Chapter Ten

On Monday the incident at the Abbott rental was the talk of the village. Everyone had had time to form an opinion, particularly those who hadn't witnessed the event.

"Buster said they'd busted up every blessed knick-knack in the place. I'll have some of that lobster salad, Nell, honey," Dorcas Burmingham said, then went straight back to gossiping with her companion. She and Biddy Devlin, Mia's third cousin once removed and the proprietor of Surfside Treasures, had a standing lunch date at the cafe every Monday at twelve-thirty.

"I heard Sheriff Todd had to forcibly remove the man from the premises," Biddy expounded. "At gunpoint. "

"Oh, Biddy, no such thing. I talked to Gladys Macey, who had it straight from Anne Potter who sent for the sheriff in the first place that Zack had his gun holstered right along. Can I have an iced mocha with that salad, Nell?"

"Domestic disputes are one of the most dangerous calls for a policeman," Biddy informed her. "I read that somewhere. My, that soup smells divine, Nell. I don't believe I've ever had gazpacho before, but I'm going to have to try a cup, and one of your brownies. "

"I'll bring your lunch out to you," Nell offered, "if you'd like to get a table. "

"Oh, that's all right, we'll wait for it. " Dorcas waved the offer away. "You've got enough to do. Anyway, I heard that even though that brute bloodied that poor woman's lip and blackened her eye, she stuck by him. Wouldn't press charges. "

"It's a crying shame is what it is. Odds are her father beat on her mother, so she grew up seeing such things and thinking that's just what happens. It's a cycle. That's what the statistics say. Abuse spawns abuse. I'll wager you, if that woman had grown up in a loving home, she wouldn't be living with a man who treated her that way. "

"Ladies, that'll be thirteen eighty-five. " Nell's head throbbed like a bad tooth, and her nerve endings stretched thin as hair strands while the two women went through their weekly routine of whose turn it was to pay.

It was always playful, and usually it amused Nell. But now she wanted them gone. She wanted to hear no more about Diane McCoy.

What did they know about it? she thought bitterly. These two comfortable women with their comfortable lives? What did they know about fear and helplessness?

It wasn't always a cycle. She wanted to scream it. It wasn't always a pattern. She'd had a loving home, with parents who'd been devoted to each other, and to her. There had been arguments, irritation, annoyances. While voices may have been raised, fists never had.

She had never been struck in her life before Evan Remington.

She wasn't a goddamn statistic.

By the time the women headed off to a table, thin, sharp-edged bands of steel had locked themselves around Nell's temples. She turned blindly to the next customer and found Ripley studying her.

"You look a little shaky, Nell. "

"Just a headache. What can I get you today?"

"Why don't you get yourself an aspirin? I'll wait. "

"No, it's fine. The fruit-and-cabbage salad's good. It's a Scandinavian recipe. I've had positive feedback on it. "

"Okay, I'm game. I'll take an iced tea with it. Those two," she added, nodding toward Biddy and Dorcas. "They chatter like a couple of parrots. It'd give anybody a headache. I guess everybody's been yakking about the trouble yesterday. "

"Well. " She wanted a dark room, an hour's quiet. "Big news. "

"Zack did everything he could to help that woman. She didn't want to be helped. Not everyone does. "

"Not everyone knows what to do with an offer of help, or who they can trust to give it. "

"Zack can be trusted. " Ripley laid her money on the counter. "Maybe he plays it low key, that's his way. But when push comes to shove, he stands up. You ought to do something for that headache, Nell," she added, and took her lunch to a table.

***

She didn't have time to do more about it than swallow a couple of aspirin. Peg was late, rushing in full of apologies and with a sparkle in her eye that told Nell a man had been responsible for her tardiness.

As Nell had an appointment with Gladys Macey to-please, God-finalize the menu for the anniversary party, she had to rush home, gather her notes and files.

The headache had escalated to nightmare territory by the time she knocked on Gladys's door.

"Nell, I've told you, you don't have to knock. You just call out and walk in," Gladys said and pulled her inside. "I'm just so excited about this. I watched this program on the Home and Garden channel just the other day. Got me all sorts of ideas to talk over with you. I think we ought to string those little white lights through my trees, and put those luminaries-with little hearts on the bags-along the walk and the patio. What do you think?"

