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Authors: Mia Kay

Soft Target (20 page)

BOOK: Soft Target
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When he opened his eyes, the room was too quiet and a sliver of light shone on the carpet under the closed bedroom door. His throat went dry and his artificial hinges squeaked as he reached shaky fingers for the light switch and then the doorknob. He didn’t breathe until he could see into the hallway.

Her bedroom was his final unexplored territory, and he told himself it was necessary as he pulled on his clothes. The room overlooked the back parking lot and the trees, and the furniture was cluttered with more pictures and more books. The covers on these were worn and the pages were yellowed and soft from rereading—her favorites.

Her closet reflected the dichotomy of her life. Work boots sat next to high heels, overalls hung beside church clothes, colorful skirts cozied up to evening dresses. The textures tempted his fingers—silk, satin, worn cotton, butter-soft denim, delicate gauze.

The ragged box on the top shelf caught his attention, and he carried it to the bed. Lifting the lid, he plucked the engraved stationery from the pile of mementos.

Margaret Anne Mathis and David Henry Watson invite you to celebrate...

He dropped the invitation as if it were poisoned and pulled a manila folder free. It was filled with photos of the younger versions of his friends. The last picture stopped his breath. Maggie as a bride, staring out a window with sunshine on her veil, her face in shadow, and a bouquet of lilies lying on the windowsill.

“What are you doing?” she screeched as she grabbed for the photo. On reflex, he pulled it out of her reach.

“You married David?”

“Of course not.”

She stretched across him, and he held the picture at arm’s length. “This looks a lot like a wedding.”

“Dammit.” She got her fingers on the edge of the photo and tugged.

“You’ll rip it.”

“Who cares? It’s trash anyway. I should have thrown it away years ago.” Her sentences were more like choked phrases. “You had no right to do this. There is nothing in here that—”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” He curved his hand around her trembling shoulder. “But please
talk
to me. The last I knew he didn’t even come help you bury your family.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” she sighed. “Of course I ended it. But he came back, and I didn’t want seven years to be a waste, so I tried again.”

“All right. And then?”

She rifled through the box, throwing a cake topper and a guest book onto the bed before she thrust a letter at him.

It had been opened and closed so many times over the years that the words in the creases were difficult to read. Even if they’d been clear, it would have been difficult. David Henry Watson had laid out in cold detail why he wouldn’t be at the altar waiting on his bride.

“He changed his mind on the day of your wedding?”

“Yep. All the money in the world wouldn’t make sharing my life worth it.” She stared out into the darkness.

“Was there someone else?”

“That was the rumor, and I let it go.” She sighed. “What’s worse, everyone thinking your fiancé cheated on you or everyone knowing he thought you’re a boring workaholic who’d make an awful wife? I told everyone to—”

“You?” He pointed toward the other end of town. “You stood in that church, at that altar, alone? Where was Nate? Hell, for that matter where was Charlene’s father?”

“Everyone was in back.” Her lips twitched with the hint of a smile. “Char was yelling at her parents and Nate said something tacky about
her
, so Kevin broke his nose. Then
Kevin
had had enough of Tiffany’s ‘romantic silliness’—she was just trying to make it better—and he said something insulting, so Michael blacked his eye. And then
Charlene
hit Michael.”

His laugh was weak. “I’m glad we eloped.”

* * *

It was another night on the graveyard shift, and Shelby was considering wiping down tables. Anything to get away from listening to Carl talk about Maggie—again. Jesus, everyone in this town had a thing for her.

The woman owned a bar and wore
overalls
. She worked with miners and their church lady wives. Given the way Gray said her name, you’d think he married a supermodel. But she wasn’t anything special—a short, brown-eyed blonde with a good tan. How generic could you get? Outside this tiny bubble, she was nothing.

“They had a big fight, and he left. I could see it through the window. He shouldn’t be fighting with her. She doesn’t like to cry. And he shouldn’t leave her alone.”

“He’s like that, Carl. He has a really bad temper. I’m scared to think what he’d do if he knew you and I were friends.”

“I hate to see her sad. That’s why I sent her flowers. She loves flowers. But now he
won’t let her have them.”

“Find something else to give her, or do for her. What else does she like?”

While he thought, Shelby took the trash to the Dumpster. If she was missing her personal training sessions, at least she could do some lifting at this stupid job.

