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Prime Suspect

Prime Suspect by Virginia Smith
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Almost two dozen windows in the rear facade of the sprawling antebellum mansion looked out over the pool deck, any one of them potentially concealing a hidden watcher. Darcie Wiley suppressed a shudder at the idea of a pair of eyes spying on her from behind one of those spotless panes of glass. Mrs. Byler may very well be in one of those rooms, watching. From the moment Darcie had arrived at Fairmont Estate that morning, the housekeeper had made no attempt to mask her dislike of Mr. Fairmont's newest employee.

What do I care? This job is only temporary anyway. As soon as I can find something better, I'll get out of her way.

But beneath the brave mask she kept in place, Darcie did care. Mrs. Byler's dislike rubbed at feelings raw from grief, and more than once today tears had blurred Darcie's vision. Like now.

Blinking furiously, she deposited the kitchen trash bag into the garbage bin and then latched the lid. Between her and the mansion's rear patio lay an elaborately landscaped pool deck, bright June sunlight glittering off the crystal water. Lovely but somehow out of place in the backyard of a pre-Civil War era mansion. Behind her, on the other side of the pool deck, stood a long one-story building. The pool house, at least, matched the setting. Care had been taken with the architecture to ensure that regardless of its modern purpose, the building looked like part of the original estate.

A familiar noise sounded in the distance. The high-pitched yap of a dog. Darcie's ears pricked to attention. Within seconds, dozens of other canine voices joined the first. A smile stole across her lips. They sounded exactly like her darling Percy. The famous Fairmont Kennel must be somewhere nearby. Judging by the direction of the barking, perhaps even just behind the pool house.

She glanced at the mansion's windows. Mrs. Byler would accuse her of shirking her duties if she didn't return to the kitchen immediately and put away the silver she'd spent hours polishing that morning. But surely she deserved a short break. And suddenly she really wanted to see the birthplace of the animal that had given Mama so much joy in the last torturous months of her life.

With another glance toward the windows, she headed around the side of the pool house with a quick step. When she rounded the corner, she stopped in surprise. A man was stooped on the ground, his broad back turned her way. She must have made a sound, for he turned. When he caught sight of her, he rose to his feet. For an instant Darcie fought an instinct to run. His muscular build, massive shoulders and intimidating height would give anyone pause, even without the colorful array of tattoos decorating his forearms. But the friendly smile that lit his face halted her.

He spoke in a pleasant baritone as warm as his smile. "Hello."

"Uh, hi." She gave a nervous laugh. "You startled me. I wasn't expecting to find anyone here."

"Another minute and you wouldn't have. I just finished cleaning up." He held up a paintbrush, and she saw that he had been kneeling by a faucet. The grass beneath the spigot was wet and whitewashed, and a paint tray lay upside down within arm's reach. The dogs began barking again, much closer this time. The man cocked his head in that direction. "I've been hearing those yappers all day. Sure sounds like a bunch of 'em."

"I thought so, too," Darcie said. "I was on my way to see them."

She headed toward the corner, making an arc around him. When she drew even with him, he tossed the paintbrush on the pan and fell in beside her.

"Might as well take a look, too. My name's Caleb, by the way."

Suddenly uncomfortable, she avoided his friendly gaze by looking straight ahead. She'd never been entirely comfortable around unknown men. Or ones she knew, either, for that matter. But she couldn't be rude, could she? "I'm Darcie."

When they rounded the corner, she saw immediately why the barking sounded so loud. The kennel, a long single-story building, ran perpendicular to the pool house. On the far side stood a barn-shaped building with garage doors. In a fenced area that ran the length of the kennel, at least a dozen balls of white, fluffy fur frolicked in the grass. A pair of larger dogs dozed in the shade nearby.

Darcie's heart melted at the sight of the puppies that looked so much like her own Percy. "Oh, look at them! How adorable." She hurried over to the fence, delighted when the puppies ran and tumbled toward her. She stuck her fingers through the chain links and was rewarded by a dozen wet tongues vying to greet her with doggy kisses.

"They look like overgrown, furry rats with no tails."

She glanced up to find Caleb staring down at the darlings with something that resembled a perplexed scowl.

"Trust me," she told him, "they're not rats. They're very expensive dogs."

"Hmm." He didn't sound convinced. "Well, at least they're not like that one."

She looked where he pointed. In the fenced yard at the far end of the kennel stood a much larger animal, its eyes fixed on them. A rottweiler.

"This morning Mrs. Byler mentioned something about a guard dog who roamed the estate grounds at night. That must be him." She laughed. "These little babies wouldn't be much use as protection."

