Authors: Karen Robards
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Romance
“Are you all right?” Quinlan sat down beside her, his weight making the swing lurch. Ronnie didn’t answer. She couldn’t. Instead she concentrated on breathing: in, out, in, out.
He repeated the question. This time she managed to nod.
“It’s a tabloid, remember. They pay people for stories. This woman’s getting a nice chunk of change to smear your husband. Like I said, it may not be true.”
Ronnie knew it was true. She knew it without a doubt, in the same deep place inside her body where her blood had pooled. Her gut, she supposed. Wasn’t that where gut instinct was supposed to originate? At the idea, she felt a near hysterical bubble of amusement.
She must have looked as terrible as she felt, because
he took her hand. His skin was warm, his fingers long and strong. With his other hand, he rubbed the back of her hand gently.
“Ronnie.” She managed a glance at him, and a faint if wavering smile. “After everything we’ve been through together today, I think we should be on a first-name basis.”
“Ronnie.” His hand tightened on hers, the fingers closing around her palm. His other hand joined the first, so both hands were clasping one of hers. His expression was both grim and compassionate as he looked at her. “I know this is a bad thing to dump on you, and I wish I didn’t have to be the one to do it. But as soon as this breaks, you’re going to have reporters all over you like fleas on a dog. You need to be prepared. You need to be strong, and you need to know what to say.”
Ronnie was having trouble drawing breath. Was it possible to suffocate from emotional distress alone? she wondered. His hands holding hers seemed like the only source of heat in a suddenly icy world. “Oh, God, reporters. I don’t think I can do this. I really don’t think I can.”
Quinlan shifted sideways on the swing so that he faced her. His knees brushed hers. His eyes were intent. “I know this is a shock. I know how you feel.”
She made an inarticulate sound of skepticism.
“Oh, I do,” he continued. “My marriage ended when I found out my wife had screwed half the guys in the county while I was on the road. I know it hurts, and I know you feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach by a mule. But there’s more in the balance
here than just your relationship with your husband.” He gently chafed her hand.
“The election.” Ronnie’s voice was wooden.
He regarded her steadily. “That’s right, the election. If your husband has any hope of riding this thing out, you have to stand by him. You have to stand at his side with your head held high and tell everyone that you support him no matter what. Your reaction is the key to how the voters will perceive what’s happened: tabloid trash or career-ending scandal. Again, remember, it may not even be true.”
It is true
, Ronnie thought, but did not say it. “What if she has proof? What if the woman the
is talking to can prove that she has been—seeing—Lewis? She must have some sort of proof, or they wouldn’t dare print it.” Her voice was not quite steady, though her head was clearing. Why the knowledge that a prostitute was claiming a relationship with her husband shook her so she couldn’t imagine. She had known for some time that he would bed anything female that breathed.
Ronnie started to tell Quinlan that, but bit back the words. Whatever the state of their marriage, Lewis was her husband, and he had an important, well-respected position in the world. No matter how wounded or angry she was, she couldn’t reveal the extent of his womanizing to anyone, not even Quinlan, who was suddenly assuming the dimensions of someone who was almost her best friend. Loyalty forbade it. So did her own pride.
“No matter what they have, we can ride it out. It all depends on the spin we put on it. What you have to do is stand by him. If there’s proof, which I don’t know
about one way or another at this point, then we can do a Clinton: Say your marriage is strong
, and any problems you may have had have been worked through. Heck, if it comes down to it, His Honor can confess to making a mistake with this woman, shed a tear, and promise to go forth and sin no more, and you can say you have forgiven him. This hooker thing doesn’t have to be a fatal blow; the campaign can survive.”
“And what if I say to hell with the campaign?” Despite all her rationalizing, Ronnie’s voice shook. She had thought she had grown accustomed to Lewis’s chronic unfaithfulness, but having it shoved in her face in such a way hurt more than she would have believed possible. Had he ever loved her? The pain that accompanied the question was such that Ronnie forced it from her mind. Perhaps it was the prospect of having what had been, until now, a strictly private agony revealed in such a hugely public way that was upsetting her so. To be humiliated in front of the whole world—imagining it made her feel sick. She pulled her hand from Quinlan’s and stood up, walking blindly away.
“That’s up to you,” he said, falling into step beside her as she moved out of the protective shade of the oak into the blazing sunshine. “Strictly your call.”
Ronnie walked on, jaw set, stride brisk. She didn’t feel the baking sun, didn’t hear the crunch of the gravel driveway give way to the noiseless asphalt beneath her feet. Heat rose in shimmering waves around her, blurring the landscape, but she didn’t notice. She saw nothing. She felt as if she had been sucked into a vacuum, as if she were in a separate place, alone, and that none of the rest of the world was quite real.
How had this happened?
As a young girl growing up in Boston, she had always been conscious of the vague sense of unhappiness that hung like a cloud over her family. They never talked to each other. They never laughed together, never cried together, never hugged or kissed or shared anything except the most mundane bits of everyday life. Her parents seemed to have no time for anything except earning a living, and they weren’t very good at that. She had looked around at their modest ranch house, which was just like all the other modest ranch houses in the working-class neighborhood where they lived. She had looked at her sisters who were eager to get married and out of the house, and at her discontented mother and her drone of a father and seen the poverty of their lives and been frightened. That kind of existence was not for her. She wanted something different, something
. She wanted to be
. How to get what she wanted became the question.
What made for happiness? Money was a key factor, she decided, listening to her parents fight endlessly over its lack. And love. She wanted more than anything to be loved. In a nutshell, what she wanted was a life as different from her parents’ joyless existence as she could possibly make it.