A pitiful mewl came from behind a stack of boxes, and a fuzzy black and white ball stumbled into the alley. Shelby scooped the scrawny creature into her hand and carried him into the kitchen. They didn’t have any customers, surely health regulations could be ignored.

“Do we have any milk and maybe some leftover rolls and meat loaf? This poor little guy is all skin and bones.”

He scrounged for food and they both stood in the kitchen as the kitten smacked and slurped his dinner.

Carl grinned. “Maggie will love him.”

“Maggie?”
No. He’s mine. I found him. She can’t have him, too.

“She loves playing with the kittens at the Humane Society. He can’t turn down a kitten.”

Shelby forced herself into silence and played along while Carl hugged her and gathered up her kitten. She couldn’t keep the little guy in her hotel room anyway.

She’d get him later.

Chapter Twenty-Four

“So your main suspect has an alibi?” Jeff asked.

Gray balanced his phone on his shoulder as he poured coffee. “For the windows, but not anything else. But then I can’t tie him to the flowers. The only thing he’s guilty of so far is trying to rescue her when she ran out of gas on the way home.”

“But she called you?”

“No. I drove past them on my way home.”

“Wait a minute.” Jeff’s leer flavored his words. “Are you shacking up with her?”

Gray watched Maggie on the patio. She was using garden ornaments to keep
The Wall Street Journal
open while she made notes in her binder. He took a deep breath. “I married her.” God, but it felt good to say that to someone.

He smiled into the phone as Jeff sputtered and swore.

“No wonder you don’t want to talk to Bob. Amanda was worried about anti-government nutjobs. She’ll give you six kinds of hell when she finds out you’re hiding a
wife
. Are you staying there or is she coming back with you?”

Gray chewed his bottom lip. “I’ll email you about my other suspects.”

He hung up the phone and emerged into the chilly pink morning. When she rushed to put everything away, he put the coffeepot on the trivet holding the Futures section open. “Are you finished?”

“I know it’s a mess.”

She pointed the remote at the stereo, but he took it away from her. “No one can read a paper without making a mess. I like that song.”

She went back to work and he sipped his coffee and stretched his legs to their full length. Rather than claiming a section of the paper, he reached for a manila folder sitting by itself.

They were the pictures from Nate’s wedding. After the traditional group poses, he saw the ones with poker and piggyback rides, and then with them all in sitting on the floor, barefooted and disheveled in a staged hangover. Maggie was leaning against him, idly holding his hand. They’d been talking about their reception toasts.

“Kevin and Char’s wedding was the first after my debacle, and we were all tense, so we made it into a party,” Maggie explained, looking over his shoulder. “The tradition stuck. Abby even works it into the photos for her other wedding clients.”

She quieted again, and he let the other pictures divert him. One was of her and Nate from early in the day. They were in casual clothes, and Maggie was smiling her wide, plastic smile.

“You’re always working, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “People always watch. Any frown, any frustration, worries everyone. It’s like the telephone game. By the time it’s done, Mathis is on hard times, everyone’s getting fired, and Nate has an incurable disease.”

“So you smile,” he said as he held up the picture. “Even with him?”

“Sometimes he gets on my nerves.” She put her research away. “Only children don’t get it, and I don’t think non-twins do either. He’s
always
there, even when we’re apart. Our businesses add another layer of stress and sometimes it feels like everything comes easier for him. Take this mess. Before we ever knew we needed spouses, he was practically at the altar all on his own.”

“And you had to scramble.”

She shook her head. “I had to choose between my life and toeing the line, and he just assumed I’d toe the line. You’ve seen us argue. We get over it.”

Her life
.

He stayed next to her, looking at the paper but not seeing it. He’d been so intent on helping her, on protecting her, that he’d never considered what she’d wanted other than a solution. That she’d be happier without him.

* * *

Their truce continued, and as he pulled into the garage on Friday, Gray congratulated himself on getting through almost two whole days without arguing with his wife. All they had to do was survive the library fund-raiser tonight.

Maggie was in the kitchen. She was in yoga pants and a tank top, and there wasn’t a visible panty line in sight. His fingers twitched with the desire to slide under the fabric and check. It would be quick—then she’d ream out his insides with the paring knife she was using on a tomato. Something sizzled in a skillet, and grilled salmon was cooling on a rack.

“You’re making dinner?”

