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Authors: Susan Andersen

Present Danger (3 page)

BOOK: Present Danger
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Her mouth went dry with a sense of inadequacy she never felt with Otis or Lola. “Hello, Mistah Rydah,” she said softly. “I didn’t see you back there.”

“Hello, yourself, Magnolia Blossom.” He gave her a sleepy smile and looked her over with those uncivilized eyes of his. She swallowed dryly.

“Aren’t you kind of cold without your shirt?” she blurted. The amusement in his eyes as they roved over her puffy, brightly colored down jacket made her want to squirm, although she couldn’t have said precisely why.

“No,” he replied politely enough, but Aunie still had the impression he was laughing at her. “Sanding is warm work.” His eyes lit on her coat again. “Maybe we should give you a patch of plaster to smooth out. A little physical exertion and you wouldn’t have to bundle up like a kid on the first day of snow.”

To James’s astonishment, her eyes lighted with interest. “Really?” she asked. “I’ve got homework to start, but I could give you about twenty minutes. Do you mean it?” When he didn’t immediately say no—primarily because he was too dumbfounded to speak—she smiled in pleasure. “I’ll be right back.” She whirled around and raced down the hallway to her apartment like a kid unexpectedly let out of school. The door slammed behind her a moment later.

“I was kidding,” James said in amazement to the carpet between his crooked legs.

Otis’s teeth gleamed whitely. “You were bein’ sarcastic,” he corrected his friend. “You thought she was too hoity-toity to take you up on it, so you figured you were safe to embarrass her a little. Maybe you
oughtta get to know that little gal a tiny bit better, Jimmy, before you jump to any
more
conclusions about her.”

James muttered an obscenity beneath his breath and turned away, feeling unaccountably small-minded. Okay, so maybe he had intended to knock her down a peg or two. She rubbed him the wrong way. Aunie’s glowing face when she reappeared a moment later—her jacket replaced by an Emerald City sweatshirt—made him feel even lower yet, and perversely he laid the blame for it at her door.

“What do I do?” she asked him.

“Put a piece of sandpaper around a block of wood and sand the fu … uh, the wall,” he muttered unhelpfully, and when some of the glow dimmed in her eyes he felt like snapping at her to stop making him feel like such a shit.

“Okay,” she murmured and looked around. She picked up a sheet of coarse grit and ran her thumb over it. “This must be the sandpaper.”

James’s mouth dropped open. She had never seen
sandpaper
before? “Where the hell have you been all your life?” he demanded incredulously.

“In various cities in Georgia, suh, bein’ totally useless,” Aunie replied with surprising cheer. “But all that’s gonna change, Mistah Rydah, just you wait and see. I’m learnin’ all sorts of new things every day.”

“Here, Aunie,” Otis said gently as he wrapped his ham-sized hand around her elbow and steered her down to his section of the wall. He stooped to pick up a block of wood on the way, shooting James a sour look over his massive shoulder. “You can work down here with me. Just wrap the paper around the block like so and stroke the high spots on
the
plaster like
this.” He demonstrated for an instant then handed her the block. “Here, you try it.”

Aunie applied herself industriously. Several moments later she stepped back to view the results. She shot an uncertain glance down the hall at James, then turned to Otis. “It’s not as flat and smooth as
the
patch you did,” she said in a low voice.

“You don’t have my upper body strength, girl,” Otis said with a smile. “It’s just gonna take you a little bit longer, is all.”

“Okay, good.” She flashed him a smile that expressed gratitude for his forbearance in not making her feel as inept as she knew she most likely was and then applied herself once again with renewed vigor. She didn’t stop until Otis tapped her on the arm.

“You’ve been out here for nearly an hour,” he said and removed the block from her hands. “You’d better get started on that stack of homework you were tellin’ me about. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for preventin’ you from getting a good grade.”

“Oh. I suppose you’re right.” Aunie flexed her fingers and knocked plaster dust from her arms and legs. She shook her head like a wet puppy and dust flew. Raking her fingers through her hair to hold it off her forehead, she peered up at Otis. “This has been fun. Thanks for broadening my horizons, Otis.”

