Authors: Virginia Kantra
That appeal had worked in high school when Maddox was a center and his biggest goal in life had been protecting Rob's quarterback butt. He wasn't in high school any longer.
He raised his eyebrows. "'Go, Cougars'? I don't think so."
"Damn it, boy, you were teammates. State champions, thanks to him."
"That always meant more to you than me."
The chief leaned both hands flat on his desk. "It still counts for something."
"Not to me, it doesn't."
"Don't you feel any loyalty? What kind of man are you?"
The headlines still burned.
Maddox regarded the smoldering eye of his cigarette before he dropped it, grinding the butt into the floor. "I'm a cop on suspension. And I left my badge back in
Before he was out of the building, he lit up another cigarette. He'd picked a hell of a time to play at coming home. He wasn't about to give up smoking.
* * *
"Cool. It's a new
book," nine-year-old Mitchell said with unusual enthusiasm. He plucked the paperback from the rack as they stood in the checkout line. "Can I get it?"
Ann wanted to say no. The unexpected meeting with Maddox had upset her. There were too many years and too great a distance between her old dreams and her new reality. She could barely afford toilet paper this week.
She brushed her son's fine, straight hair out of his eyes. He needed a haircut too. They couldn't afford that either.
He consulted the cover. "Three ninety-nine," he said hopefully. "Please?"
Ann sighed. The long summer stretched before them. Once the empty days had been filled with the wide, flat waters of the club swimming pool, and the corner room with its computer and its bunk for a friend to sleep over when Rob was away, and the big-screen TV in a long room chilled to movie-theater cool.
There had been no swimming pool this summer, no computer and only one trip to the movies. Mitchell had spent the two weeks since school let out alternating between the hot public day camp in a dusty park and their cramped two-bedroom bungalow.
Oh, God, what if she'd been wrong? She'd wanted so many things for her son, and now she was balking at the cost of a book.
"Dad could get it for me," Mitchell suggested.
Of course he could. But he wouldn't. Rob didn't encourage his son's flights of imagination. Ann straightened her spine. "No, we'll get it today. Your dad is taking you to basketball practice on Thursday."
Droid Zone 11:
. "Do I have to go?"
Rob insisted that his skinny, bookish son participate in at least one team sport. Ann wasn't interested in raising this generation's Golden Boy Cross. But she accepted that Mitchell needed some masculine bond with his father. Besides, she couldn't afford to violate their custody agreement.
"Well, your daddy and I agreed he could see you one night a week. Don't you have fun there?"
"It's all right," Mitchell said.
Meaning, Ann guessed,
- awful - but - I - don't - want - to - worry - you. Guilt squeezed her heart.
He ducked his head. "Come on, Mom.
The cashier's waiting."
Sighing, she nudged her cart along the narrow aisle. A front wheel jammed against the magazine rack, and when she jostled the cart to free it, her purse swung from her shoulder and knocked a candy display off the counter.
Mitchell wailed, embarrassed.
"Got it," a rough male voice said behind her.
her face already hot. Maddox Palmer stood in line behind her, his hands steadying the box of candy dispensers and his hooded eyes amused.
Her mouth dried. Oh, no, she thought. She didn't want to recognize the speeding of her heart or the flutter in her stomach. Feelings like that could turn on you. Men could turn on you.
"I'm sorry," she blurted.
"No problem," he said.
Mitchell was watching, his green eyes guarded.
Growing up with the echoes and bumps-in-the-night that marked his parents' marriage had made him sensitive to undertones.
She touched his forearm, hiding her own misgivings to reassure him.
"My son, Mitchell.
Mitchell, this is Mr. Palmer. He … I…"
He shot that boy and the department fired him
. "We went to school together," she finished weakly.
Maddox nodded. "Hey."
"Nice to meet you," Mitchell mumbled politely.
Ann lifted a plastic gallon of milk onto the moving belt. "What are you doing here?"
Maddox grinned at her, that rare, invitation-to-trouble grin he'd turned on her in seventh grade, and she almost forgot to be afraid.
