Authors: Virginia Kantra
"You don't have to feed me, Annie."
A corner of his mouth quirked.
"Though I wouldn't say no if you offered your bathroom."
She'd had sex with this man on the front seat of his car. It was stupid to blush because he asked for indoor plumbing.
"You can wash up while I'm cooking," she said briskly. "How do you like your eggs?"
He caught her eye. "I'm partial to over easy," he drawled. "But I'll take whatever you give me."
Her heart beat faster.
"Breakfast in fifteen minutes."
He caught her hand through the open window as she turned away. His hand was warm and callused, his voice warm and earnest. "Annie. Thanks."
Her fingers tangled and tightened with his. She felt herself color. "Fifteen minutes," she repeated, and hurried back to the house.
She left the door unlocked behind her for the first time since she and Mitchell had moved in. She heard Maddox come in and go up the stairs, listened to the water gurgle through the pipes as she sliced a tube of Jimmy Dean sausage and counted bread for toast. As she pulled the egg carton from the refrigerator, she caught herself humming.
Oh, no, she thought, jolted back to reality. She was not playing house, no matter how seductive she found the combination of hot sex and intimate conversation. Wasn't her marriage to Rob painful, living proof that she didn't belong in the full-page fantasy of some glossy women's magazine? Once she'd carried those articles home like talismans, as if decorating with pillows or creating colorful meals using seasonal vegetables or knowing the seven secrets of happy marriages could magically transform her into the kind of woman whose husband kissed her when he came home.
She was smarter now. She knew what she was. She knew what she could have. And Maddox Palmer was not on the list.
But when he walked into her kitchen a few minutes later, his wet hair showing the tracks of her comb and his chin still rough with stubble, her heart lifted with happiness. Her mind blanked with lust.
"Smells good," he said with a smile.
The impact of his smile traveled all the way to her stomach. She was in very big trouble.
She adjusted the heat under the frying pan. Act casual, she ordered herself. "Find everything you need?"
Thanks. Though I don't know…" He rubbed at his jaw with his hand. "Think I should have used your little pink razor?"
She laughed. "The one I use for my legs? Not unless you want to visit the judge with blobs of tissue stuck all over your face."
And there it was, out between them, the reason he was standing in her kitchen on a sunny summer morning while she cooked his breakfast. Rob.
Her smile faded.
After a moment, his did, too.
"Maybe not," he said, and took his place at the table. She noticed he sat in the same spot, facing the door.
"I'll get your eggs," Ann said.
She glanced over her shoulder as Mitchell shuffled in, his T-shirt hanging out and his hair sticking up where he'd mashed it against his pillow, and she had another reminder of where her priorities should lie.
And then he saw Maddox. His eyes flickered. Ann watched helplessly as he assembled and reassembled the shards of evidence—his mother going out last night, the closed bathroom door this morning, and now the man sitting at the breakfast table—into a damning picture.
His bright, nine-year-old face closed into the watchful, old man's mask she hated.
"What's he doing here?"
nn dithered. What could she say? She didn't want to flounder through an explanation of her sex life to her nine-year-old son. But was the other half of the truth any more acceptable? Could she really tell Mitchell that she was trying to have his father—the father who still had custody on alternate weekends—arrested?
She tightened her grip on the spatula. "Mr. Palmer had to work last night. So I invited him for breakfast."
Mitchell's gaze slid sideways to Maddox, big and imposing in his uniform. "Why?"
Maddox spoke up. "Because I'm hungry, and your mom is nice. And because I'm driving her to the police station this morning."
The boy's face pinched. "Is she under arrest?"
"No," Ann said quickly. She rescued Maddox's eggs before the yolks turned completely hard, and slapped the plate in front of him. "In fact, we might not go at all."
"We're going," Maddox said.
"But … it's Sunday."
He stabbed his eggs with a fork. "I've already called the dispatcher. Magistrate will meet us there at nine-thirty."
"I can't. Mitchell—"
"Can wait in the hall.
He'll be perfectly safe. It's a police station."
She felt control of the situation slipping away. "I need to make him breakfast."
Maddox swabbed his plate with a piece of toast. "I'll make him breakfast. You get ready."
"I can handle eggs, Annie," he said gently. "We'll be okay."
Maddox watched her think that one through, and he thought,
is what her life is like, all the little decisions rushing in on her, one after another, like waves at the beach. Only nobody ever told her she could swim. And he felt bad for her, and admired her, too, that she waded in anyway, even when the footing was treacherous and the next big one could knock her down.
