Authors: Virginia Kantra



Maddox raised his eyebrows. "How much fried chicken?"

She flushed. Her freezer was empty, and she suspected he knew it. "Enough."

"Tell me what to bring," Wallace urged. "A man can't practically invite himself to dinner and then show up empty-handed."

Ann smiled at him, touched by his unexpected enthusiasm. "You just bring your appetite."

"We'll do the grocery shopping when I drive Annie home," Maddox said.

He was taking charge again. It was comforting. It was admirable. It was annoying.

Ann didn't want to object in front of his father, but when they stood in the checkout line half an hour later and Maddox pulled out his wallet, she asked, "What are you doing?"

He turned to her with unconscious make arrogance.
"Buying dinner."

"You don't have to."

He set down his wallet and relieved the cashier of a five-pound sack of potatoes.

"Hey, thanks," the girl said, flipping her hair over her shoulder in a flirty gesture.

"No problem," Maddox said.

To which one of them, Ann wasn't sure. She took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "I mean, I don't want you to. I can provide for myself and my child."

"Sure you can. But I eat more than you do."

"But I invited you to dinner."

"And my father."

She was confused. "What?"

He looked back at her, his dark eyes unreadable. "You invited my father, too."

"Well … yes." Oh, dear. Maybe Maddox wasn't the only one to overstep his bounds. She knew he didn't get along with his father.
Had never gotten along, really.

Mitchell was standing motionless beside the cart, not looking at the gum and candy bars, alerted by the impatience in Maddox's voice, the tension in hers. She wanted to tell him it was all right, that everything was all right, but she wasn't sure herself.

"Mitchell, honey, why don't you go look for a
Droid Zone

He nodded, moving away, but she could still see him, stiff-shouldered and watchful in the magazine aisle.

"Why, Annie?" Maddox asked quietly.

"Why did I invite your father? Well, I— He seemed—" She would not be intimidated. She moistened her lips. "I just thought it was the nice thing to do."

"Uh-huh." He unloaded a foam tray of chicken parts onto the conveyor belt. "So, it's okay for you to be nice and invite my old man to dinner, but not okay for me to be nice and pay for it?"

Put that way, she sounded unreasonable. She tried to explain. "I don't want you to think… Just because we have a—a relationship doesn't oblige you to buy my groceries."

He pushed the cart out of the way so that he was standing right in front of her, close enough for her to see that his stubble was tipped with gold and his eyes were flecked with green. She could feel his heat. She could smell his skin, and her heart stumbled in her chest.

"This isn't payment for what happened in my car last night, Annie," he said, soft and close. "This is me, trying to be nice to you. I haven't had a lot of practice, so you'll have to tell me if I get it wrong."

Sorry if I took too long
, she'd said in the car, after he made her … after.
I haven't had a lot of practice
. Did he remember?

She studied his face. His eyes were grave, but a smile lurked at the corners of his wide mouth. He remembered. Something inside her lightened.

She smiled back. "I guess you're getting it right. I guess we're getting a lot of things right."

His look was warm enough to toast bread. "Good" was all he said.

"And it's not payment?" she asked, needing to hear it again.

"No." He reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear. She felt his whisper warm against her lips. "If I were paying for last night, I'd have to do better than chicken and potatoes. I could give you the moon, maybe.
Or the stars."

She blinked. Nobody had ever said such things to her. She'd certainly never expected lovely, extravagant words from Maddox Palmer. They shook her heart.

Mitchell was beside them, his tone jealous,
eyes suspicious. "I'm ready to go."

She dragged her attention back to her son. "Did you get a book?"

"No. I read all those already."

"Okay." She was warm and flustered. She turned back to the cart, making sure she had control of her breathing and a hold of her purse.

But she let Maddox pay for her groceries.

* * *

"That's one good cook," Wallace Palmer said as he stood with Maddox on Annie's back porch. They could see her through the screen, moving with quiet competence between the table and the sink.

