Authors: Polly Iyer
“You weren’t listening, Robert. His case was dropped. You should know what that means. Writing what you suggest would be libel, and saying it—”
“Slander, I know. I’m a lawyer. I know the difference.”
“Then you’d better be careful. If Daughtry sues you, he’d win. Again. He’s a strange bird, but I’d say fifteen years in prison is good reason why. He’s smart and rich, not some psychotic vagrant, and he doesn’t bother anyone. He’s a quiet man leading a quiet life, and he doesn’t need you screwing it up.”
“If he’s got so much money, then how come he had a public defender for a lawyer? You’d think he’d have hired someone with clout.”
“You mean someone like you?”
Robert straightened, puffed out his chest. “He could have done worse.” The smirk on Harris’s face angered him. “Was that sarcasm, Harris?”
“I’m waiting to see if the buttons on your shirt pop.”
“Well he could have done worse. I was a goddamn good defense attorney.”
“So I’ve heard. You got your clients off, and it didn’t matter how you did it.”
“Hearsay. Can’t prove a thing.”
“Daughtry’s attorney held her own against you six years ago. Got a big practice up in Boston now, I hear.”
Robert snorted. “Because people got all up in arms over the Constitution and rights. They missed the bigger picture. And she didn’t get him off at his trial, did she?”
“Reece Daughtry was convicted in the press. I know how that works, and if you look up his case, as I did, you’ll see he didn’t stand a chance. Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t. But the public was looking for a killer, and Daughtry took the fall.”
Robert slumped in his chair. “Circumstantial doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. I’ve put away plenty of people with circumstantial evidence. Plenty.”
“Like I said, he could be guilty, but the last time I looked, sleeping with a woman wasn’t the same as murdering her. If that were the case, I’d have been in prison years ago. Besides, the victim made the rounds. That came out at trial.”
“Yeah, but those others weren’t in bed with her, unconscious. Have they ever found the
murderer? No. ’Cause Daughtry’s it.”
“No point arguing with you. You twist things to bolster your position.”
“No point arguing because I’m right. Still, I don’t like he’ll be that close to my wife, building her
Harris picked up his red pen, hissed between his teeth. “I give up.”
“She won’t make it without me. Why do you think she stayed with me for twenty years?”
“You know why she stayed.”
Heat circled Robert’s neck. “Don’t bring that up, or you’ll be looking for another job. Have you forgotten who owns this newspaper? Who owns you?”
“How could I forget? You remind me on a regular basis. Go ahead. Fire me. I’m a good newspaperman. The only reason I’m still here is because I grew up in this town. I like it here. But you fire me, and everyone will know what I know. I might not write it in the
Regal Falls Banner
, but it’ll make the front page of some newspaper. I’ll see to that. People love good, dirty gossip.”
“I’ll discredit you. Drunk on the job. You’ll never work for another paper.”
“No one’s ever seen me drunk during working hours. But even drunk, I can hold my own with the best. And I never slapped around my wives to keep them in line or threatened to kill one of my kids for revenge if she left me.”
Robert tensed, his back rigid as an ironing board. “Where’d you hear that? As if I didn’t know. Do you and Dana share all your secrets?” He leaned closer. “Does she know about yours?”
Harris turned away.
“Does she?” When Harris didn’t answer, he said, “Hunh, thought so. You two. It’s unnatural for a man and woman to be best friends, and you couldn’t threaten to kill one of your kids because you don’t have any. All you have are three ex-wives who didn’t stay with you long enough to give you any. I’d never hurt my sons. I said it in the heat of anger. We all say things like that.” He flicked his hand, brushing off Harris as if he were a piece of lint. “I never hit Dana. A little love tap or two maybe, to keep her in line. You know what she’s like, and you know what she did.”
“Love tap? Right. I saw the results of your love tap. Dana stayed with you out of love for her sons and to keep them from becoming like you. You’d have fought her for them, not because you wanted them, but so she couldn’t have them. She stayed so they’d know someone loved them.”
“I love them. I’ve always loved them. Kids need discipline. That’s what fathers do. Mothers nurture. Fathers discipline.”
“I haven’t time for this, Robert. I have a paper to put out.”
“You’re the only one I allow to talk to me like this, and some day you’ll go too far.”
“You let me off the hook because I know too much, and it’s on paper. Names, dates, places. That’s why I’m a good reporter.”
Robert’s insides burned like they were on fire. “That sounds like a threat. Remember, threats work both ways, so be careful. Opening a Pandora’s Box could have drastic results.”
“Let’s not pretend. The only way a person can do business with you is to be like you. I learned that a long time ago, God help me.”
“God help you is right. And God help
too. He’s going to need it.”
“Daughtry has a right to choose his clients like anyone else in business, and I’m sure he’d rather look at Dana for however long it takes to build her fireplace than to look at you. Who knows what resides underneath
The thought of Dana with that ex-con got Robert hot all over again. It would be just like her to flaunt Daughtry in his face. “She wouldn’t dare. Not with a convicted murderer. Not in my county.”
“Jesus, Robert, for an attorney, you can be awfully dense. I’m not saying there’s anything there, but who knows? We can’t help who we’re attracted to, no matter how much we try. Now, I’ve got work to do. Go bother someone else.”
Robert stomped out of Harris’s office, mad as hell. “She won’t make a fool out of me again,” he muttered under his breath. “Not again. Once was one time too many.” Hardheaded Dana. She liked playing with fire, and inviting an ex-con murderer into her house while she lived there all alone sounded like her.
He got into the Escalade, fuming enough to steam the windows, and drove back to his office. “Who does she think she is?” he spat out, glad his too-loud voice couldn’t be heard outside the confines of his car.