With a final caress of soft puppy fur, she rose and looked toward the narrow breezeway that connected the kennel to the pool house, where a door stood cracked open. Maybe an office of some sort? "I wonder if we'd be allowed to hold one." She headed toward the door.

Caleb shook his head as he walked beside her. "You mean people actually pay money to buy a dog the size of a guinea pig?"

Darcie couldn't hold back a chuckle. "They do grow bigger than that."

Once at the door, she knocked softly. Complete silence emanated from inside. No one there. Disappointed, she knocked again, this time a bit harder. Maybe someone deeper inside the pool house would hear her and answer. When her knuckles struck the wood, the door creaked open wider, giving her a glimpse of one corner of the office inside. A pair of shoes and a pile of clothes had been tossed haphazardy on the floor just inside the door. Certainly unlike the tidy interior of the mansion.

And then she noticed that the shoes weren't empty. A man's ankles showed between them and the tan cuffs of a pair of pants. That was a person on the floor inside. Was he hurt?

Breath caught in her chest, Darcie grabbed the door handle and pushed it open farther. The sight that greeted her drove the air from her lungs. A man lay on the floor inside, his neck twisted at an unnatural angle. Unseeing eyes stared toward the ceiling. She knew without checking that he was dead.

"What is it?" Caleb asked from behind her. "Is something wrong?"

She turned to fix a horrified gaze on him. Call an ambulance. Call the police! That's what she wanted to say. Instead, the only sound she could force from a throat as dry as the Sahara was a scream.

In Caleb's opinion, Detective Samuels looked far too young to hold a position of such authority with the Georgia State Police. Most of the investigating officers combing the area around the pool house were at least ten years his senior, maybe twenty. But they all treated the young man with obvious respect as they approached the poolside patio table to report various findings. Samuels acknowledged each report with a nod but never took his eyes from the object of his questioning.

Not that Caleb blamed him. Darcie was an attractive woman, petite, with short, silky dark hair and round eyes that appeared larger than usual in her pixie face. And no wonder, after the shock she'd had.

"I moved to Atlanta on May twenty-second," she told the detective. She sat rigid in her chair and stared across the round patio table at Samuels. "I haven't been able to find work, so Mr. Fairmont was kind enough to offer me a temporary job helping Mrs. Byler get the house ready for an important social event next month. Today was my first day."

During Caleb's questioning, he had explained to the detective that he, too, was a temporary employee, hired to do minor repairs and paint the various outbuildings on the estate before the swanky fundraising dinner Fairmont was hosting for an influential presidential hopeful. His pay from this temporary handyman job would cover his rent this month. The Falsely Accused Support Team, his regular job, hadn't received a new client in a couple of months. The work he and his F.A.S.T. buddies did in helping to clear those falsely accused of a crime was important but not very regular.

"Humph." Mrs. Byler, the fourth person seated at the table with Darcie, Caleb and the detective, drew herself up, deep suspicion etched into her features.

Samuels turned his attention on her. "Do you disagree with Ms. Wiley's statement?"

Mrs. Byler's not inconsiderable girth more than filled the patio chair. "All I know is Mr. Fairmont informed me on Friday that there'd be a new girl starting today to help me get the house ready for the dinner. I never had a say in the matter, even though I've managed this house for nearly fifteen years." She cast a tight-lipped glance toward Darcie. "You'd think I'd be given the opportunity to interview applicants."

Samuels turned back to Darcie. "Odd that he would hire a temporary maid without getting input from the permanent housekeeper. Did you know Richard Fairmont before you applied for this job?"

A deep flush colored Darcie's face. Interesting. Caleb saw the detective's eyes narrow as he made note of the girl's discomfort.

"I, uh.. " She cleared her throat and stared at the table in front of her. "I've never met him in person, but he is a family friend. He knew my." Her throat moved as she swallowed. "My mother. She passed away four months ago."

Sympathy washed over Caleb. That explained the deep sorrow he had sensed hovering behind the smile. Lord, comfort her. She needs Your touch.

"My condolences." Samuels's smile was plastic and not at all sympathetic.

Mrs. Byler looked ready to burst. She drew herself upright, her full lips pressed into near nonexistence. "And what were you doing at the kennel, I ask you?" She leveled an accusing glance on Darcie. "You had no business there."

"I was—" Darcie's throat moved as she swallowed "—taking out the trash, and I heard the dogs barking. I wanted to see the puppies."

Mrs. Byler issued another humph. "While you should have been working."

For some reason he didn't take the time to explore, Caleb rose to Darcie's defense. "We weren't there more than a minute or two."

