CHAPTER ONE

     Darby’s eyes darted around the table, checking and rechecking the two place settings.  The placemats were exactly an inch from the beveled edge of the glass top.  Wine glasses and water goblets were precisely placed.  Utensils, hand-polished and sparkling, were laid out with precision.  She lit the three candles, symmetrically arranged in descending order and then crouched down to make sure the flames flickered at exactly the correct height.

     The oven timer chimed.  Darby tucked her blonde ponytail into the collar of her shirt, stuck a potholder on one hand and eased open the oven door.  The smell of fresh yeast rolls escaped on a rush of hot air.  Lifting the pan out of the oven, she placed it on a trivet next to the cook top on the center island. 

     The kitchen, the entire house in fact, was immaculate to the point of being austere.  Like most homes in the exclusive enclave of Sewell’s Point on Florida’s Treasure Coast, the house had a large, open floor plan with picturesque views of the intracoastal.  Hutchinson Island, a thin strip of barrier island, separated Sewell’s Point from the Atlantic Ocean.  It served a more important purpose, buffering the estate homes from the ravages of a direct hit from the hurricanes that roared in from time to time. 

     Of the five bedrooms, two had been converted into home offices.  The master suite was spacious and the decorator had selected a Havana-style décor for the room.  It was all muted greens, distressed wood, glass and iron.  The only personal item was an eight-by-ten print of the formal engagement portrait that had appeared in the paper nearly fourteen months earlier. 

     Leaving the rolls to cool, Darby walked through the combination living room-dining room, down the long, narrow hallway.  She stopped to absently pluck a slightly wilted petal from one of three dozen roses that had been delivered the day before.  She swallowed a wave of nausea as the sweet, heavy perfume of the flowers surrounding her.  Normally she enjoyed the scent of fresh flowers but ever since becoming pregnant, she’d found the odor revolting.

     Turning the knob, she opened the door adjacent to the master suite and smiled.  A soft, pastel mural with fairies and dragonflies had been painted earlier that day and this was the first chance she’d had to admire the artwork.  It was perfect.  Eventually, she’d have the remaining white walls painted some shade of pink.  Or maybe green.  She needed to make up her mind.  The baby wasn’t due for another month.  Not much time left to procrastinate.

     Speaking of time, she glanced down at her watch as she closed the door to the as-yet unfurnished room and went back to the kitchen.  A rather uncooperative schnauzer had thrown her schedule off, so she had to keep moving in order to get dinner on the table at nine P.M. sharp.  The keep moving part was proving to be difficult since her belly had expanded.  Carrying around the extra weight and girth, coupled with the long hours she worked as a vet, Darby was finding it a challenge to juggle everything that had to get done.

     Taking the fresh asparagus from the refrigerator, she gently broke off the woody ends.  Spreading the pencil-thin tips in a single layer in the dish, she chopped garlic, added that and some salt and pepper, and then tossed the vegetables with olive oil before placing them in the oven to roast.  It wasn’t until she lifted the lid on the double boiler that she realized she’d forgotten to turn the heat down on the burner.  A good quarter of an inch of hollandaise sauce was scorched and crusted onto the bottom of the pot.  “Beyond saving,” she muttered.

     Her heart rate increased as she furiously worked to wash and dry the pan, and then hang it back on the gourmet rack suspended from the ceiling.  Darby used a half dozen paper towels to dry and polish the basin of the sink.  At eight fifty-six, she dressed the salad and placed it on the kitchen table.  Pulling a bottle of Alsatian Sélection des Grains Nobles from the chiller, she filled the Barona wine cooler with ice, then set it on the table next to the salad bowl.

     At one minute before the hour, she heard the mechanical hum of the electric garage door opening.  Darby plated the poached salmon and arranged lemon slices in a semi-circle around the platter.  Taking the potatoes from the rarely used microwave, she placed them on a small serving dish, then reached for the breadbasket on her fourth trip from the table.  She tossed rolls in as she went to retrieve the asparagus.

     The minute she heard the door slam, she felt that sick, knot of dread lodge in her throat.  She turned and did one more visual scan of the table.  Perfect.  Just the way he wanted it.