And Daughtry. Someone ought to teach him a lesson. Building a fireplace for his wife was more than a slap in the face. It was downright…downright—well, he didn’t know how to describe it other than traitorous. He’d offered Daughtry four times the money, and the son of a bitch about told him to go fuck himself. Then Daughtry turned around and contracted to build one for Dana, all because Robert tried to stop the sale of his land. “No, no. You don’t do that to Robert Minette.”
He thought of calling Klugh to come up from Atlanta and follow that head-severing maniac to make sure he didn’t put his tainted hands on his wife. He’d have to think about that. Klugh was a loose cannon. He could be a problem if he took things into his own hands, doing what he thought Robert wanted, without hearing the words. He’d sleep on it, make up his mind later.
In the meantime, he’d check out all the unsolved missing women reports, starting when Daughtry turned up in North Carolina. Men like Reece Daughtry don’t change. Robert had known enough of them, put a few behind bars. Give them a get-out-of-prison card, and they’d kill again. They couldn’t help themselves. Violence was built into their DNA. Robert knew.
ana listened as Reece’s flatbed chugged up the driveway at seven thirty, weighed down by its contents of rocks and stones and slabs of slate. Through the trees, the morning sun dappled the yard in light and dark ever-evolving shapes. A hummingbird fluttered around the feeder hung from the eaves of the house. Dana assumed there’d be many more mornings, more piles of rocks. He told her the job would last at least a month, since she wanted the entire wall designed around the fireplace opening.
She had to admit to an uneasy night’s sleep. She was afraid of Reece Daughtry. Not because some articles she’d read insisted he savagely murdered a woman. Dana couldn’t believe the man preparing to work in her unfinished great room murdered anyone. Something about him had burrowed into a place deep within her, and he was all she thought about. It was that intensity that scared her.
He walked up from the driveway. “Morning.”
“Morning.” Like the day before, he dressed in layers. She supposed he shed clothing as the day warmed, maybe down to a tank top like he wore the first day on the dock. “There’s coffee in the kitchen. Since you’re going to be here for a while, make yourself at home. I’ll be in my study working, so you won’t have any distractions from me.” She crooked her finger. “Come, I’ll show you where everything is. There are muffins for breakfast, and I put some sandwiches in the fridge for lunch.”
“You didn’t have to, but thanks.” He poured himself a cup of coffee. “I’d better get to work.”
He spread a tarp in front of the fireplace wall, then brought in a wheelbarrow load of rocks already separated by size and color. She assumed he’d bring more in, but she didn’t want to stand around and watch, so she went into her office. In spite of telling him to help himself, when lunch time came she brought the food outside—a plate of sandwiches, chips, cookies, and a large pitcher of iced tea. The still-cool breeze brushed her face, scenting the air with mountain laurel and honeysuckle. The sun’s heat warmed her shoulders.
He picked up a sandwich. “This is nice. Thanks. I’m not used to being waited on. I usually eat meals alone.”
“Don’t you have friends here?”
“The vet.” He glanced her way and shrugged. “I made sure he understood business was business when I saw we were becoming friends. We’ve had dinner a few times. I’m a pretty good cook.”
“Yeah. I make a mean curry.”
“I love curry. You have to go to Asheville for good Indian or Thai food.”
Reece wasn’t much for talking, and Dana didn’t want to make him uncomfortable with banal chatter. But she realized he was making an effort.
“Back to work,” he said. “Thanks for lunch. Your chicken salad is better than mine. The pecans and cranberries added flavor.” He smiled and picked up his dish to carry inside.
“I’ll take care of them. I need a break. I’ve run into a block with my story.”
“I’d like to hear about it. I mean, that’s if you talk about what you’re writing before you finish. Maybe if you do, it might jiggle something. I’m a good listener.”
“Thanks.” She put the dishes in the dishwasher and came out to watch him work while she told him about her story. He was right about being a good listener, but then he’d ask a question like why something happened or how a character felt about this or that, and it opened her thought processes and helped her over the hump into the next scene.
“You’re what I needed,” she said.
Heat bloomed on her face. What was it about this man that triggered such a visceral reaction? “Thanks for the feedback. I’ll leave you to your work now.”
“Come back any time. I like your story.”
“You must like to read. You were reading the first day I went to your house.”
“I read a lot.” He stopped to fit a rock into the fireplace wall, stepped back to see what he’d done, and made an approving motion of his head. “It’s what saved my sanity.” He focused on her. “In prison, reading put me in another place.”
Dana started to write for exactly the same reason. To go to another place. But the place she was escaping from wasn’t hell, only limbo. “I should get back to work before I lose my idea.”
He signaled he understood and leaned down to choose another rock. She went back to work, and when he finished for the day, he called that he was leaving. And he left.
His truck sputtered down the drive until the sound faded. The house seemed emptier than it had been before he stepped into it.
* * * * *
he weather turned warmer. Buds sprouted into leaves, dogwoods bloomed, some flowers died off, others blossomed. Reece pulled his pickup into her yard every morning, came inside, poured himself a cup of coffee, and went to work. She disappeared into her office but felt his presence whether or not she could see him. When she ventured into the great room, he’d be lost in his design, iPod in his ears, listening to a book, she learned. At lunchtime, they sat on the back patio and talked about books. Nothing complicated or personal. Sometimes they talked less than more, and sometimes not at all, but the silence wasn’t strained.
During the afternoons, she read a chapter or two aloud to him. She found the time surprisingly intimate. She’d never before shared the people and situations that sprang from her mind and heart. At least, not until it was between two covers. It made her feel vulnerable, and in a strange way, empowered.
She marveled at Reece’s ability to pick up flaws she missed—a timeline or a repetition—never in a disparaging way, but gently questioning. She grew to see the man beneath the quiet exterior as a critical thinker. She remembered reading he’d gone to Harvard, so she wasn’t surprised.