Eileen Moggeridge slammed the door of her van and locked it, keeping her right hand on the gun she carried in a jacket pocket.
Tonight she had met with someone she thought she would never see again. He had stood in this parking lot, nodding toward Poke Around, her gift shop, with a smile on his face. “I’m happy for you, Eileen. I only ever wanted the best for youand Aaron.” And the smile was sad, his expression guilty, apologetic, humble.
As far as she could remember, he’d never regretted a thing he did and she didn’t believe he’d changed.
He wanted something, and it wasn’t an opportunity to take back responsibility for the family that was no longer his.
Chuck Moggeridge had left her, and Pointe Judah, almost two years ago. There had been talk about another woman but Eileen had not known who that was, didn’t want to know, didn’t care. Chuck had beaten her one time too many and she still hated herself for not getting rid of him a lot sooner. In the end, her so-called husband had barely beaten Eileen to a divorce lawyer.
Now he was back.
He had called from his car in the parking lot, asked her to talk to him, “Tell me about Aaron. Just for a couple of minutes. He’s my son as well as yours.”
His car had been parked only slots away from hers in the Oakdale Mansion Center lot, but Chuck didn’t know what she drove anymore. Or he hadn’t, but did now. Eileen had walked to her van and seen him hurry toward her. She got quickly behind the wheel, locked the doors and opened her window a crack.
For too long they had looked at each other.
Strange how two people who had made a life together, made a child together, could become strangers.
He didn’t ask to get into the van with her, or for her to go somewhere with him. At least he knew better than thattonight. Eileen didn’t trust him not to push for more, not when his parting words had been, “I know my responsibilities. You should have let me know he was in rehab. Aaron’s had a rough time and he needs his father. It’s good to be back so I can make things right.”
Lies. Mostly lies.
How had Chuck found out about Aaron’s problems with alcohol? They weren’t an issue anymore. Aaron had gone through rehabquietlyalthough she didn’t fool herself that no-one knew and he was just fine. When he had needed Chuck, the man hadn’t been around and now she wanted things to stay the way they were.
She had met Angel DeAngelohis first name was really, Christianthrough his nephew Sonny, and Aaron, and he had stepped up to give masculine support when needed. Eileen liked hima lot. Sonny wasn’t nearly as high on her list. Surly and silent around her, he was an Aaron-rescue. Aaron had a history of championing misfits and he had let her know it was he who encouraged the friendship between two guys the other kids avoided.
She held the gun so tight her fingers ached.
The thought of being afraid of Chuck might not be new, but she hadn’t worried about it since he made a complete break. His timing for coming back couldn’t be worse. She raised her face, grateful for the fine moisture on her skin.
If she didn’t get back inside the shop, Angel would arrive before her and ask where she’d been. She wasn’t ready to tell him.
They had moved slowly together, each of them scalded by past experience, but Eileen wanted them to have a chance at something more, and she thought he did, tooif he could ever stop thinking of her as his good buddy. Most afternoons, around closing time, he stopped by for coffee but their conversations mostly revolved around Aaron and Sonny.
Damn Chuck for showing up now. He shouldn’t scare her, but he did.
The rain had eased off but the evening remained damp, the air heavy. Eileen hurried away from her van toward the lighted windows of Poke Around. The shop was in what had once been the conservatory at the beautiful old Oakdale Mansion and she had strung white icicle lights around the roof and outlined the windows with twinkling multi-colored strands.
Chuck’s call came only moments after Eileen’s employee, Suky-Jo, had left. They had been stock-takingnot so easy when the shop was crammed with Holiday merchandise. All but low lights were off in the patisserie and the new salon that flanked her place. Old friends ran the salon and Eileen had an investment in that, too.
The business was hers; at last.
Eileen could not get over the excitement she felt whenever she looked at the shop. Her shop. She had come a long way from being Chuck’s mostly ignored wife, the woman who belonged at home, who mustn’t ask for anything, so got nothing.
Angel’s offices were also in the Oakdale Mansion Center. He was Operations Manager for a construction firm and worked late. Then he liked to walk over and pick her up. Within the hour he’d be at the shop door. She wanted to see him. In the months since they had started their tentative relationship, her need to be with him grew daily.
They circled each other and knew that’s what they were doing. Eileen wondered how much longer Angel would be satisfied with being her close friend. She couldn’t face the question tonight.