Plastering a smile on her face as she pulled the elastic tie from her hair before giving it a fingertip fluff, she turned, folded her hands over the bulge of her stomach in an almost protective gesture then waited for him to come through the garage entrance.

     Sean Grisom was tall, muscular, handsome and smart.  Light brown hair framed his darkly tanned skin.  His shoulders were broad without being overly muscled.  Thanks to good genes, he had a trim frame built for the designer clothing he favored.  As usual, he didn’t have a hair out of place. 

     That was one of the things that Darby noticed about him at their initial meeting.  He’d walked into her clinic, carrying a stray dog he’d found injured on the side of the road, and even under those circumstances, he hadn’t had so much as speck of blood or dirt on him.  When he asked for her help, his voice was deep and smooth but it was his eyes that had melted her on the spot.  When Sean Grisom looked at you, he was totally engaged.  As if there wasn’t another person on the planet.  He was generous, too.  Promising to pay for whatever treatment the dog needed if she would just help him before the poor mutt died from his injuries. 

     To an animal lover like Darby, hearing the concern in his deep, sensual voice was payment enough.  Of course she treated the dog.  Some jerk had shot the poor thing with a BB gun.  The surgery was fairly simple and when she was finished, she was surprised to see that Sean had stayed, waiting patiently on news of a dog that wasn’t even his.  The next thing she knew, they were having dinner.  Six weeks later, they were married.

     “You worked late again.”  Sean said.

     His voice was still deep but instead of smooth, it was laced with thinly veiled censure.  Faux concern etched between his brows.  A little over a year into the marriage and Darby knew him well enough to know that everything about this man was calculated and played precisely for whomever his audience happened to be at that moment in time.

     Maintaining eye contact, she shrugged.  “I had a problem patient but I was only there a little late.”  Ten minutes talking to a frightened little girl about her old dog’s death.  A few minutes well spent as far as Darby was concerned.  Except Sean wouldn’t see it that way.  Nobody should be more important to her than her husband.

     “We’ve talked about this,” Sean kissed her cheek as he placed his hand on her belly.  “You’re pregnant, Darby.  It’s time you stopped working.  That’s my child you’re stressing.”

     “Pregnant, not disabled,” she teased, hoping to ease the tension as she moved away from him to get the asparagus before they lost their crunch.  “Would you open the wine, please?”

     Sean went to the table and uncorked the bottle with practiced finesse.  “Have some with me.”

     “I shouldn’t,” she said, adding the vegetable dish to the table.

     “One glass a week,” Sean countered, reciting the passage he’d read in one of her pregnancy primers. 

     She shook her head.  “I had a glass at the restaurant two days ago, remember?  Besides, I’m tired and wine would put me right to sleep.”

     “You’re tired because you stand on your feet all day taking care of pampered pets when you should be here, at home.”

     What could she say?  They’d had this argument many times since she’d found out she was pregnant.  It always ended the same way – a standoff.  While she was happy about the baby, the pregnancy was unexpected.  She’d been religious in taking her birth control pills but apparently she was part of the point-zero-one percent exception that proved the rule.  Giving up her veterinary practice would mean giving up the only piece of herself she had left. 

     “I’ll get a second wind,” she promised as she sat in her usual chair and unfolded her napkin.  “How are things at the restaurant tonight?”

     Sean’s eyes narrowed.  “Is that some sort of polite way of pointing out that your practice is thriving while my business is stagnant?”

     “Of course not,” she said calmly, taking his plate to serve him so it would be ready when he sat down to join her.  “I was just making conversation.”

     “A new restaurant takes time to build a clientele.”

     “I understand that.”  Darby placed a portion of fish on his plate.

     “It’s going to take time.”

     She added vegetables and a potato.  “It’ll be a success.”

     He glared at her.  “Don’t patronize me, Darby.  I’ve got serious cash flow problems.  Unlike you, I can’t serve my guests kibbles and bits.”

     She drew in a breath and said mildly, “I’d be happy to write another check.”  Her trust fund was just sitting there.  She didn’t begrudge him the seed money for the restaurant.

