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Authors: Susan Andersen

Present Danger (8 page)

BOOK: Present Danger
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James jerked upright. “Whataya mean, conceited?”

“Who asked you?” she demanded. “Besides, you say you’re not in the market as though one kiss from you would have me trailin’ you around like a devoted puppy.”

James smiled with lazy confidence, scoring attractive lines from the corners of his eyes to his cheeks and deepening the three tiny creases next to his mouth. “Like Lola said, sugar, I’m good.”

Aunie snorted. James did
not
like that reaction. “Anyway,” he added insolently, “you’re too fragile to stand up to a really hot Ryder special.”

“Too fragile!” Aunie thumped her half-empty juice glass on the table. “ ‘You’re a tiny little thing, Aunie’,” she mimicked in a voice she’d deepened in an attempt to sound like his, “ ‘You’re too fragile, Aunie. I’m such a hot kisser they name them after me.’ What did you call it—the Blue Plate Special? ‘If I kissed you, Aunie, you’d probably shatter in a billion pieces.’ God, Ryder, you are
so
full of …”

Lola thought it was time to intervene, even if she had instigated this particular line of conversation. No, come to think of it, that had been James’s doing. She had merely mentioned his rumored abilities as a kisser. “What made Wesley do what he did to you, Aunie?” she asked.

Aunie had her head tipped back and her eyelids lowered to a sexy half-mast. She slowly licked her upper lip, then made a truly credible Marilyn Monroe moue at James, just to show him what he was missing before she turned her attention to Lola. He glowered at her mouth.

She realized suddenly that she wasn’t nearly as frightened as she’d been earlier, and her jumpiness, whether due to the wine she’d consumed or James’s and Lola’s company, even if James
did
aggravate the hell out of her, had disappeared entirely. She felt nearly cheerful, which was probably not the wisest emotion for the occasion. “I guess what finally drove him over the edge,” she admitted, “was the information
he received from the private detective he’d hired to follow me. He didn’t like it.”

“He had you followed?” James put aside the irritation that the unexpected introduction of her sexuality into the discussion had called forth. The muscles in his stomach knotted uneasily. “That’s pretty cold, given you were no longer married to the man. What did he discover that was so disturbing it made him go off the deep end?” He wanted to know. He didn’t want to know.

Christ.

“I’d begun dating a young man named Geoff Lemire. Now
there
was a hot kisser,” she informed James, but her heart really wasn’t in needling him anymore. Too many memories were crowding in on her, and her spurious feeling of cheerfulness was fading fast. “Actually, it was pretty tame stuff and to anyone in a rational frame of mind, I’m sure it would’ve been considered inconsequential. Geoff had taken me out three or four times; we’d shared a few kisses that showed promise of better things to come; but basically, that was it.” She shrugged. “Kid stuff. But the detective had a photo of Geoff kissing me, and when Wesley saw it I guess it just tipped the scales.” She started to tremble.

“You don’t have to tell us any more, Aunie,” Lola said softly. “There’s no need for you to relive it.”

But Aunie didn’t hear. She was locked into a nightmare memory from which it was too late to retreat. Words, rendered obscene by the violence they portrayed and the confused terror they recreated, spilled from her lips.

James and Lola, listening, felt sick.

 

CHAPTER 5

It was the sort of day to make a person feel nothing could possibly go wrong, a day for picnics or washing the car. A beautiful late September afternoon of hot Georgia sun, it was one of those days of blindingly blue Southern skies and light winds, the debilitating summertime humidity a thing of the past. Aunie juggled purse, book bag, and two grocery bags in her arms, closing the car door with her hip. She had to hurry; she only had about forty-five minutes before Geoff was due to pick her up for their trip to the zoo, and she still had a hundred things to do.

Halting on the walk and raising a thigh to arrest the downward slide of one of the grocery bags, she looked up at the grand facade of her house. She really should put it on the market, she thought as she secured her grip on the runaway bag. It was entirely too much house for one woman and it held
far too few warm memories. She would much prefer to live somewhere cozier.

