Authors: Virginia Kantra
Don't think about that. Think about Mitchell.
"What happened?" she demanded. "What did you say to him?"
He leaned one shoulder against the wall, watching her, his eyes bright with enjoyment. "I was just honest with him. I told him to expect things to change around here."
"What things? Nothing's changing."
He laughed bitterly. "Everything's changed.
My life, my career, my reputation—and all because of you.
Maybe it's time you knew what that felt like."
She recognized the danger. She just couldn't figure out what direction the attack would come from. "What are you talking about?"
Rob's face hardened at her sharp tone. He shifted closer along the wall. "I told Mitchell he might have to come live with me."
Her chest collapsed. He was toying with her, she told herself. She didn't have to play by his rules any longer. But it was hard to resist his bluff when he dragged her baby into the game. She sucked in her breath.
"That—you can't do that." She forced the words out.
"I can do anything I want."
"The consent order—"
"Can be challenged.
I've talked with my lawyer."
"So have I." She struggled to repeat what the pleasant young woman provided by legal services had told her, as if the lawyer's assurances were a magic spell that could ward off evil. "Custody arrangements can't be challenged unless there's a change in circumstances material to the well-being of the child."
"You're screwing a cop, Ann.
Having sex in the presence of a minor child.
You're unfit to have custody of our son."
"That's not true!"
"That's for a judge to decide, isn't it?"
"But I didn't—" She stopped. Maybe she hadn't made love with Maddox in her house. But she had taken him as her lover. Would the court look at that? Judge her for that? People in this town gossiped. Kids overheard things. What would Mitchell hear? And what would he think?
"His car was in front of your house all night," Rob continued inexorably.
Wallace Palmer was here Sunday afternoon. Did you do them both, Ann? Did you do them with our son watching?"
"Why are you doing this?"
"You have to ask? I will not let you bring me down, do you hear me? I won't let you destroy what's left of my reputation in this town. My God, Ann, why are you doing this to
His voice broke with betrayal. "I married you!"
Guilt struck her heart. Guilt and regret for the misguided choices and the wasted years.
"Maybe it would have been better for both of us if you hadn't," she whispered.
His hand flew up. She shrank into the wall.
And then his fist opened and he patted her cheek in a parody of a caress.
"I'm not going to let you upset me," he said. "You're not running to your boyfriend with marks on your face so he can take you to the judge to tell another bunch of lies."
your whole life, you mealy-mouthed little bitch.
Carpooling around town in your khaki skirts, acting like the perfect wife and mother and all the time squeaking if I so much as looked at you sideways.
You never helped me. You never fit in. You never were a wife to me."
She knew better than to defend herself. She really did.
"I tried," she said.
"Oh, tell me how you tried," he sneered.
"By testifying against me?
By divorcing me?"
She was momentarily surprised. "You divorced me, Rob."
"Of course I did. How would it have looked if we stayed married while you said all those awful things? At least this way, everyone has to wonder if you're just a lying, vindictive slut."
She'd thought—she'd hoped—his words had lost the power to hurt her. But she still flinched from this assault. His accusations hit too many old bruises.
I saw you leave the party with Mad Dog Palmer…
The Barclays are all white trash, anyway.
He had to marry her, you know.
Put on a slip, for God's sake, you look like a whore.
You're such a slut.
She shook her head to clear it of the voices. "Get out. I don't have to listen to this anymore."
And maybe it doesn't bother you that Mitchell will hear it." Rob straightened away from the wall. "But it bothers me. I don't think you can provide a fit environment for our son."
"I won't let you have him," she said fiercely. "I will never let you have him, do you hear me?"
"It's in your hands."
"What do you mean?"
"We don't have to be enemies, Ann. I'm prepared to be reasonable. But you've got to understand that I can't ignore talk. It doesn't look right, you playing the bitch for Mad Dog Palmer. And I don't like it that he's poking into things, stirring folks up again."
"I can't help that."
"No, but you can hurt. It hurts me, Ann, that you have so little loyalty after so many years. It hurts me right here." He laid a hand on his starched white shirt front like a bad actor feigning heartbreak.
And as suddenly as that, he killed her sympathy. He didn't have a heart. At least, not one that Ann had ever been able to reach with her touch or her tears or her pleas. If he had a heart, he could not threaten to take her baby from her.
She lifted her chin. "Maddox must really have you worried if you're coming after me again," she said steadily.
Rob's face turned red and ugly. "He doesn't have anything. He's a stupid cop, and you're a stupid slut. But you better be smart now. You better listen, and understand
." He towered over her, big and intimidating, hissing the words into her face.
"If you go to court, then so will I.
And you figure out who will pay once I get custody of Mitchell."
* * *
"I will always want you to live with me," Ann told Mitchell solemnly as a vow. "I would never want you to live anywhere else."
They sat side by side on his bed, in their old read-me-a-story position, their backs to the wall, their legs stretched out across the mattress. Mitchell's legs were almost as long as hers now. His feet, in white basketball shoes, were bigger. But he was still hers.