“My pleasure.”

She laughed. “You’re a nice man.” Then, peering down the hall, she nodded to James, who had stopped sanding to watch her. “Mistah Rydah, you were certainly right. Sandin’ keeps you nice and warm.” She left them to their work.

Aunie laughed at her dusty image in the bathroom mirror a few moments later. Wouldn’t Mama die if she could see her now? She took a quick shower and
dressed in jeans, a cotton turtleneck, warm socks, and a warmer sweater. Pouring herself a glass of juice, she lined up her books and papers on the dining room table and sat down to study. It took her some time, though, before she could give it the concentration it deserved.

Smoothing that plaster had been fun; it had made her feel a little less ineffectual than usual. It would be awhile, however, before she’d forget the look on James Ryder’s face when she had stupidly identified the sandpaper. He’d looked at her as though wondering how she’d ever managed to navigate the face of the earth as long as she had, when it should be quite obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that she didn’t possess the most basic knowledge.

Gawd, that man made her uncomfortable, and instinctively she maintained a formal distance between them. It wasn’t because of James’s reaction on the day she had rented the apartment that she refused to call him by his first name; well, not entirely at least. Mainly it was because he looked at her as though she were inherently deficient when she was trying very hard to become a competent, independent adult. She’d admit she was starting later in life than most people did, but better late than never. She
was
making the attempt and she didn’t need him to undermine what was already a limited confidence in her ability to become useful and productive. She was also intimidated by all that he had accomplished when she had never accomplished a damned thing on her own.

Not only did he own this apartment house, which she never would have guessed that first day, he was also J. T. Ryder.
The
J. T. Ryder, the inventor of “A Skewed View,” the hottest cartoon to grace the Sunday papers in years. And his cartoons weren’t just
in the newspapers, either; there were Skewed View calendars and two collections of cartoons in paperback. Why, just the other week, at the bookstore at school, she had purchased a coffee mug with one of his cartoons on the side. She kept her pencils and pens in it. It was when she was showing her purchase to Lola, actually, laughing once again at the offbeat humor displayed on its side, that she had discovered it was James’s work. She was floored.
He
was its creator? She had been almost positive that he was a drug dealer.

His apartment was down the hall from hers, and she couldn’t help seeing the steady procession of men who had come and gone at odd hours ever since the first day she’d moved in. Well, there hadn’t actually been that many of them, but they never seemed to stay for more than five minutes at a time and a couple of them had been so motley in appearance. Was she ever glad she hadn’t mentioned her suspicions to Lola; God above, she’d feel even more worthless than she already did.

Both James and Otis had made something of their lives, and neither of them had had a tenth of her advantages. Lola had told her something of the neighborhood where they’d grown up, and Aunie cringed when she thought of everything she had ever been given. She had never had to earn a thing for herself; yet she’d still made a mess of her life in spite of her privileged beginning.

What most shamed her was knowing that at the beginning of her marriage, she had been totally satisfied with her situation. Well,
almost
totally. Her love and sex life had been a frustrating disappointment right from the start, but materially, she couldn’t have been happier if she’d won a multimillion-dollar lottery.

Aunie stared blindly at the text in her book, rapidly tapping her pencil eraser against the tabletop. In her mind’s eye, she saw the well-developed muscles in James Ryder’s shoulders and arms, the ridges of muscle beneath the black material that had been sweat-soaked to his stomach. She had never in her life been so close to two such masculine men as he and Otis.

Wesley had been baby-soft compared to them. He had looked fit and urbane in his flawlessly tailored suits, but out of them … well, he hadn’t been Michelangelo’s
David.
Not that it would have made a lick of difference if only he had been lusty and passionate with her, but unfortunately, he’d been anything but. The romantic streak that had swept her off her feet had disappeared almost as soon as he’d said, “I do.”

