Authors: Virginia Kantra
"You used to. Bet you remember that night, anyway."
That night in Maddox's car, out on the river road. Oh, she remembered. Rob had seen them leaving the party together. He'd reminded her of that often enough in the last twelve years.
The cold was deep inside her now. Dinner—meat loaf—congealed like cold lard in her stomach.
Mitchell trailed down the stairs in mesh shorts and a UNC T-shirt, his face pinched, his eyes watchful.
She brushed his hair back from his forehead, seeking and giving comfort. "Do you have your water bottle?"
"Guess it's time for us to go, then," Rob said. He clapped his hand on his son's shoulder. Mitchell leaned away from the touch. Rob turned on his way out the door to wink at Maddox.
"Remember, Mad Dog, your first job is to protect the quarterback
. 'Night, all."
The door closed behind them.
"Annie…" Maddox reached for her. She shrank.
He was a liar.
And she was a fool.
She reached inside and found her anger, used it to warm the icy lump inside her and thaw her frozen voice. "I think it's time for you to go, too."
He took a step toward her. "Look, it's not like what you're thinking."
She folded her arms over her stomach—
in an attack,
your head and middle
—letting the anger out in a welcome geyser of heat. "You have no idea what I'm thinking. You have no clue what I'm feeling right now. Just leave. Please."
He stopped, his hooded gaze intent on her face, and then he nodded slowly.
I'm going. But I'll be back."
he more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Maddox grimaced through the windshield at the town s main drag. That was a song or something. And Cutler,
The video store had obviously replaced the record aisle at Woolworth's as the teen hangout of choice. A new bench supported the old regulars in front of the hardware store. The model head in the window of Barb's Beauty Salon—now
—still sported a honey-colored perm.
Annie Barclay was thinner, tougher,
than he remembered, but he still had a major
Maddox shook his head. So, he was still an idiot. And she was still all wrong for him.
But she was free now, a sly whisper teased inside his head.
The marriage is over,
she'd insisted, her voice flat and hard.
Maddox rummaged on the seat beside him for his cigarettes. Yeah, and she thought he was somewhere below troglodytes on the evolutionary scale.
What had happened to the slim, shy girl with hopeful eyes and an elusive laugh?
Was it the trial?
Maddox scowled as he headed toward the outskirts of town and an end-of-shift beer with Tom Creech. He didn't like the way Golden Boy had finessed things last night to make it appear that Maddox was acting as his personal junior deputy. No, he didn't like that at all. He ought to throw this whole damn investigation back in the chief's lap and haul ass to
, he had the same old problems to think about and even less to do. He didn't like the picture he got of an innocent Annie up against his father and Rob. And innocent or guilty, he didn't want her thinking he'd shown up on her doorstep last night just to pump her for answers.
He drew on his cigarette. Even if he'd told himself that's what he was there to do.
He expelled smoke in a moody cloud. Maybe especially because he'd told himself that's what he was there to do.
On the road ahead, an old black
was pulled up on the shoulder, its raised hood a warning to motorists.
Not his jurisdiction, Maddox reminded himself as he switched lanes. A sheriff's patrol would be by any minute.
Or a state trooper.
But he slowed as he passed, checking in the rearview mirror, anyway, making sure everything was all right. A lone woman in a long skirt bent over the engine.
And then he identified that slim back, that smooth brown hair.
His heart beat faster. He pulled onto the verge in front of her car.
* * *
Ann stared into the black bowels of her wounded car. She'd opened the hood without the slightest idea what she was doing, but the problem was depressingly easy to see. Right there, smack in the middle of the greasy, confusing tangle, a thick black hose sputtered and steamed. She had a hole in her … well, she didn't know what to call it, but it definitely had a hole.
Oh … drat. Could she drive with it? She didn't think so. Determined to pick up Mitchell when his camp day ended at four-thirty, she had ignored the temperature gauge's stubborn climb to red. She'd pulled over only when steam started gusting over the hood. She eyed the hissing, spitting hose. She was going to be late for sure.
She pressed her lips together, fighting the too-familiar demons of helplessness and frustration.
I do have power over my own life
, she recited silently, invoking one of her therapist's favorite mantras
. I can use my power to take care of myself.
A thin stream of green fluid
by her shoes.
It was just too bad she didn't have any power over her car.
She barely registered the dark blue sedan that swept by until she heard it stop behind her.
Tension coiled her stomach. She thought of the horrible things that could happen, monsters
preyed on stranded motorists, before giving herself a mental shake. Her car had broken down in broad daylight on a well-trafficked road. Probably someone had stopped to offer help.
She turned to thank her well-intentioned rescuer. The driver's door opened. A man got out. And a different kind of tension gripped her.
She recognized the shape of his broad shoulders, the rough silhouette of his head, before she saw his face. His eyes were unreadable behind dark glasses. He cast a long shadow in the late afternoon sun. Something about the way he moved toward her, the contained awareness of his body, his unthinking masculine competence in the face of her mini-disaster, triggered a rush of feelings: Gladness.
And a deep, residual anger.
She squared her shoulders. "Rob
you to 'straighten me out'?"
The sharp words surprised them both. Maddox halted a yard away. "No."
"So, why did you stop?
He pitched his cigarette to the ground.
Shame squiggled inside her. She knew that. Of course she knew it. He had a man's tendency to meddle, a cop's training. He probably would have stopped for anyone. But she was still stinging over the way she'd nearly fallen for his show of concern last night. "And what will this help cost me?"
She winced at the provocation in her voice. But Maddox stood very still.
As if she could batter him with her anger and he'd never hit her back.