He stared at his knobby knees. There was a purple scar on the left one from when he was six and she'd taught him to ride a bike. "Dad said since you had, like, a boyfriend, you might not want me anymore."
Rage empted in her chest. Her hands shook with it. She folded them in her lap, so Mitchell wouldn't see.
"No," she said, as quietly and firmly as she could. "Your father was—" Lying, she thought. "Mistaken," she said.
"I don't think he likes Mr. Palmer very much," Mitchell offered.
"No. I don't think he does."
He twisted his head, regarding her sideways. "Do you?" She trembled on the brink of disclosure.
Because she was trying so hard to be truthful now, and she did like Maddox Palmer.
Liked the competent way he looked after things, kids and cars and her, without counting the cost to himself.
Liked the not-a-dimple in his chin and the intense appreciation in his eyes.
Liked his hands, big and square and gentle.
Except her child didn't need to hear that.
Mitchell had just had his world shaken, and only she could set it firmly back on its foundation.
"He's all right," she said noncommittally.
Mitchell's shoulders relaxed slightly. "I like him. He does stuff with me. And he doesn't yell."
"Not yelling is good."
He gave her another of those sideways looks. "You don't yell."
Rob yelled. The knowledge trembled unspoken between them. She forced herself to smile. "Mothers aren't supposed to yell. Unless—I don't know—unless you run into the street or something."
"Dad says when boys start growing up, they need their fathers more. Especially if their mothers are working and can't take care of them."
Panic closed her throat. She swallowed. "I can take care of you fine. I want to take care of you."
After a moment, Mitchell reached over. She folded his thin hand in her clasped ones.
"I want to take care of you, too," her little boy said.
* * *
"I saw your light on," Maddox said, hoping he didn't sound like a trucker looking to get lucky at one of those places at the edge of town. "Is it okay if I come in?"
Ann stood in the doorway, pale and tense and so desirable his heart slammed in his chest. She threw one quick glance up the stairs and then stepped back to admit him.
But keep your voice down. I put Mitchell to bed an hour ago."
Maddox frowned. She had "bad day" imprinted on her face like a slap. And he was about to make it worse.
"Everything all right?" he asked, following her into the living room.
Like telling him her troubles would make them go away. Although if Rob was bothering her, Maddox was fully prepared to take off his badge and his gun and tackle that problem with his bare hands.
But before he could frame the words to interrogate her, she turned suddenly into his body. He stopped, startled, his hands coming up automatically to catch her arms. She bowed her head against his chest. Her hair fell forward to hide her face. She shuddered in his arms.
She was crying.
Shock dried his mouth. He wanted to explain to her she had the wrong guy. He was nobody's port in a storm. He was hard and rough and shot people, and he never stuck around for the weepy part of relationships.
Only he couldn't shift her.
Well, of course he
, Maddox corrected himself as he adjusted her head under his jaw. She was small and light in his arms. She weighed—what?—maybe a hundred-ten, hundred-fifteen pounds. He could move her easily.
Only he couldn't really bear to let her go. She fit into his arms, under his chin, like she belonged.
And where was he going to put her? Who did she have as backup when things went down? Who else would support her while she shook with the hard release of tears? Who else would hold her? Who else would love her like he did? He clenched his jaw. He loved her. Not with the wondering body lust of adolescence, not with the rueful dissatisfaction of the past twelve years, though those were part of it, too. He wanted her, wanted to be with her, wanted to breathe in the scent of her hair and feel her just like this, warm and smooth against him. He could imagine making a life with her, only all his pictures of Annie had Cutler in the background, and that scared the hell out of him.
His arms tightened around her. "Damn."
He stroked her hair. "Shh. It's okay."
She gulped. "I'm getting your shirt all wet."
"It's cotton. It'll dry."
She lifted her head, and her eyes, which had been sharp and shattered as a broken beer bottle, were fogged with tears. Her lashes were spiky and damp.
"Cotton wrinkles," she said, like that was somehow important. "I could iron it for you."
, I'll get it dry cleaned," he teased. And then, remembering how she was about him doing her favors, he added, "We can split the bill."
She studied him a moment, her green eyes searching and her mouth uncertain. She had such a pretty mouth. And then she smiled.
Tenderness twisted inside him. He kissed her forehead and she sighed, a soft puff of air across his jaw that shook him like a gale.
He lowered his head to find her lips. Just one kiss, he told himself.
But her lips were warm and moist and soft under his, and her arms tightened around him, and he lost his head for a minute, lost
in her kiss.
She gave a little sob and opened for him all the way. He plunged in and she shuddered against him. He was drunk on her, her soft tongue, her slim body,
cheeks damp with tears…
They scalded him.
She'd been crying and he'd taken advantage.
He sucked in his breath. Let it out real slow, while every red blood cell in his body hollered at him to stop being an idiot and take what he could while it was being offered.
Except he didn't want her offering sex as a trade-off for a little consideration.
Damn. He wanted sex. Wanted her, any way he could get her.
The hell of it was with Annie plastered up against his raging body, her thin cheeks flushed and her smooth hair tousled, he realized he wanted … more.
Wanted her trust.
Wanted her confidence.
Wanted it all.