Her cell phone rang in her purse and when she looked at the readout she saw Angel’s number.
“Hi,” she said, smiling to herself.
“Where are you?”
Eileen frowned and slowed her pace. “Where I almost always am.”
He took his time to respond. “And that is?”
“You’re not interrogating a suspect in your former life.” He admitted to several years’ service as an ATF (alcohol, tobacco and firearms) agent but wouldn’t discuss what he’d done before that. “I’m at the shop,” she said. Or she soon would be.
“No you’re not. What’s going on?”
Eileen’s scalp prickled. She felt colder than she should on a humid night. He’d never spoken to her sharply like that. He had no right to. Feet from the sidewalk, she stopped and stared at the shop. Angel stood inside the door, staring out, his face set, hard and cold, the way she’d seen it several times before, but never when he was speaking to her.
He had his own key.
In a way, since Aaron and Sonny met, they had almost become a familywith some notable things missing.
His tone turned her stomach. It also made her angry. “What do you think is going on, Christian?” She winced. Her habit of calling him Christian when she was either really happy or really unhappy with him, gave her away every time.
He kept the phone at his ear but didn’t say anything. So far he didn’t know she was only yards away and staring at him.
Angel was one of those men who took up a lot of space, When he walked into a room, there was a subtle change in the atmosphere. People looked at him, and conversation faded. It happened, that was all, and if he didn’t feel watched, he ought to.
Eileen crossed her arms. The open line between them unnerved her. She tapped a hand at her throat. When she and Angel had met, she and Matt Boudreaux, the local Police Chief, had seemed to be moving toward a serious relationship. But Matt had been taking his sweet time, often treating her as if they’d been married for years and she shouldn’t mind a broken date, and another, and another. Eileen’s patience ran out. She would always love Matt in a certain way, but Angel’s attention had eventually distracted her.
Sometimes she thought Angel didn’t trust that it was over between her and Matt. He’d never made a romantic move but he did give the impression that she was his property.
Suddenly, Angel slipped his phone into the breast pocket of his dark blue shirt and stood with his big arms spread. He gripped the door frame on either side. Those arms and shoulders weren’t just big, they were massive. She thought about his arms, and the way they movedtoo often. Just touching him messed with her mind.
Eileen put her own phone away. She had about thirty seconds to see his face, his usually cool gray eyes, before she approached the door and he saw her.
She paused again. Cool didn’t have anything to do with his face now. Emotions, none of them anything Eileen wanted to explore, passed over his features. She could see a white line around his compressed lips. Below his rolled up sleeves, the muscles and tendons in his arms stood out. He squeezed the door frame.
That’s enough. Where does he think I am? Or maybe that should be, who does he think I’m with? She hated the thought because playing the field wasn’t her style.
She arrived in front of him and they stared, eye-to eye, through the glass. He wore his dark blond hair short and at the moment it stuck up as if he’d pushed at it. He had thicker, darker eyelashes than a man should have and he lowered them to half-mast so he could fix his gaze on her face.
Before she could find her keys, he swept open the door and stood back.
Eileen walked inside and he locked up behind her.
“You’re early,” she said.
“So you thought you had more time to get back before I found out you’d left?
“Hey, buddy.” She walked to the back of the store where a soft red velvet couch stood, and threw down her purse. “You’re out of line. I’m not having a wonderful evening and I don’t need you to make it worse. I had to step out and deal with something. That’s all, and I don’t have to explain every move I make to you. Can I get you an espresso, or a glass of wineor a beer?”
She turned toward him and found that in his naturally uncanny manner, he’d closed the space between them soundlessly. Although she was a tall woman, she was forced to look up at him.
“A woman doesn’t belong out there alone, in the dark,” he told her. When he narrowed his gray eyes they became almost black. “It probably used to be that folks didn’t have to lock their doors around here, or worry about crime. Times have changed.”
“I walked to my van. Then I walked back from my van when I’d finished my business. Really, I do appreciate your concern.” She tried a smile but his expression didn’t change. “As I said, thanks, but I’m a big girl.”
“That depends on what you mean by, big girl.”
There would be no discussion about what he thought it meant.
Angel rubbed his face. “I tried to check on Sonny but his cell’s off. You know it bothers me when he does that.”
She sympathized with his worry about his nephew. Sonny had come to Pointe Judah because he needed a strong hand if he wasn’t going to end up in jail. “He and Aaron were out riding bikes,” she said. “You know how that goes. They always go farther then they say they will.”
