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  • Presumption of Death
  • Written by Perri O'Shaughnessy
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Written by Perri O'ShaughnessyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Perri O'Shaughnessy


List Price: $7.99


On Sale: July 29, 2003
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-440-33446-0
Published by : Delacorte Press Bantam Dell
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New York Times bestselling author Perri O’Shaughnessy has garnered impressive acclaim for her tough, passionate thrillers set against the lush Lake Tahoe landscape and the world of one remarkable character: Attorney Nina Reilly. In this spellbinding new novel, O’Shaughnessy delves deeper into the heart and psyche of her popular heroine as Nina journeys back to her hometown to heal old wounds, and instead discovers that old secrets can be the deadliest kind....

Nina Reilly needs a fresh start. In three years, she’s taken on some of Lake Tahoe’s most controversial cases and has turned her struggling one-woman law firm into a thriving practice. Now she’s ready to sort out her complex relationship with her boyfriend, Monterey P.I. Paul van Wagoner. So she’s heading to the Carmel Valley, the place where she began her career and where her estranged father lives. It’s also a place of dramatic contradictions and hidden tensions, of new wealth and old families. And, within days of her arrival, Nina is already feeling the heat, as a case of arson exposes some of the darkest secrets of her hometown.

Two suspicious fires have already raged through the valley this summer, igniting suspicions of arson. When a third blaze ends in a fatality, police zero in on a suspect: Wish, the son of Sandy Whitefeather, Nina’s ex-assistant. The dead man is identified as Wish’s childhood friend, a troubled local auto mechanic who hated the changes wealthy newcomers had brought to the valley. Nina and Paul are certain that there is more to this strange case than meets the eye. As they work together to clear Wish, new, more frightening questions are raised, and another fire is set. And out of the flames a terrifying picture emerges: a community steeped in secrets and rage, a tangled history between two men, and a killer whose motives are dark and wrenching.

With the relentless page-turning suspense that has become her trademark, Perri O’Shaughnessy once again demonstrates her talent to enthrall. A haunting tale of crime and punishment, old grudges and second chances, Presumption of Death is suspense fiction at its finest--instantly compelling and utterly impossible to put down.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

Nina Reilly wiped her goggles and watched Paul swim. He stroked smoothly, kicking underwater, moving up and down the lane without stopping, like a pacing porpoise. He wore his yellow snorkel and goggles, and she could hear his lungs laboring when he came close.

Enjoying the pattern of the water on the ceiling of the condo-association pool, she returned to backstroking in another lane. Pull hard back with the arms, keep the legs stiff, and windmill that water. The two of them were going nowhere, but it felt like lovemaking, the cool slap of the water he churned up, the water rippling back to him, a water bed without the plastic.

She touched the wall. He turned at the far end. As he swam down the lane she had the strangest feeling about him, as if the pale watery creature before her solidified before her eyes. Hanging on to the rough concrete wall of the pool, she thought, he might swim toward me with that silly yellow snorkel for the rest of my life. How many years do I have left? Forty years, if I get lucky? She was in her mid-thirties, Paul was over forty. How long did they have? A lifetime? A summer?

Well, that's what I came down here to find out, she said to herself.

He hit the wall and came up grinning, goggles fogged up. "Done?" he said. Then, "What's the matter?"


"Your face says different."

"I'm trying to see the future."

"What do you see?" He pulled himself over until his face was inches from hers, his hazel eyes reddened by the chlorine, the lashes beaded, the water making rivulets along his nose, red lines across his forehead and cheeks from the goggles.


"That is the correct answer. As your reward, I will sing you a song I just made up." He pulled himself onto the edge of the pool and, legs dangling, sang in a gravelly voice:

I am the creature from the lagoon

You're a blond coed starin' at the moon

I'll rise up drippin', a scary sight

Baby, are you ready, it's love-monster night--

"Like it?"

She hung in the water, her eyes at his ankle level. Tilting her head back and holding the wall with both hands, she let her gaze move boldly up his body, the strong pale thighs, the tight stomach with a little hangover of flesh at the waist, the sensitive nipples and broad shoulders. She said, "Are you going to wear your snorkel when you rise up?"

