Read Heart of the Matter Online

Authors: Marta Perry

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Religious

Heart of the Matter (9 page)

The arrival of their drinks saved her from answering that. “What you folks want to eat?” The man, who was apparently server as well as cook, and maybe the owner, too, didn’t seem inclined to offer a menu, but his apron was spotless and the aromas from the grill were all good. “The shrimp-burgers are nice today. And I got me some sweet potato fries.”

“That sounds good to me.” She’d learned, hitting some questionable roadside cafés coming and going from school in Columbia, that it was usually safest to order the day’s special.

“A burger.” Ross obviously didn’t hold to that philosophy.

She lifted her brows after the man returned to his kitchen. “Don’t care for the local cuisine?”

“Some things. What exactly is a shrimp-burger?”

“That depends on the cook. It might be a cold shrimp salad on a roll. Or it might be something like a crab cake, only made with shrimp. You take your chances.”

“Thanks, but I’ll just play it safe.”

“You don’t strike me as someone who plays safe.” She took a sip of the tea. Sure enough, it was sweet enough to make teeth ache.

Ross frowned down at his coffee, as if he suspected an insult she hadn’t intended. “You asked me something earlier,” he said abruptly. “You asked if publishing the truth was my only reason for pursuing this story.”

She didn’t know what to say. Luckily she didn’t have to, because he went on.

“I chase the story because that’s who I am.” He gave a wry smile. “An investigative reporter. This pretense of being an editor is wearing pretty thin. Cyrus knows that. That’s why he pushed me to do this story.”

“But if this job isn’t what you wanted, why did you take it?”

If he hadn’t, they’d never have met. She wasn’t sure where that thought had come from, but she didn’t like it.

“I didn’t exactly have a lot of choices.” His lips pressed together for an instant. “You must know what happened to me in D.C. Big story…made the wire services and the television talk shows. It’s too bad I didn’t write it.”

“I know what people said about what happened,” she said carefully. “I don’t know if that’s the truth.”

“The truth can be an elusive thing.”

Ross stared at the checked oilcloth that covered the tabletop, looking as if he didn’t see it. Rain clattered against the tin roof, making so much noise that it would be impossible for anyone else to hear them, even if anyone had been there.

Would he go on or was that all he was willing to say, at least to her?

“I was after the story of my career.” He seemed to force the words out. “I’d been following leads on congressional misdeeds for a couple of weeks. That was a shade on the ironic side for me.”

“Because your father was a congressman.” That fact had received a lot of play in the reporting, she remembered.

“Right.” Tension cut deep lines in his face. “I wasn’t getting very far. I heard plenty of rumors that a particular popular congressman was letting special interests line his pockets, but no way to prove it. Then I ran into a old buddy of mine from law school. When he heard what I was working on, he said maybe he could help.”

He began playing with his spoon, turning it over and over in his fingers.

“Vince was a lobbyist. People talked to him who would never talk to a reporter. Anyway, he came back to me in a couple of days. Said he’d found someone who could deliver the goods—photos, statements, everything. For a price, of course.” The spoon flipped from his fingers to land on the table, and he picked it up again. “The paper was willing to spring for it. The editor was salivating at the idea. Pushed me to go ahead. Move fast, before someone else got onto it.”

She could see where this was headed, and she hurt for him. “Your friend set you up.”

“They did a great job. It was like something out of Woodward and Bernstein, right down to the meet-in-a-parking-garage. I turned over the money, the guy turned over the pictures, the paper rushed into print the next day.

And then found out we’d been suckered when the whole story was easily disproved by the congressmen’s staff.” He shrugged. “Long story short, someone had to take the fall for it. I was the one whose byline was on the story.”

Without thinking, just needing to comfort, she put her hand over his. “I’m so sorry. If he hadn’t been your friend…”

“If he hadn’t been my friend, I wouldn’t have fallen for it so easily. Even so, I should have taken a few more days to check it out. I didn’t. My fault.” His hand turned, and he clasped her fingers.

“It’s not a bad thing to trust a friend. Or to want to succeed.” She discovered that her breath was playing tricks on her…catching in her throat just because he was touching her that way.

He folded his other hand over hers, so that hers was enclosed in his warm grip. His fingertips stroked the inside of her wrist almost absently, as if he didn’t realize he was doing it, but took some comfort from the touch.

“I had everything going for me then. The right connections, the right job, a fast track to the top. And then it was gone in an instant, and I was a pariah. No one in Washington wanted to speak to me.”

“They judged you without bothering to find out the truth.” Guilt pierced her heart. Hadn’t she done the same when she’d first heard the story?

Forgive me, Lord. I was so quick to judge. I’m ashamed of myself. I didn’t think I was like that.

