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Authors: Susan Andersen

Present Danger (7 page)

BOOK: Present Danger
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James was more than a little edgy himself and was more than happy to take it out on Lola. “Sympathy makes her cry,” he snarled, “but if you think you can do better, just say the word. I’d be happy to disappear.”

“Go then.”

That stopped him in his tracks. “What?”

“You heard me.” She faced him with her hands fisted on her rounded hips. “You’re so full of crap, mon. It’d take a stick of dynamite to get you out of here, so don’t go deliverin’ no idle threats to me! And you take it easy on her, James. If you’re all bent out of shape because you’re gettin’ caught up in her problems against your better judgment, then maybe you’d
better
disappear. The woo-mon does
not
need you snappin’ and snarlin’ at her heels.”

“Yeah and I suppose you’re gonna tell me the gentle approach has really turned the trick, huh? I saw just how far your pop psychoanalysis got you: She was ready to chuck us both out on our butts. I may be a little rough, but you’ll notice it gets an aggressive response from her instead of a flood of tears.”

Aunie returned wearing a thick, warm sweater, and Lola thought the timing was fortunate. Two seconds later and she would have gone for the jugular. She would have brought up the fact that it wasn’t just the knowledge that he was being dragged into Aunie’s problems against his better judgment that had James all hot, bothered, and restless as a caged cat. His main
problem was he couldn’t handle the sight of a little skin. And that observation would most likely have had the effect of making him blow in fourteen different directions. He was so damn busy denying to himself that he was the least bit attracted to her, because James Ryder was already overburdened with responsibility and James Ryder did not have the time or patience to get involved in more than a surface, sexual way with women.

“Let’s sit at the dining room table,” Aunie suggested quietly. She had used the time in her room to do a hasty paste-together of her shattered composure. She would freely admit the veneer was a thin one. But for the moment at least it was all in place. “James, do you want a beer? There’s some Dos Equis in the fridge that I bought for Otis and he mentioned once that it was your favorite, too.” What a good little hostess you are, a snide voice whispered in her ear.

“Sounds good,” he said and waved her toward a seat. “Sit down. I’ll get it.”

Aunie waited until he had rejoined them, pulling out and twirling around a chair to straddle, before she said, “Wesley
never
hit me when we were married.” She drilled them both with the intensity of her stare. “I want you to get that straight. A man might get away with striking me once … everyone is probably capable of losing control at some point in their lives. But he would never get away with striking me twice.”

“How do you think you could prevent it, Aunie?” James asked quietly. “You’re a tiny little thing; it’d be a cakewalk to overpower you. And if he had gotten away with it once, it stands to reason he’d believe he could get away with it indefinitely.”

“Sooner or later he’d have to go to sleep, though,
wouldn’t he, James.” It was not a question. “An iron fireplace poker could be a great equalizer.”

James snorted. An image of her palming a sharp pair of scissors the day Bob had knocked on her door flashed across his mind. “Okay, I get your point. And we’re sorry for thinking otherwise, all right?” Lola reached across the table and squeezed her hand to underscore the apology. Aunie nodded.

“Will you tell us just what the hell did happen?” James asked, and this time his tone was temperate. “And slowly, this go-around, so we can understand.”

“Wesley was furious when I told him I wanted a divorce, and he made all sorts of threats.” Aunie’s voice was low and she spoke to her clasped hands on the tabletop. Her hair slid against her cheeks as she shook her head in puzzlement. “But then, just like that”—she snapped her fingers—“he turned around and agreed. He insisted on giving me the house, the car that I ordinarily drove, and a large settlement.” She looked up. “I was stupid enough to be grateful that it was all so amicable, so … civilized.”

James tensed, because he knew the civilization had been stripped away somewhere along the line. He had felt her heart pound with fear against his abdomen, had felt it beating so hard the throb had registered against his palm on her back.

Aunie’s entwined hands tightened their grip. “He began …”—she searched for an articulate way to phrase it, then shrugged in defeat—“showing up. The first time, we’d been divorced about four months. I’d begun attending classes. I really desired to learn something this time, the way I hadn’t bothered to in high school. I wanted to give myself a foundation, a preparation for accepting total responsibility for myself for the first time in my life.” She stopped
speaking, pressing her lips tightly together. After a moment they relaxed and she unclenched her hands and took a sip of her tea. Lowering the cup, she said to the pale liquid in the bottom of it, “Anyway, one day when I got home from school, he was there waiting for me. The maid had let him in.”

