The comment ricocheted under the normal lunch crowd noises, shocking as a gunshot in the cheerful dining room. Ann Cross, topping drinks one table over, flinched and slopped iced tea onto the varnished wood.
She swiped at the spill with a towel. She was getting to be some kind of expert at cleaning up her own messes, she thought wryly. "Sorry." She smiled at the offended patron. She couldn't afford to lose her tip or, worse, cost her friend Val a customer. "Can I get you anything else?"
"N-o-o-o, I guess not."
Resolutely, Ann disregarded the woman's disgruntled tone. "Well, you just let me know if you change your mind."
She picked up her pitcher. A positive attitude, that's what she needed. But over at the next table, the voice continued, low with scandal and sharp with relish, "...saw it on the Atlanta evening news. His father must be mortified."
Her companion shook her head. "But the newspaper said he was a hero. My cousin sent me a column right out of the Journal-Constitution."
Ann didn't want to listen. She shouldn't want to listen. She knew from firsthand experience how hurtful the town gossips could be, and how wrong. But as the first woman- it was Gladys Baggett, the receptionist over at First Baptist-spoke again, Ann stopped, snared by a name. Trapped by a memory.
"I don't see how you can defend him. I always said that Maddox Palmer would come to no good."
Maddox. Ann's hand tightened on the pitcher. Another one of her Life Mistakes.
Oh, Lord. And now he'd shot somebody?
"Maybe not as long as he stayed in this town," the other woman agreed dryly.
"Well, he's back. Mackenzie Ward saw him at the bank Shameless as sin and handsomer than ever, she said." The church secretary broke off to glance at Ann, her steel rimmed glasses glinting with reproach.
Ann cleared her throat. "More tea?"
"I believe I will." Gladys sat back and patted her mouth, smudging the napkin with Carnal Carnation. "And how are dear little Mitchell and that handsome husband of yours?"
Ann stiffened. Her son was fine. Her divorce would be final in just a few weeks. And neither the health of her son nor the state of her marriage was anybody's business but her own. "They're fine, thank you. Enjoy your meal."
Gladys's whisper pursued her across the dining room. "It was so...trusting of the MacNeills to hire her, don't you think? Do you suppose Val counts the silverware every night?"
Ann quailed inside. Biddies. Returning to the hostess station, she pulled on the social mask she'd learned to wear as Rob's wife, determined not to show that she heard or cared what the town of Cutler thought.
It never thought much of Annie Barclay Cross, that was for sure. Nobody expected any of the Barclays to amount to much. It was as if the smell of her parents' farm clung to them even in town, a betraying mix of chickens, drunkenness, and defeat. The only thing Ann had ever accomplished in her mother's eyes or the town's mind was to turn one night of fumbled sex with the local football hero into marriage and an upscale house on Stonewall Drive. Oh, they'd all whispered enough at the wedding, Ann remembered, but they'd approved.
Nobody approved of her now.
Except Val, she thought with a squeeze of gratitude.
The kitchen door swung open and Val bumped through in a soiled cook's apron, her blond gypsy curls in a neat French braid and a row of silver hoops dangling from one ear.
She surveyed her crowded restaurant with pride. "You doing all right out here?"
Ann smiled. "Checking up on me?"
"No, of course not. Well, maybe I am, a little. Looking out for you, I mean. There's a difference."
Ann had learned the hard way not to expect anyone to look out for her, ever.
"Everything's fine," she said.
"Okay." Val tossed her head, making the silver hoops dance. "Hey, did you hear? Mad Dog Palmer's back in town."
Despite her gratitude at the change of subject, Ann felt her stomach drop. "I heard something. How did you know?"
"Oh, Mother called last night. She had it from Betty Lou Prickett who had it from Mackenzie-"
"-Ward at the bank," Ann finished for her.
Val chuckled. "That's it. The Cutler grapevine. It never fails, and it never forgets."
