Authors: Virginia Kantra
"Then say yes." Rob smiled charmingly. "I'll pick you up around seven."
Maddox stiffened. It's over, she'd told him, but she was wrong. As long as Rob had power over their son, it would never be over.
Her stomach churned. She didn't want to go with him. But she didn't want to antagonize him, either.
For Mitchell's sake.
Maybe if she gave him one more night to play the wronged but generous husband he would leave them alone?
She swallowed. "Actually," she said, "I already told Val I'd go with her. Con's on a consulting trip, and she wanted company. Maybe we'll see you there."
It was a partial capitulation, a promise of public support. But was it enough to appease him?
Apparently so, because he nodded.
"That might do. And for God's sake, wear something nice. I don't want people thinking I'm not giving you money."
He wasn't, except for minimal child support. But she wasn't eager to go there. Not with Maddox bridling at each new proof of Rob's continued hold on her. She just wanted to get away.
"I'm sure I have something."
"The blue thing's not bad. At least it covers you decently."
That had always been important to Rob, that she cover the parts of herself he wasn't interested in any longer.
Just because you acted like a slut in high school doesn't mean you have to dress like one now.
She bit her lip. She wasn't sure what she said in reply. She was too conscious of Maddox, seething and dangerous beside her.
And Val. Oh, dear.
Val wasn't going to be happy with her, either. She'd just committed her best friend to an evening of committee talk
Rob. Rob, who had tried to kill
. And now Val would have to acknowledge him at the club.
No wonder Rob oozed satisfaction as he left.
Ann closed her eyes, trying to shut out the crowded lobby and the knowledge of what she'd done.
"What the hell was that about?" Maddox asked.
His tone should have upset her. But at least Maddox was direct in his anger. She knew where she was with Maddox.
She opened her eyes. "There's a dance at the club tomorrow night. Remember? Rob offered to give me a ride."
"And you turned him down."
"And he backed out of taking Mitchell to the fireworks."
"So now you're going to do what he wants?"
Her hands were shaking. She folded them together. "No.
—do you think he's after?"
His voice was rough. He was big and intimidating and scornful, and she still wanted to crawl into his pocket. Boy, did she have lousy instincts.
"I don't know," she said wearily. "Maybe it's just what he says. Maybe he wants people to see him as the wronged, understanding husband for one night."
"Or maybe he can't let you go."
She blinked. "He just divorced me."
"In my line of work, that's usually the most dangerous time. You're leaving his control."
A memory swamped her of the emergency room the night Rob broke her nose. Bright lights and efficient hands, white linen, red blood and pain. The nurse had given Ann the phone number of the women's shelter, printed on an anonymous slip of paper to hide in her shoe.
You don't want him to know you're leaving, honey
, the tired nurse explained.
There's no telling what he'll do.
She knew. He'd told her.
I'll kill you.
She felt his past threats in her flesh, like deep, enduring bruises, and along her bones, like old fractures.
She folded her arms at her waist. "He's been better this week.
Maddox looked down at her with his cop look, strong and skeptical and in charge, and she had to fight a burst of resentment.
"You ever ask yourself why?" he asked.
"I'm not stupid. Of course I wondered."
"He saw us together Monday night at your son's ball game. Could be he's worried."
"That I'm involved with you," she said flatly.
"Or that I'm involved with you. Maybe his lawyer warned him about letting a key witness for the prosecution play
with the cops."
"What difference would that make? I thought the investigation was over."
"Not until trial."
"Have you…" Her mind grappled with the possibilities.
Rob locked up. Her head pounded. She
did not want to deal with this.
She bad enough to deal with.
But this entire mess was her fault, because she hadn't had the guts to stand up to Rob in the first place. She owed it to Val to see it through to the end. She owed it to herself.
She took a deep breath. "Have you found out anything new?"
Maddox hesitated, as if debating what to tell her. So he didn't trust her. She wasn't surprised.
"Not yet," he said. "But if I do, you can bet old
is going to want to find some way to undercut your testimony."
"He can't do that. The police have my statement."
"Sure we do. But if he can produce forty witnesses to swear you let him twirl you around the dance floor the day after your divorce, he can poke holes in your story about what an abusive jerk he is."
She winced. Everything he said was true. But it shamed her that he saw it so clearly.
"Well, that explains his interest in me very nicely."
Maddox frowned. "I think you should be aware of his motives, is all."
"Yes. Thank you. Obviously, a man would need an ulterior motive to come after me."
"I'm saying Rob would," he said carefully.
