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Authors: Tracey V. Bateman

Suspicion of Guilt

BOOK: Suspicion of Guilt
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“It looks like someone is trying to sabotage my efforts to make a nice home for these girls. What I can’t figure out is why.”

Detective Reece Corrigan scowled. “That’s what I’m here for, and I have to tell you-”

Denni raised her hand to stop him. “What possible motive could any of my girls have to sabotage their own home? Where would they go?”

Leaving him to mull that over, she marched to the top of the stairs. He followed her into the kitchen.

“That’s the one thing I can’t put my finger on. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe the person we’re dealing with here doesn’t think along rational lines.”

“All my girls are rational,” Denni snapped.

His amusement was more than apparent in the upward curve of his lips. “Then I guess they must take after you,” he drawled.

 

The Mahoney Sisters: Fighting for justice and love.

 

REASONABLE DOUBT

SUSPICION OF GUILT

BETRAYAL OF TRUST

Books by Tracey V. Bateman

Love Inspired Suspense

*
Reasonable Doubt
#4

*
Suspicion of Guilt
#6

TRACEY V. BATEMAN

lives in Missouri with her husband and their four children. She writes full-time and is active in various roles in her home church. She has won several awards for her writing, and credits God’s grace and a limited number of entries for each win. To relax, she enjoys long talks with her husband, reading and music and hanging out with her kids, who can finally enjoy movies she likes. Tracey loves to encourage everyone to dream big. She believes she is living proof that, with God, nothing is impossible.

Tracey V. Bateman
Suspicion of Guilt

You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.


Psalms
139:15–16

This book is dedicated to my precious friend Nancy Scott, who believes in the mandate for older (though she is
not
old) women to teach the younger women. God used you to teach me that I was somebody in His eyes. Thank you for sharing the theme scripture of this book with me when I was a teenager.

Special thanks to my faithful critique partners as always—especially Chris Lynxwiler and Pamela Griffin; both of you stayed by your computers to get chapters from me to critique on the spur of the moment so that I wouldn’t miss my deadline. Only God could have given me such loyal friends.

Also, thanks to my mother, Frances Devine, and to my mother-in-law, Vivian Bateman. Thank you both for believing in my dreams enough to sacrifice your time so that I can put mine to the best use during the days of deadline mania. May God bless you both abundantly above all you could ever ask or think.

Thank you, Jesus. It’s all about You.

Dear Reader,

Reece and Denni came from very different backgrounds, but both had to learn that they were crafted by design. Their lives were not just lucky or unlucky coincidences, but rather God, sticking to the plan. His plan.

It is my prayer that as you read through this story, God whispered, “Do you know how excited I was when you were being formed inside of your mother? From the moment of your conception, I dreamed about the day you would learn your first Bible verse; sing ‘Jesus Loves Me, This I Know’ the day you would hold your first wiggling worm in your chubby little fingers, or chase a beautiful butterfly; the first time you would fold your hands and say a prayer all by yourself; the day you would let Jesus become your Lord.”

Or if you’ve never taken that step, God has waited, in anticipation, just for you to come to that decision as Reece did.

I welcome e-mail from my readers at [email protected] or visit my Web site, www.traceybateman.com.

May God bless you as you live, move and have your being in Him.

Prologue

T
he night swirled around her. Black, stabbing darkness conjured terrible shadows from childhood nightmares. Leaves hovered like a vampire’s cape, suffocating. Fear gripped her. Branches tossed in the breeze—razor-sharp fingers ready to slice her to shreds.

Hurry, hurry, hurry.

A low half growl, half whine came from the Doberman behind the fence next door. She jerked her head at the sound, heart pounding in her ears like the thrum of a thousand drums.

Shh. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
Don’t give me away. I’m so close to accomplishing my goal
. The dog obeyed and sat—watching but silent.

Relief flooded her as she turned back to her task. Denni Mahoney, with all of her sweetness and light…

Shards of rage pierced her heart at the thought of Denni getting what she wanted. She didn’t deserve it. A mastermind of deception. Denni had fooled them all.

Everyone but me.
The thought made her smile with grim determination.

With a shaky hand, she reached for the outside faucet. Hesitated. One twist and the broken pipe would send water rushing inside the house instead of flowing to the ground. The basement would flood.

