Authors: Virginia Kantra
"You're not even a member."
"I'm a member of the Cutler Police Department. And I'm telling you if you don't turn around and walk away, I'm going into the dining room to find Judge
and get a restraining order that will keep you away."
Rob sneered. "You can't. He won't. I haven't threatened her."
"Threatened who?" Maddox
But Ann could still hear him. Everybody standing around could hear him. Beside her, Val watched the two men with fascinated interest.
Rob made an abrupt gesture. Ann flinched. "Her.
"Ex-wife," Maddox growled. "And the restraining order is for Mrs. MacNeill. I figure a murder attempt is threat enough to have you thrown out."
The charge rippled through the room like a rock tossed in a pond. No one was comfortable with the reminder that one of their own was accused of the attempted murder of the banker's daughter.
Rob turned an ugly red. "You're making a mistake, MD. The police haven't proved anything."
"It's three weeks to trial. What do you want to bet I can turn something up?"
Rob's anger was a palpable thing. It pulsed against his collar and escaped like sweat into the air. Ann shrank inside her skin. Did anyone else smell it? Did anyone else feel it?
Because Rob smiled his I'm-the-good-guy smile and shook his head in bemused acceptance. "I'd try to tell you how wrong you are, MD, but unlike some people, I don't relish making a scene." He nodded to the lineup at the bar. "I'll leave the nice folks here to enjoy their evening."
It was retreat with dignity. But it was a retreat. Ann could calculate the cost in the set of Rob's shoulders and the tiny tic in his right cheek. And she wondered as he stalked away: now that she wasn't there to take the force of his anger, who else would pay for the damage to Rob's pride?
Val blew out an exaggerated breath.
"Mad Dog Palmer.
This is quite a reunion."
Maddox turned his attention from Rob's back. "Now you know why I never made it for homecoming."
She grinned appreciatively. "We missed you."
"Did you?" he asked, but his eyes were on Ann, demanding a response she wasn't sure she knew how to give.
Her body didn't know that. Her stupid body was ready to give him anything he asked for. She blushed.
A handsome giant in a wilted suit entered through the tall glass doors that led to the lobby. He paused, surveying the room, and then strode purposefully toward them.
"Am I late?" Con MacNeill asked.
Val's whole face lit up. "I thought you were spending tonight in Boston. What are you doing here?"
He kissed her, a brief, hard kiss. "Annie's cop called me. I caught an earlier flight in." His astute blue gaze took in Maddox, big as a house and much more hostile.
Maddox nodded. "Maddox Palmer."
He offered his hand. They shook, testing grips.
Val hugged her husband's arm to her breast. "What is this, a wrestling match? You already missed the countdown, MacNeill."
"That's what I'd like to know." Chief Palmer appeared from the direction of the bar, bringing Ann's drink and a cloud of displeasure with him. "You overstep your authority, MD?"
Ann sucked in her breath. There was enough testosterone swirling around to qualify the club bar for Danny's Roadhouse on a Saturday night. So, she felt a little shaky surrounded by oversize, overbearing males. So, she had reasons of her own to doubt Maddox's stepping in. That didn't mean she wasn't grateful to him for rescuing her friend from an uncomfortable confrontation that was largely Ann's fault.
"Val and I were just thanking your son for his preventive police work," she said softly.
The chief snorted. "Is that what it was?" But his eyes, as be handed over her wine, were surprisingly approving. "I guess you think you're entitled to some police protection."
"Overdue," Con MacNeill said in his brief, cool way.
Val squeezed his arm.
"Maybe," the chief said.
Ann went still. He believed her?
Rob had said the police would never believe her. He explained it to her, over and over, punctuating his words with his fists until she finally accepted it as true. The chief would think—because Rob would tell him—that Ann was only bored.
He would never believe that Rob could simply heat her up. Or maybe he'd wonder just enough to drop a warning word to Rob, and she and Mitchell would be worse off than before.