The knife stuttered. “Geez!”

“Sorry, I thought you heard me.” He smirked into her glare.

“Liar. I think you like sneaking up on me.” The laughter in her eyes tempered words that would have started a fight a few days earlier. But it faded with memory of past arguments. “I hope you don’t mind—”

He stroked her shoulder. “Thank you for cooking. Can I help?”

“I’m almost finished. Do you want a beer?”

He kept her from opening the refrigerator and smiled into her shocked stare. “You’re not a bartender at home.”

He was too close and the space was too small. The change in his body was spurred by the flicker of heat in her eyes and the flush of her skin. Dinner could wait, and they could send a check to the library. He’d lay her on the floor and lick her honey-flavored skin until she screamed. “I’ll wash up.”

After another cold shower, he sat across from her outside with dinner and iced tea.

“How was your day?”

“It’s getting more difficult for Nate to kick my ass. That’s a good feeling. “ He grinned as he popped a potato into his mouth. “This is delicious.”

“It’s nice to eat together.” She blushed and stared at her fish.

“I could get back early every day if you wanted.” He held his breath.

“We could eat in the apartment before work.” Her offer was whispered.

He kept eating while they negotiated. “I’ll cook at least once on the weekend, but you might have to eat pancakes for dinner. And one night a week we should have takeout.”

Something tugged his pants, and he looked into a determined furry face. The kitten was halfway to his knee, clinging for dear life as it swayed on its unsteady perch. Gray rescued his favorite jeans by lifting the tiny animal the rest of the way.

“Carl found him nosing around at the truck stop. Are you allergic?”

“No.” Gray offered the kitten a piece of salmon from his plate. “But I think you’d be safer with a dog.” He winced as sharp teeth mistook his finger for fish. “Then again.”

“If you wouldn’t hand-feed him, he wouldn’t bite.” She giggled as she reached for the pet. “Felix, get down from there.”

Gray flinched as sharp claws dug through denim to reach skin. “Leave him be, for the sake of my clothes if nothing else.”

“Can we keep him, Graham?”

She could fill the house with kittens if she’d say my name like that every day.
“I don’t think he’ll take up much space.”

After dinner they went down their separate hallways to change. Waiting in the living room seemed too much like prom, so Gray stalled until her heels tapped across the hardwood in time to the gurgle of the dishwasher.

“Are you sure Felix will be okay alone?”

“He’s about to be in a kitten Disneyland. You could crate him if you’re worried.” Gray turned off the lights and walked toward her voice.

“It seems rude to put him in jail so we can go on a da—so we can go out.”

Date, honey. We’re going to a party in the same car. It’s a date.

“Nate claimed Fiddler didn’t have much of a social scene, but I’ve worn this tux more since I got here than I did the whole time I had it in—God, but you’re gorgeous.”

She was draped in light blue silk, and silver jewelry added sparkle to the simplest movement. Her cheeks bloomed pink under his blurted compliment.

“Thank you. You’re handsome yourself, except your tie is crooked.”

While she fussed over him, he traced his thumb over the cuff resting high on her forearm. Her tempting blush deepened. He liked Maggie on the half-shell.

Ushering her through the kitchen and garage, he helped her into the rental car and noticed her staring at the bike. “How about a ride tomorrow?” he offered. “It’s the least you can do after making me dress up again.”

The space between them was too quiet as they pulled onto the highway. Rather than pushing, he trusted she’d ask.

“Are you tired of—”

“That isn’t what I said,” he stopped her gently and took her hand, keeping her nails a safe distance from her teeth. “For a town this size, you guys dress up a lot.”

“Most of us work in hard hats, safety glasses and steel-toed boots. We only dressed up for weddings and funerals and that wasn’t enough.”

“Are you tired of it?” He glanced at her, pleased to see she was turned toward him rather than staring out the window. “The list of what you’d change covered almost everything. Why don’t you?”

“Because it’s Fiddler, not Mathisville, and it’s a democracy, not a plutocracy.”

He’d never dated a woman who’d used
plutocracy
to discuss anything but a history or economics lesson, much less to describe her life.

On their arrival a crowd surrounded them, engulfing them in color, embraces and handshakes. There wasn’t a way to protect her without pulling her away, and he tried. Instead, she tightened her hand on his arm, anchoring him in the crowd while she left suspicions and worries behind. One group blended into another, and another, as they progressed into the room.