Above her raging headache, her thoughts darted quick as swallows. "You're thinking anyone would. You did yourself."
Maddox stiffened. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You came to see me because Rob asked you to straighten me out."
His expression wiped clean. "Well, I guess you've got me figured. Me and old Rob, we're one and the same."
She should have known he wouldn't deny it. But even through her distress, she recognized she was being unjust. Guilt pinched her.
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Sure." His tone was dismissive. Flat.
Accepting of judgment.
She'd hurt him, Ann realized. It simmered in his eyes. It radiated from his stiff, unyielding posture.
The knowledge shook her. She was almost more afraid of his pain than his anger. She hadn't known she had that kind of power over him. She was pretty sure she didn't want that responsibility. Her life was complicated enough without her taking on a big, tough cop with his own emotional baggage.
Bad enough that she didn't defend herself.
Was she really such a coward that she would strike out at the one person who might be trying to help her?
She sighed. "I'm sorry."
His face was still carefully blank. "I don't want your apologies."
If they weren't in public, she would have risked touching him. She would have liked to touch him, the angles of his face,
hard curve of his biceps beneath his uniform sleeve.
He shot her an annoyed look. She wasn't sure if that was an improvement over the granite cop face or not. "I don't want your pity."
, because I don't feel sorry for you. But I do appreciate that you're trying to help."
"I don't want your damn gratitude, either."
She put up her chin. "Maddox … I'm a convicted felon on probation.
A witness in an attempted murder case.
Before you get mixed up with me, maybe you should think about what you
The memory of his words whispered between them, roughening her nerve endings.
You are what I want, Annie. You've always been what I want.
"Is that an offer?" he asked quietly.
Her heart skipped. What would he do if she said yes? She flushed. "No."
The corners of his eyes crinkled suddenly. "Not used to turning down sex?"
There was so much tender amusement in the question that she smiled cautiously back. "I'm not used to having the choice," she said without thinking.
His grin disappeared as if it had never been. Tension coiled his muscles. He was angry. And even though his fury wasn't directed at her, Ann's heart stumbled.
She hurried into speech. "I didn't mean—I'm not used to a lot of things. That's all I meant. I need to have control."
"Control of what?" he asked through his teeth.
Her hands fluttered.
"And you think I'd threaten that?"
"Without meaning to, maybe.
I just can't afford to let myself get involved with anyone right now."
"What the hell am I supposed to say to that?" he asked bleakly. "If I try to change your mind, I'm doing exactly what you're afraid of."
She winced at the bitterness in his voice. "I know," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize," he snapped.
"I'm—" She stopped, twisting her hands on her purse.
"Hell, I'm sorry, too." He blew out a short, explosive breath and then rubbed his jaw with the back of his hand. "Okay," he said, visibly clamping down his temper.
You're in control. Now figure out what you want." His hooded gaze stabbed her, hot and compelling. "Because from where I'm sitting, as long as you're alone and miserable, Rob is still calling the shots."
nn balked on the clubhouse steps smack between two marble planters as big as bathtubs.
"I still think this was a mistake," she said.
Val, glowing in a green-patterned gown that pulled slightly across her stomach, patted her arm. "It'll be fine. We'll sit with my parents—"
"Who are friends with all Rob's
"—and we'll leave right after Rob notices you're here." Ann fussed with the catch on her black evening bag. "I don't want you to have to talk to him."
"You may not be able to avoid it. If he comes over—"
"He won't. He's too afraid of my husband."
"Your husband isn't here."
Val looked at her sharply. "You're whining."
"I know." Ann said humbly. "I'm sorry. I'm terrible company. Let's go."
Val laughed. "Nice try. No." Her expression gentled. "Sweetie, we'll be fine. Come on."
"I don't feel good about this," Ann muttered.
"Well, you look good," Val said, tugging her up the terraced steps. The trees outside the tall windows were twined with fairy lights. Piano music filtered through the glass. "I'm glad you borrowed the dress."
Another lurch of misgiving fixed Ann on the spot. Black and fitted, it flared at her hips and floated around her calves. She'd borrowed Val's dress as a flag of defiance, hoping some of her confidence would shake out of the folds. Only now, facing the arena of her last defeat, Ann wondered if the dress had been another mistake.
Her hand crept to finger one of the spaghetti straps that threatened to slide off her narrow shoulders. "Are you sure it's not too much? I feel naked."
"It looks great," Val said firmly. "And you look wonderful. What I'd give to have your bones."
Ann smiled. "Bones are all I have. No cleavage."
"You don't need cleavage in that dress. No one's going to be able to take their eyes off you."