Never. Sudden frustration closed Ann's throat. She could change her name, change her life, earn a salary and support her son, and in Cutler she would always be the Barclay girl who tricked poor Rob Cross into marriage and then mixed him up in that trouble over at the bank.
Seven months ago, Ann had pleaded guilty to helping her husband steal twenty thousand dollars from her best friend. He'd been convicted on the strength of her testimony. But when the theft was first uncovered, Rob had also attacked Val and set fire to her restaurant. Charged with both crimes, he was still awaiting a second trial for arson and attempted murder. Town opinion remained stubbornly on his side. But in Ann's heart, she knew her husband was guilty.
And so was she, for somehow allowing it to happen.
At her sudden silence, Val's face turned a deeper shade of pink. "Oh, shoot, honey, I didn't mean... I don't want you to ever think Conn and I..."
They were the same age, but there were times Ann felt years older. "It's all right," she said gently. "I'm the one who can't forget what I owe both of you."
Val rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. You don't owe us anything."
Ann set her jaw. "Not according to the court."
"I've told you we can work something out. You don't need to repay-"
Ann stopped her, more tempted by the offer than Val could know. Money was tight. Mitchell needed shoes for basketball and a dresser that wasn't constructed of card board. But then, her son needed lots of things she couldn't give him. Like a father who cared about them.
"My probation officer says I do. And I want to, Val. I need to. Anyway, aren't you supposed to be in the kitchen nagging your other staff now?"
Val laughed reluctantly. "Remind me to resent that remark later when I have time," she said, and went back to marshal her kitchen forces.
Ann went to work, too, seating a mother and daughter out shopping, busing a neglected table, making sure the dining room ran smoothly. She enjoyed her job, despite the occasional whispers. It wasn't just that she was unfit for anything else or unlikely to be offered any other position in town. She took pleasure in the cleanliness and order, took pride in being responsible for the fresh flowers on the tables and the changing displays of wicker and North Carolina pottery on the walls.
Snatching a couple of dirty glasses, she got busy, got moving, got her mind off Rob's latest threats and Mitchell's outgrown sneakers and the things she did and should have done with Maddox Palmer back in high school.
No regrets, she reminded herself. Figure out what has to be done now, and do it. After nine years of having the spunk and the tar whaled out of her, initiative still came hard. But she was learning, she thought with satisfaction. In the past year, she'd had to learn.
The cheery little bell over the door summoned her back to the hostess station. She grabbed a menu and a smile to welcome the new customer and then stopped dead and let both of them slide.
It was him. Maddox Palmer, in the flesh. In jeans, she corrected herself, and a tan T-shirt that almost matched the color of his skin. She squeezed the menu tighter. This time the Cutler grapevine was right. He was handsomer than ever.
He had to be over thirty now, big and broad and somehow harder. Solid. His face had a lot more lines. Well, he was three years older than her, though only two years ahead in school. He'd been kept back in first grade, she remembered, the year his mama died. He had thick brown hair that his new short cut couldn't tame and hooded eyes that still saw right through her, and a juvenile-delinquent slouch that made him look tough and ready to react to whatever punch life threw at him. He dangled a cigarette between two fingers of his right hand, and he still had that not-a-dimple in his chin that tempted every good girl to press a finger to it.
Ann damned the way her heart speeded up just at the sight of him. She'd given up Big, Bad and Dangerous to Know almost a year ago.
He smiled crookedly. "Hey, Annie," he said.
Like they were just passing in the hall in high school. Like he'd never shared gum or secrets with her on the school bus or filched cookies from her mother's kitchen or stood up for her on the playground.
Like he'd never grappled with her in the back seat of his father's unmarked police car and then walked right past her locker the next day.
Well, he could take his "hey" and...and... Her racing brain stumbled. Nice Southern girls simply did not think that way. Take his hay and stack it, she amended silently.
"No smoking in the restaurant," she said.