It had been terribly confusing … not to mention a debilitating blow to her sense of desirability. She had assumed at first that he was trying to be considerate in the face of her lack of sexual experience; she had been a virgin, after all, and years younger than her new husband. Only gradually had it dawned on her that he quite simply was not often interested in that particular aspect of their marriage. She’d always had the uneasy feeling he’d much prefer to admire her from a distance like one of his rare objets d’art than to engage her in anything as sweaty and vital as sex.

She,
on the other hand, had been looking forward quite eagerly to some sweaty, vital sex with her new husband. She had always had an intense secret interest in the subject, even if she hadn’t had an abundance of hands-on experience. Ultimately, however, she’d had to concede that their love life was most likely not going to improve, a concession that had left her feeling restless and frustrated in a way she hadn’t quite known how to alleviate. She knew it
wasn’t to her credit that she’d managed to console herself fairly well for a while with her newfound wealth.

Finding herself undesired as a woman and having no useful purpose, however, had begun to pall after the second year of marriage. There were too many empty hours in the day and she could only fill a fraction of them with shopping, lunches, workouts with her personal trainer, and tennis on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Her husband paraded her at business deals and took her out several evenings a week to popular restaurants and watering holes where they could see and be seen by those he considered important, but she wanted to be more than a decoration on display. She wanted to seek gainful employment, but Wesley wouldn’t hear of her going to work.

Part time?
she had pleaded.

NO.

She had waited a couple of months and then had suggested volunteer work, thinking he could not possibly object to that. Many of the women in their social circle gave their time to worthy charitable organizations.

She was wrong in her assumption, as Wesley was swift to point out to her in no uncertain terms. He wanted her on call at a moment’s notice to grace his gallery openings, his business lunches, dinners, and social functions. He expected her to be impeccably turned out at all times in the clothes that he’d selected. He did
not
intend to compete with anyone else for her time.

For another two years, she tried to accommodate him. She tried equally hard not to resent being made to feel more like a valuable collector’s item than a desirable woman. She wanted someone who would throw her down on a bed and make mad, impulsive,
passionate love to her. She wanted someone who would muss her up without a moment’s thought. She hated feeling as if she weren’t bright enough to climb down off her state-of-the-art lighted pedestal and actually do something useful.

When she told him she wanted a baby and he refused even to consider the notion, it was the beginning of the end.

She’d thought about it long and hard before she ever proposed the idea to Wesley. She would love to have a child. She had a wealth of love stored up inside of her just waiting for someone on whom she could lavish it. Wesley had denied her himself for that purpose, but children thrived on love. God knew she had an abundance of time and energy to spare. And all men wanted an heir, didn’t they? Surely, this was one idea with which Wesley could not possibly quibble.

He flatly refused.

Why,
she had demanded. For God’s sake, why not?

His reply had curdled the last remaining bit of affection she still held for him.
Drop it, Aunie,
he had said in that damnably peremptory tone of voice of his, the one that expected instant obedience.
You’re not having a baby. It will ruin your figure.

He had hurt her in the past and he’d made her angry. She’d known he was a man who sought perfection in his possessions, but it had never truly occurred to her before then that that was all she was to him—just another objet d’art. She began to consider the notion the day he flatly rejected her proposal, gave her that preposterous justification, and then turned away as easily as if he had just settled a minor altercation with one of his gallery employees.

She went to her mother and tentatively broached the idea of divorce. It was the first time she had
mentioned the word out loud, and she supposed she should not have been surprised to discover her mother was appalled at the mere thought.

I can’t continue to live this way, Mama.

Don’t be foolish. sugah. You have all the wealth and social advantages a woman could desire.

Mama, it’s not enough; haven’t you heard a word I’ve been saying? I’m nothing more to Wesley than a pretty possession. I’m not allowed to work; I’m not allowed to bear a child. Unless he wants to show me off, he acts as though I don’t even exist. Surely you can see that it’s simply not enough.

I can see that you’re an ungrateful child.

Her marriage limped along for several more months, but the idea of divorce, once planted in her brain, would not give Aunie a moment’s peace. Finally, the day came when the voice whispering in her mind was louder than any rationale she could summon to counter it.

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