Authors: Virginia Kantra
He tilted his head back, regarding her from beneath his lids. "Old Rob doesn't mind?"
Rob hated her working at the restaurant.
Hated anything that took her out of his house and his control.
But Ann had clung stubbornly to her friendship with Val, never dreaming her husband would find a way to use it against them.
She forced the thought away.
You are not responsible for his actions
, the therapist intoned inside her head.
Another voice broke across the first, brutal as a slap.
She blinked. "Rob has nothing to do with it," she said carefully. "We're separated now."
She winced at his heavy disbelief. But then, how would he have heard? It was common knowledge around town he hadn't even come home for Christmas the last few years.
Still, it wasn't Ann's responsibility to bring him up-to-date on the town's biggest scandal. She could not, she really could not, bear to pick the scabs off her marriage again. Not in the restaurant with Gladys Baggett and half of Cutler's lunching ladies looking on.
And not, dear Lord, with Maddox.
Let him find out the rest on his own. He was a cop. There were plenty of folks who would be only too happy to fill him in on the whole sordid story. No one was interested in her side, anyway.
"Yes. I need to get back to work. Enjoy your meal," she said again, and hurried back to her station.
* * *
Maddox watched Ann walk away from him—Annie, with her grave, sweet eyes and her small, serious smile and her skin so fine a look could bruise it—feeling like he'd just been socked in the chest. Enjoy his meal? He'd be lucky if he could even taste it.
Hell. He'd stayed away for twelve lousy years, and she was separated.
He slid out from behind the table, overtaking her before she reached the hostess station.
"How long?" he demanded.
She slapped a receipt on the spindle by the cash register, her movements quick and agitated. "What are you talking about?"
He caught her elbow.
"How long since you and Rob broke up?"
Swell. Now he even sounded like some high school moron.
her face white. "Let go of my arm."
He loosened his grip. "Just tell me how long."
Let go of me."
Her eyes were dark and enormous, the pupils nearly swallowing the green. Damn. He was thirty-one years old, a veteran cop, a sergeant, and the sight of the woman could still reduce him to a raging lump of testosterone. He released her abruptly.
Beneath her neat white blouse, her breasts rose and fell with her breath. "I have work to do," she said clearly.
Would you please leave me alone?"
He glanced around the dining room. People were staring. Bag lady Baggett had practically fallen into her plate in her eagerness to eavesdrop. And over by the kitchen door, the Misses
were glaring at him as if he'd firebombed their garage sixteen years ago instead of merely throwing up into their rosebushes after drinking too much beer one hot August night.
"Sure thing, darlin'.
You don't have to ask me twice."
Oh, now, that was cool. He sauntered back to his table, feeling like an idiot, and sat with his back to the wall so he could keep an eye on the room and on Annie. Gladys Baggett met his gaze and smiled, very tentatively. He stared back until she reddened beneath her makeup and looked away.
"Catfish sandwich," the waitress said, sliding it expertly in front of him. "Will there be anything else?"
Her smile, wide and white against her honey-gold skin, suggested there could be. Not everybody in Cutler remembered him as the town screw-up. Of course, the waitress probably didn't remember him at all. She must have been skipping rope on the playground when he'd left home.
He picked up the sandwich, looking over the thick sliced bread at Annie seating guests on the other side of the room. From a distance, she looked sixteen again, too skinny and so pretty with her quick, neat movements and shy smile. Her smooth light brown hair still brushed her shoulders when she walked, and she still had the nervous habit of tucking it behind one ear. From a distance, he couldn't see the faint lines bracketing her mouth or the wariness in her eyes.
She didn't come near his table again. Well, she wouldn't. She wouldn't want anything to do with him, any more than she had in high school. His fault, he acknowledged, coming on to her like a gorilla on Viagra.
The catfish tasted like paste in his mouth. He needed a cigarette. Dropping a couple bills on the table, he made his way to the cash register, choosing a moment when Ann was ringing up another customer and couldn't avoid him.
She took his receipt and busily punched some buttons on the register. "How was your lunch?"
"I'll tell Val. She'll be glad you enjoyed it." She handed him his change, not quite meeting his gaze.
He was suddenly, unreasonably ticked off. Maybe once upon a time, in a dumb effort to win his father's notice, he had run wild. But he'd never done anything to make Ann afraid of him. Only that one October night… And he'd stayed away from her after
"Maybe I'll be back for dinner," he said.
She looked at him directly then, and her eyes that he remembered as the color of spring grass were cool and sharp as a broken beer bottle. There was a bump in the bridge of her nose he didn't remember at all.
"We're closed for dinner Monday through Thursday," she said. "But I can make a reservation for the weekend if you like."
I might not be around then."
Just for a second, her pretty lips parted, and his heart revved in his chest like a dirt-track race car. And then she hit him with her fake,
smile, and he knew he'd been imagining that brief moment of regret.
