Dangerous Affairs

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The knife had obviously been there a long time, nestled in the dust bunnies and wood shavings between the walls, in the space one of the two mahogany doors that separated the Victorian-style living room from the Brady Bunch décor of the family room usually slid back into. And it was covered with blood.

Abby Langford leaned the broom she’d used to fish out the knife against the wall, then picked the knife off the floor and studied it. Despite the day’s warmth and the sunlight streaming through the picture window, a gloomy chill engulfed the room. She could almost feel the steel blade scraping down her spine, raising goose bumps on her shoulders and arms.

This knife had killed someone.

Then she shook herself, dispelling most of the prickly cold. As usual, she was letting her imagination run wild. This wasn’t some menacing murder weapon, but an ordinary kitchen knife, with a nine-inch steel blade and a wood handle that looked parched enough to absorb a cup of mineral oil. The blood consisted of a few reddish-brown splotches on the blade, splotches that to her looked too smeared to be rust. It could be old food, though, something like dehydrated ketchup or oxidized chocolate. Or even blood, but from a rare steak, not a human.

Another shiver slithered across Abby’s shoulder blades. Because if this were an innocuous kitchen knife, why had someone hidden it so carefully?

“Mommy, what happened to the door?” Maddie asked as she and her black curls bounced across the Persian carpet that covered the living room floor. Her vivid blue eyes were focused on the door that had slid past its stop and nearly to the other side of the space, exposing the two-inch-wide opening between the walls.

Damn. Abby tried to conceal the knife behind her leg. “I was closing it and pulled too hard.” She raised her empty hand and flexed her arm. “I don’t know my own strength.”

“Where’d you find the knife?”

So much for her hope Maddie hadn’t noticed it. Abby pointed to the space the door slid back into. “When the carpenters were installing the doors, someone must have accidentally kicked it in there.”

 Maddie wasn’t looking at the space, but at the knife now dangling at Abby’s side. “It’s got blood on it.”

“It’s just rust,” Abby said firmly. Mothers of impressionable nine-year-olds weren’t allowed to have wild imaginations.

“It could be blood,” Maddie persisted. “Should you call the police?”

  “Because I found a rusty kitchen knife?” Abby raised the knife to eye level and examined it with exaggerated interest. “You think somebody reported losing it? Maybe there’s even a reward.”

Maddie rolled her eyes. “Because somebody might have used it for a murder.”

“I think you watch too much TV.”

“There’s no such thing as too much TV.”

“You sound like your father. How are the Sims doing?” Computer games were the only things keeping Maddie from turning into a TV addict this summer, not that they were much better.

Maddie wrinkled her upturned nose, the sole feature she’d inherited from her mother. “Not too good. Their kids are causing lots of problems.”

 “That’s what you get for raising them in Hollywood.”

“I think they might be moving. Okay if I get some lemonade?”

When Abby nodded, Maddie skipped across the brown shag-carpeted family room to the kitchen, the knife apparently forgotten. Which was good, since it was probably nothing, but it was the kind of nothing that could trigger nightmares.

Fortunately Maddie never had nightmares. She always slept soundly, just like her father. Abby’s lips compressed into a line so thin her jaw locked. Colin never had any trouble sleeping, which showed how unfair life was. When you considered—

The phone rang before Abby could get going on a really good rant about Colin. She ran into the family room and grabbed the receiver.

“I’m so glad you called,” she told Laura Stuart, plopping onto an avocado-colored recliner that no longer reclined. “I was vacuuming out the space behind the doors separating the living and family rooms, and I found a knife.”

 “You what?” From Laura’s shocked tone, her eyes must be as wide as Maddie’s had been when she’d spotted the knife.

“I found a knife,” Abby repeated, setting it onto a walnut coffee table with more bumps and dents than a relief map of Asia.           

“Not that,” Laura said. “I was talking about the vacuuming part.”

Abby made a face. “Scary, isn’t it?” She propped her bare feet on the coffee table, beside the knife. “I was using that pointy-nozzle thing to clean the edges of the floor and the tops of the baseboards.”