     “I need more than your monthly draw.  Almost all of my vendors have upped their prices, some doubled, tripled the prices they were charging a few weeks ago.”  He began to pace.  “If this guy I’m meeting in New York in the morning doesn’t come through, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep the doors open for more than a month or so.”

     “You don’t have to go to New York with your hat in your hand, Sean.  I can ask my father to increase my allotment.”

     “Right,” he spat, standing perfectly still as his fingers went white where he gripped the back of his chair.  “Run to daddy and tell him I can’t support you.”

     “It’s my money, Sean,” she said as she reached out to pat his arm with her hand.  “He’s just the trustee and anyway, my father understands a new business requires cash.  He knows there are times when you have to spend it to make it.  And it is only money.  He’ll understand.  He’s a very-”

     It took a second for Darby’s brain to put it all together.  Her cheek was on fire.  She was on the ground, the chair teetering on top of her.  The back of her head hurt where she’d hit the tile floor.  As if in slow motion, she looked up in time to see Sean lifting the edge of the table. 

     Scrambling to her knees, she skidded along the floor as plates and food rained down on top of her.  Shards of glass pelted her skin like a thousand tiny pebbles as the tabletop crashed down shattering all around her.  Darby was vaguely aware of screaming as she curled into a fetal position when Sean yanked the chair off her and flung it through the air.  It landed with a thud against the back of the family room sofa. 

     Then he was standing over her, his feet planted on either side of her body.  He began thrashing her with something – the placemat, maybe.  All she knew was each successive snap of fabric bit her through her clothing.

     “You stupid, stupid bitch!”  Sean yelled.

     “Sean!” she called, wrapping her arms around her belly as the beating continued.  “I’m sorry.  Stop!”

She pleaded with him, whimpering over and over.  There was no response in his vacant eyes as they narrowed while he continued to thrash at her torso. 

     Then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. 

     Sean stepped away, tossed the napkin in the pile of food and debris, and then straightened his tie and smoothed his hair.

Darby remained cowering in the corner, following his every move like the trapped animal she was.  When he reached for her, she flinched.  Annoyance and disbelief were clearly painted on his features. 

“Take my hand.”

Hesitating for only a second, she reluctantly took the hand he offered.  Gently, he helped her to her feet and made sure she didn’t lose her footing or cut herself on the glass and food strewn all over the alcove.  Sean circled her in his arms and forced her cheek to rest against his chest.  She felt his heartbeat.  It was even and rhythmic.  If she didn’t know better, she’d have thought she’d imagined the whole ugly scene. 

The feel of his hand stroking her hair as he kissed the top of her head made her skin crawl but she didn’t dare pull away.  Not when she was this vulnerable.  Not when one well-placed punch could harm or kill her unborn baby. 

“I forgive you,” Sean said.

     “W-what?”

     Bracketing her shoulders in his hands, he set her back a foot or so and flashed her a brilliant smile.  “It’s okay,” he said, using his fingertip to brush a strand of hair from her forehead.  “I know you didn’t do it on purpose.”

     “D-do what?”

     “Burn the hollandaise.”  His finger hooked beneath her chin and he pushed her face up so their eyes met.  “I smelled it the minute I walked into the kitchen.  You should know better than to try to hide things from me, Darby.  That’s not how a marriage works.  Now, come help me finish packing.  I have to stop by the restaurant to pick up Roxanne on my way to the airport.”

     Darby was fairly sure he was taking Roxanne along for more than just assistance.  She was also well beyond caring.  As far as Darby was concerned, Roxanne was welcome to him.

“I think taking my assistant along will impress this guy.  Send the right message, you know?  After all, the key to this kind of deal is making the other guy think you’re doing him a favor by letting him get in on the ground floor.”

*

An hour later, sobbing, Darby dialed the phone, hiccupping as she struggled to speak.  “M-mom?”

     “Darby, honey, what’s wrong?  Is it the baby?” her mother asked.  “Will!  Pick up the extension.  Something’s wrong with Darby and the baby.”

     Then her dad was on the line.  “Did you call your doctor?”