Wallace Palmer's grudging admission now was validation on a level Ann had not sought or expected.
According to my son,
I haven't done enough for you in the past
. It made her want to cry.
to her?" Maddox asked.
"It's none of your business what I'm doing," his father snapped. "You just think twice before you go committing the resources of my department again."
"I got a call from Tyler Greene," Maddox said.
The lab results are in."
Ann's hands tightened on her wineglass.
The chief stiffened like an old dog that's spotted a squirrel.
"And they've got something on a matchbook. I told him to run it for ink residue, see what they could identify."
He'll get back to me."
The chief looked sour. "Your timing stinks."
He looked at Ann. "But eventually I get it right."
Ann's pulse sprinted at the heat in his eyes. She took a hasty sip of wine.
Con lifted his eyebrows.
"Well," Val said brightly. "This is too much excitement for me for one night." She smiled at her husband. "Want to take me home, MacNeill?"
"You'll have to drive, Dixie. I caught a cab from the airport."
"Oh, but—" Ann stopped. She was not imposing on Val any further.
"I've got my car," Maddox said. "You can ride with me."
* * *
His car smelled like him, leather and tobacco and man. It had deep, flat seats, to accommodate his legs, and a complicated-looking radio. Maddox didn't turn it on. They drove with the air conditioner on and the night closed out, and the silence pulsed around them.
Ann cleared her throat. "The last time you drove me home, we ended up out on the river road."
His hands flexed on the steering wheel, but his voice was neutral. "Don't worry. I won't drag you into the back seat tonight."
"You wouldn't need to," she said without thinking. "You've got bench seats now."
She felt his tiny jolt of surprise, instantly controlled, and bit her tongue. "I shouldn't have said that. It must be the wine talking."
He gave her a quick, assessing glance.
"One glass of Chablis.
But I didn't eat much," she offered in excuse.
"It's okay. I wasn't planning on getting lucky, anyway." His bluntness brought her chin up.
"I don't get lucky in the back seats of cars. I get pregnant."
"That was how…?"
She twisted her hands together.
"Well, there's a real mood breaker," Maddox said savagely. Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out a crumpled cigarette and held it up.
"Third one today.
If you're counting."
This was awful. They were practically snarling at each other. What was she doing, rehashing old, bad sex with the man who'd rejected her in high school?
"I don't want to do this," Ann said shakily.
"Yeah, you already made that clear."
"No, I mean, fight with you." She closed her eyes. "I don't want to fight with you."
There was a charged silence in the car.
"Fighting's not so bad," Maddox said slowly. "If you do it right."
"I'm terrible at it. I have trouble expressing anger."
"Is that so?"
Ann nodded earnestly. "I saw a counselor over in Chapel Hill for a while. She said I need to work on the discrepancy between my feelings and my body language."
So I should take the fact that you're pressed up against the door over there as a sign that you're really ready to have screaming sex with me?"
She snickered and then clapped her hand over her mouth.
He raised his sandy eyebrows.
The glow from the dashboard edged his smile with green light "Though if you change your mind, I've got condoms."
But she was smiling, too. "Am I supposed to find that reassuring?"
"Sorry." He didn't sound sorry. He sounded distracted. "So, I'm not smooth."
"I don't want smooth," she said, deciding it was true. Rob had been smooth. "Honest is better. And it was—" How did you thank a man for buying birth control? Especially when he set off a hum in your blood that made you feel like you might actually one day be tempted to use it.
"Yeah, I'm a prince." He said it absently, like his mind was somewhere else.
She was disappointed. After the condom remark, she didn't think she would have to work for his attention. To get it back, she said, "Of course, you making the purchase ahead of time
create a certain level of expectation."
"No expectations. No pressure. I told you, the next move is up to you." He shot her a sideways look.
"Though it would help if you weren't wearing that dress."
She straightened defensively. "What's wrong with my dress?"
"Nothing's wrong with it."
Rob had always criticized her clothes. Ann forgot about not wanting to fight. "Val loaned me this dress. I think it's pretty, and it's cool."