“The woman who considers even the most basic housework cruel and unusual punishment was vacuuming edges and baseboards?”

“Anyway, I was closing the doors and pulled one past its stop. I thought before I pushed it back, I should vacuum the dust between the walls.”

“The dust between the walls?” Laura emphasized each word. “You’ve clearly gone over the edge. I’m on my way.”

Abby’s lips curved. Laura knew her well.

“I assume the writing’s going badly,” Laura continued. “Since nothing else would make you so desperate for a diversion you’d be vacuuming edges and baseboards, let alone between walls.”

“Going badly would be an improvement, since at least it would be going somewhere.”

“Maybe you should have Marissa come to Minnesota to do something more interesting than sell her dead aunt’s house,” Laura said. “Make her a soap opera star who quits her show and moves back to her hometown to face painful memories from her past. They always say you should write what you know.”

Abby’s rueful smile held a touch of pain. “I think I’d better wait to find out how that works out in real life before I write about it.” To be honest, she wasn’t sure she’d ever be ready to open that particular vein for the sake of her art.

“You’ll be fine,” Laura said firmly. “You already are.”

“I hope so,” Abby said, then shifted her feet from the table onto the carpet. “I could use some advice about the knife. What should I do with it?”

“What kind of knife is it?”

“An old kitchen knife.” Abby picked it up again, this time holding the edges with her shirttail and fingertips. If the knife were important, she’d hate to smear more valuable fingerprints than she already had. “It’s got several dark splotches on the blade that could be blood. But I’ve never heard of anything violent happening in this house.”

“I haven’t, either,” Laura said. “The blood’s probably from a cooking injury.”

“Then why was the knife stuck between the walls?”

“You wouldn’t believe the places things end up in my house.” Laura had three energetic kids, two of them boys.

Abby set the knife back on the coffee table. “I don’t feel right throwing it away if it could be important. But I hate to call the cops and risk having them label me a hysterical female.”

“And risk reading about it in next week’s National Enquirer,” Laura said. “Every time I think about those articles and what Colin got away with—”

“He doesn’t get to see his daughter much,” Abby interrupted. Laura could rant about Colin even longer than she could.

“Like he cares. Has he called since you moved to Minnesota?”

“I’m sure he’s been busy,” Abby said, picking at the edge of a strip of duct tape patching one arm of the recliner.

Laura sniffed. “Boffing his TV daughter, no doubt.”

“I assume she’s gotten too old for him. She must be twenty-one, even though she’s always played five years younger on the show.” Abby pulled up the tape, exposing yellowed foam. “The last I heard, he’d moved on to an eighteen-year-old who’s on Search for Love.” Talking about Colin’s infidelities didn’t even sting any more, thank God. “About the knife…”

“Call Harvey Hancock.”

Abby smoothed the tape back over the rip. “Is he still a cop?”

“Going on forty-two years, as he brags every time I see him. He finally took a desk job, so I’ll bet he’s at the station. He’d never think you’re being hysterical.”

“Or alert the Enquirer.” Abby remembered Harvey. When she’d worked at Ruby’s Diner, he’d been one of the friendlier regulars, coming in every afternoon for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. He’d been equally friendly on those frequent occasions when he’d brought her dad home from whatever bar he’d gotten kicked out of.

She’d planned to talk to the Harrington police at some point about her writing—being a lifelong mystery fan didn’t make her an authority on police procedure. Harvey would be a terrific resource, and this would be a way to break the ice. And she’d get rid of the knife.

“That’s a great idea,” Abby said. “I’ll talk to Harvey, and then I’ll never have to think about it again.”


Josh Kincaid massaged the bridge of his nose with one hand, deleting the e-mail from a so-called “friend” with the other. So his ex-wife and his ex-best friend were now the proud parents of a baby boy. How nice Jennifer had found a man who made enough money to be father material.