“That’s fine for Aaron,” Angel said. “Sonny’s got limits. He’s got to be where I can reach him at all times.”
“He’s a good kid. You’re too hard on him.” Sonny needed a firm hand but there was something under the tough facade that made her want to gather him in and make him feel cared about. She took out her phone again and placed a call.
Angel moved closer, so close she could feel him. “You calling Aaron?”
She nodded. Pick up the phone, Aaron.
“So Aaron’s gone dark, too?”
“Don’t put it like that,” Eileen said. “They’ll check in just as soon as they’re close to home. You’ve got them scared stiff.”
He tapped his chest with spread fingertips. “Me? Crap, I’m a pussycat. I care, is all.”
She believed the last bit but he was no pussycat. “Sonny’s likely to stop by my place before he goes home. He likes the food. I’ll make sure he gets back in one piece.”
The following silence unnerved Eileen. She took a deep breath and put the phone away again.
“Eileen,” Angel said, his voice softening, a little raspy. “I’m sorry I came on too strong. I was worried.”
She avoided looking at him. “Forget it.”
“I will when you do. You’re mad.”
“No. Edgy is all.”
He put a hand beneath her hair and held the back of her neck. “You said you weren’t worried.”
Eileen held quite still. Her scalp tightened and she felt as if a subtle breeze lifted her hair. They might be trying to pretend they had no physical effect on each other, but it was a lie.
If she told Angel about Chuck, how would he react? He’d never understand that she couldn’t just brush it off. “I’m not worried,” she told Angel. He rubbed her neck and she shivered. When she glanced at him, he was frowning.
“Is there anything you’re not telling me?” he said.
She looked at the floor.
“Leave it. When I can talk about it, I will.”
He took her by the hand and led her into the stockroom. Once there, he turned her to face him and held her shoulders. “Not good enough. “What is it?”
She kept her gaze on his chest.
“C’mon,” he said quietly. “Don’t do this to me.” He kissed her cheek, pushed her hair away from her left ear and stroked his thumb across it.
“Stop it,” Eileen said, without conviction. He had bad timing, choosing tonight to make moves on her.
“I’d rather not stop.” He pulled her against him. “I’ve already waited too long.”
“Christian, don’t.” He was a big man. If he decided to hold you, you were held.
“SorryI think we both need a little warmth sometimes.” He stepped back at once, but still held her arms and made it uncomfortable to look at him. It would be more uncomfortable to look away. “You’ve got a gun in your pocket,” he said.
She felt her face heat up. “Yes, I have.”
“I didn’t know you owned one.”
“You’re the one who’s always saying that people in quiet places like Pointe Judah should take precautions.”
His fingers tightened on her arms. “Do you carry all the time?”
This was the problem when you hung around with a man who had interrogated people for a living. “No.”
“You keep a gun in the shop?”
She tried to wrench away but he didn’t let her go. “Yes. Are we done now?”
“And tonight you decided you needed to be armed when you went out to do this business in your van you talk about?”
Eileen looked him in the eye. She felt the prickle of tears and blinked several times. “This conversation is over.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Leave it, okay? Just leave it.” Chuck had driven away. What if he’d come back and was skulking around outside, hoping she’d leave on her own?
“I’m sorry I’m so snappy,” she said.
“Me, too.” He looked at her mouth. “Do you want me to leave?”
She shook her head. He was sending her messages he’d kept under wraps before. Or perhaps she subconsciously wanted that to be true.
“You sure you don’t want to tell me what’s on your mind?” he said.
She wasn’t sure, but she’d wait anyway.
“Eileen, would this be a bad time to talk about us, too?”
He’d done a great job of behaving like Aaron’s strong, benevolent uncle and her friend. And he’d done the things a woman wished for when she wanted to know a man without getting in too deep.
He dropped his hands.
“No it’s not a bad time,” she told him, lying. She laughed a little. “We are so grown-up about things. I’m proud of us. We should get a prize for being reasonable.” And if she concentrated on something else, she wouldn’t keep trying to figure out what Chuck might or might not plan to do.
“As soon as we’re sure the boys are at your place, why don’t we go to The Boardroom for a drink,” Angel said. “And something to eat. The music’s good. We might even dance.”