“If not for Cyrus’s eccentric charity, I’d be looking for a new profession.”

“You want your career back.” She said what she sensed under his words.

“Of course I want it back.” His grip tightened almost painfully. “All I need is one story big enough to hit nationally. If I get that, someone will take a chance on me. I can get back to a national market.”

All he wanted was to leave here. The thought made a hollow spot in her heart.

She tried to rally. Naturally he’d want to get back to Washington. With his family background, he’d probably dreamed all his life of working there.

“Your family…” She let that trail off, not sure what she wanted to say.

He let go of her hands, and she was cold without his touch. His face hardened into a mask to shield his feelings.

“You know what the motto of my family was? Never embarrass your father. And I never did, until I really did it up right, with stories in every major daily.”

The bitterness in his voice shook her. “But he must have understood that it wasn’t your fault.”

“He must?” His ironic expression mocked her words. “I don’t know, because he was never willing to talk to me about it. He sent a message via one of his aides. A check, actually, accompanied by the suggestion that a new life somewhere far away might be a good idea.”

The pain she felt for him was a knife in her heart. If she lived to be a hundred, she could never understand a parent acting like that. “I’m sorry.” It came out as a whisper, earning her one of his sardonic smiles.

“Don’t look so tragic, Amanda. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I knew what to expect from him.”

That made it all the sadder, but she didn’t suppose she’d better say that to him.

She’d add that to the other thing she’d never say to him. That she’d realized, while he was holding her hands and telling her his private grief, how much she cared for him. Cared deeply.

Because she cared, she wanted him to have what he wanted, even if that meant she’d lose him.

You can’t lose what you’ve never had,
she reminded herself. Somehow that didn’t comfort her. When—not if, when—Ross left, he’d take a piece of her heart with him.

Chapter Nine

manda consistently turned to two people when she needed to talk—one was Miz Callie, the other was her twin. Mamma sometimes complained about that, but in a good-natured way. She said she’d get her own back when Amanda and Annabel had daughters, and they turned to her.

“If I’d known you were going to put me to work, I’d have gone to see Miz Callie today,” Amanda said in mock complaint.

She scooped a bucket of feed from the bin her sister indicated.

“Miz Callie would give you cookies and sympathy,” Annabel retorted. “Since you came here, you must need something else. Or you know what Miz Callie would say, and you want a different opinion.”

“Who made you so smart? You’re the kid sister, remember?”

“Only by twenty minutes.”

The familiar banter with her twin was comforting. She had tight relationships with her brothers, but that was nothing like the bond with Annabel. Her twin was almost her other half.

She followed Annabel down the row of stalls. Her sister’s menagerie seemed to have grown a little each time Amanda came to the farm Annabel owned out in the country north of Mount Pleasant. Her latest addition was a small gray donkey.

Amanda stopped at his pen and poured the feed into the bucket. “What’s this guy’s name?” She reached out to pet the donkey, but he yanked his head away, showing the whites of his eyes.

“Toby.” Annabel leaned against the stall bar, frowning a little when she looked at the donkey. “He’s still pretty skittish, I’m afraid. More so than I imagined he’d be. But you’ll be okay, won’t you, Toby? You just need a little time to learn you can trust us.”

The donkey, apparently reassured by the love he heard in Annabel’s soft drawl, edged his way back to the feed bucket and began to eat, his eyes still rolling at the slightest move.

“He was treated badly.” Now that he was close, Amanda could see the scars.

Annabel just nodded. She didn’t like to talk about the things that had happened to the animals she sheltered, but every vet and animal control agent in the county knew he or she could count on Annabel to take in their worst cases.

“The vet says he’s healing okay, but the scars go deeper than the physical.”

Amanda found those words echoing in her mind as she followed Annabel through the chores. Some scars did go deep. The story Ross had told her—how much was he still hurting from the betrayal of his friend? His parents, too, had let him down, as had the employer who hadn’t trusted him enough to look for the truth.

Ross had let her see more deeply into his heart than she’d dreamed he would. She wanted to help him, but for the first time in her life, she doubted her ability.

Annabel let her alone, maybe knowing she needed time. Finally, when they leaned on the pasture fence admiring the horses that stood in the shade of the live oak, Annabel turned, eyebrows lifting.

Amanda knew that expression. After all, she had one exactly like it. Looking at Annabel was like looking in a mirror, aside from minor differences in hairstyle and clothes. Her sister was waiting to know why she was here today.

“It’s complicated,” she said, as if Annabel had asked the question aloud. She propped a sneaker on the fence slat and frowned down at the stain on the toe. Her own fault—she knew better than to wear new sneakers to the farm.

Her sister nodded. “It usually is. Is this about your boss?”