She grasped the faucet tightly and gave it a quick turn.

Water spewed.

The Doberman barked.

Her heart rate escalated. She pushed to her feet, gulping down the fear and crept across the yard. Exultation shoved away the terror of night as she found safety.

Chapter One

S
hock, disbelief, horror…all vied for first place in Denni Mahoney’s chest as she stared at the foot of water standing in her basement. Water. Just…standing there where water was never meant to be. She shook her head, pressing her palm to her forehead.

What next?

“We’ll get to the bottom of this.” Behind her, Detective Reece Corrigan’s tone was hard-edged, resolute, but the warmth of his hand on her shoulder evoked a strange sense of comfort.

“You have to admit it definitely could be one of them. Why do you insist that all five of the girls are innocent?”

The warm, comforting fuzzies turned to cold stone. She didn’t have to admit any such thing, and she was sick of his suspicions being centered on the girls. Anger shoved down the tears clogging her throat, and she shook off his hand.

Standing on the fourth step from the bottom of the basement stairs, Denni watched a hardback book float across the water covering the concrete floor.
A Tale of
Two Cities
. A birthday gift from her mom when she’d turned fifteen. Little by little her memories of Mom were being destroyed. It had been ten years since her death, and only photos provided a clear picture of her face anymore.

Denni grimaced and turned away, but Reece’s body on the step above her blocked the flight up. Even when she sent him her fiercest frown, he didn’t budge.

She drew in the subtle scent of his spicy aftershave. Understated appeal. She liked that about him. The guy had to know what he did to women—a worked-out physique and a masculinity that intimidated Denni, yet left her silently wishing he’d stay close. She eyed his muscled arms and broad chest and couldn’t help but wonder what it might feel like to be drawn close. To lose herself in a comforting embrace.

“Well?” he asked, the tension in his voice replaced by a subtle, low tone that seeped over her like a gentle rain.

She gaped, fighting the warmth creeping to her cheeks. “Well what?”

“I’m going to have to question them again. Who should I speak with first this time?”

“Oh, Reece,” she said, hearing the fatigue in her tone. She was so tired. So very, very tired. “Leave the girls alone, will you? How can you blame them for a flood?”

Her girls. Troubled, ex-foster-care kids who were too old to stay in the system, but too young to be out on their own. As a social worker, she had grown tired of seeing so many of these girls end up on public assistance, their own children placed in foster care, so she’d cleaned out her savings account, cashed in some bonds and opened a home.

Only five young women lived with her, but if her experiment panned out, she had commitments from several local churches to help buy two more homes, each housing ten girls. Monday, she was supposed to host a luncheon for the liaisons from each of these churches. How could she explain to potential sponsors that the cops suspected the residents of sabotage?

Denni glanced back at the basement, searching for escape from the confrontation that was surely to come. It was either hike down the steps and swim through the murky water or face Reece’s solid stubbornness. She sighed, knowing there was only one logical choice. She’d have to face him.

Forcing herself away from the sight of so many of her treasures soaked and more than likely ruined, she braced for the coming conflict, a tiresome, constant echo of accusation.

Deliberately, she lifted her gaze and faced sharp green eyes. Steely, knee-weakening eyes that raked over her face, commanding her to accept the possibility.

“Admit it,” he demanded.

“I admit only one thing. It looks as though someone is trying to sabotage my efforts to make a nice home for these girls.” A sigh pushed from her lungs. “What I can’t figure out is why.”

Detective Corrigan scowled. “That’s what I’m here for, and I have to tell you…”

Denni raised her hand to stop the opinion from flying out of his mouth. “What possible motive could any of them have to sabotage their own home? Where would they go?”

Leaving him to mull over that bit of reason, she scraped against his bomber jacket as she maneuvered
around him and marched to the top of the stairs. He followed her into the kitchen.

“That’s the one thing I can’t put my finger on. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but maybe the person we’re dealing with here doesn’t think along rational lines.”


All
my girls are rational,” Denni snapped.

His amusement was more than apparent in the upward curve of his lips. “Then I guess they must take after you,” he drawled.

Fighting the urge to stomp away like a five-year-old, Denni snatched up the phone and dialed the number for the electric company.