     “Not . . . the  . . . baby.”  She hugged her belly protectively.  “It’s Sean.”

     “Something happened to Sean?  Is he hurt?”

     “No, mom.  He . . . he hit me.”

     “That son of a bitch,” her dad said.  “Where is he now?”

     She could almost imagine her father’s gritted teeth and see his blue eyes narrowed with fury.  “Gone.  Business trip.”

     “I’m coming right over,” her dad insisted.

     “No,” Darby said, swiping at her tears with the back of her hand.  “Sean won’t be back until tomorrow. I’m going to get organized and pack.  Then, if it’s okay with you two, I’ll come over first thing in the morning.”

     “If it’s okay?” her mother parroted.  “Don’t be silly.  You never have to ask to come home, honey.  I’ll come over to help you.”

     “Thanks, mom, but I just need some time to sort through some stuff.”      And clean up.

“Yeah?  What if the bastard comes back?” her father demanded.  “What then?  Has he done this before?  Is that why you’ve been avoiding us the past few months?  You need to have him arrested.  Now.  Tonight.”

     Darby pressed two fingers to her temple.  The peppering of questions was precisely why she wanted some time by herself.  “No, he’s never hit me before.”  That much was kind of true. If you didn’t count the slaps or back-handed blow-ups. “Don’t worry.  He won’t come back.  He’s already on his way to the airport.”

     “How can you know that?”

     “He’s got an early meeting with a potential investor in New York.” And Roxanne in his bed. “He won’t bail on that kind of opportunity.  The restaurant needs an infusion of cash.”

     “I’ve seen the bank statements, Darby,” her father said with unfiltered disdain.  “You’ve been infusing a lot of cash into that place.  What’s he been doing with all of it?  Forget it.  I don’t really give a damn.  Screw Sean.  Wait until I get my hands on that piece of crap.  He won’t need any money where he’s going.”

     “Calm down,” her mother inserted.  “The last thing Darby and that baby need right now is you going off picking a fight with a man less than half your age.  Honey, what can we do?”

     “You’re doing it.  I’ll come by first thing in the morning.  Before work, if that’s okay?”

     “Would you stop asking?” her mother admonished.  “This is your home.”

     “Thanks.”

“Are you sure you’re okay, Darby?  What about the baby?  Maybe we should take you to the ER just to make sure.”

“I’m okay.  We’re okay.”

“Not if he hit you.”

“He just slapped me,” she reasoned, the excuse sounding stupid even to her own ears.

“Just?” her father scoffed. “Just slapped you?” 

She massaged the back of her neck.  “I wasn’t anything major.  Besides, I’d know if there was anything wrong with the baby.  Think about it for a minute, I’m a vet.  When your patients can’t talk, you develop x-ray hands.”

She heard her father let out a long breath.  “Well, I can’t think about anything but that creep of a husband you’ve got.  What kind of man hits his wife?  His pregnant wife?”

“It’s over now.”  Darby breathed in deeply.  Feeling discomfort in her chest, she realized she’d cried hard enough to make her ribcage sore. 

“It’s far from over,” her father countered.  “I want to know exactly what that bastard did to you.”

“I’m totally exhausted right now but I promise to tell you everything in the morning.  Promise.  I should be there before seven.”

     “Darby?” her mother asked, her voice so soft and gentle that Darby felt warm tears well in her eyes.  “We love you, honey.”

     “I know.”

*

     Out of sheer exhaustion, Darby managed a few hours of fitful sleep before the alarm blared her awake at 5:45.  Her back ached from sweeping more than two dozen dustpans full of glass-contaminated food and china from the floor, then depositing it in the trash can in the garage.  Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she’s realized it was a stupid thing to do.  But the realization couldn’t overcome the automatic reaction to eradicate all evidence of the fight.  She didn’t do it for Sean.  No, on the off chance that her parents or an old friend dropped by, she didn’t want to explain why the walls were splattered with salmon. 

     Covering for Sean had become a habit.  A very bad one.  As she tossed off the comforter she’d never really liked, she vowed it was the last time she’d make excuses for him.  When she entered the adjacent bath and looked at herself in the mirror, she discovered she was smiling for the first time in, well, forever.