"I'll do whatever it takes."

"It won't take much." A look passed between them, and Nina reached over and squeezed his big toe.

"Let's wrap up in our towels and get back home," Paul said.

She mantled up onto the side of the pool, rested her knee on the concrete, stood, and adjusted her swimsuit bottom. Paul brought her the striped blue towel and they walked outside, down the path beside the bougainvillaea, below the neighbors' balconies. In the misty late afternoon they saw lights come on as people came home from work. A line of birds sat quietly in the branches of the oaks, paired off mostly, looking around. Peter Jennings pronounced the news in fatherly fashion from somebody's living room.

Paul hadn't even locked the door to his condo. Inside, in the hall with the bokhara rug that led to the living room, he said, "How was it? The future?"


He said seriously, "You know, this could go on forever or a day. Either one is okay."

"No, a day wouldn't be okay."

"You going to make me a declaration, Nina? Finally?" He folded his arms so the biceps bulged, Mr. Clean in a baggy wet pair of red trunks in his narrow hallway, and waited for her to tell him she was ready to link up her short time on earth with his. The conversations lately had been skidding into turns like these. Paul needed something from her, a formal statement, a closing of the box lid.

She couldn't do that for him, unfortunately. "You can have the first shower," she said, offering what she could.

"You are being oblique."

"You can even use my loofah."

"That's fine. We'll just continue to drift on the seas of uncertainty. Until the sun becomes a supernova and the seas all dry up."

Nina said, "I'll definitely say something before then. Just go get dressed. I'll watch the sun go down on the balcony."

"And get the fish marinating," Paul reminded her.


But he hesitated. He could see that she had a problem and he wanted to fix it. "The rash bothering you?"

"Yes. Go on, now."

"I told you, you can go in and get a shot," Paul said, still trying to fix the wrong problem. "You wouldn't feel so irritable."

They had been quiet at dinner. Now they held each other in Paul's platform bed, under the red-and-yellow Hudson Bay blanket.

A seashell night-light in the bathroom glowed dimly. Under the covers, her nightgown was pushed up to her waist. Her ankles, rear end, and forearms itched like fury. Damn right she was irritable.

She had a grand case of poison oak, predator of the Central California hills, because, oblivious to it, she had gone hiking behind the condo last week. She had no one to blame but herself, which irritated her even more.

And all of this specific irritation had wrapped itself around a general core of irritation within her. Although Paul did not intend it, circumstance had made of her the girlfriend who lives out of the suitcase in the corner. She had no home anymore, only his home, his street, his doors, his walls. She floated in his pool.

Living together was a revelation. Paul kept guns all over the house and a locked gun case in the car trunk; she hated that. His study was full of high-tech equipment she couldn't identify. He was physically exhausting; he worked out religiously at his gym, ran, played tennis, went rock-climbing, even played darts at his favorite bar. He cooked and loved to drive and he listened to jazz until late into the night. He had way too much vigor for her; he made her feel like a slug.

She liked to read all day, swim a bit, have a walk around the neighborhood with Hitchcock. She was a news junkie, loved to shop on the Net, enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table taking notes for that law-journal article she would write someday.

They weren't kids, and melding their lifestyles didn't come easy. And sometimes, damn right again, she found this irritating.

But she wasn't ready to say these things, so instead she sat up and searched the nightstand for her cream and said, "I told you, I got a shot of prednisone when I was a kid when I had it bad. The next morning I couldn't get out of bed, and my dad called the doctor. Oh, he said, steroids can cause muscle weakness. I couldn't stand up, my legs wouldn't hold me. I had to lie down for a week."

"It cured the rash, didn't it?"

Nina finished applying the hydrocortisone cream, slowly screwed the lid on, and set it on the table. That question of his pushed her irritation to a new flaming height.

Paul lay on his back, the sheet pulled up to his hairy chest, his hands entwined behind his head, revealing armpits covered with the same curling golden hair she loved so much, observing her. His smooth skin was a reproach, and his self-assurance needed a good kick in the rear.

