Blameless

James Hutchins is dead by his own hand. The note he left behind blames a happily married wife and mother-to-be for his action—Diana Marcus, his dedicated therapist . . . his fatal love.

Once well-respected, now Diana Marcus' career is being ripped to shreds by innuendo and accusation. Reporters brutally invade her privacy. Her life has been stolen, her marriage torn apart, her unborn child threatened. Only the truth can save Diana, but it is buried beneath layers of lies, treachery and erotic secrets. And the search is dragging her down toward a deadly revelation too shocking to imagine . . . and too terrible to ignore.

 

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Anderson Street is as steep as they come in Boston, lined by narrow townhouses with tin bays that had been tenements in the late nineteenth century. Diana Marcus was winded from both exertion and fear by the time she reached the edge of the crowd, which, despite the growing autumn chill and lengthening shadows, was large and buzzed with a hushed, ugly excitement.

"A shotgun?"

"Big mother shotgun."

Diana's stomach lurched and she staggered into a tall man who smelled of gasoline. He gently righted her and asked if she was okay. She nodded and stumbled away. Elbowing deeper into the crowd, she tried not to listen to the ghoulish chatter, while she strained to catch every word.

"One hell of a way to do yourself in. Me, I'd take a handful of pills. Use a handgun—a magnum—anything but a shotgun, for God's sake."

"Dude must've been crazy."

"Some yuppie stockbroker, I heard."

Diana's breathing became more labored as she worked her way along the sidewalk. She looked up the hill at James's house and bile filled her mouth: The building was cordoned off with yellow tape.

"My sister-in-law's brother is the cop standing next to that cruiser," a small woman in jeans said as she juggled a toddler in her arms. "Told me it's a real gory mess in there—blood everywhere—bone even." The woman clucked her tongue and then raised her voice. "In the walls."

Diana moved quickly on. She kept climbing. She had to know what had happened. She had to know if James was still alive. But when she reached the front of the house the young policeman on guard wouldn't let her through. "Can't do it," he told her, not unkindly. "The Sarge'll have my head."

"I'm James Hutchins's doctor," she said, omitting that she was a psychologist, not a physician. "I just got a call."

The policeman lifted the tape and Diana slipped under. Standing on the cracked, steeply inclined sidewalk, she stared blankly at the scraggly geraniums flopping from the window box next door. The tumult disoriented her; for a moment she couldn't imagine what she was doing here or where to go next—despite the fact that it had been only a few hours since she had last stood on this very spot, only a few hours since James's incredible stubbornness had caused her to stomp from this house in frustration.

"It's okay," the policeman called. "You can go on in."

Diana nodded and walked resolutely up the granite steps and into the recessed doorway. She took a deep breath and pulled the scarred wooden door toward her. Then she marched into the dingy entryway and climbed the stairs to James's apartment.

This morning the building had been as silent and shadowy as a tomb, but now it bustled with voices and light and the unintelligible babble of two-way radios. A uniformed policewoman raced down the stairs, followed by a tall man in an ill-fitting suit who had the look of a cop. They glanced at Diana as she climbed toward them; she put on her "doctor face" and they let her pass. Three medics on the landing argued about the best way to maneuver a stretcher down the narrow stairs as blue lights from the street strobed through the dirty window above the stairway. There was a sharp acrid bite to the air, but Diana also detected an animal-like smell that she didn't want to think about.

James's apartment was at the top of the stairs and the door was swung wide open. As Diana reached the landing she had a direct view down the narrow hallway and into the living room, although it was obstructed by swarms of people and medical equipment. Then the two policemen who had been talking in the living room doorway separated and Diana gasped. There was a stretcher in the middle of the floor with a body on it. It had to be James. And he was covered with a sheet. She gagged and put her hand to her mouth.

"Hey, are you all right?" The young policeman from outside came up behind her.

Diana stared at the shiny badge on his chest. Number 247. Cameras flashed from inside the apartment and, for a moment, she felt a flicker of relief: for herself and for James. Then she was overcome with a sadness so deep that it gouged at the center of her being. A sadness at James's loss, at his brilliance unfulfilled. A sadness at her own loss: to never see him, or talk to him, or hope to help him again. She was overwhelmed by guilt at her hand in it all. "What, what happened?"

"Can't tell for sure yet." The policeman shrugged. "But his head's pretty much gone and there's powder burns on his foot."

"His foot?"

"My guess is he pulled the trigger with his toe."

Diana gripped the stair railing, unable to push away the image of James calmly calculating all the details necessary to construct such a bizarre death scene.

The policeman nodded. "It's been done before."

Diana felt nausea push up through her body. She gagged again.

The policeman took a step closer to her, glancing nervously at her slightly protruding stomach. "I thought you were a doctor." When she didn't say anything, he took her arm. "Better come with me, Ma'am. Get some air."