     Rubbing her eyes, then her cheeks, she asked herself, “How did you turn into this person?”  Holding her hair in a makeshift ponytail, she brushed her teeth, and then splashed a handful of water in her mouth.  After washing her face, she tossed her nightshirt into the hamper and got the pair of scrubs she’d set out the night before. 

     After applying just a hint of make-up, she closed her cosmetic case and added that to the suitcase before zipping it shut.  It didn’t make much sense to pack all her clothes. Most of them didn’t fit right now, so she’d worry about that later.  When she applied for the restraining order she could get the judge, or magistrate, or whatever you called them, to give her some time alone at the house to get the rest of her stuff.  But for now, for today, she was content take just what she needed for a week.  By then, Sean would be back, he’d be served with the restraining order and she’d be on her way to being divorced.

     The word was enough to send a shiver down her spine.  No, she didn’t – couldn’t – stay married to Sean.  But she’d never failed at anything before.  Never.

     Darby knew enough to know that when it came to abuse, past behavior was the best predictor of future behavior.  Given that Sean was getting worse by the day, counseling wasn’t a realistic solution.  No, she had to get out now.  Before he killed them both.

After loading two suitcases into the back of her Grand Cherokee, she backed her car out of the driveway.  Automatically she reached for the clicker attached to the passenger seat visor and pressed the button.  The door descended about two feet before coming to a grinding halt.  Then it bounced as the motor continued to whirl.

     Sighing heavily, Darby got out of the car to see what was causing the malfunction.  It took a minute, but she finally spotted a length of telephone wire looped around one of the slats.  “Just what I need,” she grumbled as she stood on tiptoe, trying to slap the wire out of the way.  Darby gave up after three tries. 

     Like the house, the three-car garage was neat as a pin.  For once, Sean’s insistence on order in all things worked to her advantage.  The step stool was tucked between the shelving and the hot water heater.  Even knowing that Sean wouldn’t have an opportunity to react to any scuffmarks, Darby lifted the awkwardly shaped stool and maneuvered it over to the garage door.  Once she had some height, it was simple to dislodge the cord.  As designed, a safety feature of the door sent it backward, crawling up and along the ceiling.  The phone cord disappeared in the void between the ceiling and the door.  Oh well, she thought as she walked back to her idling car.  Sean would take care of it.  He didn’t let things like strangely dangling cords – especially ones that impeded the garage door from working properly - go unattended.

     The sun was just bleeding over the horizon as she drove the fifteen short miles to Palm City, the area where her family had owned a home since the 1890s.  While the location hadn’t changed, the homes certainly had.  Her however-many-greats grandparents had built a modest, single-story wood frame dwelling smack in the middle of the original Hayes orange grove. 

     As the modest grove grew and expanded, so did the size and expanse of the home.  She smiled with equal measures of respect and pride as she passed the remains of that first homestead.  The only reason part of it was still standing was because of the adjacent cemetery.  As was common practice until the mid-1970s, all Hayes’s were entombed on that small strip of land.  Part of the deal when the groves were sold off to a developer was that the family cemetery would be fenced and appropriately maintained.  He’d kept his word.

     Traffic was light as she crossed the bridge over the St. Lucie River.  The fresh scent of the ocean air dissipated under the weight of diesel fumes wafting up from the marinas below.  Once upon a time in the not so distant past, all of the land on Monterey from Willoughby Road west to belonged to the Hayes family.  Little by little, as snowbirds migrated from the north and population swelled up from the south, the groves had been sold off, leveled and replaced by gated communities, indistinguishable stucco homes, strip malls and golf courses.

     Martin County was in transition.  More building, more families, less agriculture. 

     Darby suspected her father held on to one modest grove near Indiantown for sentimental reasons.  He’d grown up working the groves.  It was more than an exercise in nepotism.  William Hayes loved the business.  The scent of oranges blossoms in bloom; the occasional flurry of activity to fend off an unexpected frost; the rugged machinery weaving through the rows slicing off the ripe fruit to send it off to market.