"Do what you want," he said, too late. When he began rubbing her back, she pulled away.

Her dog, Hitchcock, stirred on the rug, stretched and got up and padded into the far corner of the bedroom, sensing gnarly human vibes, looking for peace.

Nina said, lapsing into self-pity, "I feel like a crocodile."

"It's not that bad and it's not catching, honey. And I can't see it in the dark."

She thought, if this love affair ends in a day I won't be able to take it, that's the truth. I've been through enough. But I can't live like this either.

"This will never work," she blurted out.

"Whoa," Paul said. "I thought we were having fun. What catastrophe just happened that I missed?"

"I'm not cut out to be half of a couple. I'm a solitary person." She scratched her forearm.

Paul said in a soothing tone, "Right now, we're together. Right now, we're good."

He reached out a hand and stroked her hip prize-filly style. At least this part of her anatomy had no rash. His touch calmed her. The prickling of her skin seemed less intense.

She felt her blood heating up, rising to the surface of her skin as he continued to massage, moving from her hip down to her thigh. His hand slipped around to her front and his fingers cruised into the danger zone. "Look," he said, "all that wine you drank tonight dehydrated you and makes the rash feel worse. You'll feel better in the morning."

"Grr." Nina pushed off his hand and jumped out of bed. "Leave my drinking habits out of this." She marched around the cold bedroom, arms crossed, thinking dark thoughts. Was there some secret smooth path between men and women that she had yet to discover?

Paul got up on his elbow to watch her. "C'mon back," he said. "Bedtime."

She didn't answer.

"Don't make me get out of bed. One."

The warning, issued in Paul's husky, determined voice, aroused physical reactions, warmth and wetness.


Against the white of the sheet, his skin appeared darker than usual. He had an end-of-the-day roughness on his cheeks.

"Not till I'm good and ready!"

"I'll get you good and ready. Two and a half."


Paul flung back the covers. "You're asking for it," he said. He jumped out of bed. Nina slid open the screen and rushed out to the deck, Hitchcock joyous at her heels.

Outside, bright stars. Wide oaks studding dark hills. Sage scent. A motorcycle's red light winking on Carmel Valley Road. She stood at the wood railing, back to Paul, wondering what he would do next.


He put his arms around her from behind and pressed against her. "I'm sorry, honey," he said. "Whatever I did or said, I'm sorry." Then he mumbled some things about how he loved her, and the universe realigned in that shifty way it has. The anti-itch cream began working and the self-pity dissipated, because he was pressing insistently now, hard and ready.

His skin felt hot in the moist cool air. She let him lower her to the plastic chaise lounge and push up the nightgown and then she locked lips with him. He had hard lips, not the smooshy kind, lips that made definite demands.

Leaves crackled under her on the plastic strapping, marking her, but she was past caring. The Summer Triangle spread across the sky above her half-closed eyes and how unimaginably distant blazed that inferno of stars in the blacklit storm of energies--




The light next door went on. The curious Mr. Mitts, Paul's elderly neighbor, had awakened. The head of his fat tabby appeared on his windowsill, ears pricked, and Hitchcock made a hopeless run for it, barking and snarling and waking up the whole place.

"In we go," Paul whispered. He carried her in.

Paul lay drowsy beside her, his breath thickened into a burr.



"Are you awake?"


"Good night, sweetheart."

Paul didn't answer.

"You know"--she opened her eyes and let the moonlight fill them, let herself talk--"I've been thinking some more about why I left Tahoe. I wanted to be with you, I really did. I needed time off from law. I was wrung dry. We both know that."

No response from his side of the bed.

She sat up in bed and reached for her cream. "I've been here at your place for three weeks. Bob's gone to Europe for the summer, I rented my house at Tahoe, and another lawyer is running my office up there. Pieces of me are strewn all over the place."

She thought about that for a while, punching her pillow, searching for just the right angle to rest her head. "Paul? I can't stand that for long. Have you ever read about the shamans who go through a ceremony of being blasted apart? Metaphorically, I mean. And then they reassemble as new people. They have some guidance, though. Traditions and dogmas. I don't have any guidance at all, and smithereens of me are drifting around. What kind of new person am I becoming?"