Maddox grunted in agreement. Ann leaned forward to turn on the water, and the light over the sink illuminated her thin face. He got an ache in his chest and a hunger in his gut that all the looking in the world wouldn't ease.

"And a nice woman," his father observed.
Maddox reached for a cigarette and then reconsidered. Mitchell ran around the yard, chasing a balsa-wood glider the old man had brought. The gesture had surprised Maddox, but the kid was happy with it.

"She's too tenderhearted for her own good."

"I'm beginning to see that," Wallace said. "But a man could do worse."

Maddox shoved his hands into his pockets. "Don't go there, Dad."

"She's local, too."

"What difference does that make?"

"I'm just saying, is
If you were to think of settling down, staying here—"

"Why the hell would I do that? I've put twelve years into building a career and making a life in

Some career, he thought bleakly, where he shot a child in a schoolyard to protect the lives of other children. Some life, where he drank too much with the other cops getting off shift to delay going home alone to an empty apartment.

"I can't come back," he said, more quietly.

"Seems to me you are back."

Maddox watched Mitchell crash the glider into a tree.
"For two more weeks."

Wallace rubbed his nose, his gaze returning to the kitchen window. "Maybe you just need a good reason to stay."

Maddox ignored the jab of longing. "Uh-huh. Why do you think she asked us to get out of her kitchen?"

"She needed room. To put the leftovers away, she said."

"She needs space. And security."

"We can increase the number of drive-bys on our patrols."

Maddox appreciated that the chief was taking the threat to Ann seriously. But he still missed the point. "Thanks. That'll help."

"But…?" Wallace prodded.

Maddox shrugged, uncomfortable with such frank speaking. But if his father was harboring some crazy idea about him staying in Cutler, it was best to set him straight before somebody got hurt.
Before Annie got hurt.
"Rob did more to her than bust her face. She needs someone safe now.
Someone reliable."


Maddox took his hands back out of his pockets. "That's not me."

"It could be you."

"That's not what I remember you saying."

The chief reddened. "Hell,
MD, that
was in high school. You weren't a bad kid."

"Just a screw-up."

His father eyed him. "You're still a screw-up. But you've improved some."

Maddox laughed.

It felt all right, standing on a back porch with his father on a summer afternoon, with his belly full of fried chicken and Annie's boy running around on the grass. And when Annie came to the back door to call them in for dessert, it felt damn near perfect.

He wanted this, Maddox realized. He could spend every Sunday scooping ice cream for Annie while she smiled and blushed at his father's awkward compliments and Mitchell locked himself to the back of a chair with a pair of handcuffs.

He was still grimly aware that Rob was free. And until Maddox found a way to tie that son of a bitch to Val MacNeill's attempted murder, he might stay free.

But at least for now Maddox had a shot at protecting Ann.
All he had to do was keep his head and remember that in the long run she was better off without him.

* * *

Ann glared at Maddox, trying not to be distracted by the sunburned hollow revealed by his open collar. In his wilted uniform, he looked tired and sexy and hot. "No. You are not spending another night in your car. We'll be fine."

"You need protection," he repeated stubbornly.

He was wearing his closed cop face again. Ann sighed. Despite her annoyance, his determined care of her shot straight to her defenseless heart. She needed protection, all right.
But not at the cost of her independence.
And not at the risk of his safety.

"Next you'll tell me to buy a gun," she grumbled.

"No, I won't. You can't," he explained when she blinked. "You're a convicted felon."

Ann crossed her arms. She didn't even know why she was arguing with him, except that what she really wanted was to join him in the front seat of his car and beg for a repeat of last night, and there was very little chance of that with her son upstairs brushing his teeth.

"Rob has a gun," she said. "Two guns, if you count the hunting rifle he bought for Mitchell."

Maddox's grim face got even grimmer. "You never told me he was armed."

"Because I never thought of it that way."
It was true. Cutler was still country, where pickup trucks sported gun racks and every boy went deer hunting. She bit her lip. "Can't you—I don't know—confiscate them or something?"

