A Billionaire's Redemption(4)

Even if the son of an old family friend raped her, she thought bitterly.

The dark-paneled library walls closed in on her all of a sudden, and she hurried out of the room, through the foyer and grand dining room and burst outside through the French doors. The broad, covered patio, with its deeply cushioned sofas, lazily turning ceiling fans, and flat-screen TV mounted high under the eaves mocked her with their casual display of wealth. Wealth that was evaporating even as she stood here.

She ran down the wide steps into the garden—the one thing on earth her mother seemed to truly care about. It was as lush and gorgeous as any botanical garden, with winding walkways through raised beds overflowing with roses and late-season daisies, re-blooming azaleas, and even a few of Willa’s favorite gardenias blooming out of season.

How George, the gardener, managed to coax the white, elegant gardenias into bloom for months on end, she had no idea. It probably helped that her mother had built him a commercial quality greenhouse at the back of the nearly two acres of backyard, hidden behind a tall fence covered with Carolina jessamine. The jessamine bloomed in the very earliest spring in a splash of sweet-scented yellow. But even now, a faint hint of its perfume clung to the vines.

What was she going to do? Willa was the executor of her father’s estate, much to everyone’s surprise, and Larry Shore’s immense chagrin. She was supposed to take care of all this, to safeguard it for her mother and for any hypothetical offspring Willa might produce someday. Although at the rate she was going, a boyfriend wasn’t in her near future, let alone children.

She sank onto a concrete bench tucked beneath the spreading boughs of a chinquapin oak and hugged her middle, curling in on herself in misery at the thought of dating ever again. She was damaged goods. James Ward might not have taken her virginity, but the bastard had certainly taken her innocence. Her ability to trust men.

The whole world was caving in on her. John Merris was gone, her financial security ruined, her personal life destroyed. She had no one to turn to, nowhere to go, no escape. The vultures were circling, all right.

An inhuman scream, shrill and panicked, shocked her out of her pity party. The noise cut off sharply, which was almost more alarming than the scream itself. Willa jolted to her feet. That sounded like it had come from near the koi pond. She raced toward the far corner of the garden, her heart in her throat. It sounded like a woman had just been murdered. Was her mother okay?

She skidded to a stop as George waved her back. He was bent over something in the rocks above the pond. Water tumbled merrily through the jumble of stones and into the pool below, masking his raspy voice. “Stay back, Miss Willa. You don’t wanna see this.”

What is it, George?” she asked frantically.

Rabbit. Dead.”

She frowned, looking around the otherwise serene garden. “How did it die?” There was too much tree cover here for a hawk to have gotten it, and coyotes wouldn’t show themselves at this time of day, let alone this close to a human habitation.

Head’s ripped off,” he answered shortly. “Nasty piece of work.”

There’d been a predator in the garden? Where was it now? This side of the garden was bordered by a forest of nearly ten acres’ sprawl. It would be easy to disappear into the trees from here. “Why would some critter sneak into Mom’s garden in broad daylight to kill a rabbit?” she demanded. “That makes no sense, whatsoever.”

I dunno, Miss. I’m just sayin’ it ain’t got a head, and it looks like somethin’ tore it clean off. You go on back to the house now, Miss Willa. I’ll get a shovel and clean this up.”

You’ll hose down the spot? It would upset Mother to see blood.”

Of course,” he muttered, frowning down at the mess at his feet.

God, even the safety of her mother’s garden had been destroyed! She walked toward the house, her steps getting faster and faster until she broke into a shambling run. She felt eyes staring at her, malevolent and evil. Creeped out beyond belief, she sprinted the rest of the way to the house.

She burst into the kitchen, panting, its pickled pine cabinets and cheery yellow walls incongruous in the face of her terror. She dashed away the tears streaming down her face.

Louise looked up from unloading the dishwasher as Willa came to a stop. “Oh, there you are, Willy girl. The sheriff called a minute ago. He wants you to come down to the station in the morning.”

Great. Now what?