"I don't know yet," he said. "Why don't you show me the problem first?"
She drew a shaky breath. "I have a hole in my…" She still didn't know what to call it.
He took a step closer. She flinched. He froze. And then he leaned in casually, taking off his sunglasses to look over her shoulder.
"Radiator hose," she repeated, committing it to memory. "Can you—can it be repaired?"
"I can rig it. But it needs to be replaced. Both of them need to be replaced. The lower one's ready to crack. See?"
She looked, but it didn't matter. She didn't have the money to replace things on her car. And she had other, more urgent concerns. "I need to pick up Mitchell."
"Where is he?"
He considered the distance.
Considered the hose.
"I can probably get you that far."
"And home?" she asked anxiously.
He smiled suddenly, a brief, hard smile that caught her under the ribs. "I'll get you home."
She didn't want him thinking she was nagging for herself. "It's just that Mitchell worries if I'm late."
"Watching out for mom?"
She smiled, grateful for his easy acceptance. "Yes."
Mitchell was protective. More than that, he needed the routines they'd developed to pretend that everything was under
everything was all right. Rob used to mock Ann's almost superstitious adherence to their son's bedtime ritual. Her smile twisted.
Though if she deviated from Rob's schedule, Rob's agenda, all hell broke loose.
Maddox lifted an eyebrow. "We'd better get you on your way, then."
She was embarrassed at being caught out dreaming like the goony girl he'd known in high school.
"I … yes.
He strolled back to his
masculine power compacted into a pair of worn jeans. She looked away. Her face felt warm.
The sun, she thought. It struck through her thin blouse, rose up from the road in waves. A truck rumbled by on the other side of the road, dragging dust and exhaust in its wake.
"Here we go."
Maddox was back, exuding heat and competence. In one hand, he carried a gallon jug of water, and in the other…
"Duct tape?" she asked. "You carry it with you?"
"In my trunk, yeah."
Straight-faced, he added, "Doesn't everybody?"
She almost laughed. Didn't, because she was afraid he would take offense. What if he hadn't meant it as a joke? Rob didn't like it when she found him funny.
Though she hadn't found much to laugh about in her marriage for a long time.
"I will from now on," she said instead.
"Now, there's a picture." But Maddox didn't say it meanly. His voice was warm and amused.
She watched as he dried the hose with his handkerchief and bound it with the tape.
"That should hold you for a while," he said, setting down the jug of water.
"Ten minutes or so.
Don't sit in the carpool line too long."
"I won't," she promised.
He wiped his hands on the handkerchief he'd used for the hose. He had big, square hands and thick wrists. His fingernails were short and clean. Not huffed, like Rob's.
She looked up from his hands to find his hooded gaze on her face. Her blood drummed in her ears.
"Well." She floundered. She wanted to thank him. She wanted to apologize for throwing him out of her house last night. But her feelings were all mixed up with her therapist's caution not to take responsibility for things that weren't her fault.
She mustered her courage. "I'm sorry if I was rude last night."
He roiled his shoulders, shrugging off her apology. "Guess we ticked you off."
Maddox and Rob.
Rob had said—Rob made it appear—as if Maddox had sought her out to get her to change her story. And that she would not do. Her husband had tried to kill her best friend. She was sickeningly sure of that.
She was much less certain what Maddox was guilty of.
He unhooked the thin metal support and slammed the hood. He'd fixed her car. She would only be a little late picking up Mitchell because Maddox had stopped to help.
She cleared her throat. "I don't blame you for listening to Rob."
That earned her a dark, hot look. "No?"
She felt lapped by fire, but she did not drop her gaze. "No. How could I?" She smiled crookedly. "I listened to him myself for years."
He didn't laugh, didn't answer right away. Slow, his teachers said all those years ago, but Ann knew better. Maddox was deliberate. She'd only seen him lose control once, and the memory still had the power to make her shiver. Now he reached forward, slowly, and deliberately tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. His eyes never left hers. His hand was warm. His callused fingertips trailed up her cheek and along the curve of her ear.
Her nerve broke.
"I have to go," she babbled without looking at her watch.
She shook her head. His fingers brushed her neck and fell away. "I can't be late. The camp charges ten dollars for every fifteen minutes past four-thirty. I have to go."
She sidled around the hood of her car, her heart beating, beating high in her throat like a lark rising in the morning. She fumbled with the door. Her hands were shaking so bad she could barely insert her keys in the ignition.
Maddox stepped back from the car. She fixed her attention on the temperature gauge, but she could feel him watching her, his gaze heavy and golden as the sun pressing through the windshield.
She was stupid.
Hadn't she learned by now that she was only attracted to men who were bad for her?
Yes, he'd stopped to help her. Yes, he'd fixed her car, his hands knowing on the engine and gentle on her cheek. But by the time she negotiated the end of the car-pool line and found a space to park and ran into the day camp office, the big round clock above the filing cabinet read four-forty-two.
So she was late after all.
counselor smiled up from her desk. "Mrs. Cross! I was just about to call your husband."
Ann's heart squeezed. "Why? Mitchell…?"
"Is fine," the counselor assured her.
"Then … I don't understand. Did you expect him to pick Mitchell up?"
He explained the first time that he couldn't do that. But he asked us to let him know any time you were late so he could pay the late charges."
Something was wrong. Rob had flatly refused to pay any part of Mitchell's camp fees. The boy belonged at home, he insisted. Ann belonged at home, taking care of their son. He'd never pay late charges for day care so that Ann could work.
Unless he had no intention of paying.
Unless he simply wanted to keep track of the days she was late, so he had evidence of her general unfitness as Mitchell's mother.