He turned as though he heard her and laid a muscular arm over her chest, and the declaration he had asked for earlier launched itself silently in her head. She thought, even though you're too aggressive and you want to control me, I love you. But, Paul, I'm afraid you want a sidekick. I can't be just a sidekick. I fought too hard to be autonomous, free.

Free, such a rare state for a woman. Autonomous. A word too seldom linked with the word woman.

She felt herself turning as moody as a three-year-old whose ice cream had fallen off the cone. Damn it, she thought, touching a finger to his tanned cheek. I do sort of want to be your doggone sidekick, at the same time.

What happens now?

She spiraled down into anxious dreams.

The last one went like this: She was back in court at Tahoe, dressed up, made up, sharp, making a closing argument in a murder case. The ladies and gents of the jury watched intently as she held up her arm and scratched her forearm meaningfully, one time only.

Somehow in this dream logic everybody in the courtroom knew that one scratch meant, he's innocent. The jury members lifted their skinny legs and prepared to scratch back.

Just then the door opened and a lawyer named Jeffrey Riesner came in wearing an Armani suit. He looked bewildered. Nina remembered that he was dead and his face began to cave in and she ran out the back. The forest closed around her and she ran on until she came to a rock wall. She could hear his peculiar breathing behind her so she scrabbled up to a high ledge.

He flew up after her like a wasp, to throw her off and kill her--

She woke up, breathing hard, pushing the button on her watch to make it light up. Almost 6:00 a.m. Thursday morning had begun. The phone was ringing.

Chapter Two

"Wuh?" Paul said. He removed his arm from where it had come to rest on her chest.

Outside the sliding doors to the deck, ghostly fog, lit palely by a young sun somewhere above. On Nina's right, Paul lay on his back and went back to snoring. On her left, on a bedside table just big enough for a lamp, a pair of glasses, water, and a book, the phone continued to ring. She reached for it. It fell to the floor.
Perri O'Shaughnessy|Author Q&A

About Perri O'Shaughnessy

Perri O'Shaughnessy - Presumption of Death

Photo © Peter Von Mertens

Perri O'Shaughnessy is the pen name for sisters Mary and Pamela O’Shaughnessy, who both live in California. They are the authors of eleven bestselling Nina Reilly novels as well as a collection of short crime fiction, Sinister Shorts.

Author Q&A

We asked Lake Tahoe attorney Beth Melvin what she’d ask Perri O’Shaughnessy if given the opportunity. Here’s what she said:

Beth Melvin:
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been following the legal and personal adventures of Nina Reilly going on ten books now. As a heroine, she gets more interesting with each new installment. How you do keep this woman—first introduced as a determined but struggling single mother with a touch-and-go law practice in Lake Tahoe—so fresh and interesting?

Perri O’Shaughnessy:
We planned from the beginning to make Nina a developing character. She started as a rather inexperienced, not-very-savvy young lawyer in Motion to Suppress who makes a big legal mistake. As she learned how to handle murder cases, her judgment got better and we think the readers enjoyed watching her learn through experience.

We also let the people around Nina develop. Her son, Bob, has gone from child to teenager. Sandy, her secretary, has taken a leave of absence and a Washington political job, and gotten married. Paul, too, has changed his attitudes since making his own mistakes, like the time he broke his leg in a road rage episode.

But the real secret is that we have taken Nina through ten years of our lives (ten books), and compressed ten years of experiences into about three. So, in addition to taking on way too many trials, Nina has divorced, re-married, been widowed, and fallen in love again. She moves fast—that’s why she’s interesting.

BM: As a lawyer myself, I find it surprising that there seem to be no other women writing about women lawyers. Sara Paretsky’s V.I Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone are both PIs. John Grisham and Scott Turow are obviously males, and though they do write about lawyers, their characters are male. Any theories on why this might be?