"Not in the state of
North Carolina
. A man has a right to his guns. As a felon, Rob can't buy them or transport them, but if he already owned a gun before his conviction, he has the legal right to keep it in his home. That's the law."

She thought of Rob leaning close, whispering,
I'll make you very, very sorry
, and shivered. "And you have to uphold the law."

Maddox's mouth set. "I won't let him near you."

"It's all right. It doesn't make any difference, really. Rob never threatened me with a gun."

"Not while he could get at you with his fists."

She dropped her chin.

"Annie," Maddox said gently. "You need to be protected."

"Not by you."

"You have other volunteers?"

His dry tone brought her head back up. "That's not what I meant. I don't want you fighting with Rob."
Especially if her ex-husband was armed.
She couldn't stand it if Maddox was at risk because of her. She had enough trouble living with what her cowardice had done to Val, what it might have done to Mitchell.

"What's the matter? You think I'll lose it and shoot somebody?"

She was surprised. He sounded almost … hurt.
"Of course not.
You're not that kind of cop."

"You don't have any idea what kind of cop I am," he said flatly.

Ann swallowed. She wasn't the only one living with ghosts and regrets.
I heard he shot that boy, and the department fired him.

She laid her hand on his arm, feeling warm, hair-roughened skin and solid muscle. "I know what kind of man you are," she said as firmly as she knew how. "I am sure you would do the right thing."

"But you'd like me to do it someplace else."

His bleak assessment raked her heart. Sure she would. She'd be better off if Maddox Palmer were out of her sight, out of her reach, like liquor in a locked cabinet or candy in the freezer. He was bad for her.

But that was her fault, her lack, her problem. Not his. Somehow she had to convince him of that. For some reason he cared what she thought of him—her, Annie Barclay, whose opinion never mattered to anybody.

"I'd like you right here," she said. "I'd feel a lot safer. But I don't want you sleeping in your car."

His hooded gaze burned into hers. "What are my alternatives?"

Her heart beat hard and fast.
"The couch?"

He nodded curtly. "You got yourself a deal."

As she went to get pillows and a blanket, Ann wondered if she'd wound up with more than she'd bargained for.

Chapter 13


hat's this I hear about Mad Dog's car spending the night in your driveway?" Val asked Ann as they closed the dining room the next day.

Ann's heart bumped. Her hand jerked so that she squirted
-Green Environmentally Friendly Cleaner from the painted tabletop to a chair. "It's all over town already?"

Val tossed her a towel. "Depends what you mean by 'all,'" she drawled. "I heard the two of you went shopping for groceries—"

"Mitchell was with us."

"And then his father came for dinner—"

"He lives alone. I was just being polite."

"And that Mad Dog's car was parked in front of your house all night."

"He slept on the couch."

"Oh." Val sounded disappointed. "So, there's nothing going on?"

Despite herself, her mouth curved in a smile. Biting her bottom lip, she bent her head over the table. "I didn't say that."

Val plunked down in an abandoned chair.

"Saturday night. When he drove me home?"

Val nodded. "So … how was he?"

"He was—" Heat crept into Ann's cheeks at the memory of Maddox touching her in the dark. "Well, it was different."

"Different, good, or different, I - must - have - been - out - of - my - mind?"

"Both, I guess.
Mostly good."

Val put her feet up on the chair opposite, her eyes amused and sympathetic. "Good enough that you think you'll do it again sometime?"

Ann's face was burning now. "I've thought about it," she confessed, and Val laughed. "But I've got other things to consider."

"Like what?"


"They don't get along?"

Ann attacked another table with her spray bottle and rag. "They get along fine. But I'm not going to invite the man to my bedroom with my son sleeping down the hall."

"Good point."

"And there's the fact that I just got divorced. My therapist warned me about becoming involved in another potentially abusive relationship."

Val dropped her feet to the floor. "You don't trust him?"

"I don't trust myself. I don't want to make the same mistakes."

"Oh, honey." Val stood and hugged her, trapping the spray bottle and wet towel at Ann's sides. "You won't. You're not the same woman. And Maddox is definitely not the same kind of man."