The grateful smile she flashed in his direction sent a wave of warmth through him.

Subdued thuds interrupted the tension around the table, and Caleb turned to see a thin, elegantly dressed woman approach from the vicinity of the main house, a business-suited man at her side. Long legs extended beneath a slender beige skirt and matching jacket. An emerald necklace resting across the woman's collarbone against a blindingly white silk blouse sparkled in the afternoon sunlight, and green rays glinted off the deep green studs in her earlobes. When she extended a hand toward the detective, Caleb noticed a matching emerald ring. Whoever this lady was, she enjoyed showing off her obviously expensive jewelry.

"Olivia Fairmont," she told the detective as she allowed him to shake her hand. "My husband and I live here." An elegant hand swept the air toward the mansion. "And this is my husband's financial manager, Aaron Mitchell."

Samuels rose from his seat to shake their hands. Caleb and the women did likewise. The wife of Richard Fairmont. That explained the jewelry. Mitchell, who appeared to be in his late thirties, looked Caleb directly in the eye as he gripped his hand in a firm handshake.

Samuels took the lead, gesturing toward Caleb and Darcie as he spoke. "I assume you know Mr. Buchanan and Ms.

Wiley?"

"I don't believe I've made Mr. Buchanan's acquaintance." The smile Mrs. Fairmont directed toward Caleb was polite, but it became frigid when she turned to Darcie. "Of course I know Ms. Wiley. Or, at least, I know of her."

Caleb was stunned at the sudden hostility in the woman's voice. Darcie blanched, her eyes going rounder in her face.

Samuels's sharp gaze didn't fail to notice the nuances of the meeting. His eyebrows rose ever so slightly. "Ms. Wiley just informed me that your husband gave her a temporary job, which she started this morning."

Mrs. Fairmont tore her icy stare away from Darcie and gave a brisk nod. "He informed me of his decision over the weekend, before he left on his business trip."

The detective spoke pleasantly. "Ms. Wiley mentioned that your husband is a family friend."

Disagreement blasted from the elegant lips. "Friend? I wouldn't classify the relationship as friendship. My husband employed her uncle for several years, until the man embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from our personal investments. Why he felt any desire to hire a thief's niece, I can't imagine."

Samuels's eyes widened at the revelation. A short, uncomfortable silence followed, during which Darcie's flush deepened, along with Caleb's desire to defend her. So that was the source of Mrs. Fairmont's dislike. It was nothing to do with Darcie, but with her uncle. Caleb was attuned to the small, still voice that he recognized as being the Lord's. And right now that voice told him Darcie Wiley needed his help. If only he knew how.

Mitchell broke the awkward silence. "Mr. Fairmont is out of town until Friday, but I can verify that he did hire Ms. Wiley last week. He asked me to handle the paperwork. Beyond that." He shrugged.

Darcie shot the man a quick, grateful smile that disappeared when Samuels addressed her again.

"And how well did you know the victim, Ms. Wiley?"

She shook her head. "Not at all. I don't even know who he is. I've never seen him…before." Her eyes squeezed shut, and Caleb knew she was once again seeing the gruesome sight of the man's body.

"His name is Jason Lewis," Mrs. Fairmont said. "He's my kennel manager."

"Kennel manager?"

"He's managed my breeding business for two years. I breed an exclusive bloodline of designer dogs. Maltipoms."

"I'm sorry." The detective shook his head. "I don't know much about dog breeds. What is a Maltipom?"

"It's not a breed." One slender hand rose to gesture in the air as she spoke. The emerald ring winked in the sunlight. "It's a hybrid of Maltese and Pomeranian."

The names meant nothing to Caleb, but then again, the stuff he knew about dogs could fit on a three-by-five card. The list would start with I prefer cats.

"I'm sure I don't know what business anyone would have in Jason's office." Mrs. Fairmont shot an accusing gaze toward Darcie.

"Perhaps a tryst," said Mrs. Byler, who hovered near her employer. She stared through narrowed eyes at Darcie, whose spine stiffened at her words.

Her chin rose. "I only wanted to see the puppies."

"I can verify that," Caleb said, glad to be able to offer a word in her defense. "I was with her. We found the body together."

"Ah." Mrs. Fairmont turned a friendlier gaze toward him. "How upsetting for you. For all of us. Detective, do you have any idea what happened? Was it a break-in, a robbery?" A thought occurred to her, and she inhaled a quick breath. "Are we in danger?"

Harlequin; April 2013
224 pages; ISBN 9781460310762
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Prime Suspect
Author: Virginia Smith
 
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