PO: Actually, there are quite a few. Kate Wilhelm has a woman lawyer character. Linda Fairstein, an experienced trial attorney, uses women lawyers. Of course, there are still a lot more men lawyers out there who are turning to writing books, so it’s natural that we’d still have more male lawyer characters. Women lawyers are more fun, though, because they are outsiders from the get-go, and their personal lives are far more conflicted in general.

BM: When I read your first book, Motion to Suppress, I was immediately struck by how well you portrayed the “old boys network” that so many women lawyers experience. Was it cathartic to write about Nina’s experience as a female lawyer in Tahoe?

Sure! It’s real, it’s ongoing, and many women still feel like outsiders. The “ah-ha” moments come every week—realizing the (male) judge just doesn’t feel comfortable chatting with you, that you have to have meetings rather than informal get-togethers at lunch or dinner because you or the (male) lawyer are married, sitting in the Court of Appeals under a dozen portraits of (male) justices, knowing you didn’t get the client referral because the (male) lawyer isn’t a buddy.

It gets discouraging. Some women lawyers become “old boys”—it can be done.
Some get bitter and drink a lot. Some accept that they’ll always be on the fringes.

We’re talking about the Law of the Father here, law enforced, made, and interpreted primarily by men. When Pam went to law school, Harvard had just made the switch from a 2% quota for women to 13% women. But once the floodgates opened, women showed themselves to be outstanding students and lawyers. Pam would say women have a natural edge in both verbal facility and human understanding which is gradually lightening the heavy-jawed, bristle-browed face of the law. Meantime, we enjoy making fun of the situation!

BM: As a lawyer in Tahoe, I know when you’ve taken poetic license with some of your locales. How much freedom do you feel you have when adapting what you know?

Good question. We want to be authoritative and show we know the town and area, and even to tip our hats to some of our favorite restaurants, clubs, and places. But if we’re going to show a crime in a location, or accuse an employee of a business, for instance, of the crime, we make up the name. So we have Paul staying at Caesars, a real club at South Lake Tahoe, but we made up a casino/hotel called Prize’s so the dirt could go down there.

We admit we did have some bodies buried at the real fire lookout at Angora Ridge in Invasion of Privacy, and some readers have gone there and written of their disappointment at not finding a dank sinister basement under it! Other readers have taken their vacation at Tahoe and enjoyed going around to Nina’s haunts, so we keep as much as we can real.

BM: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about what it is like to write as a team, and as sisters living in different states. (Readers, please visit www.perrio.com and www.perrioshaughnessy.com to learn more.) How have your collaborative efforts evolved and changed over time?

Since we have always gotten along well and done things together (we’re best friends), writing books together was not a big stretch. Over time we have developed more trust in each other, learned to hold our tongues better when we disagree, and gotten even closer. We feel lucky to have found a way to remain close as adults, no matter where we live.

BM: What scene in one of your own books are you most surprised you wrote? Why?

Pam says it’s the one in, we think, Move to Strike, when Nina removes her coat in Paul’s hotel room to reveal . . . more we cannot say. Must have been a long-buried erotic fantasy surfacing. In Presumption of Death, we were surprised at how much fun we had with the lap-dancing scene. In Acts of Malice, our brother went over the climactic scene of the killer’s death and helped us make it truly scary, better than we could have done on our own. In UNLUCKY IN LAW, our forthcoming book, we were amazed to find out that the person we thought was the killer all the way through wasn’t! We’re often surprised by how our careful outlines change as we fall into the story and it takes us where it’s going.



"Counselor Nina Reilly keeps on ... getting better. Generous heart, steel-trap brain, elegant looks: great fun to read about."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"The protagonists are well-rounded and engaging, the legal issues are clarified for the layman, and the pace is relentless. Presumption of Death virtually demands to be read in one sitting."—BookPage

"Well-rounded and likable characters set against a richly described backdrop of some of the loveliest country in the world."—Publishers Weekly

  • Presumption of Death by Perri O'Shaughnessy
  • April 27, 2004
  • Fiction - Suspense; Fiction - Legal
  • Dell
  • $7.99
  • 9780440240877

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