He jerked open his desk drawer, dug out a bottle of Tylenol, and washed down a couple of tablets with lukewarm coffee. Then he glared at an in-box twice as full as when he’d left last night. Where was it written that the size of a police department should be inversely proportional to the amount of paperwork it generated? He’d bet no one in Chicago had nearly this much.

He’d just started skimming a four-page memo from the mayor lecturing against wasting office supplies when Harvey Hancock knocked on his door frame.

“Abby Langford found an old kitchen knife hidden in the house she bought,” Harvey said, stepping into Josh’s office. “With what could be blood on the blade. I said we’d send someone over to get it. You want to handle it?”

“Why would I want to handle something like that?” Josh asked. He was the police chief, after all. He spent his time doing important things, like paperwork.

“Because she’s famous.”

“She was just on a soap opera.”

“She played Samantha Cartwright for seventeen years. Won nine Emmys.” Harvey crossed his arms over his small paunch. “Before her daughter Maddie was born, she did guest spots on primetime shows all the time.”

Despite Harvey’s obvious heroine worship, Josh had no desire to meet Ms. Langford. He certainly wasn’t about to interrupt his day for her nonemergency summons.

“She’s also been Laura Stuart’s best friend since grade school,” Harvey said. “Laura’s parents are Bill and Mary Tate, and they were pretty much surrogate parents to Abby while she was growing up. Good thing, since her real parents were the wrong side of worthless, God rest their souls.”

He might not take the most direct route, but Harvey eventually hit the guts of the matter. Harvey had been a Harrington, Minnesota, cop for as long as Josh had been alive and knew nearly everyone in town. That had proven a godsend, since in the eight months Josh had lived here, he’d discovered that even with only forty-two thousand residents, protocol and politics in Harrington were as important as in Chicago. “So the real reason I should handle it is so I won’t offend the former senator and his philanthropic wife,” Josh couldn’t resist saying. He should suck it up and shut up, but sucking up annoyed him.

“Up to you,” Harvey said. “I’d be happy to take care of it. Abby always was a nice girl.”

 “Nice girl?” From what Josh had read about Abby Langford, nothing was further from the truth.

But Harvey nodded his bald head. “When she was in high school, she worked at Ruby’s. Waited on me nearly every day, and she was the sweetest thing. Not a bit like Samantha Cartwright, let me tell you.”

“You said Ms. Langford found a knife in her house,” Josh said, returning to the matter at hand. “The big Victorian on Maplewood, right?”


“Has there ever been an incident there?”

“Not far as I know. Far as I know, everybody who’s lived there was respectable.”

If anything remotely suspicious had happened there, Harvey would know—his memory for things like that rivaled any computer’s. That meant this was nothing, but if Josh didn’t deal with Ms. Langford personally, he’d no doubt end up fielding an irate call from Bill Tate and maybe another from the mayor. He was in a lousy enough mood without that.

“You’re right,” he said, accepting the inevitable. “She’s famous enough that I should handle this. Besides, my sister would never forgive me if I passed up a chance to meet her. Kim’s a major fan.”

He grabbed his car keys and briefcase, then strode to the door. His ex-wife had been a major fan, too, taping Private Affairs every damn day and talking incessantly about all its screwed-up characters. She’d idolized Samantha Cartwright, a woman who’d lied, cheated, and manipulated her way to a glamorous lifestyle filled with designer clothes, expensive houses, and a series of rich, successful husbands and lovers. Hell, Jennifer had probably used Samantha as a role model.

Josh’s official Crown Victoria was parked in his reserved spot in front of the station. He opened the door and got into a vinyl-scented sauna, the seat nearly hot enough to raise blisters through his dark blue uniform pants. He started the car, then rolled down the windows and turned on the air conditioner.

Although he was far too familiar with Samantha, he’d had no idea who portrayed her until his sister had told him about Abby Langford moving back to Harrington. After that, he’d seemed to see articles about Abby everywhere, ones he’d skimmed while waiting in line at Erickson’s Market or Target.