She pushed back from the table suddenly. “I think I’ll have some wine. Lola, would you like some?”

Lola consulted her watch, saw that it was almost seven o’clock, and accepted. Then a thought struck her. “Aunie, have you had anything to eat today?”

Aunie pulled a bottle of wine from the tiny rack atop her refrigerator. “I had breakfast.” Rummaging through a drawer, she located a corkscrew.

“How ‘bout I make you an omelet?”

“Oh, I don’t …”

“I want one, too,” James said. “It’s past my dinnertime.”

“I’ll make you one, too,” Lola agreed. To Aunie she confided, “James, he’s a cranky mon when he’s hungry.”

Aunie struggled to extricate the cork for several moments, then abruptly set the wine bottle down. She held out her hands and stared at the fine tremors that set them to trembling. “I guess I do need to eat something,” she muttered to herself. She brought the bottle and corkscrew to James, silently handing them over. A few deft twists of his strong wrists and the cork popped out. He offered her the bottle. “You look like you’ve got the d.t.’s, Magnolia.
Y’
want a swig straight from the bottle or you gonna be a lady and let me fetch you a glass?”

“Fetch me a glass.” Then, holding his eyes defiantly, she tipped up the bottle and took a healthy swig. He grinned at her and surged to his feet in one
fluid motion. The wine hit her empty stomach like a warm explosion. She plucked a napkin out of the holder and primly blotted her lips. Then she guiltily wiped the neck of the bottle.

“Here.” James straddled the chair once again and reached for the wine. He poured two glasses and pushed one across the table to her. There was amusement in his narrowed moss green eyes. “Mind your manners.”

For the first time since she had received her lawyer’s phone call, Aunie smiled. Crooking her little finger daintily, she raised her goblet and took a sip. Then she took a gulp. She could feel its effects rushing to her head. “Funny advice,” she murmured, “from a man whose personal motto is probably Anarchy Now.”

“Cute,” James said, but he couldn’t suppress a crooked smile. In the kitchen Lola laughed.

Aunie took another sip. “I think perhaps I’m gettin’ the tiniest bit loaded,” she confessed. “But, look”—she held out her hands—“they’re growin’ steadier. That’s an improvement, don’t you think?”

James thought the touch of color along her cheekbones was the real improvement, that and the fact that her eyes had lost most of the haunted look that had dulled them.

“Wesley became this obsessed person,” she suddenly said. “But it was such a gradual process that it took me awhile to catch on. He’d show up out of the blue or call and expect me to go to some function with him. It infuriated him to see me in jeans or without makeup. He acted as if we were still married and I was supposed to drop whatever I was doing to accommodate his plans. It was bizarre and it was
annoying but not really frightening … at least, not at first.”

Lola brought plates from the kitchen and slid them across the table to their respective places. She handed forks and knives to Aunie. Aunie arranged the place settings and reached for the napkins. “You want orange juice?” Lola asked her.

Aunie contemplated the level of liquid in her glass and reached for the bottle, topping off her glass. “No, thanks. I’ll stick with wine.”

“James?”

“Yeah, I’ll have some juice.”

“Then one night I finally realized that he wasn’t quite …” She hesitated over the word.

“Sane?” James suggested.

“Yeah. Not normal, at any rate. I guess I should’ve remembered his reason for not wantin’ me to get pregnant, but once we were divorced I’d put it out of my mind. It wasn’t until this one particular night that I ultimately realized that Wesley had lost all semblance of rationality. I had a late class and I had stopped off for a pizza with a few of the other students. When I got home, Wesley was there and he had another couple with him.”

Lola slid a golden brown omelet onto her plate and said, “Eat.” She served herself and James and passed around a plate stacked high with buttered toast. Aunie took a bite of her egg; then she took another. Three bites later, she looked up and said, “This is fabulous. Thank you, Lola.”

“You’re welcome. Have some toast.”

James ate his dinner, but he didn’t want to talk about the food.