Chapter 3

Gabe took a deep breath and reminded himself yet again not to lose his temper. But the young police officer seated across the steel table from him was doing his level best to drive Gabe crazy. This was the third time they’d called him down here to ask him the exact same questions as the first two times he’d been here.

Tell me one more time, Mr. Dawson, what you and Senator Merris argued about at the Petroleum Club.”

He sighed. He knew what they were doing. Get a person to tell the same story three times, and if it changed each time, the person was lying. If it stayed exactly the same, the person was probably telling the truth.

I went to the club because I knew John Merris would be there. I offered to buy his company from him.”

And that’s why he lost his temper and slugged you?”

Gabe shrugged. “More or less. He seemed insulted at the amount I offered him.”

Was it your intent to insult him?”

I offered him more than a fair price for Merris Oil. He just didn’t happen to agree with me on what constituted a fair price.”

And that’s why he hit you?”

I honestly don’t know, Officer Radebaugh. You’d have to ask him.”

Senator Merris is dead.”

Duh. “I’m aware of that,” Gabe replied drily. The cop stared at him, and Gabe didn’t bite on the tactic to get him to babble to fill the silence. The stalemate stretched out for close to a minute, ending only when the door to the interrogation room burst open.

Deputy Green,” Gabe said evenly. Green was a good ol’ boy who’d been on the Vengeance police force ever since Gabe could remember. He’d hassled Gabe plenty as a teen, but then in fairness to Green, he’d hassled the police plenty back then, too. He was a little surprised Green hadn’t been named acting sheriff when Sheriff Peter Burris was found dead next to Senator Merris. The third victim was a young man, recently married, who’d been in town to visit his family. Although rumors were running rampant, no one had figured out yet how the three men—or at least their deaths—were connected.

Dawson,” Green replied as surly as ever.

Is there anything more I can do to help you with your investigation, gentlemen?” Gabe looked back and forth between the two cops, neither of whom would meet his eyes. They wanted him to be guilty so bad they could taste it, but the poor bastards couldn’t figure out for the life of them how to pin the recent murders on him. Particularly since he’d been in Malaysia when his assistant and then the cops called to tell him his ex-wife had been kidnapped. Pretty hard to commit murders when a guy was literally halfway around the world from the victims. As alibis went, it was pretty damned ironclad.

Green finally growled, “Don’t leave town, Mr. Dawson.”

Until my ex-wife is found and released, I’m not going anywhere,” he declared. He’d been divorced from Melinda for nearly a decade, but she’d been his wife. He still felt responsible for her safety. Of course, she would scoff and call him a Neanderthal for thinking he had to take care of the little woman.

But he couldn’t help it. He’d been raised to open doors and hold chairs for ladies, and yes, to look out for their safety. Melinda could just get over it. Although, she pretty much had when she’d divorced him. The old pain of her betrayal of their marriage vows spiked through him again. Damn. He kept thinking it would get better. Hurt less. But it never did.

If you’ve got nothing more for me, gentlemen, I’ve got a company to run.” No harm in reminding them he wasn’t some local punk from the wrong side of the tracks anymore. Gabe stood up and Radebaugh stood hastily as well, knocking over his chair. Deputy Green looked chagrined as the young cop clumsily righted the chair. Amused, Gabe watched Green beat a retreat.

Officer Radebaugh escorted Gabe into the main station, where a dozen messy, paper-laden desks were huddled. Gabe was startled to spot a familiar pair of slender shoulders and strawberry-blond French twist at the far end of the room. What was Willa Merris doing here? Probably getting an update on the investigation into her father’s murder, or maybe answering more questions. Of course, she didn’t get hauled into an interrogation room, and treated like a criminal. That pleasure had been reserved for him, apparently.

The cop opened the front door for him, and Gabe recoiled at the crowd of reporters clustered at the bottom of the steps. “What’s up with the mob?” he asked his escort.

Radebaugh glanced over his shoulder and then muttered under his breath, “They probably got wind of what Willa Merris is up to.”

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