     Though they ever said it, Darby suspected her parents had thrown themselves into the business because they were married for nearly twenty years before Darby came along.  Grace Hayes was over forty when she had Darby.  William was fifty-one at the time. 

     As she approached the small, paved driveway leading to her parents’ home, she saw several fire trucks parked at angles blocking traffic in both directions.  Automatically, Darby looked at the sky above the tree line, expecting to see a plume of dark smoke.  Nothing.  The sky was clear and blue save for a few puffy white clouds rolling in off the ocean.

     Placing the car in park, much to the chagrin of the driver behind her, Darby unhooked her seatbelt and wriggled out of the car.  The minute her feet hit the pavement, she did her best to run at the same pace as her rapid heartbeat.

     As she neared the fire trucks, she caught sight of an ambulance previously obscured, parked on the west side, its doors open.  A man sat on the fender, sucking oxygen through a clear plastic mask affixed to his face.

     Holding her stomach to lessen the effects of her vigorous movements, Darby jogged over to the ambulance.

     “You a doc?” the EMT asked, his fingers pressed to the pulse point of the police officer’s wrist.

     “Vet,” she answered.  “What happened?” she asked, turning her head and getting on tiptoes in a futile attempt to see the house through the thick shrubbery vining through the six-foot iron fence.

     “Carbon monoxide,” the EMT explained.  “Harry, here, got a few whiffs.  The oxygen is just precautionary.”

     Darby’s mind was spinning.  Ignoring everything but the dread gripping her chest, she pivoted on the balls of her feet and started toward the house.  She got all of maybe ten feet when a tall, lanky patrolman held up his hand.

     “Sorry, ma’am.  This is-”

     “My parents’ house,” she finished, watching him blanche slightly.  “What’s happened?”

     Crooking his thumb behind him, he said, “I’ve got to radio the sergeant.  Just a minute.”

     The patrolman turned to his side and whispered muffled words into the microphone clipped to the shoulder of his beige uniform shirt. 

     “He’ll be right here,” the patrolman said.  “Why don’t you come over here.  Wait in the shade,” he suggested, pointing her toward a small area under a canopy of palm fronds. 

     Just as she took her first step, four men dressed in street clothes filed past her, pushing gurneys.  The fact that they were in no particular hurry, and that white body bags were neatly folded atop each gurney confirmed her worst fears.

     Darby felt her knees buckle, then everything went fuzzy.

     As if viewing the scene from underwater, Darby felt the patrolman lift her up and carry her to the ambulance.  Gently, she was placed on a stretcher and the EMT who’d been working on the officer turned his attention on to her.  Though her head was spinning, she brushed his hands away.

     “I’m fine.”

     “You’re at risk for shock,” the EMT insisted.  “Your BP is too low.  We’ve got to get you to the hospital.”

     “But my parents.  Are they . . . are they?”

     “I’ll ask one of the officers to follow us to the ER.”  He gently lifted her arm and secured a blood pressure cuff, then attached leads to her chest to monitor her heart.  The sirens came on at the same time he reached beneath her to secure a fetal monitor around her abdomen. 

     “I’m Pete,” he said as he fiddled with the myriad machines in the ambulance.

     “Darby,” she said, barely feeling the warmth of tears sliding down her cheeks. 

     The EMT offered a weak smile as he donned a stethoscope and listened to first her heart, and then pressed the single head stethoscope at various places on her bulging stomach.  “What’s your OB’s name?”

     “Meredith Price.  Why?  Is there a problem?”

     He shook his head and patted her hand.  “Not that I can see, except for those,” he said, pointing to the small red welts on her side.  “Look a little like hives.  Do you have any allergies?  Eat anything new or different?”

     Out of sheer habit, she lied, shaking her head.

     “Said you were a vet, right?” he asked rhetorically.  “Any chance something at work might have caused an allergic reaction?”

     “Not sure.”  The truth lingered on the tip of her tongue.  The taste was bitter but it was far overshadowed by concern for the fate of her family.  “My parents?” she pressed.

     The ambulance came to an abrupt halt outside the emergency room of Martin Memorial North.  After being rolled into an exam area, it was more than three frustrating hours before a representative from the Martin County Sherriff’s office poked his head through the flimsy curtain.