He looked at her, wrinkling his brow in the way that used to make her go soft inside. "What?"
She flapped her hand at the printed sign by the cash register. "No smoking. Sorry."
"Just like high school, huh?"
It was so close to what she'd actually been thinking that she goggled.
He looked at her like she was mentally defective. "No smoking in the halls," he explained.
"Oh. Yes. Right."
He stubbed out his cigarette in the clay pot provided and grinned. "So, who died and made you hall monitor?"
She flushed with annoyance. His grin spread. "Val doesn't like smoking," she said.
"Val Cutler? This her place?"
She nodded, put on guard by his quick, assessing questions. He was a cop, she remembered, like his father. Assuming he was still employed. I heard he shot that boy and the department fired him.
She shivered. The last thing she needed back in her life was another large, violent male. "It's Val MacNeill now."
"Eight months ago."
"Anybody I know?"
"No one from around here. Conn's a financial consultant from Boston." An incisive giant of a man with a lean, clever face who adored his wife. Val's happiness in her new marriage was a source of wonder and joy and envy to Ann. But then Val had never hesitated to go after what she wanted. Unlike Ann.
A smile ghosted across Maddox's mouth. "You gonna let me sit down or do I have to go put on a tie or something?"
"Oh." She flushed and fumbled with the menu. "Sorry. Just one of you for lunch?"
The sandy eyebrows lifted again. "Unless you maybe want to join me."
"That's what I figured."
"Yeah, I saw you. Through the window."
Was that why he'd come in? The notion disturbed her. She bolted for one of the small side tables, her hands smoothing her shapeless apron. Foolish, she scolded. What did it matter that she looked like last week's laundry?
She turned, tucking her hair nervously behind one ear. "Is this all right?"
He looked over the room and then sat on the bench with his back to the wall. "Fine. Thanks."
"Doralee will be your server. Enjoy your meal."
"What do you recommend?"
His quick question stopped her getaway. She still wasn't used to having her opinion consulted, even in the smallest things. "I, um..."
"Come on. There's got to be something decent to eat in this place. How are the hamburgers?"
She lifted her chin. "No hamburgers. Wild Thymes doesn't serve red meat of any kind."
"Val's a vegetarian."
"Hell." He scanned the seasonal menu, looking genuinely perplexed.
Against her will, Ann felt a smile forming. "You might like the catfish sandwich. Today's special is a smoked salmon salad, but-"
He laid the menu aside. "The sandwich will be fine. So, what's a chicken farmer's daughter like you doing in a place like this?"
Her smile died. "I told you. I work here."
He tilted his head back, regarding her from beneath his lids. "Old Rob doesn't mind?"
Rob hated her working at the restaurant. Hated anything that took her out of his house and his control. But Ann had clung stubbornly to her friendship with Val, never dreaming her husband would find a way to use it against them.
She forced the thought away. You are not responsible for his actions, the therapist intoned inside her head. Not responsible.
Another voice broke across the first, brutal as a slap. Irresponsible bitch.
She blinked. "Rob has nothing to do with it," she said carefully. "We're separated now."
She winced at his heavy disbelief. But then, how would he have heard? It was common knowledge around town he hadn't even come home for Christmas the last few years.
Still, it wasn't Ann's responsibility to bring him up-to-date on the town's biggest scandal. She could not, she really could not, bear to pick the scabs off her marriage again. Not in the restaurant with Gladys Baggett and half of Cutler's lunching ladies looking on.
And not, dear Lord, with Maddox.
Let him find out the rest on his own. He was a cop. There were plenty of folks who would be only too happy to fill him in on the whole sordid story. No one was interested in her side, anyway.
"Yes. I need to get back to work. Enjoy your meal," she said again, and hurried back to her station.
Maddox watched Ann walk away from him-Annie, with her grave, sweet eyes and her small, serious smile and her skin so fine a look could bruise it-feeling like he'd just been socked in the chest. Enjoy his meal? He'd be lucky if he could even taste it.