"Dear Lord." She felt light-headed. "I can't breathe."
"You'll be fine. We'll be fine. You'll see."
Ann had never been comfortable at the club. Even after she learned how to transfer her olive pit to her plate and not to call the towel attendant by name, there were a thousand subtleties of conversation that marked
outsider: fashionable resorts she hadn't seen, sorority sisters she hadn't met, clothing designers she'd never heard of.
She never broke the plane that separated her from the club wives, never found the topic that made her one of them. Oh, she pretended. Maybe they pretended, too. Maybe behind their double-foiled hair and manicured hands they kept their own secrets: a child's failure, a malign growth in the breast, a morning cocktail, a husband who extracted payment for the SUV and new living room drapes in pain and fear and blood. But they didn't talk about these things over tennis lunches or drinks poolside. They never confessed the flaws that might have made them kin.
It was better coming as a guest, Ann decided as she trailed Val through the gleaming lobby. Entering the chilled and scented dining room, she could almost pretend she was in some upscale department store at Christmas, admiring the larger-than-life displays and perfectly dressed and posed mannequins.
Val's parents, Edward and Sylvia Cutler, were propped at their table like a pair of dummies. He could have modeled Better Clothing for Men. She was a breathing display of Ladies' Jewelry. Tanned and toned and cool and polite, they managed to greet Ann without making one reference to the fact that she and her ex-husband had robbed their daughter and their bank of twenty thousand dollars. It didn't matter. Ann still felt as if the word Thief was tattooed on her forehead.
Val hissed at her as they made their way to the bar for a drink.
"Everybody's staring." Ann excused herself softly.
"It's the dress. Oh, shoot, there's Mackenzie."
Mackenzie Ward, her Outer Banks tan set off by her white silk
bore down on them like a yacht in full sail. Her bright eyes flicked over Ann's bare shoulders. She did not say hello. "I wonder if you would mind coming over to our
is throwing her niece's bridal shower, and I told her all about your darling little restaurant, and she's just dying to talk menus with you."
"Maybe another time?
Ann was not going to cost Val another penny—or a lucrative catering contract. "You go ahead," she said. "I'll be fine."
"No," Val said.
Mackenzie tucked her hand in Val's arm. "Charlene is just going out of her mind planning this thing. The niece doesn't eat meat, and her sister breaks out in spots if she so much as looks at fish, so you're their only hope."
Val tossed her head, making her earrings dance. "Really, Mackenzie—"
Ann fought the flutter of panic in her stomach. "It's all right. I want you to go."
She needed her to go.
If she could find Rob while Val was discussing
and strawberry tarts with the bride-to-be, she might be able to keep the two of them apart.
"Well… If you're sure…" Val said doubtfully.
"Positive," Ann lied.
"We'll only be a minute." Mackenzie Ward flashed her teeth at Ann, reward for her cooperation. "I'll bring her right back."
Ann nodded. Val was dragged away, throwing worried looks over her shoulder. Just for a second, Ann warmed herself with her friend's obvious loyalty and concern. And then she drew a deep breath and went in search of Rob.
She bumped around the edges of the room, trying to scan the chardonnay crowd without snagging anyone's attention. Most of her old social circle seemed as eager to avoid her eyes as she was to miss theirs. Occasionally someone would stare back and then deliberately look away. Ann felt the heat crawl into her face. She might be tolerated in town, but she wasn't welcome here. She accepted that. This was Rob's turf.
But where was Rob?
She braved the bar again, but she couldn't get past the anteroom where men were lined six and eight deep to bring their spouses drinks.
"…on the fourteenth hole."
"…see what she was wearing?"
She did her best to shut out the voices, to ignore the pit-deep conviction they were all discussing her. Craning her neck, she searched for her ex-husband's blond head and heavy shoulders in the crush. Someone stepped on her shoes. An Armani-wearing golfer rushed the bar, forcing her back into a potted palm.
She wanted to go home, back to her son and her garden. The memory of Maddox's deep voice taunted her.
As long as you're alone and miserable, Rob is still calling the shots
. She ignored him, too. What did he know?
"Are you all right?" a man asked gruffly behind her.
Her heart leapt. She turned, battling resentment and gladness.
looking up at the red-faced, gray-haired, hard-jawed chief of police. Wallace Palmer.
Her heart plummeted from her throat to the tips of her black silk shoes. Would he ask her to leave?
But what he actually said was, "Can I get you a drink?"
"N-no," Ann stammered. "Thank you."