     “Mrs. Grisom?”

     “Darby Hayes Grisom,” she both corrected and replied as she leveraged herself up on the bed with her elbows.

     “I’m Sergeant Joe Ciminelli.  Is there anyone here with you?”

     “No, my husband is on his way home from a business trip.  His flight landed a little more than an hour ago.”

     The sergeant’s brow furrowed.  He ran his palm over his bald head, then hooked his hand at the back of his neck.  His pale brown eyes were somber and fixed on a point just above her head.

     “Is there anyone who could come to be with you?”

     Darby’s whole body was stiff, braced for whatever news he seemed so reluctant to deliver.  “No.  Now, please tell me what happened to my parents.”

     “I’m afraid there was an accident.”

     Accident?  What kind of accident kills two people?  “Excuse me?”

     Sergeant Ciminelli moistened his forefinger, then flipped through the small notebook he’d pulled from his breast pocket.  “I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Grisom, but your parents passed away in their home sometime during the night.”

     “How?”

     “All indications are that the on-off switch on their car was left in the on position.  Carbon monoxide leaked into the home.”

     “Impossible,” Darby said, emphatically shaking her head.

     “Ma’am,” the sergeant began, his tone sympathetic, “I know this is a terrible shock, but tests conducted inside of the home confirmed a high concentration of carbon monoxide.  Unfortunately, it’s a very deadly gas.  Odorless, colorless.  I know this probably isn’t much of a consolation, but in most cases, the victims fall asleep, then succumb to the fumes.”

     Darby raised her hands, waving away his words.  “I mean it’s impossible that my father would have left his car running.   He checked things like that.  He was very cautious. Nothing was ever neglected.  Were you in the house?

The officer shrugged his muscular shoulders.

“Did you see a single thing in need of attention?  He washed the range hood every single day, for god’s sake. This wasn’t an accident.  He was a detail person.  Practically anal about safety.  He would not have left his car running in the garage.”

     He reached for the small box of tissues and handed her one.  Darby looked down at it as if he’d handed her a foreign object.  She only vaguely realized she was crying.  Tears of sorrow, yes, but salted with disbelief and frustration.  “There has to be some sort of mistake.  Something you missed.”

     “Your parent’s neighbor was walking her dog and heard the engine running.  She used her spare key to enter the house and, well, then she called police.  She said your parents were lying comfortably in their bed.”

“Something is wrong,” Darby insisted.

“I’m very sorry, Mrs. Grisom.  There was no sign of a break-in.  And now the medical examiner has confirmed the cause of death with blood samples taken from the dec- from your parents.”

     The sword of certainty stabbed through her.  “My husband killed them.  He knew the garage access code.  He must have taken a later flight or something.”

     “Excuse me?”

     “It had to be Sean.”  She dropped her head, closing her eyes as hot tears fell freely.  Her whole body shuddered as sobs wracked her body.  Darby embraced her belly, holding on to the baby for dear life.  Scrambled, jumbled thoughts raced through her head in a fragmented marathon. Childhood memories.  Her mother’s face; the feel of her father holding her hand as they walked along the beach; the smell of her mother’s perfume; the joy in their eyes when she’d told them they were going to be grandparents.  Other memories, too.  Like the first time she’d dropped by the restaurant, unseen and unheard as she watched her husband stroke his fingertips along Roxanne’s throat.  And the bad, ugly ones.  Sean losing his temper time and time again.  The cold, emotionless look in his eyes before he exploded in anger.  Things being flung against the walls.  Finding her beloved German Sheppard dead in the parking lot of her clinic.  Suspecting while deluding herself into believing Sean had nothing to do with the dog’s death. The coincidence was just too great.  The night before she’d found the dog, Sean had suggested she get rid of it.  According to him, too much of her time was spent walking and caring for the dog.  They’d argued to a standoff.  The dog was dead less than a day later.

     The similarity was too great.  As much as she didn’t want it to be true, it made sense.  Brushing the tears with the backs of her hands, Darby couldn’t look at the officer as she quietly said, “My husband killed them.”