"In the grocery store?
She glanced back at his cart. Beer, bread and cigarettes humped together with a roll of paper towels and a carton of orange juice. "You don't eat much," she observed.
"I can't cook much."
She smiled faintly. "That would explain the cereal and peanut butter."
"I eat out a lot," he said defensively.
"I imagine you have to."
He shrugged. "Don't you?
Working in a restaurant and all."
Val encouraged Ann to take her meals at Wild Thymes, but she, resisted accepting charity. And she couldn't afford anything else. She shook her head, letting her hair veil her expression. "I don't work dinners very often. And I like to cook."
What does she make?" he asked Mitchell.
Put on the spot, Mitchell shuffled. "Well…"
Rob would have snapped at her son to speak up. Maddox just waited, like one of those Catholic priests.
Or a cop.
"Tacos," Mitchell managed to say at last. "She makes good tacos. And spaghetti and hot dogs and stuff like that."
A far cry from the beef and three sides Rob had expected on the table every night. She waited for Maddox to make some disparaging comment.
Maybe I should come to your house for dinner."
Was he angling for an invitation? Was he—Ann stumbled over the thought—could he be lonely? She had a sudden memory of him at ten, his cool pose a front for his desperate longing to be noticed. She remembered his quick flush of gratification when she'd offered him a stick of gum, and the time he'd beat up Billy Ward for calling her "Chicken Legs."
She concentrated on unloading her
from the cart, aware that the checkout girl had stopped snapping her gum to listen. What was a nice person supposed to do? "Oh, my dinners are nothing fancy. Nothing you would want."
"Try me," Maddox said softly.
His eyes met hers, hot and hooded and intense, and her insides constricted like they did when she was afraid, only this time it wasn't with fear.
Dear Lord. She hadn't felt this way in… She couldn't remember the last time she had felt this way. She couldn't want him, she thought in near panic. She couldn't want any man ever again, not that way, whatever the counselor had said, whatever Val had promised.
"I'm getting pretty tired of peanut butter," Maddox added, deadpan. Teasing, the way he had the first time she'd boarded the school bus for kindergarten and stared hopelessly at the crowded seats. "I don't know if you'll fit," he'd told her solemnly, sliding over to make room beside him. "You're awfully big."
Remembered gratitude pricked her. A nice woman would invite the poor man to dinner. Her heart beat high and wild in her throat.
Forget nice. Nice had gotten her pregnant at eighteen and married four months later. Nice had made her smile and lie to her mother, to her best friend, to her son and to herself.
She couldn't afford nice anymore.
"Frozen dinners are in aisle four," she said. "You should check it out. They have a good selection."
The cashier's mouth gaped so far open Ann could see the color of her gum.
He stuck his thumbs in his front pockets, regarding her with those deep-set eyes.
Don't you think that's a little … cold?"
Her stomach jumped. Pushing her hair behind her ear, she gave him a quick, nervous smile. "I'm afraid that's the best I can offer."
wasn't the one who'd walked by in the hall the next morning without a word. She swallowed the hot answer that rose in her throat, but there was nothing she could do about the heat in her cheeks.
He continued to watch her as she paid the cashier, as she put her purse on her shoulder and loaded her bags and pushed the cart. His intense, unsmiling regard shook her. She did not want to be reduced in his eyes to what the years had made her, what marriage to Rob had made her.
It didn't matter, she reassured herself, as she crossed the baking parking lot with Mitchell. Nothing mattered anymore but Mitchell.
"Who was that guy?"
Ann glanced over at her son's blond head, almost level with her shoulder. "Mr. Palmer. I introduced you."
"Yeah, but how well do you know him?"
Love filled her at his protective tone.
It's okay. We were on the same bus route when we were your age."
"People change," Mitchell insisted.
She unlocked the trunk of her rusting compact, a far cry from the fully outfitted SUV she'd driven a year ago. "Yes, they do."
"He looks like trouble to me," Mitchell muttered darkly. Ann remembered how in high school Maddox had skirted the edges of Rob's crowd, silent and sexy and usually on his way to detention.