"That's too bad," she said.
"I'll get over it," he drawled.
So, they both were lying. He wasn't about to admit his breath still backed up in his lungs every time he looked at her.
She didn't have to tell him twice.
addox heard the familiar blip of a police siren behind him. He glanced over his shoulder just as the squad car coasted to the curb and stopped, blue lights flashing. Well, damn. He turned slowly, resisting the impulse to put his hands up.
The door opened. A big, dark, uniformed cop got out and walked toward him with a wide smile.
"Cut me a break," Maddox said.
Patrol Officer Tom Creech, former third-string fullback for the Cutler Cougars, grinned all over his broad face. "Hey, Mad Dog. Heard you were back. Can I give you a lift?"
angling to leave his gun arm free and forced himself to relax. He wasn't jumpy. He did not feel vulnerable, whatever the
said. He was fine.
Nope. I'm just going for a walk."
"Actually…" The patrolman shifted his weight from foot to foot. "I thought maybe I could give you a ride to the station house. Your old man wants to see you."
Hell, he can talk to me at home."
"He wants to talk to you now."
Maddox raised both eyebrows. "And he sent you to bring me in?"
Tom rolled his shoulder uncomfortably.
His high school teammate grinned, friendly as the
picked up on eight counts of criminal mischief?"
"The good old days," Maddox said dryly.
He clamped his jaw. Hell, it wasn't
fault the chief's idea of a cozy father-son chat was to drag his butt down to the station house in a squad car.
I'll go quietly."
"Great." Tom beamed. Maddox reached for the passenger side door. "Um … you got to get in the back, old buddy."
The patrolman's smile faded under Maddox's hard stare.
"Sorry," Tom said.
"Screw department regulations. It's been twelve years since I've ridden in back."
"Right," Tom said hastily. "Front seat it is."
He eased his bulk behind the wheel and waited until Maddox slid in beside him before starting the patrol car. "Guess you're kind of a celebrity now."
Maddox clenched his jaw. "That's one way to look at it."
"Saved those kids' lives, the paper said."
At the cost of one of their own.
Maddox stared through the windshield at the gold and green bars of sunlight sliding across the hood. "Drop it, Creepy."
Tom sent him a surprised look. "Sure. Say… You hear the Cougars took the division title again last year?"
Maddox roused himself to a show of interest.
"Big deal around here, huh?"
"I'll say. Your father damn near closed the town for a day. 'Course, it's not like when you and Rob won that state championship."
Maddox knew what was expected of him. Not to deliver would have been like kicking his hound dog. He'd been accused of many things, but cruelty to animals wasn't one of them. "It was a team effort, Creepy. You all did a good job."
Tom's grin spread from one big ear to the other. "Yeah, I guess we did. Remember that party afterward at Betty Lou
when you and
spiked the punch and I spent the whole night throwing up in the bathroom? Man, those were the days. Remember that night?"
He remembered. The vision of Ann's hurt face rose up to haunt him. He'd come to Cutler to escape his demons. He'd forgotten the power of old ghosts.
* * *
His father's office hadn't changed in twelve years.
neither had his father. The cinder-block walls were still painted dingy white. The North Carolina Agriculture calendar still hung beside a photo of the chief standing with the governor and a yellowed newspaper headline proclaiming Cutler Cougars Roar. Files crammed the tops of the cabinets. A dying vine—presumably not the same one—still decorated the windowsill.
Chief Wallace Palmer stood behind his desk, straight and imposing as the Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse, a big-shouldered, red-faced, gray-haired old son of the South.
"I still think you made a mistake, leaving
Maddox slouched in the brown vinyl monstrosity that was some bureaucrat's idea of an office chair. "The investigation is closed," he said evenly. "It was a clean shoot. My job isn't compromised."
"But your name is."
He had no answer for that. His father was right.
"You ought to get back to work," the chief stated definitively.
Right again. Unfortunately, the department didn't see it that way.
Maddox studied the burning tip of his cigarette. "Yeah, well, I've got six more weeks before I can go back on the street.
The chief clasped his hands behind his back. "Don't you have somebody waiting for you back in
? What about that girl you were seeing?"
"Was that her name?"
Maddox drew in a long, slow drag of his cigarette and released it carefully. "That's over."
"She didn't like the publicity?"
"No. She liked it too much. I didn't like reading the details of my private life in the
The chief snorted. "I saw that one
Smolders with suppressed energy on and off the job,' wasn't that it? Some damn fool sent me a clipping."
Father and son exchanged a brief, rare look of shared disgust.
And then the chief shifted his stance. "Well, you're too old to loaf around the house for the next six weeks. What are you planning to do with yourself?"
Maddox released another breath, watching the curling smoke, surprised that the old man could still get to him. What the hell had he been thinking, running home to lick his wounds? The chief had always been able to smell blood. "Get drunk?"