"It looks great. It makes me hot,
Oh," he repeated grimly.
Ann stared out the windshield at the white road markers flickering past. He wasn't distracted at all, she thought dazedly. He was thinking about her dress. He was thinking about her. She made him
The possibilities made her dizzy.
She knew better than to live her life at the mercy of her hormones. She really did. She had firsthand experience of the consequences of one unplanned, uncomfortable act.
But Maddox bought birth control.
She twisted her hands together in her lap. So, then, if pregnancy wasn't the issue, what was?
Could she make love with him? Could she give herself up to him? Could she risk letting another man invade her body and control her responses?
Unbidden, Maddox's words came back to her.
From where I sit, as long as you're alone and miserable, Rob is still calling the shots.
She was still afraid. But she was more afraid of letting Rob control her life than she was of sex with Maddox. She had something to prove now, to him and to herself.
Ann snuck a glance at him, hard and silent on the other side of the car. It wouldn't be awful, she reassured herself. She moistened her lips. She had liked kissing him. She liked the feel of his warm, firm lips, his broad, solid body. She liked the way he made her feel.
She wanted to feel that way again.
If she didn't look at him, she could probably say it. "If the dress bothers you, I could take it off."
tree jumped into the headlights and away as the car lurched toward the curb and then straightened.
Maddox gripped the wheel.
It wasn't only the car that was out of control. His pulse was racing. His body surged. "Where the hell did that come from?"
From the corner of his eye, he saw her wince. "I'm sorry," she said stiffly. "I thought I was responding to your comment."
Damn. She was apologizing again. He might know squat about women, but he knew Annie well enough to realize that was bad.
"No, no. That's great. Take off anything you want. Just—" He was sweating. His hands were clammy on the wheel. "Look, would you mind if we stopped somewhere first? Before I run us both off the road?"
"Stopped somewhere? You mean, like for coffee?"
In the dim glow of the dashboard, her knuckles were white. "Not a motel."
"No." Something inside him twisted at her obvious distress. Besides, he wouldn't last five minutes with her in a motel. "Somewhere we can talk."
"You want to talk." Her voice was expressionless.
This was not going well, he acknowledged. Maybe on her turf, she'd be more comfortable?
"How about your place?"
"No. My baby-sitter … and then Mitchell will still be up." His fingers drummed the steering wheel. "We're grownups, for crying out loud. It shouldn't be this hard to find a place to be alone."
Ann's faint smile filtered through the dark like starlight. "It's because we're grown-ups that it's so difficult."
"So, what did we do when we were kids?"
But the answer already throbbed in the air between them, as impossible to ignore as another couple on a double date. Teenagers in Cutler parked on the river road.
I don't get lucky in the back seats of cars, she'd told him. I get pregnant.
Maddox cracked the window and flicked out his unlit cigarette. Birth control or no birth control, he wasn't going to be another bum who hurt her. "Never mind," he said.
To his surprise, she didn't immediately agree with him. "You said we needed privacy."
"To talk, I said."
"We can talk. I need to thank you, anyway. What you did, keeping Rob away from Val … I'm very grateful."
Her soft, precise voice cut under his skin. Her shoulders gleamed in the dim interior of the car. She was killing him. "How grateful?" he asked grimly.
"What do you mean?"
Trees arched over the road, screening the sky. The moon played prisoner behind their branches. Without him ever making a conscious choice, he'd already taken the turnoff for the river. But the cop in him persisted in questioning her. If Ann was offering herself to him out of some misplaced sense of obligation, she deserved better. And he deserved to know.
"This little road trip down memory lane… Is this how you say thank you?
Because I don't want some sacrificial virgin."
She came back at him with the fragile humor that was part of her new toughness and part of her old appeal. "You said it yourself. I'm not a virgin anymore."
Near enough to make him sweat, he thought.
"How about a sacrifice?"
He felt her straighten up beside him. "You were right. This was a bad idea. Take me home now, please."