     “It was an unfortunate accident, Mrs. Grisom.  Besides, I thought you said your husband was out of town.”

     “He was.  But he did this.  I know it.”  Fueled by grief, conviction, and a sense of security due to her surroundings, she began to open up to the officer.  “Sean is a very possessive man.  We had a fight last night and he-”

     “Apologized.”

     Darby’s head whipped up and her heart stopped as she saw Sean walk into the room.  Dropping his hang-up bag in the corner, he came over and gathered her stiff body in his arms.

     “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry.”  He dusted her head and face with kisses.  “I should have been here for you.  I’m so sorry this happened when I was away.”

     Planting her hands on his chest, Darby shoved him away.  The scene seemed to intrigue the officer, but Darby didn’t care.  For all his polish, Sean was a murderer.  She saw that truth with absolute clarity.

     “Get him out of here!”

     “Darby -”

     “Mrs. Grisom,” Sergeant Ciminelli began.  “I realize you’re upset.”

     “He killed my family,” she said in a deadly calm tone. 

     Sean backed away from the bed.  As he did, he reached into the pocket of his suit coat and produced two rumpled boarding passes.  “I’ve been in New York since yesterday evening.”  He patted his other pockets, then pulled a folded slip of paper from one and a business card from another.  “This is my hotel receipt and the name of the gentleman I met for breakfast.”

     “See what I mean?  Darby asked.  “Who but a guilty man would carry his alibis around in his pockets?”

     “Let’s step into the hallway,” Sean suggested, placing his arm around the shoulder of the officer. 

     Darby slammed her head against the pillow and again hot tears welled in her eyes.  Grabbing the call button, she pressed it over and over until a petite and clearly irritated nurse entered the room.  In the split second the curtain was drawn back, Darby saw Sean and the sergeant sharing a handshake.

     “Yes?” the nurse asked as she gave cursory glances to the machines tethering Darby to the bed.

     “I need a phone.”

     “We don’t allow telephones in the rooms.  Is there someone I can call for you?”

     “Yes.  I need the police.”

     The nurse blinked, then peered back over her shoulder as she pushed apart the curtain.  “Officer?”

     “Not him,” Darby cried.  Too late.

     Sean and the officer returned.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the sergeant was totally charmed by Sean.  The sergeant took up a position at the end of her bed next to the nurse while Sean moved to the head and draped his arm around her shoulders.  “I was just explaining your condition to the policeman.”  His fingers dug into the flesh at her shoulder.

     Ciminelli smiled understandingly.  “I’ve got three kids myself.  My wife went a little hormonal with each one.  She had all sorts of weird thoughts and cravings.  Got so I was afraid to walk in the door after my shift.  Never knew what was going to set her off.”

     “Darby’s normally very rational,” Sean said, brushing a kiss to her temple.  “Don’t you have something to say to the officer, sweetheart?”

     Darby pressed her lips tight. 

Sean squeezed her shoulder harder.  “Darby, the officer checked.  He spoke directly with Roxanne.”

     “Roxanne would lie for you,” She whispered under her breath.

     Sean sighed heavily.  “Sweetheart, I thought you might still be . . . confused, so I made sure the officer called the airline to verify that I was on the flight.  The hotel verified that I checked in and even told the officer what I ordered from room service and when it was delivered.  The investor I was meeting as well as the restaurant staff verified that I attended the meeting.  So, don’t you think it’s time for you to apologize to the officer for making extra work for him?”

     Darby felt defeated.  “I’m sorry.”

     “Don’t give it a thought, Mrs. Grisom.  I know it was just the grief and the hormones talking.  I gave your husband everything you’ll need to make the, um, final arrangements for your parents.”

     “Thank you.”

     The nurse followed Ciminelli out of the room.  Darby braced herself, fully expecting to suffer the wrath of Sean.  Instead, he was just looking at her as he arranged the hair framing her face. 

     “I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I always liked your parents, he whispered against her ear.”

     Ummmm.”

     Then calmly and quietly he added, “If you hadn’t called them, I never would have been forced to kill them.”