He knew from his time on the force that it took most abused women an average of seven support contacts with authorities—the cop on the scene or the nurse in ER or a social worker with a telephone number—to finally find the courage and resources to leave. Annie had done it cold. But the residue of doubt still clung to her like dirt on a window, clouding her decisions.
Could she leave him alone with her son?
Could she make the complaint against her husband?
She looked at the clock.
Looked at her sullen kid.
And then, finally, she nodded.
Mitchell, put your dishes in the sink when you're done."
Maddox waited until her soft tread went up the stairs before he asked the kid, "
Mitchell shrugged. "I guess."
"Why don't you tell me what you think is going on, and we'll see if we can figure it
The boy thrust out his chin, the gesture enough like Ann's to cause a pang. "I heard my mom crying last night."
Damn. But Maddox filed away his own reaction to Ann's distress. He'd deal with it and with her later. "And you're worried maybe I was responsible for that."
"I told you I would never hurt your mother."
That earned him a quick, scornful look. "Sure."
Maddox didn't blame the kid for not believing him. He'd probably spent his entire life listening to grown-ups lie.
"Did you hear anything else last night?" Mitchell turned red. "I didn't listen at the door, if that's what you mean."
Another problem to be dealt with at another time.
"Downstairs. Did you hear anything downstairs after your mother came home?"
"Did you hear anybody?"
From red, Mitchell's face turned to white. "Did he come here?"
Yeah. He was here."
"Did he hit her?"
"No." For the first time in years, Maddox gave thanks for the stiff-necked martinet who'd raised him. He might have had issues with his old man, but at least he'd never had to worry about him beating up on his mom.
"Are you—" the kid's throat moved as he swallowed "—are you going to arrest him?"
What answer did Mitchell want to hear? Rob was still his father. But Maddox wouldn't lie to the kid.
"I don't know yet. That's why we're going to the police station to talk to the judge."
"Good," Mitchell said fiercely. "I want you to make him stay away from her. I wish he would stay away forever."
"Hey," Maddox said, startled.
"Mom won't say anything bad about him, because I still have to see him. But I'm not stupid, whatever he thinks. I don't want him to hurt her anymore."
Maddox cleared his throat. "No," he said slowly. "Not stupid at all."
The words jerked out, propelled by guilt and fear and rage. "I didn't do anything.
To stop it.
I didn't do anything to stop him."
Jeez, the kid was only nine years old. Only eight, when his mother packed their bags and left. What did he think he could have done against a grown man's fists?
But pointing that out wouldn't help Mitchell. It didn't respect the seriousness of his feelings or his boy's need to be a man.
"Sometimes it's hard to know what to do," Maddox said, as simply and honestly as he could. The kid's willingness to accept responsibility earned him that, at least. "Sometimes you just do what you can at the time, and hope you don't screw up."
The kid looked at him with his too-adult eyes. "Did you ever screw up?"
The memory of the
schoolyard rose to haunt him. And the memory of Ann's soft voice
in his defense.
It seems to me that if I can forgive myself then you certainly should be able to forgive yourself.
He shrugged. "Like I said, sometimes you don't know. You do what you have to.
Like today, going to see the magistrate."
Mitchell gave a decisive nod. "Okay. Let's go."
Maddox regarded the boy with affection and an uncomfortable, astonishing pride. "Glad to have you with me on this. But let's have breakfast first."
* * *
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Cross," Judge Westcott said.
The magistrate, an imposing African-American woman in her forties, was dressed for church in black straw and peach linen. They must have caught her on her way to services, Ann thought guiltily. But the judge didn't sound annoyed at this waste of her Sunday morning. She sounded almost sympathetic as she continued. "But without any chance of a successful prosecution, I can't issue a warrant. He didn't hit you, you said?"
Ann felt Maddox stir protectively beside her. "He doesn't have to hit her. Communicating a threat is still a crime."
"You don't need to tell me the law, Sergeant Palmer. Unfortunately, this threat is too vague to justify an arrest at this time."
"How about interfering with a trial witness?" Maddox asked, radiating frustration and heat.
But the judge stayed cool. "That is certainly a reasonable interpretation of what he said. But those were not, in fact, his words. Or did I miss something? Did your ex-husband instruct you not to testify?"
Ann shook her head, feeling more inadequate than ever. "No. He told me to reexamine my loyalties. That I should think about what was in my own best interests or he'd make me sorry." She swallowed. "'Very, very sorry,' he said."