He wanted to know how Aunie had finally come to the conclusion that her ex-husband wasn’t quite
sane. And what, he wondered, was the reason she should’ve remembered for her husband not wanting her to get pregnant? “Wesley had pulled two other people into his delusions? …” he prompted.

“Yes,” Aunie said around a bite of toast, “and all three of them were in my house!” She pressed her fingers against her throat and swallowed the inadequately chewed bread. “I had dismissed the maid a couple of weeks previously, and I was makin’ do with a cleaning service that stopped by twice a week. The maid had been hired originally by Wesley and I couldn’t seem to get it through her head that she should
not
let him in whenever he dropped by. He could be extremely charmin’ when he put his mind to it …” Her voice trailed away.

Then she set her fork down and looked across the table at James. “That night I discovered that all along he had kept a set of keys to the house,” she said with remembered indignation.
“My
house. ‘Delusions’ is right. He’d made himself right at home; and the minute I walked through the door, he started jumpin’ all over me, sayin’ there was no excuse for my tardiness because I knew the reservations were for eight and now I was goin’ to make them all late and what the
hell
would the Addisons think? I didn’t know what on earth he was talkin’ about and said so. This poor couple sat there on the couch lookin’ like they wished they were anywhere but where they were while Wesley’s rantin’ on and I’m gettin’ angrier by the minute. I must have demanded ten times that he give me back the keys to my house, but I might have been speakin’ Swahili for all the attention he paid me. He just went on and on about how I was makin’ them late and then tossin’ in suggestions as to what I should wear. Gawd,” she whispered, rubbing her temples.
“It was such a mess. Those people, the Addisons, they got him out of my house that night and I had the locks changed first thing the next morning, but from that point on it just kept getting worse. There was simply no gettin’ away from him. Wherever I went, he was there. On my lawyer’s advice, I got a restrainin’ order. Fat lot of good it did me in the end.”

She picked up her wine and took a large sip. “It was spooky the way he would appear out of nowhere and scarier yet how he’d only hear what he wanted to hear. It’s impossible to talk to a person like that. I’d tell him to leave me
alone
or I’d call the police, and he’d say, ‘Go put on the amber Bill Blass; we have reservations in half an hour.’”

“Did he, er, try to resume your sexual relationship?” James had a picture in his head of this Wesley person calmly undressing her while she struggled to keep her clothes on, ignoring her protests the same way she said he ignored conversation he didn’t care to hear. Rape was an ugly business, and he didn’t like the image one bit.


What?
” She stared at him incredulously, then quickly raised her glass to her lips to mask her reaction. Their sex life had been such a miserable joke that the unexpected question struck Aunie as totally incongruous and she giggled involuntarily. Unfortunately, she was in the process of finishing off her wine, and the combined actions caused bubbles to foam around her mouth. “Oh,” she said, pressing her fingers to her lips, “maybe I’d better have that orange juice, now. I think I’ve had more than enough wine.”

Lola nodded and rose to pour her a glass. Aunie turned to James. “Our sexual relationship was practically nonexistent even when we were married,” she
admitted and then blurted, “much to my disappointment. That’s one of the reasons I want to have a really hot love affair. But I don’t know,” she said pensively. “I’ve only been kissed with real passion a few times … and never by Wesley. I might not have what it takes to pull off an affair.” She didn’t bother to tell them she was too shy to instigate such a thing in any case. It was merely a fantasy she liked to dream about, not something she expected to become a reality. At least not for a very long time.

“Have James give you some pointers,” Lola suggested as she handed Aunie a glass brimming with cold juice. “He’s reputed to be a really good kisser.”

“Yeah?” Aunie studied him with interest over her glass of orange juice and James scowled at both of them.

“Forget it,” he snapped. “I’ve already told you I don’t tutor novices. Get your practice somewhere else; I’m not in the market.”

“Gawd, James,” Aunie murmured, “you are so conceited.” Perhaps he
was
the most masculine man she had ever met and, yes, she’d admit she would probably find it exciting to have him kiss her. It didn’t necessarily follow, however, that she was going to inflate his ego by admitting it to him. Besides, this was
the
second time he’d put her down by refusing to do something she hadn’t even requested of him in the first place! And both times, in the process, he’d managed to make her feel like an elementary-school girl begging to be included in a grown-up game.

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