Authors: Judy Ann Davis
Tags: #Suspense, #Contemporary
“Got that right!” She fired off her response so fast he flinched. Finishing the lace on the first shoe, she double knotted it, and moved to the other. “You’re a pinhead, too.”
He sighed. “You’re going to make me grovel, aren’t you?”
“No.” She finished her task, stood and did a little jumping dance to settle into her shoes. “I was thinking more along the lines of torture. You’re going running with me.”
“Running?” He groaned again. “Lizzie, I can’t. Do you want to kill me? My eyes are going to pop out of my goddamned head.”
She grinned. “Come on, Lucas. It’s the best medicine I know to clear a fuzzy brain. Anyway, your life insurance is paid up, right?” She reached out and swiped the coffee cup from his hands, dumping the remainder down the drain. “Quit drinking that stuff, will you? I’m not going to stop every five minutes while you sneak behind a tree to water the roots.”
He swallowed uncomfortably. “This is a joke, right?
tell me you’re kidding?”
“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Her voice was alarmingly quiet, and her pool-blue eyes were calm and serious. She folded her arms across her petal pink chest.
Swearing under his breath, Lucas stared at her. The woman actually thought he was insane enough to agree. Frantically, he searched his mind for a plausible excuse. Any excuse. “I can’t, Liz, I have to be at the garage this morning to meet a contractor about some renovations. I’ll have to take a rain check.”
“It’ll only take a half hour.”
He thought about just telling her to go to hell, but then remembered he was already a drowning man, up to his ears in troubled waters. In addition, drowning men knew better than to aggravate the alligators. He decided to change tactics. “I’m not even dressed for running.”
She shrugged. “I’ll wait.”
“If I refuse?”
She gave him an obviously fake smile. “Either you run, or my mouth runs. Remember those two thugs I call brothers? Take your choice, pal. You’ve got ten minutes to get out of those shrink-wrap jeans and find a pair of decent shoes.”
Annoyed, he was about to inform her blackmail was illegal, but she had turned away to eliminate any further conversation. She picked up the phone from the counter. “It should give me enough time to hook this up and program in a message. I’ll just identify Dad’s number, so both of us can get messages when we’re out.”
Squatting by the baseboard, Elise unplugged the old phone from the jack.
Now desperate, Lucas felt sweat begin to drip down his back. He decided to make one last appeal to her compassion. “Seriously, Liz, I don’t know if I can even make it to the mailbox.”
He thought she didn’t hear him at first. Eyes glued to her work, she gnawed on her lower lip, concentrating on untangling the cords. They looked like a heap of spaghetti to him.
He was wrong.
“Nine minutes, Fisher. You’re wasting precious time. Keep talking and you’ll be running barefoot.”
Much to Elise’s surprise, Lucas returned shortly, dressed in a pair of sweat shorts, tee-shirt and a worn pair of running shoes. His face was as gray as the shorts he wore.
“Take it easy, okay?” he begged, coming to stand beside her where she was fiddling with the buttons on the answering machine.
She smiled. Little did he know she had already decided to cut him a break whether he deserved it or not. She remembered how sore her muscles used to get when she didn’t run on a regular basis. As for the hangover, she couldn’t quite recall what he was feeling. She hadn’t had one of those in years. But then, she hadn’t had dinner or drinks with anyone significant from the male species for so long she’d forgotten what alcohol tasted like.
The trail Elise selected ran along the edge of a pasture and up a small hill into the woods, circling the house and ending at the back door. With Bess trotting merrily ahead of her, she took off, choosing a pace slower than she normally ran.
“So this is how you keep in shape?” Lucas asked through a painful groan. “I thought you were one of those fitness club freaks.”
“With my job? Get real. I’m in the office six days a week, sometimes seven.” She ventured a glance at him. For someone whose face now matched the greening pastures, he was making a valiant effort to keep up with her. “I finally did buy a treadmill for those days when I can’t get outside or when I get home late and still want to exercise.”