Judge Westcott sighed. "Yes.
Now, with your past history of abuse, if he actually threatens to beat you, I think we could establish probable cause. If he comes back—"
"If he comes back, he could put her in the hospital," Maddox interrupted savagely.
"Or the morgue.
Why don't we work to prevent that?"
Ann fought not to flinch from his graphic image, from his naked anger. Forget the odd, dark thrill she felt at Maddox losing it in her defense. She didn't appreciate his attitude.
Neither did the judge, apparently. She drew herself up. "I will excuse your tone, Sergeant, since you are here as a friend of the complainant I certainly sympathize with your frustration. Now I will do my job, and I suggest that you do yours in protecting this young lady. Are we clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said woodenly.
"Good." She looked at them over the tops of her half glasses. "I believe that's all."
Ann was shaking. Rob was right. There wasn't anything she could do to stop him.
Maddox took her arm as they left the room. Automatically, she looked for Mitchell on the long benches that lined the hall. Her heart jumped into her throat. Two figures sat side by side on the bench where she'd left her son: Mitchell, in baggy shorts and big sneakers, and the red-faced, gray-haired chief of police.
Both stood as Ann and Maddox approached. Her son in the shadow of the big, stiff man reminded Ann irresistibly of a squirrel perched on the steps of the town's Confederate soldier. The image should have made her smile.
Ann had seldom felt less like laughing.
"Miz Cross. Ann," Wallace Palmer amended, almost shyly. "I met your boy. He tells me you're in to see Judge Westcott?" Over her head, his gaze sought Maddox. "How'd that go?"
Maddox's mouth tightened. "Not so good."
"Probation violation?" the chief inquired.
It took Ann a second to realize he was referring to Rob's probation and not hers.
"Communicating a threat," Maddox replied.
"Get your warrant?"
"The judge felt the threat was too vague to prosecute successfully," Ann said. She was proud of her steady voice.
Wallace Palmer's brows pulled together. "Want me to go talk with her?"
"No point," Maddox said. "She's right. We'll have to get him another way."
Ann didn't like the shuttered look on Mitchell's face. She didn't like the grim determination in Maddox's voice or his father's accusing frown. She was tired of dealing with all this swirling testosterone, fed up with male needs and agendas and demands. "I'm sure Chief Palmer has other things to do now. Perhaps we could discuss this another time?"
"Of course," Wallace Palmer said. "I was getting through some paperwork when I saw Mitchell here and thought I'd take a little break."
His wave encompassed the bench, and for the first time Ann noticed the discarded candy wrapper, the half-empty can of Dr. Pepper. Mitchell's favorite. He'd rot his teeth. She turned on the clueless police chief, prepared to give him a piece of her mind.
Wallace Palmer smiled tentatively. "When MD was that age, he could eat enough to fill a truck."
And she melted. "Well, it was very kind of you," she said sincerely.
The older man turned an even deeper shade of red. "It was nothing.
Growing boys, and all that."
He coughed. "Actually, I thought of inviting you all to join me for lunch over at Arlene's."
Ann's stomach lurched as if she'd hit a speed bump at fifty miles per hour. She'd never been the kind of girl who got invited to take meals with the family. And when the family was the chief of police—and the meal was at the most popular Sunday spot outside the
Sometime between can-I-get-you-some-coffee and would-you-like-to-take-that-home-in-a-box, word would be winging to Rob that his ex-wife was in a booth with the Palmers, father and son. Ann might as well take out an announcement in the paper. Or paint a bull's-eye on her face.
I'll make you very, very sorry…
"Oh, I couldn't possibly," she said politely. "You two go ahead."
Maddox frowned. "I'm not leaving you alone."
The chief of police nodded. "No. Well, then…
An awkward silence fell as Wallace Palmer examined the tips of his polished black shoes and Mitchell looked curiously from one grown-up to another.
And Ann thought
his son has been gone twelve years. He'll only be in town for two more weeks. How many special times together had they denied themselves, these two proud and stubborn men, how many Saturday games and Sunday dinners and Christmas mornings?
The invitation fell out of her mouth before she could stop it. "You're both welcome at my house.
Maddox shot her an are-you-nuts look. She ignored it. Maybe this was a big mistake. Probably this was a big mistake. But her heart didn't feel that way.
"I'm making fried chicken," she told Wallace Palmer, as if she had it all planned. "I'd love to have you."
"Well, that would be real nice. I'd enjoy that. Thank you," he added stiffly.