Trouble, her mother had warned her.
Trouble, the town agreed.
Trouble was the last thing she was looking for.
She thumped a milk jug into the trunk. "Don't worry about it. I don't think we'll see him again."
"Well, that's good. Dad wouldn't like it."
No, he wouldn't. "Your father doesn't really have anything to do with it," Ann said bravely.
Mitchell handed her the last bag of groceries. "Aren't you … are you guys getting back together again?"
She wasn't sure what put the hesitation in his voice, the tension in his shoulders. Hope? Or fear? But she answered him as gently as she could. "No."
"Because he hit you?"
Even now, eleven months after she'd left the big house on
it was hard to talk about it. Harder to admit to her child that his father, the father he saw one evening a week and on alternate weekends, was a
. But that was part of the healing, learning not to lie.
"Because he hurt me, yes."
"Not because of me?"
How could she answer him? She'd stayed for his sake, to give him the advantages she'd never had. And she'd left—at last—for his sake, too, because she didn't want her boy to grow up in the circle of violence, to be abused or learn to use his size or his words or his fists against someone smaller or slower or weaker.
He was only nine, she reminded herself. Really, really smart and middling tall, but only nine. She wouldn't add to whatever childish guilt he carried.
"No, sweetheart, no.
We talked about this, remember? Nothing that happened was because of anything you did or didn't do."
He still looked unsatisfied. Ann sighed and dug into one of the plastic grocery bags. "Want a cookie?"
I'm not a baby." But there was a glimmer of interest in his eyes, a suggestion of a smile around his mouth. "What kind?"
"Okay." He took his hands out of his pockets to accept the cookie.
They got into the car together, and Ann loved him so much she thought her heart would burst with it. Whatever other mistakes she'd made, she couldn't regret Mitchell. She would never do anything—
—to risk losing him.
emporary insanity, Maddox decided. That was the only excuse for his recent behavior. Something in his hometown—the air, maybe, or the drinking water—had obviously shorted his brain cells.
He drove his made-in-America sedan under budding crepe myrtle through the wide wrought-iron gates of the South Hills Country Club.
He'd told the chief he didn't want anything to do with this damned investigation, and he'd meant it. Forget that he'd almost made it with Ann once and still wanted her now. Putting the moves on a suspect was not his MO. Never mind that Rob's invitation had broken into another intolerable day of stewing boredom. Golf was not his game. Cutler was not his jurisdiction.
And the country club had never been his style.
Growing up, Maddox had preferred fishing with the Burrell boys down at Oakley's Pond to lounging poolside. His teenage drinking had been six packs behind
, not Scotch and bourbon smuggled from parental liquor cabinets.
He parked between freshly painted lines beside a blue-and-white-striped canopy and got out of the car. He didn't lock the doors. Nobody was going to choose his
for a joyride in this parking lot.
His footsteps echoed in the cool tiled foyer of the clubhouse. Ceiling fans stirred the flower arrangements on the polished glass tables. A barbered young man in white shorts and the blue club polo shirt looked up at his entrance.
"Can I help you?"
Despite his smile, the words weren't meant to welcome.
Maddox made eye contact until the "Aryan youth" poster boy reddened and looked away.
I'm here to meet Rob Cross."
"It's all right, Peter, Mr. Palmer is my guest." Tanned, distinguished, with an extra six inches of belt dangling to emphasize his still-flat stomach, Rob Cross walked across the foyer with his hand extended. "MD! It's good to see you."
Been a long time."
"Too long," Rob said, his smile flashing.
Almost against his will, Maddox felt the tug of that concentrated friendliness. Well, that was Rob.
Everybody's pal, everybody's prince.
He remembered your birthday and your favorite beer, the ailments of all the regulars who loitered at the service station and the names of all his clients' kids.
It made the guy occasionally tough to take, especially when your own father held him up as a model. Or if, say, you'd recently been both hailed as a hero and pilloried as a child murderer in the local media. Maddox retrieved his hand.
Rob didn't appear to notice. "I'm glad you could get away," he said easily. "We're teeing off at two."