She nodded, but didn't move, her eyes riveted to the stretcher, to the two feet that dangled from below the edge of the sheet. The left foot was covered with one of the paint-splattered running shoes James always wore. The right one was bare.

She leaned into the policeman and groaned, seeing those sneakers pacing her office, tapping against the side of a chair. Seeing those feet, along with her own, leaving a wake of soft impressions in the tall grass of the Public Gardens on a long-ago summer day.

Diana watched one of the medics raise the stretcher while the other unfolded a black body bag. But before they could put James into that awful sack, before they could zip him into that airless cocoon, Diana turned and ran from the building.

#

The days following James's death reminded Diana of the time after her sister Nina's accident, when Nina lay pale and motionless, her tiny frame dwarfed by the adult-size hospital bed. Every evening, Diana and her older brother Scott had gone with their parents to Mount Sinai Hospital. They sang to Nina, held her hand and told her the news of the day. And then, exactly one month after accident, Nina just stopped breathing, dying without ever regaining consciousness. Diana had been eight and Nina four.

Then, as now, it was as if Diana went through her days encapsulated in petroleum jelly, existing at 33 RPM while everyone else raced by at 45. And the nights were even worse. For although she knew it was impossible, it felt as if she hadn't slept since the suicide. Suicide. It was such an ugly word. She stared up at the dark ceiling and watched the fuzzy arcs of dawn light seep around the top edge of the bedroom drapes. Now she could get up and stop pretending there was a chance she would fall back to sleep.

Waves of pain washed over her and she closed her eyes again. How could she have made so many mistakes? She should never have terminated with James last summer, despite the personal and professional danger in which his bizarre actions put her, despite the advice of her colleagues, her friends and her husband. She should never have referred him to Alan Martinson, allowing herself to believe that by furnishing him with another therapist her obligation was fulfilled, as if he were a dog left for a neighbor to feed and walk while she was on vacation. And she should have known better than to let herself fall so eagerly into the "great rescuer" role, allowing James's success to define her own, linking—and securing—their failures.

She had been his therapist for three years, three years of the hardest and best work she had ever done, three years in which she had made some of her biggest blunders. "Words are incapable of describing the density of my desolation when I am not with you," James had written to her when she and Craig had gone to Cape Cod for a week in June. And knowing that, feeling his neediness resonating within her, she had still let him go. She had abandoned him. Thrust him away. Just as they all had done before her: the mother, the father, the sister, Uncle Hank. But Diana, the great rescuer, had been the one whose abandonment had delivered James into his final hell.

It had seemed so easy in the beginning. In her mind's eye, she could see James as he had been the first day he came to her office, leaning awkwardly against the doorjamb, tall and lean and gawky, his chiseled good looks capturing her complete attention. "Hi, Doc," he had said, shy and bumbling and slightly devilish all at the same time. "Big sister tells me you're the one who can fix me all up."

She hadn't been able to keep from smiling at the perfect pacing of his delivery, at the way his characterization of Jill so drolly captured both his sister's power and her absurdity. Diana had liked him immediately.

The failure, the guilt and the loss twisted like spikes in her gut. She called out and her eyes flew open. Craig stirred and Diana gently pressed her hand to the thick muscles of her husband's upper arm, drawing strength from his closeness. Craig would never be called handsome; his nose had been broken once too many times during his high school football years and his eyebrows were too bushy. But he was a sexy man: tall and big and kind. He smiled easily and always saw the glass as half full. Children and animals loved him. As did Diana.

Craig turned and pulled her to him. Sweet with sleep, he nuzzled the back of her neck and snuggled her into the warm curve of his body. "Sleep any better?" he asked when they were molded together like a pair of nested spoons.

"A little," Diana said, not wanting to worry him.

He gently traced the line of her jaw with his finger. "You were tossing around an awful lot."

She took his hand and rubbed it against her cheek. "I just have to get through feeling lousy," she said. "Eventually I'll get tired of all this guilt—and then it'll go away."

Craig chuckled low in his throat. "Letting go of guilt isn't one of your strong suits."

"I know, I know," Diana said. "And Nina wasn't my fault either." But inside her heart of hearts, Diana knew that James's death had been her fault. Just as her sister Nina's had been. She shivered and Craig wound his arms around her more tightly.

"You can't blame yourself whenever something bad happens to someone close to you."

"But I feel so responsible—"

"Shush," he said, slipping his hand inside her nightgown and cupping her breast lightly. "You're a wonderful, caring therapist. You're sensitive," he kissed the back of her neck, "responsive," he gently turned her toward him. "You've helped lots of people—and you'll help lots more."

Diana pulled her nightgown over her head and pressed herself closer to him, aching with pain and desire. She began to cry softly.

He kissed her eyes and her lips and her wet cheeks. "You can't rescue everybody," he murmured, rubbing the small of her back in deep, soothing circles. "Nobody can."