She stopped at the edge of a lower field to open an iron gate, shooing Lucas and the dog through. “So tell me about Todd.”
“You’re going to make me talk and run?” His voice rose an octave in disbelief.
“I never said torture would be easy, Fisher.”
The gate clicked shut and she trotted off again. She smiled when she heard a stream of expletives follow her. Glancing back, she watched him stubbornly fighting to force his unsteady legs into action.
“When did Todd’s mother die?” she asked when he finally caught up and was running beside her.
“When Todd was two. She had a fatal heart attack. Mike and Carol had him later in life. She was thirty-five or so. Carol had been warned against getting pregnant, since she’d had heart problems as a kid. But they wanted a child so desperately, she decided it was worth the chance.”
“Mike was a cop?” She slackened her pace.
He geared down to match it. “Yeah, he was doing undercover work in New Castle. After Carol’s death, he played the single parent role for about a year, and then hooked up with his second wife, Clarisse. It was a match made in hell.”
“Clarisse?” She pushed a tendril of hair from her eyes that had come loose from the braid.
“I don’t know if it’s her real name or one she just decided to use. Anyhow, Clarisse despised the time Mike was away from home. She liked her nightlife, and Todd was always in her way. Mike came home one night unexpectedly and found some sleazebag in his bed and the rest is history. He filed for a divorce, asked for a transfer, and moved here with Todd. He’d been here less than a year when he was killed in a car accident. Hey, can we take a breather before I pass out?”
She stopped beside a stone wall separating the field from a long, narrow pasture with a trail leading to the wooded knoll above the house. “All right, we have to cross here anyhow.” She scrambled up and sat down on a flat, lichen-covered rock. He hoisted himself up and sat beside her, dangling his long, athletic legs over the edge. Color had begun to come back to his face.
“So you moved here to get the child,” she said matter-of-factly.
He wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. “It’s a little more complicated. You see, Clarisse has resurfaced and is trying to get custody of Todd, too.”
“Why, that’s crazy! The divorce was granted?”
He pulled a well-muscled thigh to his chest and retied his shoelace. “I believe so, but there are some insurance policies still unresolved, and Clarisse can smell money a mile away.”
“There was no will?”
“None I can seem to locate, which isn’t like Mike. The insurance money will naturally go to Todd, but if Clarisse gets guardianship, she has control of it. There is enough to pay for her nightlife without her having to be a cocktail waitress for a while. Not that she would abandon the job. I’m told she likes her customers a lot, a whole lot.”
“She’ll never get guardianship, not with a blood relation standing in the wings.” Staring over the pasture, Elise scowled. The sun was coming up, changing the horizon to gold. Far off, beef cattle grazed in the early light, their coats a rich red. Until now, she had not realized how much she actually missed the farm where the clear, clean-smelling mornings were blissfully peaceful and the rolling hills so exquisite. Stands of light green, just-budding maples made the darker lush green of spring look dazzling.
“I have to prove myself a fit guardian as well, Liz. Why would the courts want to give the kid to a guy who lives in Atlanta, drives fast cars, and hasn’t had a meaningful relationship with anyone in his life?”
His hand went to his stomach. He slid onto the other side of the wall and stretched. Wincing, he bent forward and placed his hand on his thighs.
“Are you all right?” She was beside him instantly, one hand on his shoulder, the other reaching for the pulse at his neck. Satisfied his heart rate wasn’t erratic, she withdrew her hand. “Jeez, Lucas, you’re not going to recycle that coffee, are you?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s just stomach cramps. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Here, sit down,” she said gently. Noting his shallow breathing, she didn’t think age had anything to do with what he was feeling at the moment.
Lucas slumped down onto the grass, and she knelt on one knee, facing him. Pushing aside a shock of hair, she felt his forehead.
“Breathe deeply. You’re overheated.”