She let herself in, dropped her book bag to the floor of the foyer, kicked it out of harm’s way with the side of her foot, and sidled up to a small entryway table. It was a trick, but she managed to maneuver her purse off her shoulder, down her arm, and onto the table without dropping her groceries in the process. Leaving the front door open to help circulate the breeze, she stepped out of her shoes and padded on bare feet to the kitchen.

She dropped her burden onto the kitchen table, opened the back door, and slanted the blinds to cut the glare coming off the pool. Humming to herself, she unloaded the bags, contentedly arranging the deli items, condiments, bread, wine, and service for two in the small cooler she had hunted up that morning. She placed it on the table next to a comforter she’d pulled off a guest-room bed. Nothing in this house had ever been allowed to grow old or worn, so she’d simply picked a spread she had never particularly liked. The house was full of items like that, another good reason to get rid of the bulk of it. She’d really love to furnish a home to reflect her own taste and personality instead of living in a house filled with accessories that had been picked to fit some designer’s scheme. She wanted a place that could truly be called her own.

But she certainly didn’t have time to do anything about it at
the
moment, she decided, glancing at her watch. Tomorrow would have to be soon enough to begin sorting out what she didn’t care to keep. And she could call a realtor, too. She took the stairs two at a time to the second floor.

Entering her bedroom, she peeled out of her
clothes and took a quick shower. She blew her hair dry, reapplied her makeup, and rattled through padded satin hangers in search of something appropriate to wear. Her wardrobe, at least, was something she had already begun to rectify. When she and Wesley had first divorced, she’d packed most of her designer originals and moved them to a closet in another room. The clothes were all very beautiful, but she was only twenty-six years old, for heaven’s sake, not forty-five. She was tired of wearing only the sophisticated apparel that Wesley had deemed appropriate.

She slipped on a sapphire jersey top with a neckline that dipped low in a drapy cowl in back, tugged up a pair of floral cotton sheeting pants, adjusted the belt on the “paper bag” waistband, and picked up a sweater in case it grew cooler once the sun set. Sliding her feet into a sleek pair of sandals, she paused briefly in front of the mirror to give herself a quick once-over and then left the room. She hummed beneath her breath as she loped down the stairs.

Entering the kitchen, she stopped dead in the doorway, her voice trailing away in midhum. Wesley lounged indolently on a kitchen chair, his fingertips nonchalantly trailing back and forth along the cooler’s handle as he smiled at her with deceptive tenderness.

Apprehension dried her mouth. Ever since that night when he’d used his keys to let himself and the Addisons in, she had managed to keep him out of her house. Unfortunately, she had not been equally successful in preventing the growing number of ensuing confrontations, each one of which had been more disturbing than the one preceding it. At least they had all taken place in public. It might be embarrassing
to have strangers witness those humiliating encounters, but she knew it was safer.

Then apprehension faded and outrage took its place. How dare he keep intruding on her privacy this way! They were
divorced.
She shoved away from the door frame, stepped into the kitchen and demanded, “What are you doing in my house?”

She regretted the aggressiveness of her tone before the last word had left her mouth. Wesley continued to smile at her, but there was an ugly expression in his eyes. Cautiously, she tried to edge around him to the phone.

He angled his legs to block her way. “You’ve been cheating on me, Aunie,” he said, and the very gentleness of his voice made the short hairs on the nape of her neck stand on end. His smile and his voice were so civilized, but his eyes were not civilized at all. They looked as psychotic as those in a picture she’d seen of Charles Manson. She took a cautious step backwards. Attempting to reach the phone in the kitchen had been a mistake. What she should have done, what she was going to do now, was try to reach her bedroom, with its nice sturdy lock. Then she would worry about calling the police.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Wesley,” she said softly and took another step backwards.