Hell. He'd stayed away for twelve lousy years, and she was separated.
He slid out from behind the table, overtaking her before she reached the hostess station.
"How long?" he demanded.
She slapped a receipt on the spindle by the cash register, her movements quick and agitated. "What are you talking about?"
He caught her elbow. "How long since you and Rob broke up?"
Broke up. Swell. Now he even sounded like some high school moron.
She turned, her face white. "Let go of my arm."
He loosened his grip. "Just tell me how long."
"A year. Let go of me."
Her eyes were dark and enormous, the pupils nearly swallowing the green. Damn. He was thirty-one years old, a veteran cop, a sergeant, and the sight of the woman could still reduce him to a raging lump of testosterone. He released her abruptly.
Beneath her neat white blouse, her breasts rose and fell with her breath. "I have work to do," she said clearly. "Customers. Would you please leave me alone?"
Customers. Right. He glanced around the dining room. People were staring. Bag lady Baggett had practically fallen into her plate in her eagerness to eavesdrop. And over by the kitchen door, the Misses Minniton were glaring at him as if he'd firebombed their garage sixteen years ago instead of merely throwing up into their rosebushes after drinking too much beer one hot August night.
"Sure thing, darlin'. You don't have to ask me twice."
Oh, now, that was cool. He sauntered back to his table, feeling like an idiot, and sat with his back to the wall so he could keep an eye on the room and on Annie. Gladys Baggett met his gaze and smiled, very tentatively. He stared back until she reddened beneath her makeup and looked away.
"Catfish sandwich," the waitress said, sliding it expertly in front of him. "Will there be anything else?"
Her smile, wide and white against her honey-gold skin, suggested there could be. Not everybody in Cutler remembered him as the town screw-up. Of course, the waitress probably didn't remember him at all. She must have been skipping rope on the playground when he'd left home.
He picked up the sandwich, looking over the thick sliced bread at Annie seating guests on the other side of the room. From a distance, she looked sixteen again, too skinny and so pretty with her quick, neat movements and shy smile. Her smooth light brown hair still brushed her shoulders when she walked, and she still had the nervous habit of tucking it behind one ear. From a distance, he couldn't see the faint lines bracketing her mouth or the wariness in her eyes.
She didn't come near his table again. Well, she wouldn't. She wouldn't want anything to do with him, any more than she had in high school. His fault, he acknowledged, coming on to her like a gorilla on Viagra. Again.
The catfish tasted like paste in his mouth. He needed a cigarette. Dropping a couple bills on the table, he made his way to the cash register, choosing a moment when Ann was ringing up another customer and couldn't avoid him.
She took his receipt and busily punched some buttons on the register. "How was your lunch?"
"Fine. Look, I-"
"I'll tell Val. She'll be glad you enjoyed it." She handed him his change, not quite meeting his gaze.
He was suddenly, unreasonably ticked off. Maybe once upon a time, in a dumb effort to win his father's notice, he had run wild. But he'd never done anything to make Ann afraid of him. Only that one October night... And he'd stayed away from her after that, hadn't he?
"Maybe I'll be back for dinner," he said.
She looked at him directly then, and her eyes that he remembered as the color of spring grass were cool and sharp as a broken beer bottle. There was a bump in the bridge of her nose he didn't remember at all.
"We're closed for dinner Monday through Thursday," she said. "But I can make a reservation for the weekend if you like."
"Never mind. I might not be around then."
Just for a second, her pretty lips parted, and his heart revved in his chest like a dirt-track race car. And then she hit him with her fake, hostessy smile, and he knew he'd been imagining that brief moment of regret.
"That's too bad," she said.
"I'll get over it," he drawled.
So, they both were lying. He wasn't about to admit his breath still backed up in his lungs every time he looked at her.
She didn't have to tell him twice.