"Mrs. Macey, I think you should have whatever you want. I'm really just the caterer. "

"Now, honey, I think of you as my party coordinator. Let's sit down in the living room. "

The room was spotlessly clean, as if dust was a sin against nature. Every stick of furniture matched, with the pattern in the sofa picked up in the valance of the window treatments and the narrow border of wallpaper that ran just under the ceiling.

There were two identical lamps, two identical chairs, two identical end tables. The rug matched the curtains, the curtains matched the throw pillows.

All the wood was honey maple, including the cabinet of the big-screen TV, which was currently running a Hollywood gossip program.

"I've got a weakness for that kind of show. All those famous people. I love seeing what clothes they're wearing. You just sit down," Gladys ordered. "Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to get us a nice cold Coke, then we'll roll up our sleeves and dive right in. "

As she had the first time she'd toured Gladys's house for pre-party plans, Nell found herself bemused. Every room was tidy as a church pew and as rigidly organized as a furniture showroom floor. Magazines were fanned precisely on the coffee table, and offset by an arrangement of silk flowers in the exact tones of mauve and blues as the upholstery.

The fact that the house managed to be friendly said more, to Nell's mind, about the occupants than the decor.

Nell sat, opened her files. She knew Gladys would bring the tea in pale green glasses that matched her everyday dishes and would set them on blue coasters.

There was, she thought, a comfort in knowing that.

She began to read over her notes, then felt her stomach hitch at the chirpy voice of the program host.

"Last night's gala brought out the glitter and the glamour. Evan Remington, power broker extraordinaire and attorney to the stars, looked as sensational as one of his own clients in Hugo Boss. Though Remington denies rumors of a romance between him and his companion for the evening, the delectable Natalie Winston-who simmered in a beaded sheath by Valentino-sources in the know say differently.

"Remington was widowed only last September when his wife, Helen, apparently lost control of her car while driving back to their home in Monterey. Her Mercedes sedan crashed over the cliffs on Highway 1. Her body, sadly, was never recovered. Hollywood Beat is happy to see Evan Remington back in stride after this tragic event. "

Nell was on her feet, her breath short and shallow. Evan's face seemed to fill the wide screen, every handsome line, every strand of golden hair.

She could hear his voice, clear and terrifyingly calm. Do you think I can't see you, Helen? Do you think I'll let you go?

"I didn't mean to take so long, but I thought you might appreciate someone else's baking for a change. I just made this pound cake yesterday. Carl packed away nearly half of it. I can't think where that man puts it. Why, if I ate a fraction of what he-"

Tray in hand, Gladys stopped, her happy chatter shifting instantly to surprised concern when she saw Nell's face. "Honey, you're so pale. What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm not feeling well. " Panic was an icy poker jabbing through her belly. "Headache. I don't think I can do this now. "

"Of course not. Poor thing. Don't you worry. I'm going to drive you home and tuck you right into bed. "

"No, no. I'd rather walk. Fresh air. I'm so sorry, Mrs. Macey. " Nell fumbled with her files, almost sobbing when they slipped through her trembling fingers. "I'll call you. Reschedule. "

"I don't want you to think a thing of it. Nell, sweetheart, you're shaking. "

"I just need to go home. " With a last terrified glance at the television screen, she bolted for the door.

She forced herself not to run. When you ran, people noticed you, and they wondered. They asked questions. Fitting in, that was essential. Blending. Doing nothing to draw attention. But even as she ordered herself to breathe slow and steady, the air wheezed in her lungs, clogged there until she was gulping for it.

Do you think I'll let you go?

Sweat ran cold and clammy on her skin, and she smelled her own fear. The edges of her vision blurred as she shot a single wild look over her shoulder. The minute she was through the door of her cottage, the nausea hit, a bright bite of pain.

She stumbled to the bathroom, was hideously ill. When she was empty, she lay on the narrow floor and waited for the shaking to pass.

When she could stand again, she peeled off her clothes, leaving them in a heap as she stepped into the shower. She ran the hot water, as hot as she could bear, imagining the spray penetrating her skin until it warmed her icy bones.

Wrapped in a towel, she crawled into bed, pulled the covers over her head, and let herself slide into oblivion.

Diego climbed agilely up the bedskirt, stretched out alongside her. And lay still and silent as a sentry.

***


Tags: Nora Roberts Three Sisters Island Romance
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