If even a tiny fraction of the tabloid claims were true—claims Abby had never denied—she wasn’t much different from Samantha now, no matter what she’d been like growing up. Her husband had gotten fed up with her cheating and other mistreatment of him, plus shopaholic habits that had them on the verge of bankruptcy, and he’d divorced her. Abby had left her show and California and was now capitalizing on her celebrity by writing a book.

A mystery.

Josh shut the windows, then pulled away from the curb, suspicion flickering through his brain. Granted, she might be genuinely concerned about a knife a former occupant had forgotten in some basement corner or under a radiator. But this could also be part of a plan to increase interest in her book. A sophisticated actress from LA was bound to assume cops around here would be too backward, bumbling, and awestruck to question anything she said.

His hands tightened around the steering wheel. If that was her game, it was too bad for her she’d gotten a former Chicago detective who ran an efficient, professional police department.

And one who’d had more than his fill of manipulative women.


Abby looked out the living room window just as a white car bearing the gold, blue, and black Harrington Police Department logo eased up to the curb in front of the house. If she could beat the doorbell, maybe Maddie wouldn’t realize she’d been concerned enough about the knife to call the police. She raced to the door and yanked it open, expecting to see a balder but still kindly Harvey.

Instead, an enormous, fierce-looking man stepped up onto the curved front porch. Actually, enormous was an exaggeration—he was about a foot taller than she was, which put him at around six feet four, and while his shoulders blocked out the sunlight, his muscular body was nicely proportioned. But she’d gotten the fierce part right. With eyes as dark and fathomless as the night ocean, straight black hair nearly long enough for a ponytail, and a definite five o’clock shadow darkening his square jaw, he resembled a pirate and not one with a buried heart of gold.

She resisted the urge to slam the door and call 911. Since he was wearing a police uniform, he presumably wasn’t out to harm her, no matter how intimidating his expression. He was no doubt annoyed at having been delegated to handle her nuisance call, and she didn’t blame him. Her problem must rank even lower in importance than rescuing poor Fluffy from an oak tree.

“Is Ms. Langford in?” he asked in a deep voice that fit his appearance.

“I’m Abby Langford.”

He studied her silently.

“I know, I don’t look at all like Samantha Cartwright,” she said, smiling faintly. Barefoot, dressed in khaki shorts and an oversized blue work shirt, with her blond hair in a high ponytail and most of the blush and lipstick she’d applied this morning faded away, she must look more like the cleaning lady than the glamorous Samantha. “My stylist and makeup artist deserved even more awards than they’ve won. Did Harvey send you?”

“He told me you’d called. I’m Chief Kincaid.”

“Chief?” Abby focused on the badge confirming his claim, her stomach clenching. The knife must be important for the police chief to be concerned.

“Don’t I look like a police chief, either?” he asked.

“I expected Harvey to handle this. Or a patrolman.”

He raised one eyebrow. “You have a problem with me?”

“Not at all. But you must have more important things to do.”

“Why don’t you explain so I can get back to doing them, Ms. Langford?”

“Please call me Abby.”

In response, Chief Kincaid smiled, and Abby’s stomach somersaulted. While he still wasn’t conventionally handsome, he now radiated a combination of warmth and sexiness that had her pulse accelerating and body heating.

“You must be Maddie.”

Abby abruptly realized Chief Kincaid wasn’t smiling at her, but at Maddie. Maddie was sitting at the bottom of the stairs smiling at him, a smile identical to the one that had convinced Abby to forgive Maddie’s father more times than she could count.

“This is Chief Kincaid, Maddie. He’s here about the knife.” Abby waved her hand with more nonchalance than she felt. “I thought I should give it to the police because otherwise I’ll worry, even though it’s nothing.”

Maddie approached the chief and extended her hand, her nails painted the same turquoise as her T-shirt. “It’s nice to meet you, Chief Kincaid.”

He set down his black leather briefcase, squatted at Maddie’s level, and shook her hand. “I’m happy to meet you, too, Maddie. How old are you?”

“Nine. I’m going into fourth grade.”

“I thought you looked the same age as one of my nieces. How do you like Harrington?”

