her brother's hands. “I trust you. I'm okay being in here because I know you're safe now. You
Stephen's grip tightened, as if somehow sensing that all was not well in her life. But Rosemary clenched her jaw and continued to smile. The last thing he needed was to worry about her on the outside, when he couldn't do a thing about it. “I am.”
She was right now, at any rate.
The assurance seemed to ease his concern. He eased his grip but didn't let go. “That bastard Richard is dead. But it'd kill me if I thought his brother or anyone else was hurting you.”
“I'm fine.” What were a few obscene phone calls, anyway, after all they'd been through? Her hope had been to find a few answers for herself, not raise doubts in her brother's mind. “As much as we both wanted Richard out of our lives, I know you didn't kill him.” Stephen had been in a rehab facility in the middle of a forty-eight-hour lockdown the morning she'd discovered her fiancÃ© dead in bed at his condo, poisoned sometime during the night. She, however, had had no alibi and had spent several months as KCPD's number one suspect until the trail of clues went cold and Richard Bratcher's murder had been relegated to the cold-case files. Rosemary squeezed her brother's hands. “Whoever poisoned him did us a favor. But if you're protecting someone who wanted that reporter dead, or you're taking the blame for her murder because you wished you'd been the one to kill Richard... Please, Stephen. Talk to me.”
His eyes darkened for a split second before he shook his head and pulled away. “I was using that night. I pulled the trigger. Now I'm done talking about it. You should be, too.”
“Rosemaryâ” He bit down on a curse and folded his hands together, his finger tracing the marks he'd left in his own skin back in the days when he'd been too stressed-out to cope or on a manic high.
“It's okay, Stephen,” she quickly assured him, alarmed by the frantic, self-destructive habit he'd worked so hard to overcome. “I won't mention it again.”
This visit, at any rate.
Reluctantly, she acquiesced to his demand and sat back in her chair. She knew there had to be more to Stephen's motive for killing an innocent reporter than simply being high as a kite and not knowing what he was doing, as he'd stated in court. The monster in their own home had been the real threat, and, in her heart, she believed there was a connection between the two murdersâa logical reason her brother was going to spend half his adult life in prison and she was going to be alone. But if Stephen wouldn't talk, she wasn't certain how else she could get to the truth about the two murders and finally put the nightmares of the past behind her.
Yet, until that revelation, Rosemary stuck to the role she'd learned to play so well, dutifully taking care of others. “Is there anything you need? I brought the books you asked for, and two cartons of cigarettes.” She curled her fingers into a fist, fighting the instinctive urge to reach for the neckline of her dress and the scars underneath. Instead, she arched an eyebrow in teasing reprimand. “I wish you'd give those up. You know they're not good for you.”
That earned her half a grin from her brother. “Let me kick one addiction at a time, okay?”
“Okay.” A high sign from the guard warned her their time was nearly up. Rosemary blinked back the tears that made her eyes gritty and smiled for Stephen's sake as he stood and waited for the guard to escort him back to his cell. “I wish I could give you a hug.”
“Me, too.” But that kind of contact wasn't allowed. “I love you, sis. Stay strong.”
As if she had any choice. She fought to keep her smile fixed in place. “I love you. I'll keep writing. And it wouldn't hurt you to pick up a pencil every now and then, either. Be safe.”
He nodded as he shuffled to the door in front of the guard. “You, too.”
Rosemary was alone for only a few seconds before another guard came to the door to walk her out to the visitors' desk. But it was long enough for the smile to fade, her shoulders to sag and her heart to grow heavy. How was one woman supposed to endure so much and still keep going on with her life? She followed the rules. She'd done everything that was expected of her and more. Why wasn't it good enough? Why wasn't
With a quick swipe at the hot moisture in her eyes, Rosemary nodded and got up to accompany the guard out that door into an antechamber and then out the next one into the visitors' waiting area. She jumped at the slam of each heavy door behind her, which closed her off farther from the only family she had left. With every slam, her shoulders straightened, her heart locked up and she braced herself to meet the concern that etched frown lines beside Howard Bratcher's eyes when he greeted her. “How are you holding up?”
While she waited in line to retrieve the purse she'd checked in at the front desk, Rosemary became aware of other eyes watching her. Not quite the lecherous leer she'd imagined tracking her from the shadows each night she got one of those creepy phone calls. Certainly not the solicitous concern in Howard's hazel eyes.
When the holes boring into her back became too much to ignore, she turned.
But she didn't see Howard standing beside her. She looked beyond him to the rows of chairs near the far wall. The girlfriends, wives and mothers waiting to see their loved ones barely acknowledged her curiosity as her gaze swept down the line. There were a couple of men in T-shirts and jeans. A few more in dress slacks and polo shirts or wearing a jacket and tie like Howard. They were reading papers, chatting with their neighbors, using their phones.
But no one was watching.
No one was interested in her at all.
She was just a skittish, paranoid woman afraid of her own shadow these days.
Hating that any sense of self-confidence and security had once again been stolen from her, she turned back to the guard at the front desk and grabbed her purse. “Thank you.”
But when she fell into step beside Howard and headed toward the main doors, the hackles beneath her bun went on alert again. She was suddenly aware of the youngish man sitting at the end of the row against the wall. He wore a loose tie at the front of the linen jacket that remained curiously unwrinkled, and he was texting on his phone.
Was it that guy? Had he been following her movements with that more than casual curiosity she'd felt? Although it was hard to tell if he was making eye contact through the glasses he wore, he seemed to be holding his phone at an oddly upright angle, tapping the screen. He lifted his attention from his work and briefly smiled at her before returning to whatever he found so fascinating on the tiny screen.
Like an image of her?
“Rosemary?” She felt Howard's touch at her elbow and quickly shifted her gaze back to the door he held open for her. “Is something wrong?”
“I don't know.” Stepping outside, the wall of heat and humidity momentarily robbed her of breath. But her suspicion lingered. “Did you see that guy?”
They were halfway across the parking lot now. “The one who was staring at me?”
Howard glanced over his shoulder and shrugged. “They probably don't see a lot of pretty women here.”
Pretty? Rosemary groaned inwardly at the sly compliment. She caught a few frizzy waves that curled against her neck and tucked them into the bun at the back of her head. After Richard's abuse, the last thing she wanted was to attract a man's attention. But the curiosity of that man in the waiting room had felt like something different. She shuddered in the heat as she waited for Howard to open the door of his car for her. “I think he took a picture of me with his phone.”
“So you don't mean one of the prisoners?”
“No. He was one of the attorney-looking guys out in the waiting area.”