Ann let herself be comforted by the conviction in Val's voice. She sniffed. "You think?" she asked hopefully.

"What do
think?" her friend replied.

Ann closed her eyes a moment, washed by the memory of Maddox's lovemaking and his warm, rough voice saying,
I'd give you the moon, maybe.
Or the stars

"I think I'm confused."

"Well, you'd better get unconfused
," Val said. "Because guess who just walked into the restaurant." Ann opened her eyes and saw Maddox, broad and solid with his thick, sandy hair that his short cut couldn't tame and that "I'm dangerous" slouch that his uniform couldn't disguise, and for an instant she wasn't confused at all. Her heart gave a great leap, and her body shouted "yes," and she smiled, purely glad to see him.

He didn't smile back.

He had on his flat cop face, watchful, impersonal. He stood back politely while Val welcomed him, and the "yes" inside Ann changed to "uh-oh."

Maddox Palmer was trouble, her mother had warned her.

It felt like her mother was right.

"Sorry to walk in like this when you're closed," he said civilly. "Your door was open."

Val pulled a face. "I forgot to lock it.
Bad habit.
What can I do for you? Or could you be here to see someone else?"

"Yes, I am. Is Mr. MacNeill here?"

Val's twinkle faded.
He's in

"Why?" Ann asked.

Maddox's hooded gaze turned to her. "I'd like to talk with him," he said.

"He'll be back around five, five-thirty," Val said. "I can tell him you want to see him."

"Thank you. I understand you two have a house on
Fargo Street

Val's brow creased. "That's right."

"And before that, before your marriage, you were living with your parents?"

"Well, I was. Con stayed in a motel."

"Which motel?"

Out on I-40?"

"What difference does it make?" Ann asked.

Maddox only looked at her, his mouth grim, his shoulders tight.

"The lab tests," she breathed. "You said you'd have the lab results today.
Something on a matchbook."

"So what?"
Val asked.

"Where was the matchbook from?" Ann demanded.

Maddox paused before he replied.
"Beyer's Motel."

Val flipped her braid over her shoulder. "Why does it matter?"

He answered slowly, apparently choosing his words with care. "The defense has argued that the fire was set as part of an insurance scam."

"That's ridiculous," Val snapped.

"Your restaurant wasn't insured?"

"Of course it was insured. And the insurance company paid up when Rob burned it down."

"But you were having financial difficulties before the fire."

In her worst nightmares, she'd never imagined that in trying to protect her from her husband, Maddox could end up targeting her best friends. "She was only having trouble because I was helping Rob embezzle money from her account at the bank."

Maddox acknowledged her with a nod.
But the defense will argue that the insurance money sure came in handy."

Val was starting to look mad. Ann was glad. Anger was preferable to the cold, sick feeling in the pit of her own stomach.

"Are you saying my husband set that fire?
That he'd risk my life to collect on the lousy insurance?"

"I'm telling you what Rob's defense team will say," Maddox said. "They'll be looking to establish reasonable doubt."

"By throwing suspicion on Con?
That's stupid. He was at the bank with my father when the fire started. Or are you going to argue that my father was in on this scheme, too?"

Maddox rubbed the back of his neck. Ann felt an instant's sympathy for him and squashed it. She was on Val's side in this. She would not betray her friend again, whatever it cost.

"I'm not arguing anything," he said evenly. "But unfortunately the lab just established a direct connection between the motel where your husband was staying and the fire scene."

Ann cringed. She could
either stand by while Maddox built a case against Con MacNeill or she could open her mouth and
humiliate herself.

It was some choice. It was no choice at all.

"What about Rob's connection with the motel?" she asked.

Maddox's brows drew together. "What connection? He never signed the guest book. I drove out this morning to check."

"But he stayed there," Ann said. "Not overnight, but—"

The question cracked like a gunshot.

"About the same time, I guess.
A year ago?
When he was—seeing—Donna Winston."

Shame pumped heat to her face. She could just imagine what Maddox was thinking.