She scowled at Reece, just as a lady on the other end answered, effectively cutting off any retort. “Hello, this is Denni Mahoney at 344 Clark Street. My basement flooded. I need someone to shut off my electricity while we pump it out.”

“One moment, please.”

Denni drummed her nails along the Formica cabinet top wishing Detective Corrigan would just stop staring at her like that. “What?” she snapped, shooting him a hard glance.

“I beg your pardon?” The lady on the phone sounded mildly irritated.

“Sorry, I wasn’t talking to you.”

Corrigan smirked. Denni turned her back.

“Ma’am, I’m told all you need to do is shut off the circuits to the basement.”

Denni closed her eyes and shook her head. She pressed her fingertips to her temple. Did she look like an idiot or just sound like one over the phone? “Yeah, the problem with that advice is that my breaker box is
actually
in
the basement, and I’m not real thrilled with the idea of getting zapped.”

“Oh.”

Yeah,
Oh.

“All right. I’ll have someone come over first thing Monday morning.”

“Wait! Monday? I have
water
in my
basement!
I can’t wait until Monday.”

“Yes, ma’am. I understand that. But that’s the earliest time we have available. The last orders have already gone out for the day. And we don’t work on the weekends.”

Denni bit back a nasty reply and hung up. She smacked the counter with her palm. “What am I supposed to do until Monday with water soaking my basement?”

“Stay upstairs?” Corrigan’s attempt at humor spiked her irritation level.

She glared. “Not funny.” Besides the question was rhetorical.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Do you want to talk about all of this?”

“No.”

“Then why did you call me?”

She shrugged. Why
had
she called him? She’d walked down the steps this morning to do a load of laundry, discovered the flooded basement, and all she could think to do was call Reece. It made no sense to her.

“I’ll tell you why. Because you know that a creek in your basement is no accident.” He looked past her and his eyes clouded.

A feminine voice, thick with disdain, shot through the air before Denni could confirm or deny his assumption. “Oh, great. What’s
he
doing here?”

Denni snapped her head around at the anger in
Leigh’s tone. The girl leaned jauntily against the door frame, thumbs latched in her front jeans pockets. With her short spiked hair dyed pitch-black, and sporting a lip ring and a belly shirt, the girl looked a little wild, but Denni knew the softy inside. Reece on the other hand looked like a tiger about to spring.

“So, where have you been all day?” he asked.

“None of your business.” She dismissed him with a sneer and turned to Denni. “What happened?”

“Someone left the outside faucet on.”

Leigh groaned. “Oh, great! Not again. I’ll go hook up the wet ’n’ dry vac.”

“Don’t bother. We’ll have to get it pumped out. It’s pretty deep.”

Leigh kicked at the linoleum with one socked foot. “How much is that going to cost?”

“Nothing.” Corrigan’s voice cut through the air. “I know a guy with a pump.”

As much as Denni wanted to believe in his good intentions, the offer had the distinct odor of a rat. A big fat suspicious rat with a shiny badge and knee-weakening green eyes.

“Thanks, anyway.”

“Yeah. Who needs you?” Leigh growled in his direction.

Denni couldn’t blame the girl for her animosity. Since the first mishap three months ago—a laptop computer and a pretty expensive stereo system both missing—Corrigan had made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t ruling out any of the girls as suspects. Leigh had seemed to take the brunt of his questions. A fire in the laundry room a month later had only deepened his suspicion. Especially after he’d found a lighter and ciga
rettes in her room. And no amount of don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover speeches from Denni could deter him.

“Come on,” he said. “No strings attached.”

Leigh snorted. “Yeah, right.”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself, but these guys work by the hour. Who knows how long it’ll take to pump out that much water?”

“We’ll manage, Detective,” Denni said, mentally calculating how much was left in her account, and if worse came to worst, her credit-card balances.

“Fine. At least come down and fill out a report.”

Denni shook her head. “I’ve changed my mind. It was probably just an accident.”

“Sure.” His lips dripped with sarcasm. “A water faucet that only your girls know is broken. Why would anyone else have turned it on?”

“I don’t know.”

He gave a frustrated huff. “If you’d report it, I’d be officially assigned to investigate. We could get to the bottom of this.”