She didn’t bother asking how Annabel knew. Twins just did. “Ross is different from anyone else I’ve ever…well, cared about.”

She couldn’t say they were in a relationship, because they weren’t. But there was that kiss. And the way he’d confided in her. That meant something, didn’t it?

“He’s not your usual lost soul, that’s for sure.” Annabel leaned against the fence, absently adjusting her ball cap to keep the sun out of her eyes.

“Come on. I don’t
go for needy guys, do I?”

That was the family’s running commentary on the guys she dated. Annabel collected stray animals; Amanda collected stray people.

“Pretty much.”

“Well, maybe so. Anyway, Ross is different.” He needed healing, just like the creatures who found their way to Annabel’s care, but he wouldn’t admit that easily. “I’m not even sure how it happened, but I care.”

Love? She wasn’t going to say love, not yet.

“What about him?”

“I don’t know. He’s attracted, but it’s complicated. I mean, he’s my boss, for one thing. And besides that…”

She couldn’t tell even Annabel what Ross had told her. That shook her. She’d always been able to tell Annabel everything.

“Besides, I don’t think he’s going to be around that long. His goal is to get back to a big metropolitan market. Charleston is just a stepping stone for him.”

“Honey, don’t go falling in love with a man who’ll take you away from us. I don’t want to go chasing all over the country every time I need some twin talk.” Annabel’s tone was light, but her eyes were serious.

“It’s not just that.” She blew out a breath. “Ross wants his career back, and I’m not sure what he’d do to get it.”

That was the crux of the matter, she realized. As usual, talking to Annabel had made things clear to her.

Ross had shown her pieces of himself, and she had come to understand what drove him. But she still didn’t know who he was, soul deep. She didn’t know what he’d sacrifice to get back the life he felt had been stolen from him.

“Manda…” Annabel touched her hand lightly. “Be careful, okay?” Her tone was troubled. “I don’t want to see you get hurt by caring for someone who isn’t going to put you first.”

The words weighed on her. Annabel knew what that was like, and Amanda had gone through that hurt with her. She didn’t want to open herself up to that.

“I’ll try.” Her throat tightened. “But I’m afraid it might already be too late.”

This trip to the Coast Guard Base was probably a waste of time, but Ross felt stuck with it. Impatience prickled along his nerves as he followed Amanda through the check-in procedure and back outside again.

He should be following up on another interview with a local supplier to the base, not walking around like a sightseer. And the slumlord story waited on just a few more follow-up questions. He’d assigned that to Jim Redfern, knowing the veteran reporter would cover all the angles.

But he knew himself well enough to recognize the reluctance with which he’d let go of that story. He’d told Amanda that he was kidding himself, playing at being an editor instead of an investigative reporter, and he hadn’t even known that until the words came out of his mouth.

He let his gaze linger on Amanda. She walked slightly in front of him with that quick, graceful stride, her silky hair ruffling in the breeze off the water. An enormous pair of sunglasses hid her eyes, but couldn’t mask the eagerness in her expression at the thought of showing him something more about the service that was so important to her family.

He seemed to see her again across the table from him in that roadside restaurant, leaning toward him, her face filled with concern. Was that concern what had prompted those confidences? He certainly hadn’t planned on telling her any of that, but it had spilled out. He’d been like the mail room kid, leaning on her desk to share his dreams.

That shouldn’t happen again. She was too caring, and he found it too easy to respond to that.

Besides, the more involved he became in her life, the more it would hurt her if her father ended up the subject of a front-page exposé.

“Adam’s due to meet us in a couple of minutes.” Amanda stopped in the shade of one of the white buildings that dotted the area. “We may as well wait here for him.”

He nodded, trying to block distractions from his mind. He’d be better off to focus on the moment—convince himself that he really was here to develop a story on the base. From what he’d seen of Adam Bodine, there was a sharp mind behind that genial exterior. It wouldn’t do to make him suspicious of Ross’s motives.

Leaning against the wall, he watched the play of light and shadow on Amanda’s delicate features. Actually, maybe that wasn’t a very good idea, either.

“Have you come here often?” He asked the question at random, trying to distract himself.

She turned toward him, her face lighting with eagerness. “This has always been one of my favorite places, since I was a kid. Even when my daddy was assigned elsewhere, there always seemed to be a Bodine who was posted here.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t go into the Coast Guard, too, then.” If she had, he’d probably never have met her. That thought troubled him more than it should.

She tilted her head, considering. “I guess it is odd, but I never even thought of it. I always knew I’d be a writer of some sort.”

“Why journalism, instead of fiction?”

“I guess I’ve always been more interested in real people than imaginary ones.”

“That’s probably the secret to your popularity at the paper. Everyone wants to talk to you.” Did that sound as if he was envious? Nonsense. It didn’t matter to him how many admirers Amanda had.