"You don't have to drive all the way to the river to tell me you don't want me.
Spare us both that."
Maddox swore silently. Rob had broken more than her nose. He'd battered her self-esteem. What Maddox saw as respect for her, she would take as rejection. He still wasn't sure she was ready for this.
But telling her so wasn't getting either of them anywhere.
"The only thing I'm trying to spare you is another lousy car-sex memory. I want you so bad I can't see straight, all right?"
No answer. The tires rumbled on the road. Maddox glanced over. Her profile was turned away from him. She clenched and unclenched her hands in her lap.
"If you can't see, it can't be safe for you to drive," she said reasonably, a little quiver in her voice that just about did him in. "You should pull over. There!" She leaned forward suddenly, her shoulders pale and slender in the dark. Her finger stabbed at the windshield. "There's a place to stop."
Maddox stared in disbelief. It was no more than a widening of the road, a gravel strip where fishermen could leave their cars and tromp down the soft bank. Shrubs half screened it from the road. High trees separated it from the water. As make-out spots went, this one wasn't scenic. It was barely even private.
She had to be pretty damn desperate to suggest stopping here.
He'd have to be horny or crazy—or both—to listen to her.
He pulled over.
The car bumped off the road and jolted down the slight incline. He took it as deep into the bushes as he dared, cringing as the branches shrieked across the paint, and cut the engine and the lights. His pulse thudded in his ears. He wondered if she could hear it in the silence.
He unrolled his window and angled against the driver's side door, facing her.
She dipped her head. Her hair slid forward, a whisper in the darkness. "I was hoping you had some ideas."
The images exploded in his brain: Annie under him, open to him, astride him, her tender mouth,
slender thighs parting to take him. Blood rushed from his head. His groin was heavy. His tongue felt thick.
I need to be in control
, she'd said. And he was dangerously close to losing his.
Oh, damn. He wrapped his hands around the steering wheel again to keep from grabbing for her. He should never have thrown away that cigarette.
"Tell me what you want, Annie," he said hoarsely. "I'll do it. Whatever you want, however you want it. You tell me."
"I don't know." The words burst out of her. "How can I tell you? I don't know."
He was too old for this.
Too big and too clumsy to be fumbling around in a car.
Particularly with Annie, who deserved gentleness and
And a bed.
But there was no way he was going to crush her courage by denying her now.
Maybe this was his chance to prove to both of them that he could get it right.
"Okay," he said. "Then we'll have to make it up as we go along."
He could kiss her, he decided. She had liked his kisses. He eyed the yard of cushioned vinyl that stretched between them. The outline of her head was a deeper shadow against the darkness outside. She was still pressed tight against the door.
She was scared. And he was terrified of screwing this up. "Of course, it would help if you'd come over here," he said, as gently as he could.
The outline moved as she nodded. The vinyl squeaked as she scooted toward him. Her scent—anxiety and shampoo and something sweet that was hers alone—tickled his nostrils. Her knee pressed his thigh.
Maddox was sweating. He started to shrug off his jacket, and she jerked and froze.
"Relax," he murmured. "I'm just getting rid of the old country club uniform, okay?"
He decided to let this apology pass. He struggled out of his jacket. She helped him when his elbows stuck in the sleeves. Taking the jacket from her, he folded it over the back of the seat between them, feeling awkward as a bridegroom.
"Should I—should I take off my dress now?"
, his body clamored.
"No rush," he said. "How about I put my arm around you instead?"
She laughed, a quicksilver fall of amusement that surprised them both. "You wouldn't have said
when we were teenagers."
"Probably not," he admitted wryly. "My body had two gears in those days, Full Stop and Full Speed Ahead. Guess you remember."
"I remember 'Stop.'" The humor in her voice didn't hide the hurt.
Hell. It wasn't only Rob who had shredded her confidence as a woman.