"I know." She buried her head in his chest. "I know." Then she was caught up in his hands and his mouth and his body. And, for a few luxurious moments, everything else disappeared.

Afterwards, Diana lay quietly, safely entwined in, and protected by, Craig's love. But all too quickly, the world they had managed to hold momentarily at bay rushed back at her. James had killed himself. She touched Craig's cheek. "Mind if I take the first shower?" she asked.

He kissed her and then reached for the remote control on his night table. "Go ahead," he said, pointing the remote at the television. "I'll catch the news."

Diana went into the bathroom and threw cold water on her face. James was dead and today she had to go to his funeral. No amount of love or sex or consoling words could change the facts. She pressed the cool wash cloth to her eyes. Well, she didn't exactly have to go to the funeral. It wasn't as if she would know anybody there. Except for James's sister, Jill, and Diana was certain that Jill would be more than happy if she stayed away. She climbed into the shower.

Standing under the pounding water, Diana wished the shower could wash away her indecision along with the shampoo. Maybe she would just forget the whole thing. Twisting the faucet off, she stood for a moment in the silent, steamy tub. She had to go. She needed the formality of the funeral service. And she needed to say good-bye.

Diana dressed quickly, but instead of going down to the kitchen, she found herself in the nursery, thinking, not for the first time, that she had probably been the last person to see James alive. She shivered and rubbed her arms, looking around the room: Except for a solitary moving carton on the floor, the nursery was white and empty, a blank backdrop awaiting its character. The rising sun bounced slivers of light off the newly varnished floor, and an imperfection in one of the old window panes refracted a wavy rainbow over the closet. Diana suddenly realized that the last time she had been in this room, exalting in her own joy, James must have been pulling the trigger.

The day of the suicide had been wild even before she had received the phone call, a roller coaster of highs and lows: her futile argument with James in the morning; the good news from the doctor; her colleague Adrian Arnold tearing her preliminary research results to shreds during their lunch-time peer supervisory meeting. After the meeting, Diana had wandered around Copley Place, troubled by James's intractability, worried that perhaps Adrian was right, and overwhelmed with joy at Dr. Jasset's news that the amniocenteses results showed the baby was healthy and female.

She thought she would buy something special for the baby or the nursery—purchases they had been postponing until after the tests—but had found herself too agitated to make even the smallest decision. So she had gone home and tried to work on her research. But that too had proved futile, and after a couple of hours of twirling her pencil and staring blankly at computer printouts, she had climbed the stairs to the nursery.

Diana looked at the carton sitting in the middle of the empty room; it was just as she had left it that afternoon when the phone had rung. "You better come quick, Dr. Marcus," a gravely voice had ordered. "To James's. He's tried to kill himself again. And this time it looks like he did the job right."

"Who is this?" she had demanded. "What's happened?" But the line clicked dead in her ear. For a long moment, Diana had looked at the silent phone in her hand as if it were an alien being. When the dial tone began to buzz across the wire, she slammed the receiver down. James. She had to leave the nursery and the happiness it stood for. She had to go to James.

But the nursery was here now, silently urging her to reclaim her joy, to forget about James. Diana touched the slight curve of her stomach and looked up at the rainbow. The riot of strong colors confirmed Craig's decision to use primaries for the fantasy mural he was going to paint on the walls. And, Diana thought, the rainbow could be seen as a harbinger of their bright future.

Kneeling down, she reached for the carton of baby clothes her mother had sent the last time she had been pregnant. The carton she hadn't been able to look at—let alone open—for over two years. Lifting the lid, Diana thought of the years of infertility, the ectopic pregnancy, the doctors' consensus that she would never be able to have children. Even with Craig's unerring support, she had used her career as a refuge during that painful time. Her success as a psychologist became an antidote to her sterility as well as an outlet for her need to nurture. But now there was a healthy baby growing in her womb.

The scent of pressed cotton and baby powder and her own childhood wafted up to her. Gently, almost reverently, she lifted a layer of tissue paper. The paper was yellow and crackled under her fingers, but beneath it lay a baby-blue dress with pink-and-white smocking. The embroidery thread was satiny smooth to her touch and her eyes filled with tears. She remembered Nina wearing this dress, but her mother had told her that she, Diana, had worn it also.

Pressing the dress to her cheek, drinking in its memories and its promise, Diana felt her career recede to its proper position in her life. Being a psychologist was no longer her only defining role. Suddenly she saw that Adrian's cutting critique of her research methodology was more likely due to his jealousy than to any errors she might have made. And James's death had been the inevitable result of his illness, not her own personal failure. Gently returning the tiny dress to the carton, Diana promised herself that she would come back here after the funeral. She would go and say good-bye to James Hutchins. Then she would get on with the rest of her life.

