Authors: Virginia Kantra
Mitchell huddled with his teammates on the bench, chin down and eyes watchful. His trained response to violence, Ann thought, with a catch at her heart.
She looked anxiously back at Maddox, dark and solid in the center of a pack of teens.
I heard he shat that boy, and the department fired him.
He could handle it. Of course he could handle it.
"Tell me what's going on," he said.
The teens, black and white, shirts and skins, all of them sweaty and angry, crowded around. Words flew, punctuated with curses and gestures.
"Stuffed you, man."
"Knocked me down."
"Street rules. Show me blood."
Maddox listened, never reaching for his notebook or his radio, his face impassive. "This isn't the street," he interrupted. "You've got kids playing here, parents. I'm calling a technical foul."
"But I never touched him!" a tall black youth protested.
"Your name Burrell?"
The kid thrust his jaw forward. "So?"
"I used to play with a Jimmy Burrell. Know him?"
The kid's attitude leaked out like air from a ball.
Maddox nodded. "Good player. One shot," he said to the boy he'd pulled off the floor.
"Take it," Maddox advised in a hard voice. "And get back to your game before I call the center off limits for the next thirty days. You want to get stupid, go someplace else."
Ann held her breath. Grumbling, the teen took the ball from one of his friends and stood at the free-throw line. The others jostled into position along the lane. Set. Shoot.
Maddox caught the ball one-handed and bounced it to the other team.
And that was it. It was over. The teens slid and thumped down court, Maddox nodded to the referee, and the boys' teams resumed play.
Ann sat frozen on her hard aluminum bench, caught between relief and a sense of anticlimax. She watched Maddox stroll back along the far side of the court, nod to a parent, exchange a word with Rob. Uneasiness lurched in her stomach, but neither man glanced her way.
As Maddox passed the Spartans bench, he said something to Mitchell that earned him a quick, grateful look from the boy.
, Ann thought. Without fuss, without thought, he'd done the right thing, defused a tricky situation and offered comfort to her son. She sighed. She would never in a million years have that kind of competent assurance.
And then, as Maddox paced the painted line toward her, she saw that beneath his black-brimmed hat his face was nearly gray.
He met her eyes and smiled crookedly.
"You handled them very well."
He shrugged, dismissing her compliment. "So, I don't shoot every kid who pushes the line."
There it was, she realized. There was a reason for that gray look around his mouth, the lines of strain around his eyes. That boy he killed was only fourteen. Did he think about that every time he answered a call or went out on patrol?
"I'm sorry," she said. "It must be hard for you."
He shook his head.
"Part of the job."
"A difficult one."
"Meaning, you don't want to talk about it," she guessed.
"Or at least, not with me."
He raised sandy eyebrows. "There's nothing to talk about. I'm fine."
She hesitated. He wasn't angry with her, not yet. She didn't want to make him angry. But a friend wouldn't think like that. A friend wouldn't let her fear stand in the way of offering her help.
"I used to say that a lot," she said, looking down at her hands.
"'I'm fine.'" She forced a smile. "It ranked right up there with 'I walked into a door."'
"Jeez, Annie…" He sounded shaken.
"It's all right," she said quickly. "You don't have to talk to me. But you don't need to lie to me, either. I've heard enough lies—told them to myself, mostly."
"I am not lying to you."
Now he was mad, she thought with regret. And she hadn't helped him at all. She twisted her hands together. "I'm sorry. It's not any of my business. I'm not qualified, anyway."
"Qualified for what?" Irritation edged his tone.
"To help you with what's bothering you. For heaven's sake, look at me. I can't even deal with my own problems."
Maddox looked, and longing leapt up and grabbed his throat like a hungry dog. She was so damn pretty, pink-cheeked and earnest, her soft hair clipped back like a little girl's. But there was a bump in her nose and a ruler in her spine that reminded him she was all grown up, that made him think of her in purely adult kinds of ways.
Ways that involved white sheets and a dark room and long, uninterrupted hours to surround himself with her softness, to plunge himself in her peace…
He jerked himself back from that little fantasy. Like coming down from a bad marriage to an abusive jerk made her ripe for hard sex with a broken cop on temporary assignment.
She wasn't ready for him.
He wasn't right for her.
But she was braver and stronger than she gave herself credit for.
"You deal with your problems just fine," he told her roughly.
She slid him a disbelieving look.
"Seriously," he insisted. "It took guts to leave Rob.
To get a new job.
To start a new life.
To make a home for your kid."
"Maddox, I work in a restaurant. My son has to go to day camp because I stole twenty thousand dollars from my best friend and I don't have any other way to pay it back."
He shrugged. "So, you found a way to meet your responsibilities."
She shook her head. A strand of fine hair slipped from her barrette and fell forward on her cheek. He wanted to touch it, just to tuck it back behind her ear. He wanted to do a lot of things to her, with her, most of them impossible. "You're making me sound too—"
Brave? You are. You can handle a lot."
"But not you, apparently."
Was she reading his mind? He sucked in a hard breath. He'd give everything he owned to have her handling him, her hands on him. Sweat collected at the base of his spine at the images conjured by her words. He was half aroused and way out of line.