“Hey, Corrigan,” Leigh piped in. “Where’s our stereo and computer? Weren’t you assigned to that one, too?”

“Can it, Leigh,” Denni said. There was no sense in antagonizing him.

Too late. The guy was sufficiently ticked off. He took a step toward the sneering girl. “Why don’t you tell me who you sold them to? Then I’ll get them back for Denni.”

“Why don’t you stop trying to be a big shot and just do your job?”

Denni cringed as the gloves officially came off. These two were going for a knockout.

“Believe me, I’m doing my job, little girl. And un
less I miss my guess, you’ll be finding that out firsthand, real quick.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“Good grief.” Denni smacked the counter again, heedless of the stinging in her palm. “You two are acting like a couple of three-year-olds. Detective, is there anything else we can do for you?” Belatedly she remembered
she’d
called
him
.

She cringed as his brow went up. “No, I don’t guess there’s anything else I want, but I recognize an invitation to leave when I hear one. I’ll show myself out.” He brushed past Leigh. “I’ll be seeing you soon.”

“I can’t wait,” she smarted back.

“Good bye, Detective,” Denni said. “Thank you for the offer of the pump.”

“Yeah, no problem.” He gave her a long stare, then shook his head and stalked out of the kitchen.

 

“What a weasel.”

Reece’s lips twisted into a wry grin at Leigh’s assessment of his charm—or the lack thereof. He paused on the other side of the wall separating him from the kitchen, feeling like a jerk for eavesdropping, but thinking he might be handed a clue on a silver platter if he hung out at the door for awhile.

“We don’t have time to think about him right now, Leigh,” Denni’s voice responded. “What am I going to do about Monday’s luncheon?”

“Oh, brother. I forgot about that.”

Luncheon? The woman had a serial saboteur on her hands and she was giving a party? Reece scowled.

Leigh’s voice continued. “Who can we call to get the basement pumped out?”

“There’s no point. The electric company won’t shut off the electricity until Monday.”

“Well, that’s that.”

Denni’s sigh went straight to Reece’s heart. He shook it off. Now was not the time to get soft about the house mother. For all he knew, she might be the one responsible for the mishaps. He’d have to look into her insurance policy again.

In the meantime, she was going to take his help whether she wanted it or not.

He lifted his cell phone from his belt and dialed while he walked to his truck, a gray and black Avalanche. He leaned against the door listening to the rings.

“Hey, Jack,” he said when his friend answered the phone. “I have a little problem I need some help with.”

“What’s that?”

“How hard would it be to get a rush order to shut off someone’s electricity?”

“What kind of police work calls for you to do that?”

“None. This is a personal favor. The lady has a basement full of water and can’t pump it out while the electricity is on.”

He hesitated a minute. “Give me the address and I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thanks, Jack. Oh, one more thing. Can you turn it back on tomorrow? She has a luncheon on Monday.”

A knowing chuckle reached his ears. “Hey, don’t tell me you finally found someone who actually wants to go out with you.”

Heat burned his neck. The idea of dating Denni Mahoney had merit. As a matter of fact, he’d thought of it more than once. And if the case ever wrapped up, he might ask her out, but not now. “No. Nothing like
that.” He gave him the address and quickly disconnected the call.

Before he could lift the door handle and climb into the truck, a low growl caught his attention, setting his senses on high alert.

With careful movement, he turned his head. A Doberman stood not five feet away, teeth bared, and looking ready to bite a hunk out of him.

“Easy, boy.”

“Buffy! Leave that man alone!”

Buffy? This had to be the worst case of misnaming an animal he’d ever encountered. Boy or girl, Buffy looked more like a Bruiser or a Spike.

Still he felt a little embarrassed to have been so antsy, when an elderly woman marched right up to the dog and smacked it on the nose as though Buffy didn’t have the capacity to bite off a thumb. “Shame on you,” she scolded. “What have I told you about being nasty to people?”

Buffy’s pink tongue shot out and lathered the woman’s wrinkled hand. She melted visibly. “Oh, you’re such a sweetie pie,” she crooned.

“Ma’am. I take it this is your dog?”

“Of course, she is. Aren’t you, Buffy Boo?”

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