Hungrily she read about rich people with their big houses and fantastic careers and exotic travels and dazzling romances, and ached. They seemed so happy, so loved. Their lives seemed so much
than her own, or that of anyone else she knew. They had what she wanted: glamour, excitement, romance.
Desire hardened into determination.
could have such a life. She would.
In high school she dated very carefully, wary of a too-intense involvement that might distract her from her goal, and she set her sights on college. At American University she studied hard, and made friends sparingly. Though she dated, she did so with care. Marriage and children had deflated the dreams of many a woman before her. She was determined not to settle for less than having it all.
She thought about law school; she thought about medicine; she thought about a career as a television journalist à la Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters. Nothing seemed beyond her grasp. Anything—
Then Senator Lewis R. Honneker IV walked into her life. Lewis had it all: he was rich, famous, successful. He was good-looking, in a beefy, twinkly-eyed Irish way, and personable, too, with a hail-fellow-well-met style that promised endless good humor. Even his age was, in her eyes, more of an asset than a liability. His maturity seemed to promise stability, something that had been sorely lacking in her life since her parents’ divorce.
He had found her attractive; Ronnie had known that from the beginning.
But at first, there had been Eleanor. Ronnie was not foolish enough to become the mistress of a married man. That was not the life she wanted for herself.
When Eleanor left him, and he started to pursue her in earnest, everything suddenly changed. Lewis could charm the birds out of the trees when he wanted something, and he very seriously seemed to want her. It was easy to fall in love with him, easy to be swept off her feet. Easy to marry him.
Easy to become the second Mrs. Lewis R. Honneker IV.
With the simple act of marrying him, she acquired everything she had ever wanted. Or so she thought at the time.
How, three short years later, could it all have gone so wrong? It was unbelievable, as though a glittering diamond had turned to ashes in her hand.
The only answer was that what she had grasped had never really been a diamond at all.
But everything was still in place, she reminded herself. She still had everything—almost everything—she had dreamed of as a teenager in that cookie-cutter house.
now. Wife of a U.S. senator. Invited to all the best parties in Washington. Welcome at the White House. Rich, famous, photographed. One of the people she had once read about in magazines.
So her prince had turned out to be a toad. So what? That happened to women all the time. That was reality, which could not have been expected to conform itself totally to a young girl’s dream. The key was not to ruin her life over it. This was not the time to let her heart rule her head. To do so would be nothing short of self-destruction.
, she told herself. And count your blessings.
Her head came up and she stopped walking. The world came into focus again. The black asphalt that uncurled before her shone almost silver in the relentless glare of the sun. Ditches on either side of the narrow road were choked with weeds and wildflowers.
Beyond rickety post-and-wire fences, spotted cattle grazed on crisping fields.
A crow cawed as it flapped overhead. The heat of the pavement seeped through her borrowed flip-flops. The smell of hot tar and manure rose to assault her nostrils. Her skin felt as if it were being broiled by the sun.
A shadow ran alongside hers, longer and broader than her own, unmistakably male in shape and form just as hers was unmistakably female: Quinlan’s. She glanced up to find that he was watching her, his eyes narrowed against the brightness. Sunlight bronzed his skin, and gilded his blond hair.
, she thought as she looked at him.
For a moment she held his gaze. She realized that his future, as well as her own, depended on what she chose to do. His paycheck, lots of peoples’ paychecks, came from the campaign. It was within her power to blast that campaign to hell.
“I’ll stand by him,” she said.
“Attagirl.” He smiled, clearly pleased with her. Ronnie despised him in that moment. Like Lewis, political victory was his god. Anything was worth sacrificing on the altar of the almighty election.
“We’ll get the Sunday supplement out to do a story on you. You talk about your marriage, about how it’s had some rough spots but you’ve stuck it out. We don’t have to be real specific, but they’ll get the idea. That kind of approach might even kill two birds with one stone: squash the hooker thing and make you seem more sympathetic at the same time.”
a happy thought.” Ronnie’s voice was as
brittle as she felt. Quinlan didn’t seem to notice. From the expression on his face, he was busy plotting.
Ronnie pivoted and began walking back the way she had come.
HAND, GHOSTLY PALE
, grasped the edge of the mauve dust ruffle and lifted it. The intruder was wearing rubber gloves to search the apartment; that was why his hand looked so corpselike. As she realized that, Marla felt her heart give one great explosive leap, like a Thoroughbred racehorse bounding over the finish line. Then it seemed to stop beating entirely as an almost upside-down face popped into view, peering from beneath the bed.
Seen at that angle, the quarter-face (black hair, furrowed brow, bushy black eyebrows, basset-hound eyes) should have been comical. Cowering against the wall in the darkest, most remote space under the bed, Marla felt not the smallest desire to smile.
If he found her, she knew she would die.
Thank God Lissy was not home.
She lay motionless, not breathing, her head pillowed on her arms so that the pale oval of her face would not give her away. She peeped at the man through the veil of bleached blond hair that cascaded over her face and
arm. Though she feared attracting his notice by the sheer force of her terrified gaze, she could not bring herself not to look at him. Like a bird targeted by a cobra, she was mesmerized, fascinated, unable to take her eyes off her potential killer.
If she so much as blinked, she feared she would miss the instant in which he saw her and launched his strike.
After an agonizing moment that seemed as long as a year, the ruffle dropped back into place. Still Marla lay unmoving, breathing only when she had to.
Terror almost suffocated her. Her lungs shrieked the need for a long, steadying breath, but she was afraid he might hear. Even the ragged little inhalations she could not control might be enough to bring him down on her, muffled by her arms though they were.
A shadow darkened one area of the dust ruffle. He still stood near the bed. Did he know she was there? Could he somehow feel her presence, just as she tracked his whereabouts with terror-heightened senses more fine-tuned than any radar?
Was he toying with her?