"That's okay. That's a good word for a woman to know. You say it, and I'll listen to it. I promise. But, Annie—" He risked a touch, cupping her delicate chin in his clumsy hand to turn her face to his in the dark. "I'm not saying it tonight. You want me to
you're going to have to say so."
He felt her nod. He felt her throat move as she swallowed. He found her lips and kissed her, keeping it light, keeping his hands to himself and his tongue in his mouth. His pulse roared in his ears.
He raised his head.
She nodded again, her smooth hair brushing his jaw.
"Your turn," he suggested.
Her lips were warm and closed. Her breathing was erratic. She leaned into him, her small, sweet breasts flattening against his rib cage, and it became really evident she wasn't wearing a bra under that pretty nothing of a dress. His sex leaped in celebration.
He itched, he burned for her like he hadn't burned for a woman m years. But this wasn't any woman. This was Annie.
Deer-shy, man-wary Annie.
With ruthless control, he throttled his eager body, forcing himself to give her time, to let her explore, while everything inside him churned and steamed. Gradually, she increased pressure, experimenting with slant and fit, and finally, shyly daring, testing him with her tongue. He nearly bucked off the seat.
She lifted her head. "Your turn," she said, her voice breathless and warm with satisfaction, giving his words back to him.
He wanted to strip off her dress and drape her over his lap and go crazy. His hands were shaking. Hell, he was shaking. He buried one hand in her hair, massaging her scalp, letting the fine strands slip through his fingers. Her neck was very close to his mouth. He kissed the column of her throat and felt her shiver. He almost growled. He kissed her again, indulging in the feel and the smell and the taste of her, the softness of her skin, the catch of her breath. Her pulse beat under his lips. Her skin was smooth and warm.
When he got to her bodice he stopped. He didn't trust himself that far. He kissed the velvet curve of her breast, rising gently above the square neckline of her dress, and then undid his shirt buttons, silently offering himself to her.
Shyly, she kissed his neck. Her hand parted his shirt, flattened on his chest.
"You're hairy," she said on a note of discovery.
He had to clear his throat before he could speak.
Me and King Kong."
"I like it."
Her neck bent and she kissed him again. Her legs curled up on the seat as she angled against him. Her lashes tickled his throat. She tasted him as he'd tasted her, her lips parted and moist. He groaned.
She jolted, her head almost clipping his jaw. "Should I stop?"
"No," he croaked. "No, this is—you're doing great."
With the windshield behind her, he could not see her face, but her voice was pleased and excited.
"I swear. Don't stop now."
She kissed his mouth, softly, as if in gratitude, and then his throat some more. She wriggled around on the seat beside him as if she were trying to climb into his lap. His lap wanted desperately to cooperate, but the steering wheel got in the way. He slid along the seat. She made a low, assenting noise and arched against him.
He nuzzled her cheek, finding her mouth with his in the dark. They kissed, warm and slow, and his blood rose, fast and hot. She burrowed closer, her hands sliding into his open shirtfront.
Her soft hands petting him almost wrecked his control. He reached for her breast; stopped. Slow, he ordered himself.
And he kept his movements gentle and unhurried until she twisted against him, until he could feel her breath quick on the side of his face and the riot of her heart close to his palm. Only then did he glide his hand over the silk of her dress and close it smoothly over her breast. Her nipple pushed into his palm. He hissed in satisfaction and lightly scraped it with his thumbnail.
Ann gasped. Her head was a swarm of bees, a buzz of sensations. Honey flowed in all her veins. She couldn't think. She could barely breathe, and it was—well, really, it was wonderful. Her breasts tightened at Maddox's touch. Her whole body tightened. She wanted him to touch her just like that everywhere. How shocking. How lovely.
And it was as if Maddox knew what was happening to her, because his hand slid from breast to thigh and from the outside of her hip to the gathered fold of her skirt, right there, right between her legs. She was glad it was dark. Her face burned, but she did not move away. He touched her there, brushing her lightly, stroking her softly, until she just had to open for him so that he could go on touching and touching her.