The chief looked almost as uncomfortable as she felt. Maybe it was being out of uniform? His summer jacket and starched white shirt sat oddly on his squared shoulders.
"Looking for someone?"
Ann blinked. She didn't know what to tell him. He'd been Rob's fan and then Rob's champion. As far as she knew, the chief hadn't been in on the deal that traded her guilty plea in return for her testimony in Rob's embezzlement trial.
"I'm here with Val MacNeill," she said.
The woman her ex-husband stood accused of trying to murder.
Wallace Palmer nodded. "I saw her parents. Sylvia looks well."
"Um … yes." Ann twisted her hands together, practically backing into the palm tree. Fronds tickled her shoulder blades. This was awful.
Why didn't he go away? The police chief always struck her as more a public servant than a social leader. For the first time, she wondered if that made him an outsider here, too.
The thought gave her courage to ask, "Are you—that is, you're not working tonight?"
"No." He unbent enough to give her a small smile.
"Though maybe I should be.
In case the bar runs out of ice and this crowd, you know, gets out of control."
He'd actually made a joke.
Cautiously, Ann smiled back. "That could get ugly."
Chief Palmer cleared his throat. "It looked like it was getting pretty ugly already. Let me get you that drink."
She was touched by his stiff gallantry. "Oh, you don't have to do that."
"Humph. According to my son, I haven't done enough for you in the past. The least I can do now is
Unexpected tears stung her eyes. Oh, dear. She was not—she absolutely was
—going to lose it because Maddox's father was being kind. She bowed her head, grateful for the screening palm. "Thank you," she whispered. "That would be … very nice."
She nodded. His shiny brown loafers squeaked away. "Whew." Val's cheerful voice forced Ann's head up. "If Charlene
had been in charge of my bridal shower, I would have eloped."
Ann struggled to answer in kind. "Be nice. For all you know, your mother's recruited her to host your baby shower."
Val laughed. "Bite your tongue. Why are you hiding out in the decorations? Did you see Rob?"
Ann bit her lip. "Not yet."
And now she didn't want to. Not with Val standing beside her. But before Ann could ferry her friend back to the safety of the Cutlers' table, Rob entered the bar, big and blond, affable and assured. Ann shrank back into the palm tree.
But of course he saw her anyway. Or maybe he smelled her fear, like a predator scenting prey. Under the sleek black dress, Ann felt a thin trickle of sweat crawl down her spine. Rob used to tell her she would never get away from him. They were bound together in pain and shame and blood. Maybe he just
she was here.
Ann grabbed Val's arm. "Should we go sit down?"
Val lifted her perfectly arched brows. "Are we in a hurry?"
"Yes," Ann said baldly.
But it was already too late.
Rob negotiated the crowd around the bar as easily as Moses parting the Red Sea. He waited until she met his eyes before he smiled, cool and knowing. A chill chased up the back of her arms.
Once she would have screamed when he looked at her like that, as if he had an enjoyable secret only she could share. Once she would have run. But screaming never brought help. And running only brought him after her.
She stayed where she was, sick and dumb, trapped between her friend and a stupid plant and sapped by a familiar paralysis.
She still heard, dimly, polite laughter from the dining room, the persistent flourish of the piano, the clink of glasses and bottles. At the edge of her vision, she saw the sudden consternation on Val's face and movement in the lobby. But all of that was wavy and distorted. None of it penetrated the fishbowl world she shared with Rob.
He stopped in front of them. "Isn't this nice," he said.
movement at the corner of her eye stabilized into a large, dark mass on her right, solid and close
enough to distract her.
Maddox—it was Maddox's voice, now that she heard the real thing she wondered that she'd ever confused it with his father's—said, "Turn around."
A different kind of tension gripped Ann. Even out of uniform, he looked dangerous. It was more than his ill-fitting jacket or unruly hair and slouching posture. He broadcast menace.
But for Ann, Maddox carried with him the promise of rescue, the possibility of comfort, as much a part of him as his badge or his gun. And that promise was the most dangerous thing of all. She couldn't trust anybody else to solve her problems ever again.
Rob stiffened in offense. "Excuse me?"
Maddox gave him a hard look from under hooded lids. "Turn around and walk away."
He didn't raise his voice, but Rob heard him. The man next to them, waiting to give his order to the bartender, heard him, too. They were attracting attention. Maddox gave no sign that he observed the sidelong looks, the suspended conversations in the bar. But Rob would notice. Rob would care.
"You can't talk to me like that," Rob said, low and cold. "You don't belong here."
Maddox shrugged. "I'm here now. And you're leaving."