"You're teeing off," Maddox corrected him. "I told you, I don't golf."
I could loan you a set of clubs."
Maddox's mouth twisted in a smile. "And watch me stumble behind you chopping chunks out of the golf course?
Rob laughed, leading the way through tall French doors to a manicured patio out back.
"Whatever you say.
You'll drive, at least, I hope?"
He eyed the jaunty cart with its bright blue canopy. "Sure. You gonna give me a tip?"
"How about, '
Maddox levered his body into the toy car and looked for the controls. "That's right. I heard you were a financial advisor now or something. Left the bank?"
That earned him a quick, suspicious look, and then Rob smiled again. "Why do you ask? Interested in putting together a portfolio now you can't count on that police pension any longer?"
Screw you, thought Maddox. He hadn't been fired. But Rob had always had this nasty edge on his tongue. You couldn't let it get to you. At least, you couldn't let it show.
"Could be," he said calmly. Steering the golf cart up a slight rise, he jerked to a stop in front of the tee.
Rob glanced at him sideways and then climbed down, pulling a club from the back.
"Sony about that.
I guess I'm a little touchy on the job thing. The chief must have filled you in on my recent spot of trouble with the law."
"He mentioned something, yeah."
"You know it was all a mistake."
Maddox pulled his cigarettes from his breast pocket. He was not getting involved. Besides, he heard that one all the time.
Or the department's?"
"Look, I'm not faulting the chief. He really had no choice, given the information he had to work with. And I can see that a jury—even knowing me, even knowing what this community means to me—could believe I knew about Ann taking money from the restaurant.
But this other thing…
Hell, there's just no way I set fire to Val's place. I mean, what was in it for me?" Rob tugged an outside zipper on his golf bag and tossed Maddox a book of matches.
He caught it neatly. "I didn't know you smoked."
"I don't. But I like to be prepared. I have enough clients who do."
Maddox nodded acknowledgement and lit his cigarette, watching as Rob sent the little white ball sailing over the sunlit hills to the green. It was none of his business, he reminded himself. He inhaled deeply. "You want to tell me what happened?"
Rob climbed back into the cart. "Well, now, there are two sides to every story."
He'd heard that one before, too. Generally, he figured one side was the truth and the other was whatever excuse the perpetrator could come up with. He started the golf cart after the ball, asking, almost from habit. "So, what's your side?"
"Not the same as Ann's, that's for sure."
"You think she's lying."
Rob drew himself up in his seat, the perfect Southern gentleman. "That's not something a man wants to say about his wife."
The reminder hit Maddox like a fist in the gut. Like a slap upside the head. He wasn't involved. Not with the woman and not in the case.
And then he opened his big mouth and said, "I heard you two were separated."
Rob lowered his voice confidingly. "She's a little upset with me right now."
"The usual thing.
There was someone at work … I let myself be tempted. I told Ann I was sorry and it wouldn't happen again. The girl left town, actually. But you know how women are."
Maddox couldn't see how any man married to Annie Barclay could be tempted to stray, but he did indeed know how women were. Domestic disputes led to a lot of police tips. Unfortunately, resentful informants couldn't always be trusted
"So, your wife testified against you because she was mad you had a bit on the side?"
Rob shrugged. "That's about it."
"What about Val MacNeill? You want me to believe she was jealous, too?"
Rob approached his ball and squatted to inspect the line to the hole. "Who knows? But she could be after me because of what happened before the fire."
Tom Creech had filled him in. Hell, the whole town had taken sides on that one. "Because you beat her up, you mean."
"I hit her."
"Enough to get her admitted to the hospital."
Rob straightened, meeting his gaze in rueful acknowledgment. "What can I say? You know I've always had a temper. And hell, MD, she was interfering between me and my wife. But I never wanted her dead. I never set fire to her restaurant."
It wasn't his investigation, Maddox thought, almost desperately. It wasn't his business. He was on leave. Department policy, his captain told him, never quite meeting his eyes.