She frowned. “The town’s very nice. I can’t wait until school starts so I can meet some kids my age.”

“By the time we moved here, it was too late to sign up for any summer activities,” Abby said.

“Moving in the summer is tough,” Josh told Maddie. “I guarantee a lot of nice kids live in Harrington—including my niece.”

Abby rested a hand on Maddie’s shoulder. “I need to talk to Chief Kincaid, sweetheart. Are the Sims doing better?”

Maddie’s solemn expression brightened. “Lots better. I moved them to Utah, and their parents are so strict now they can’t even watch your soap.” She turned to go back to her bedroom.

“She seems a like a good kid,” Chief Kincaid said as Maddie ran upstairs.

“She’s the best. Do you have kids?”

He shook his head. “But I’ve got seven nieces and nephews. Where’s the knife?”

“I’ll get it.”

Instead of waiting for her to retrieve it, he picked up his briefcase and followed her into the family room.

“Most of the furniture came with the house. I haven’t had time to replace it,” Abby said, since the two duct-taped vinyl recliners and war-torn coffee table looked even less Samantha-like than she did.

When they reached the coffee table, Chief Kincaid slipped on a pair of latex gloves, then picked up the knife.

“I touched it. Sorry,” she said as he examined it. “The dark spots on the blade could be blood someone didn’t completely wash off.”

“Possibly.” He turned the knife over and studied the other side.

“You can test it and find out, can’t you?”

He removed a bag from his briefcase and dropped the knife into it. “Where did you find it?”

“Stuffed inside the wall, back behind one of the pocket doors, as Harvey called them,” Abby said, pointing into the opening. “The stop gave out, and I pulled the door out too far, so I decided to vacuum between the walls. That’s when I found the knife.”

Chief Kincaid glanced at the vacuum cleaner, then at Abby. “You were vacuuming between the walls?”

She didn’t mind his skeptical tone. “I thought I might as well take advantage of my only chance to do it. Like when you get a new refrigerator and clean the floor under the old one for the first time in fifteen years.”

He put the bag into his briefcase, followed by the gloves. “To be honest, it would never occur to me to clean anywhere people won’t see.”

She was starting to like him. Anyone who shared her aversion for housework and was nice to Maddie had to be a good guy. “Ordinarily it wouldn’t have occurred to me, either, but I was using it as a delaying tactic. I’m writing a book, and some days I’ll do anything to avoid sitting at my computer.”

Chief Kincaid crossed his arms, accentuating tanned biceps resembling Popeye’s after an infusion of spinach. “I heard you’re writing a mystery. Is there a knife in it?”

“Not so far, but I’m only halfway through the first draft. That could change.”

“Although I guess this would do the job regardless.”

“What job?”

He looked grim enough to be contemplating sending her on a stroll down a long plank. “Ms. Langford, we might not be as overworked as the cops in LA, but we still don’t have time to do publicity work for you.”

Abby wrinkled her forehead. “What are you talking about?”

“An actress who’s writing a mystery coincidentally discovers a real-life mystery in her own house?” He looked around the family room. “Where are the photographers?”

Now she got it—a month surrounded by nice Midwesterners had obviously dulled her reflexes, since she’d never been that slow on the uptake before. And she took back everything she’d thought about liking him. Her hands clenched into fists, and she raised her chin. “You think I staged this?”

“Nothing violent has ever happened in this house. Yet you still found a knife when you were”— he paused—“vacuuming between walls? Add in that you’re writing a mystery and currently unemployed and it’s not real hard to connect the dots.”

Abby’s nails were etching crescents into her palms. “Look, I found a knife hidden in the wall and was concerned it might be important, maybe even a missing murder weapon,” she said, struggling to keep her tone level. “That’s why I called the police instead of throwing it away. If you think I should toss it, I’ll be happy to.” She reached toward his open briefcase.

He snapped it shut. “Don’t expect to read about it in tomorrow’s Herald or any other paper. Unless you call them yourself.”