Her step was lighter as she walked down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen. They lived in a renovated nineteenth-century townhouse in a tiny neighborhood of Boston at the intersection of Back Bay, the South End, the Fenway and Roxbury, and everything in the house creaked all the time: stairs, doors, windows, the handrails—Craig said, even the two of them. As she turned a tight corner a stair tread squeaked loudly. She pushed the tread hard with her foot; it gave more than it should, indicating that their repairs were far from finished. Making a mental note to tell Craig, she continued down the open narrow stairway that absorbed a quarter of every floor.

Diana loved living in the city. When life began to close in on her, when she got claustrophobic from the suffering her patients heaped on her head, from the calls to make and the exams to grade, she would burst through the front door and into the roaring, anonymous city. She walked for hours, down her narrow tree-lined street to the grand breadth of the Christian Science Center, across Boylston and down Fairfield to window shop at the trendy stores of Newbury Street. She crisscrossed the Back Bay, wandering along the park-like mall of Commonwealth Avenue, gawking at the white marble and brick mansions, drinking in the bustle and excitement as a nature-lover drinks in the scent of evergreen. Rejuvenating herself.

Diana looked out the dining room window at the silent, dawn-streaked sidewalk. All the houses on St. Stephen Street were small and narrow, their angles hard and no-nonsense; utilitarian homes well-suited to the sensible people who had built them, she liked to think. Although she and Craig admired the elegance and expanse of Commonwealth Avenue, they were more comfortable here. She turned and went into the kitchen, filling the coffee maker with the decaffeinated she had learned to tolerate over the past few months.

As the coffee dripped, permeating the room with its thick morning aroma, Diana looked out the oversized mullioned window into their "backcity"—as Craig called it—a couple of parking spots for themselves and Diana's patients, and a fenced area just waiting for a swing set. Dead leaves from their one tree swirled around the base of a fence post, in a forlorn, lonely dance. Watching the leaves, Diana's conviction wavered and she wondered if she might be better off skipping the funeral after all.

Feeling a light touch on her shoulder, she looked up as Craig wrapped his arms around her from behind. He rested his palms on her stomach. "Aren't you supposed to be bigger by now?" he asked.

She covered his hands with hers. "I just hope you learn to worry less after she's born—otherwise you're going to drive the child wild—I don't even want to think about what you're going to be like when she starts dating."

"Dating?" Craig cried in mock horror. "You think I'm going to let some pimply twerp paw at my daughter?"

They stood silently watching the swirling leaves for awhile. Then Diana said, "I thought I'd go to the funeral but now I'm not so sure."

"Oh?" He let go of her and reached for his favorite chipped blue mug. "Want some?"

Diana nodded. "There's no point. And I'm sure Jill will appreciate it if I don't show."

He poured a cup and handed it to her. "So don't go."

She took the cup. "I cancelled the therapy group."

"The one James was in before you kicked him out?" Craig asked, referring to her borderline personality disorder group.

"Terminated with him," Diana corrected.

Craig sipped his coffee and watched her closely.

"I cancelled out of respect," she said. "But there aren't that many of them left anyway. Borderlines aren't exactly known for their stick-to-it-iveness." Diana smiled sadly. "With James gone and Ethan pulling another one of his disappearing acts, well, there's just Terri, Bruce and Sandy..."

"Is it even worth your effort?"

Diana sat down at the table and stared into her mug. "I need to go to the funeral. If I don't go, I'll never really believe it's true." She took a sip. "I'll always think in the back of my mind that James is just playing one of his mischievous little games. That he isn't really dead."

"But you saw him..." Craig's voice trailed off. When Diana didn't lift her head, he popped some waffles into the toaster. "So go."

Diana watched him in silence for a moment. "But I don't want to."

Craig rolled his eyes dramatically at the ceiling. "So don't."

"This isn't a joke," Diana said. "I'm struggling here and all you can say is 'go', 'don't go', 'go', 'don't go'."

Craig came and sat down next to her at the table. "Honey, I don't know what you want me to say. I'm just trying to help."

"Nothing," Diana mumbled into her coffee. "Just don't say anything."

Craig nodded and covered her hand with his for a moment. He gave it a quick squeeze, then stood up and walked through the dining room to get the newspaper off the front stoop.

When he came back, Diana held out her hands. "Sorry," she said.

He leaned over and kissed her. "It's okay." He handed her the front section of the paper and pulled out the sports for himself. They sat in silence for awhile. Craig eating and reading, Diana motionless, staring, unseeing, at The Boston Globe headlines. Suddenly, Craig put down his paper and turned to her. "Do me a favor?"

Diana just looked at him, saying nothing.

"Go."

She blinked.

"You need to go. To help you accept that James is really gone from your life." He leaned toward her. "That you aren't responsible for him anymore."

Diana looked at her husband, at his kind, earnest face, at his troubled eyes. She nodded. "I'll go."