“I have photographs, Aunie,” he said in that same silky, terrifyingly normal voice. His smile never wavered. “Photographs of my wife kissing another man.”

She didn’t bother to tell him she was no longer his wife. His eyes stated clearly that he was beyond listening to reason. Instead, she tried to stall for time. “I don’t understand. Whoevah would take such a photograph?”

“Why, the detective I’ve had following you, of course.”

She should have kept edging backward, but renewed outrage stilled her limbs. Her hands hit her hips and her chin angled stubbornly skyward. “You hired a detective?”

“Of course,” he replied tenderly. “How else could I keep tabs on my wife’s movements?”

“And is this detective followin’ me still?”

“No. I paid him off once he showed me those disgusting pictures. I knew then what needed to be done.”

She took another step out of his reach, but to her horror, he suddenly stood and took a step toward her. “I haven’t slept with any man but you, Wesley,” she informed him in a conciliatory whisper. She hated herself not only for her tone but for her haste in assuring him, but she was not a fool. This was not the time to cling to her pride. Better the humiliation of placating him than to cling obdurately to her rights and possibly—no,
probably
—get hurt.

She was not deceived for one moment by that well-bred smile or cultured voice. He looked as if he would very much
like
to hurt her.

All of a sudden, he was much too close. His elegantly manicured hand reached out and one finger idly flipped the silver hoop that pierced her left ear. Aunie’s stomach knotted ferociously, and she abruptly suffered a shamefully overwhelming desire to use the bathroom. She pressed her thighs together and tightened all the muscles necessary to prevent herself from doing right there in the kitchen doorway what her body was frantically urging her do.

“You’re missing the point, Aunie,” he whispered gently. “You see, you’re
my
pretty little toy.” His finger
slipped into the hoop. “My possession—no one else’s. You don’t make a move unless I give you permission to do so.” Something twisted and sick lurked in the depths of his eyes. “I gave you everything a woman could possibly want.” His finger exerted pressure and her ear began to hurt where the wire pressed against fragile flesh. He shook his head sadly at her. “But you let me down anyway.”

He yanked the earring with vicious strength.

Aunie screamed as she felt her ear tear, instinctively placing her hands on his chest and shoving with all her might. Wesley stumbled backward several steps before he caught his balance.

She didn’t wait around to see how he fared. Pivoting on the ball of her foot, she raced for the stairway.

She could hear his pursuit of her, but she dared not look back.
Oh God, help me,
she prayed.
Oh God, oh God, he’s so crazy. Please help me. Please.

He tackled her near the top of the stairs. The wind was knocked out of her, and when he slammed her over onto her back, she hit the stairs at an awkward angle. Pain shot up and down her spine. She kicked out at him feebly, and with a distant feeling of satisfaction, she heard his grunt of pain.

“Why, you little bitch,” he said in that horrifyingly friendly tone and she saw him cock back his fist.
Mistake!
her brain screamed.
Ah, God, Aunie, don’t try to fight back. He’ll hurt you even worse.
But even as her mind tried to warn her, her instincts made her reach weakly for his eyes. It was just not in her nature not to fight back. Not anymore.

His fist came crashing down and Aunie tried, to scream as she felt her nose break, but blood filled her mouth, her throat, and she gagged weakly.

She lost track of how many times he hit her after
that. She was vaguely aware that some of the blows were openhanded. … They were marginally less hurtful than when he used his fist. The only thing that registered fully, however, was the pain, the terror she experienced at the possibility of choking to death on her own blood, and that damned refined voice telling her that if she wouldn’t decorate his arm anymore, well then, he would simply have to see to it that she never decorated anyone else’s either.

She never heard Geoff’s startled exclamation when he walked unsuspecting through the open front door; neither was she aware of him pounding up the stairs, securing Wesley in a hammerlock, and wresting him off her. She was cognizant of hearing a pathetic whimpering somewhere in the distance, but oblivious that it was from her own split and swollen lips that it issued.