To regain objectivity,
the shrink explained, with a frank and friendly look.
He sure as hell wasn't doing his objectivity any good getting mixed up in this mess.
But the habits of the interview room died hard. And what actually came out of his mouth was "Hey, I've got temper troubles myself. But
, they need somebody to be guilty. Who else could have done it?"
"Who knows? I was long gone. Ann admits she wasn't even there. Val
she was knocked out." Rob selected another club. "You want my honest
I think she did it herself.
Her or that new husband of hers."
"That MacNeill guy?
Why would you say that?"
"Her business wasn't doing that well, you know. That insurance money must have come in mighty handy."
It was plausible. It fit with what his father had said. And if, deep in his heart, he didn't want to accept that the girl he remembered stole and lied to pay back her cheating husband, well, hadn't he learned by now that believing the worst of somebody generally meant you weren't disappointed?
Rob turned on his all-American smile. "You could really help me out here, MD."
"You want me to take the flag out of the hole?"
"I want you to look into this for me. Prove I didn't do it."
"Did the chief tell you to ask me?"
Rob twinkled disarmingly. "See, there, you figured that one right out. I knew you could help. You're good, MD."
Maddox took a short, vicious drag of smoke. "Not everybody would agree with you."
"Prove them wrong," Rob suggested. "Show the hometown boys how it's done."
He was tempted. He'd been going crazy with inactivity since the shooting. Investigating this case from the sidelines would keep his hand in and his brain sharp. At the very least, looking at Am and her gal pal Val would get his father off his back for the duration of his stay in Cutler. Why not? He wasn't committing to anything, he wasn't drawing his gun, and he for damn sure wasn't going near any middle school. How far wrong could he go, asking a few questions?
It didn't matter that he'd never been a member of the Rob Cross Fan Club. Poking around might uncover something that would help Am.
And if it didn't…
Well, if it didn't, maybe proving her guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice would cure him of his schoolboy crush for good.
And maybe he was just kidding himself. Maybe he was nuts enough to grab at any excuse to see her again.
Felon or not.
He pitched his cigarette to the turf, ignoring a splinter of doubt.
"I'll think about it," he said.
* * *
Ann's doorbell clunked two broken notes, and she froze like a rabbit on the lawn.
Coward, she scolded. Move. Breathe.
Her gaze darted to the clock on the stove.
Rob wasn't supposed to pick up Mitchell for another half hour.
Wiping her hands on a dishcloth, she forced herself to the door. She checked through the peephole, her breath congealing at the sight of a big, fair man waiting in the shadows of the porch. Rob.
And then he shifted, and she recognized the slouched posture, the sandy hair. She shot back the bolt and opened the door.
"Hello, Annie," Maddox said in his whiskey-and-cigarettes voice.
She crossed her arms protectively over her stomach, standing in the narrow opening. That one distorted glimpse hadn't prepared her for the impact of his broad, hard body and intense, unsmiling face on her doorstep. Even shaved and dressed in rumpled khakis and a collared sports shirt, he looked disconcertingly like the boy her mother had warned her against.
"What are you doing here?"
"Can I come in?"
"I guess so." She knew she sounded grudging, and the nice Southern girl who still lurked inside her protested softly. "How did you get my address?"
"How do you think?"
He was a
she reminded herself He could probably get whatever he wanted. Just like Rob. The thought made her shiver.
Maddox stopped inside the threshold, and she watched as he did a quick check of the hall and living room. Was that a police thing, too? Or was he as curious as the rest of Cutler to see how she lived now?
As his hooded gaze roamed from the battered banister to the stained carpet and secondhand chairs, she resisted the urge either to straighten or explain. This was her home, hers and Mitchell's, and she was stubbornly proud of it. Maybe it was on the poor side of town. Maybe it was small and shabby compared to the house on
Paid the rent herself.
His gaze returned to her face. "When did you decide to take up slumming?"
Her stomach knotted. "I grew up slumming, remember?
On a chicken farm."
"I remember you married off it."
She had no retort for that one. No defense, because it was true. "What are you doing here, MD?"