“Of course I’m hot, Clara Barton. The putrid alcohol in my system is having a toxic reaction with this clean country air.” Lucas sucked in a slow, cleansing breath. “There’s more. When Mike was working here, he was working undercover on drug deals. Supposedly, he had access to a hundred thousand dollars never recovered after his death. As his only family member, it puts me in a tight place, under suspicion.”
“So what do you think happened to it? Was he a gambler?” While he talked, her hand came up to the back of his head and stroked it gently. His dark unruly hair, in need of a cut, curled over the back of his shirt and had the barest threads of gray below his temples, only noticeable on close inspection.
“No, I think things got hot with a deal, and he stashed it somewhere for safe keeping. The biggest gambling Mike ever indulged in was a few hands of poker with his friends every so often. I didn’t know my brother for very long. We just started communicating a few years before his first wife died, but from what others tell me, he was one of the most honest, untainted cops on the force.”
“None I can find.” He swiped a hand over his face and pushed out a lengthy breath of air.
“Can you stand up?” Elise asked worriedly.
“Keep caressing me like a lap dog and everything will stand up.”
“Just concentrate on the feet first, Rover.” She removed her hand and stood. “Come, we can just walk the rest of the way.”
She could see the suggestion was heaven to his ears. He grinned, lips curving upward from both corners. She tried not to think of those lips, solid and demanding against hers the night before.
Lucas stood, and they circled the house ending up at the back steps to the kitchen. As soon as they entered, he headed straight for a chair and collapsed. Bess dropped to her rug behind the door.
“See,” she said. “You didn’t die.”
“Yeah, well, just because I’m talking doesn’t mean I’m not on my deathbed.” He gestured to Bess. “Look, even the poor dog is frazzled. Dear Lord, now I can better understand the term ‘dog-tired.’”
“You’ll feel better after a shower. You still haven’t told me about Todd.”
The luster in his face faded. “There’s not much to tell. He lost his mother and father and has been tossed into foster care with the Johnsons. I’m trying to get temporary custody. Thomas is working on it, but he’s not hopeful anything can be done until the investigation of Mike’s death is completed. I guess it’s standard procedure when a cop gets killed working under cover. I’ve been lucky enough the Johnsons let me have him on weekends.”
“Is it allowed?” Elise opened the bread drawer and withdrew a half loaf of bread.
Lucas rose and walked to where she was working. “Well, it’s bending the rules a little. Someone is supposed to be with him at all times, but they trust your father, and God knows the Johnsons need a break. In case you haven’t noticed, they’re not in shape for chasing a child Todd’s age.”
He slapped a palm against the refrigerator. “Damn it, Liz, it’s not fair. The kid is the one being punished, taking the brunt of things he had no part of. He’s so lonely he cries himself to sleep at night. He doesn’t understand what’s happening. He doesn’t even know where he belongs.”
“So we spring him.”
“It’s not that easy!” He gave her a disgusted look.
“Of course, it’s not going to be
.” Elise forced herself not to shout back. “But it doesn’t mean it’s impossible, Lucas. Sit down, will you? I’m cooking this morning.” She waved the half loaf of bread at him, then withdrew four slices and dropped them into the toaster slots.
He blinked. “Toast? You call making toast cooking?”
She blew out an exasperated breath. “Okay, so name something you want to eat. I’ll try to cook it, but the question will be...will you eat it?”
She saw his face blanch as he considered the thought. He waved her away and then gestured at the toaster. “Good God, just don’t burn it.”
When the toast popped up, Elise buttered the slices, and they sat at the table, sharing the meager feast in silence.
Elise could still see the turmoil clouding his face. He was probably hurting as much as the kid. Lucas had always been the champion of the underdog, the downtrodden, even when they were kids. She remembered the many times when they used to choose teams in a game of pickup baseball in the neighborhood. Lucas was always the one who selected the less experienced, less skilled players first. Initially, she thought it was only an act of kindness, but later she realized he wanted them to win, wanted them to know how glorious it felt to be anything but last all the time.