He could see her eyes crinkle at that, even with the dark glasses she wore. “Sometimes what they want is to complain.”

“About what?” Then he caught on. “About their hard-hearted new boss, I suppose.”

“Oh, they have some better adjectives than that,” she assured him.

“I can imagine.” He found he was leaning a little closer, drawn into Amanda’s orbit despite his best intentions. “Would you care to share some?”

Her lips pursed. “My mamma taught me not to use language like that.”

He quelled a ridiculous urge to kiss those lips right here in public. Maybe it was just as well that her cousin Adam was striding toward them along the walk, looking ready for anything in his blue shirt and pants, a blue ball cap with the Coast Guard emblem square on his head.

“Hey, Manda. Ross. Sorry to keep you waiting.” Adam shook hands with him and gave Amanda a quick hug. “I had to clear something up, but now I’m all yours. What would you like to see first?”

“Let’s go down to the docks,” Amanda suggested.

Ross nodded. It didn’t matter what they saw today, since that wasn’t the story he was after, but he’d play along.

They started along the walk, and Adam fell into step with him. “What specifically is the aim of your article? If I knew that, I could tailor the tour to it.”

The aim of my article is to expose somebody, maybe somebody named Bodine, as crooked.
No, he couldn’t say that.

“A general look at the different facets of your work,” he said instead. “I’m not sure exactly what we’ll be using in the finished series of articles, but it’s all new to me.”

“There’s Win,” Amanda said. She nodded toward a group of men and women jogging past.

One broke away and jogged toward them. Ross recognized the Bodine Amanda had pointed out as a rescue swimmer at the party. Probably a year or two younger than Amanda, Win Bodine had the long, lithe lines and the upper-body strength of a swimmer combined with the spark of a daredevil in his eyes. He stopped beside them, still jogging.

“Hey, how’re you doing? Adam said you’d be comin’ by today. I’ll tell you all about being a rescue swimmer, if you want.”

“What’s to tell? You just have to jump out of a helicopter into the ocean now and then. Easy enough for someone who’s half fish and half seagull.” Adam’s tone made it clear that this was familiar territory for the cousins.

“You’re just jealous because women are more impressed by my job than yours.” Win continued to jog with the easy manner of someone who probably wasn’t even aware that he was doing it.

“Is that why you struck out and had to spend Saturday night playing air hockey at my place?”

The teasing was the kind that went on between men who knew each other to the bone. In this case, probably literally from birth. Amanda looked on with an indulgent smile.

He tried to ignore a stab of pure envy. The Bodines didn’t know how lucky they were. Probably didn’t even realize some people didn’t have that kind of family bond.

Would that bond be enough to hold them together if Brett Bodine ended up convicted of extorting bribes? That was an ugly thought, and he didn’t have a clue as to the answer.

“Your crew is getting away from you,” Amanda pointed out, nodding to the group Win had been jogging with. “You two can save your macho teasing for another time.”

Win laughed. “And I’ve got just the time. Miz Callie called, and she’s fixing to cook up a ton of steamed shrimp and some pecan pie tomorrow night. She said to pass it along to you if I saw you. You, too, Ross. She’ll give you a call herself, but don’t you disappoint her, now.”

He waved, breaking into a run toward his group, who jogged in place waiting for him, yelling out a few gratuitous insults as they did.

“Sounds like some good eating,” Adam said. “You’re coming, aren’t you, Ross?”

He should make some excuse. He shouldn’t socialize with people who were going to be slammed if the story broke the way he thought it was going to. But Amanda was looking at him with obvious pleasure at the prospect, and he discovered he loved seeing that look in her eyes.

He shouldn’t, but he was going to, and he’d just have to deal with the consequences.

“Sounds good,” he said. “I’ll be there if I can.”

Adam gave a quick nod. “Okay. So, what do you want to see first?”

“You know perfectly well where you want to start,” Amanda said. “Go ahead, show us the cutters and patrol boats.”

“Well, since you insist.”

Ross followed the two of them, letting the easy banter between the cousins flow over him.

When they reached the docks, Adam stopped at a businesslike white-and-orange boat with an enclosed cabin. “Here she is. My patrol boat—home away from home.”

“Your first love,” Amanda teased.

“Maybe that, too.”

Amanda turned at a hail from farther along the dock, obviously seeing someone she knew, and scurried off to talk to two young men in Coast Guard blue.

“Is there anyplace in Charleston where Amanda doesn’t have friends?”

“Nope. That’s our Amanda.” Adam’s open face filled with affection as he watched his cousin. “She’s always been everyone’s friend and confidante. There are times when I wish she wasn’t quite so trusting.”

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