Geoff managed to hold Wesley, contact the police, and call an ambulance. Within moments, sirens were moaning into silence outside the door and the highrent neighborhood was temporarily, uncustomarily awash in a pulsating swirl of blue and red lights.

Aunie barely remembered the ride to the hospital. She floated in a dim netherworld of acute pain and hallucinogenic colors that flashed behind closed eyelids.

The emergency room was a whirling confusion of glaring, white lights and loud voices all talking at once. One voice kept asking her over and over if there were anyone they could call for her. She dimly remembered giving her mother’s number.

She was oblivious to the prick of a needle that pierced the soft skin of the inside bend of her elbow, but the pain began to recede and a lightheaded sensation of floating overtook her. The next thing she
knew, she was awakening in a quiet private room. For a moment, she couldn’t recall how she had come to be there. All she knew for sure was that she hurt.

God, how she hurt.

In fits and starts her memory returned, and with it came a paroxysm of acute anxiety. Wesley would have maimed her; she didn’t doubt it for a moment. The nurse who came in to take her vital signs commented on her heightened blood pressure and rapid pulse. She urged Aunie to stay calm and then dispensed pain medication. Her lawyer and her mother arrived within moments of each other, and two doctors stopped in to discuss her prognosis, administering professionally cheerful encouragement for a complete recovery.

By the time everyone finally left and she was once again all alone, the physical pain was in abeyance. The fear that remained, however, went deeper than a transient battering of her flesh. Jordan had assured her that Wesley’s brutality would guarantee him a good, long stretch behind bars. She wanted desperately to believe him.

But Jordan hadn’t lived with Wesley; he didn’t fully comprehend the charm her ex-husband could exude when it suited his purpose to do so. Neither had he looked into Wesley’s eyes this afternoon. Aunie had, and she couldn’t afford to take any chances.

Against the doctor’s advice, she checked herself out of the hospital and went home to pack.

“I feel like I’ve been raped by the system, but I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised to hear of his acquittal,” she said in a dull, defeated voice, speaking more to her hands folded on the tabletop than to
either James or Lola. “My own mama was appalled at the damage he’d done to my face, but once the doctors assured her there would be no permanent scarring, she insisted it must have been some sort of mistake.” She laughed, a brief, humorless exhalation of breath, and shook her head. “She and the rest of the family had pretty much washed their hands of me once I decided to divorce Wesley, of course, but a
mistake?
I know they never believed I had a brain in my head, but even I know the difference between a methodical beating and a slight error of judgment.” She closely studied the bend of her thumb, a cynical smile twisting one corner of her mouth. “I wonder if Mama sat behind Wesley at the trial to demonstrate her support.”

“Feeling a little sorry for yourself, Aunie?” James asked in a voice lacking any trace of sympathy. As he had been doing all evening, he ignored the reprimand in Lola’s eyes. Privately, he thought Aunie’s mother sounded like a real piece of work, but he knew better than to say so. It was one thing, he had learned a long time ago, for a person to gripe about their own family members. Hell, everybody did it at one time or another. In most instances, however, it was something else entirely to have someone outside the family do the same. So he swallowed the words he was dying to say, buried the cold rage he felt for what she had endured, and hoped to shock her out of her lethargy. It was a waste of time to dwell on the wrongs that had been done to her, anyway, and James didn’t believe in wasting time. He wanted to see her spitting mad. She needed to be angry enough to fight and he doubted that sympathizing was the best way to get her to do so.

Aunie was emotionally drained, however, and she
refused to rise to the bait. “Yeah,” she agreed softly to James’s dismay. “I’m feelin’ extremely sorry for myself. It’s been a hard day, James,” she said propping her chin in her hand and staring lethargically at him across the table. “I’ll pull myself together tomorrow, all right? For today, though, I think I’ll just indulge in a little self-pity.”

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