She was not only spineless enough to let her former husband beat her
she was gutless enough to put up with his cheating.

Maddox pulled out his notebook. "Well, that would explain why he didn't sign his name. Do you have any proof that he took this woman to the motel? Credit card receipts or—"

"My mother told her," Val said wryly.

Maddox raised his eyebrows.

"She was only trying to help," Ann said.

"I'll bet," he muttered. He turned to Val. "Did your mother see them there?
Rob and the other woman?"

Ann hugged her elbows. "I don't think so."

Val shook her head, making her earrings sway. "Somehow I don't see my mother dropping by Beyer's Motel for a little afternoon delight."

"Good point." Maddox flipped the notebook closed. "I'll go talk to this Donna, then."

"She left town," Ann said.
"After the trial."

And, oh, how she'd envied her husband's girlfriend for being able to leave it all behind: this town, the scandal, the lowered voices in the post office,
sidelong glances in church.

Ann firmed her mouth.
The heck with it.
Let everybody talk about how she wasn't woman enough to hold on to her husband. She could live with the whispers. But she couldn't live with herself if Val and her husband were suspected of arson.

"I can go to the house," she offered. "I know where Rob kept the bills and things. Maybe there's a charge from the motel."

"I don't want you anywhere near him," Maddox said.

Which sounded fine, but didn't get them anywhere.
"I could go when he's at work," she said tentatively.

"No. We'll subpoena the records if we have to. What I would like is a recent photo. Do you have one? I want to see if I can jog some memories at the front desk."

"And if you can't?" Val asked.

Maddox looked grim. "Then we'll track down this Donna, get him some other way. What time do you get home?" he asked Ann.

"I pick Mitchell up at four-thirty."

He frowned. "My shift isn't over till ten."

"That's all right. We'll be all right."

She hoped.

Tonight was Rob's night to take Mitchell to basketball, but she didn't tell him that. She couldn't live her life hostage to his schedule. She wouldn't make him responsible for her safety. She needed to be responsible for herself.

"Maybe I'll drive by," Maddox told her. "See how you're doing."

"Maybe you shouldn't. People will talk."

Val lifted her eyebrows. "Seems to me they're talking already."

Maddox stuck his thumbs through his
. "Trouble?" he asked.

"No," Ann said firmly. "But if there is, I know what to do."


She smiled, hoping he could see the faith in her eyes, willing him to give her his trust in return. "Call a policeman."

He sent her a slow, appreciative grin that warmed her down to the soles of her shoes.

But trouble, when it came, wasn't anything a gun or statute book could protect her from.

Rob brought Mitchell home from basketball at eight-thirty.

On time, Ann thought, with a prick of relief. But when she opened the dour, she knew right away that something was wrong. Mitchell brushed past her in the doorway with his shoulders hunched and all his features drawn together—lowered brow, pursed mouth, pinched chin—as if he could somehow disappear behind the blank, white mask of his face.

Ann's heart constricted. "How'd it go?" she
her voice as false and bright as a ring from a gum machine.

Mitchell shrugged.

"Tough practice?"

He shook his head.

Rob lounged in the edges of the porch light, hands in his pockets. "He did all right."

From Rob, this was praise. But Mitchell was still pulled in on himself.

"How about a snack?"
Ann asked.

"Not hungry. I'm going upstairs," Mitchell said. And he ran to his room as if pursued by monsters.

Ann watched his thin legs disappear up the steps and then glared at Rob. "What did you say to him?"

"Aren't you going to invite me in?"

"No. What did you say?"

"You really don't want to have this discussion on the porch where everyone can hear us.
me in.

Bad idea, she thought. But this was her baby, running hurt and scared.

She jerked the door wider.
But if I need to, I'm calling the police."

Rob's brows flicked up. "Oh, please. Don't be so melodramatic."

She didn't answer him. He sauntered past her, and she smelled his cologne and the starch from his shirt. She wondered who did his ironing now, and if he ever hit them for creasing his collars.

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