The chief glared. "It's not funny, MD."
"I'm not laughing."
"As long as you're here you can make yourself useful. Put some time in for me."
"You're joking," Maddox said flatly.
The chief's red face turned redder. Just his luck high blood pressure ran in the family. "No. Bud Williams's wife got a teaching job over in
"Not me. I told you, I'm on leave."
"And I'm a detective short."
More than anything else, Maddox wanted to forget the events of the last two months in the reassuring routine of the street. He was a cop, damn it.
A good one.
He wanted to get back to it.
But not in Cutler, where every second citizen remembered him as a seventeen-year-old juvenile delinquent.
And not for his father.
"Leaving you with a force of—what?
You'll manage. This town is hardly a major crime center."
"Listen, Mr. Big City Cop, we have a situation here. We've got a big felony trial in a few weeks, and I'm not satisfied with the direction the D.A.'s office is taking."
"What kind of situation?"
"Case came up last year. I thought I told you."
Oh, right. He'd had maybe two phone calls from his father in the past nine months, and a card at Christmas. Maddox had always figured the lack of contact was one of the advantages of working for the Atlanta PD. Maybe he'd been wrong.
He shook out another cigarette and lipped it from the pack. "Why don't you remind me?"
The chief hesitated. "It's a stupid thing."
He looked up from lighting his smoke, his attention caught by his father's unusual indecision.
"It's all on account of that outsider getting involved, that
fellow who married Val Cutler. He got Ed Cutler over at the bank all stirred up, and now we've got a bunch of bleeding hearts targeting a man for something he didn't do." The chief stared at him fixedly. "You should know what that's like."
Oh, no. He'd had enough experts poking around in his feelings, trying to stir up some big confession of resentment toward the shooter, the department, the media. He wasn't going there again.
Especially not with the old man.
He pocketed his lighter. "Not really," he said coolly. "I never denied I shot that boy. So, who's the target?"
That was a kicker. Rob Cross was the John Kennedy of Cutler,
One of the good guys, one of the golden boys, with a "just folks" smile and a steady job at the bank.
His people knew your people and your people wished you were him.
Maddox swallowed an old resentment. "I saw Ann Cross at Val's place," he said slowly. "She told me they were separated."
The chief smiled without warmth or humor.
And did she also mention she's helping frame her husband for attempted murder?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
The chief tapped together a stack of papers, straightening the edges of an already squared file.
"Ann Cross stole deposit money from that restaurant where she works. Rob accepted the deposits at the bank, but he says he didn't know what she was doing. She claims he was behind the whole thing. Whatever, they both got felony convictions—him for embezzlement, her for larceny."
It was like hearing the Tooth Fairy was wanted for breaking and entering. Maddox scowled. For years, he'd squashed the temptation to ask after Annie. He'd cut off conversations at the mention of her name. This was a hell of a way to catch up.
He wasn't surprised anymore by the stupid, criminal things people did.
He didn't want her to be guilty. Of course, the way things had been running for him
alone was cause enough to believe she could be.
"You're still talking theft, not murder," he said. "Well, now, the restaurant owner alleges Rob did more than steal from her. They have a history, you know, Rob and Val MacNeill. She says that during their latest … disagreement, he knocked her out and set fire to the place."
"Damn. Did he?"
"Look, everybody knows Rob has a problem with his temper. He admits to hitting the MacNeill girl.
What did he have to gain?"
The thought of the big blond athlete using his fists on any woman burned in Maddox's gut. But he kept his voice cool.
"He still at the bank?"
"No," the chief said. Reluctantly, Maddox thought. "The bank president is Val's father. Of course he couldn't keep Rob on after he was charged."
"So, where does Ann come into the picture?"
"Witness for the prosecution."
Maddox froze. "She was there?"
"No, she's some kind of character witness.
Trying to pin all the blame on Rob.
," the chief repeated, shaking his head in disbelief.
The whole thing stunk like three-day-old
. "Why would she do that?"
"Who knows why those Barclays do anything? She and Rob are getting divorced. She's mad at him, is my guess."
wouldn't go forward with the case without proof."
He grabbed for his patience. "No. I'm just saying—"
His father looked him over scornfully. "I always thought you were sweet on her."
"Bit late for you to be taking an interest in my love life, Dad. Besides, what's that got to do with anything?"
It should have nothing to do with it. You've got your problems, son, but I always hoped you were a good-enough cop not to let personal feelings interfere with the job."
There was just enough truth laced in the accusation for it to sting. Maddox blew smoke deliberately. "You mean, like you do?"
"Don't get cute with me, MD. I've been doing my job since before you were born. Rob Cross has been arrested and charged. But as I see it, I have a duty to use my judgment in this or any other investigation."
"And your judgment tells you Rob didn't do it?"
"That's what I want you to find out."
"You could help Rob," his father insisted. "He needs you."