Abby gave him the look a television critic had claimed would wither a cactus. “Calling the press is nowhere on my to-do list. I moved out here to escape the press.”


“Just take the damn knife,” Abby said. “Thank you for your time,” she made herself add.

He picked up his briefcase and nodded curtly. “I’ll see myself out.”

As he strode toward the front door, Abby stood perfectly still, grinding her teeth and pressing her lips together to keep herself quiet. She’d learned long ago there were three groups of people it never paid to piss off: directors, female costars, and cops. She’d become expert at suppressing even the most suitably sarcastic comment, no matter how well deserved.

“Bastard,” she muttered the instant the door slammed behind him. Sometimes, even after all these years of practice, taking the no comment route was easier thought than done.


 Josh got into his car, so hot under the collar the stifling interior barely registered. God, she was good. She’d nearly had him.

She hadn’t been at all what he’d expected. With those wide violet-blue eyes and wearing a ponytail, shorts, and big shirt, she’d looked almost wholesome, although still hot enough to melt a diamond. The knife had been as understated as she was. A nice touch—he’d expected it to be bigger and bloodier if she’d been trying to stage something. He’d almost been ready to believe her.

Until she’d pushed it too far. Claiming she’d just happened to pull out a door and just happened to decide to vacuum between the walls and just happened to find the knife stuck back there. Like hell she had. He could imagine what Merry Maids would say if he asked to have someone vacuum between his walls next week. She must think he was an idiot to expect him to fall for that.

He jabbed the key into the ignition and started the car, pushing the accelerator a couple of times to rev the engine. God, he was sick of people looking down on cops, considering them either Neanderthals who loved violence or frustrated lawyers too dumb to get into even the most unaccredited law school. He’d gotten enough of that in Chicago and not only from Jennifer. Being chief might be a big deal around here, but to a woman like Abby Langford, the police chief in a town like Harrington was probably as impressive as being fire marshal at a kiddie water park.

Maybe he’d been a little harsh, but he’d wanted to make clear he knew what she was trying to pull. He was running a police department, not an aid society for unemployed soap opera divas, and he didn’t have time to waste helping Ms. Abby Langford with her new career. Shoving the gearshift into drive, he roared away from the curb.


After hours of fuming, Abby finally found the antidote for her anger at Chief Kincaid—an evening trip to Dairy Queen.

If she hadn’t been concerned about setting a bad example for Maddie, she’d have licked every last drop of chocolate and ice cream from her Styrofoam sundae bowl. It was such a relief not having to worry about squeezing into one of Samantha’s form-fitting outfits. Life was too short to avoid something as heavenly as chocolate.

Especially since it was also clearly a wonder drug—Abby was feeling downright mellow by the time she pulled her car into the former carriage house-turned-garage. She and Maddie walked through the backyard to the house in a quiet unknown in LA, undisturbed by the voices, car engine rumbles, and swimming pool splashes. Overhead, stars sparkled in the smog-free sky, and the full moon had the cracked sidewalk between the garage and back steps glowing like the yellow brick road.

“It’s bedtime,” Abby said when they’d stepped into the equally peaceful house. “Although with all that sugar in your system, you’ll probably never get to sleep.”

“I’ll probably just have really sweet dreams.” Maddie grinned. “Maybe I should eat a Blizzard every night before bed.”

“Only in your really sweet dreams.”

Maddie hopefully was right about the sweet dreams, Abby thought as she walked downstairs after tucking her in. She could use a few herself tonight.

On her way to the living room, she stopped to pick up the mail the carrier had stuffed through the front door slot. She’d been so busy being mad she’d forgotten about it. After dropping a half-dozen catalogues destined for immediate recycling back onto the floor, she flipped through the letters.

Mixed in with the credit card offers and charitable donation requests was a plain white envelope with her name and address typed in capital letters, no return address, and a Harrington postmark. Abby ripped it open, then pulled out and unfolded a single sheet of paper, its message printed in bold, oversized capitals:




It was signed, “YOUR BIGGEST FAN.”

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