As he met new people, she left his side. The first time, he’d been in a group with Fitz and other accountants when he saw her across the room. The next time he’d been discussing electronic discovery with Tom and a group from the county bar association when she’d grinned from the next group over and rolled her eyes. Just like on Humane Society Saturdays, she was a partner not a puppeteer.

The third time she tried to run, he tethered her to him while he talked and then listened as she joined the conversation, adding without dominating, contributing rather than arguing. Her laughter soaked through his fingers.

When they were alone, he brushed his nose against the top of her ear and whispered, “Enough work. Let’s go have some fun.”

They located their patchwork family, and he left her to get drinks. Laughter followed him across the room, and Gray turned to watch Maggie relax. In a clutch of beautiful women, she stood out—his stubborn, determined, intelligent wife. As if she could feel him staring, she looked up and warmth shimmered through her eyes as she smiled the smile he loved.

Love.

The word reached deep inside him, undoing a week’s worth of cold showers, and thawing places icy water couldn’t reach. He could still feel her body as she’d walked next to him and the silk under his fingers. He probably always would. And it didn’t matter.

No matter how real that smile was, how strong the attraction, their marriage was as fleeting as the perfume lingering on his tux.

She would make the perfect agent’s wife, but if she thought she’d lost her life in the open skies of Fiddler, Chicago would smother her. Not to mention waiting on him to come home and dreading every late-night knock on the door.

His focus shifted and he counted the number of tuxedo-clad men near their table. With a determined stride and his hands full of drinks, he rejoined the party and claimed his wife. Bidding on books instead of dates meant he didn’t have to share her. After a respectable amount of mingling, he slid his hand into hers while they surveyed the auction items. One was a coffee table book about rural Idaho. Fiddler’s page was marked with an ornate bookmark.

“Would your parents like this?”

“They keep asking me to describe it here. I could send it to them or maybe save it for Christmas.”

“Maybe they could come for Christmas, and we could take them—” She dropped her gaze from his. “Sorry. I get carried away with presents.”

“It’s a nice thought.”

“Oh God, no, this thing can’t drag on. Let me start over. You’ll catch this guy before then. You have to, they can’t hold your job forever. Besides, your mother would much rather have Christmas in her house, wouldn’t she? Or do they come to Chicago?”

“Christmas is in Nebraska. We’ve always joked they’d travel to me as soon as I had a real home.” Guilt flooded him. “How much can we afford?”

* * *

Maggie named a sensible amount and shooed him away. She needed to check on donations, and he should get a chance to play. She walked the length of the table, failing to register items and numbers. She wanted to play, too.

Last year at this event she had worked herself into the ground to make sure every item was sold. This year she was going relax and store as many happy memories as possible.

Her brother, her friends, and her husband—the men in her life—were across the room, laughing and kidding around. If not for the tuxedos, they would have reminded her of high school jocks from prom or frat boys from college mixers. They made an attractive group, but Graham still stood out.

Sure, he was handsome in a tuxedo, but he was adorable in his pajamas every morning as he grumbled over coffee, and sexy as hell in his work clothes covered in sweat and grime like this afternoon. His biker jacket and boots, with helmet hair, might be her favorite look. Then she remembered him in the hospital holding Sarah Mitchell’s hand.

She might like his looks and crave his laugh. She might enjoy talking to him and watching him think. She might even hold her breath when he touched her. But she loved him for his heart.
Wait, no. That’s not—I can’t. Our whole life together is a lie.

But was it? Months of talking and coffee and Sunday rides, their platonic honeymoon in Vegas, breakfasts on the porch, investment games and even their fights. The marriage might be pretend, but her feelings were very real. Her heart skipped and bounced like a chicken trying to fly, and a knot formed in her throat.

He caught her staring.
Crap.
She looked for a place to hide every soft feeling, but his wink and mischievous smile interrupted her. Panic set in when he tilted his head and left the group.

She stopped her flight in mid-turn.
Right, Mags, run from your husband in an evening dress in front of the whole town.
His smile widened, and she went toward him instead of away.

“He can’t be much of an attorney if he’s decided to be a gigolo.”

Kate!
Maggie halted and spun to face the bitchy bookie, her grip tightening around the drink in her hand. After years of torment, and that damn pool, the insult to her husband was the last straw. But she was in public. People would talk.

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