He had to get a grip. He couldn't believe they were having this discussion in a hot gym full of people, with him in uniform and her husband glaring at them from across the court.
"I don't think we should talk about this now," he said tightly.
"Yes, you've made that very clear. And I'm working on accepting that it's somehow okay for you to have access to my house and my son and the inside of my car—and my police file—but I can't be trusted to know anything about you." Her voice was stiff with hurt.
Maddox swore silently. He felt like a heel.
Served him right, too, for having his brain stuck below his belt buckle.
"It's not like that. I trust you."
Annie gave him one of those "oh, right" looks women were good at. "I'm trying to be understanding about this.
But if you're going to hand me some line about trust, I—"
He couldn't help it. He chuckled.
"What?" she demanded.
"Some doormat you turned out to be," he said.
She turned as red as the referee's shirt. And then her eyes sparkled. "Don't change the subject."
"Darlin', I don't even know what the subject is. Except you wanting me to talk to you, and I don't have anything to say."
She collected herself, back straight, hands together in her lap like one of his grandmother's china dolls. "I want you to know that I admire the way you handled those boys back there. Even if it was hard for you, you did a real good job. And—and if you want to talk to me about it, you can."
She had guts, Annie Barclay. Her stubborn kindness prodded him on a level he'd kept carefully shielded since the shooting. He didn't let anyone get too close to the black gulf inside him: not the press, not his colleagues, not his girlfriend or his lieutenant. Even for Annie, Maddox wasn't peering over that edge.
"Thanks for the offer. But I don't go on about what happened.
Her eyebrows went up. "—fine?"
"Working," he finished grimly.
His radio squawked, and that was good, that made him a competent cop responding to a call and not a loser running from the concern in her voice.
He answered. "Go ahead."
"Assistance requested on a ten-fifty-four on Old Graham a mile past Spring
His city-trained brain grappled with the unfamiliar code.
The night dispatcher,
, sniffed. "Do you copy?"
What the… He grinned suddenly.
"Copy. En route."
Ann watched him, her green eyes big and anxious. "Is everything all right?"
"There's a cow in the road. Guess I'll go offer it a lift in the squad car."
She smiled. "Before it hitches a ride from a passing motorist?"
He panned the gym once—the pickup game, the running kids, the parents on the bleachers—before his gaze returned to her face. "You okay here?"
She nodded. "Take care."
Damn. Rob was watching them. But a patrol officer always responded to a call. And a cow in the road was a traffic accident waiting to happen.
regret dogging his steps like a rookie partner.
* * *
The Spartans lost to the Comets, twenty-six to fourteen. Ann bit her lip as the young players filed past one another, slapping hands and muttering over and over, "Good game,
It hadn't been a good game for Mitchell.
Her son spent most of it on the bench. His coach put him in
the final minutes, when the game was irredeemably lost, but Mitchell still had time to fumble a pass and miss a rebound. Shoulders hunched and eyes lowered, he walked the gauntlet of the opposing team.
Good game, good game.
"He played a lousy four minutes."
Ann jerked at the sound of Rob's voice.
He stood beside her, hands in his pockets, scowling as the boys straggled by. "Did you see him waving his arms around out there?"
She drew a careful breath. As
long as your husband has visitation rights
, the therapist had cautioned,
Mitchell must forge his own relationship with his father.
She'd witnessed Rob's disappointment when Mitchell showed no sign of developing into Golden Boy Junior. But she couldn't stand by while he picked on their son. "Coach told him to keep his hands up."
Rob snorted. "Well, he looked like a damn windmill.
What are people going to think of my wife coming out in public dressed like that?"
She'd forgotten she was still in her gardening shorts. "I was weeding.
Before the game."
"It doesn't look right."
She caught her hands creeping to her hair and forced them to her sides. "You don't need to worry, Rob. We're almost divorced. You don't have to be embarrassed by how I dress anymore."
He eyed her critically. "At least you've got nice legs."
She was relieved by his mild tone; surprised by his compliment. "Thank you."
"You're an attractive woman, Annie," he said, moving closer. "I didn't tell you that often enough."
The hair on the back of her neck rose in warning. "Thank you," she said again. "Well… Shall I take Mitchell home? Since I'm here, I mean?"
"No. I'll take him out for some ice cream." Rob slanted
All-American smile. "Cheer him up."
Just for a moment, he resembled the golden college boy who put on a sleek black tux to take her to her high school prom. Who put on a morning-gray one to do the right thing in front of God, her mother and the town as she walked down the aisle, wearing white and four months
Who held her hand in the hospital and cried after he knocked her down the stairs and she lost their second baby. Regret made a lump in her throat.
"Join us?" Rob invited, watching her carefully.
She could. It would be so easy. Mitchell would like it, the ice cream and her protection. For half an hour, she could pretend they were the family she'd once dreamed of.
She swallowed. "I have to get back to my garden."
It was getting too dark to work outside, and they both knew it.
Rob's eyes hardened, but his smile never faded.
"Another time, then."