“Dance? You told me you can’t dance.” Going to a club didn’t appeal to much but she said, “Yes. Looks like Delia and Sarah Board have a success on their hands with that place.” He was asking her out on a date. They’d had meals together before, in places like Ona’s, but there had never been any planned dates.
Located in the middle of Pointe Judah, The Boardroom had been open just a few months. It revved up when the town revved down and there was nothing else like it around.
Delia owned a cosmetics firm with offices and labs around the country but liked living in Point Judah. Her daughter, Sarah, was a chemist at the local labs and the club had been her idea.
Eileen hitched her bag over her shoulder and turned out the lights in the stockroom. “I’ve got extra help coming in tomorrow and I need it. It’s easy enough to get part-time people but I need someone full-time.”
“You’re working too hard,” Angel said. “Why don’t you put the gun in your purse if you’re going to keep on carrying the thing. It could fall out of your pocket.”
She did as he suggested without comment.
“Give me a couple more minutes,” Angel said. “If you don’t want to say anything, at least listen.”
In the darkness, piles of boxes loomed all around and unpacked merchandise was piled high on tables. Much of the stuff on the tables sparkled, even in the gloom. Eileen glanced at the high windows but all she saw was rain speckles heavy enough to make the glass look pebbled in the glow of the icicle lights at the roofline.
“Okay. Sorry I got distracted.”
“Something’s wrong, something you’re not telling me.”
When he nailed her like this she felt trapped. “And I told you I’ll talk about it when I can.”
“What’s changed?” he said, ever persistent. “If there’s something to be worried about I need to know what it is or I can’t help.”
“There’s nothing to worry about.” Yet. And probably wouldn’t be. “Angel, has Sonny done jail time?”
A silence followed and went on so long she wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
“No, he hasn’t,” Angel said, opening the door again. “What made you think he had?”
“Oh, forget I said anything. He’s a lot more mature than Aaron and sometimes I worry there could be things Aaron doesn’t need to know yet, that’s all.”
Angel propped himself in the doorway. Behind him, colored lighted blinked on and off on display trees in the shop. “How did you make the leap from Sonny being mature to his having done jail time?” Angel asked.
She felt ashamed, and judgmental. “He was sent to you for some reason. You told me he needed extra discipline.”
“I said he needed a man’s hand, a man’s guidance. He doesn’t have a father.”
Like Aaron didn’t have a father, or hadn’t. And Eileen wanted Chuck out of town again, now.
“Look,” Angel said. “I don’t want to say this but I’ve got to. You give me the impression you think Sonny’s no good for Aaron. You’ve pegged Sonny as a bad boy.”
“No!” Was she that transparent? “Aaron got in his own trouble. He’s not perfect.” She hadn’t told him how silently belligerent Sonny often was with her.
“But Aaron was just acting out and he did it quietly. You told me that and I believe you. He got muddled up after his father left. Finn told me all about it. He tried to fill in but Aaron got the idea it was his fault his dad ducked out.”
Finn Duhon was Eileen’s brother. His wife, Emma, used to own Poke Around but sold it to Eileen when she came into money from the sale of the Duhon family home. Finn had insisted she take all the proceeds because he didn’t need them. That money had changed Eileen’s life. Finn also owned the construction company Angel worked for.
“Say something,” Angel said.
She thought she saw movement outside the front windows of the shop. Her heart missed a beat, and another, then pounded rapidly. She was getting too jumpy. “Leave it, I said,” she told him, hearing her voice rise. “I can’t do this now. You’re pulling me apart like you’re suspicious of everything I say. Let me be.”
“No. I’d better go home on my own. I’m not good company.”
“I’m coming with you.” He reached for her but she tried to evade him. Angel caught her as she backed into a file cabinet.. “Hold it,” he said quietly.
She began to shake and she had to stop it. Some things had to be dealt with on her own. “I’m fine,” she told him. “I’m just overworked and kind of worried.”
“You’re not fine,” he said. He pulled her against him. For an instant she resisted, but then he felt her soften and lean into him. “You’re making too many excuses and you’re trembling. If I’m not scaring you to death, something else is. Now tell me because I won’t quit asking until you do.”
She wanted to close her eyes, breath him in, hold on tight. How many times had she dreamed about this moment? Now she couldn’t relax and enjoy it.
The phone in his pocket rang and he switched it off.
“That could be Sonny,” she said.
“We’re going back to your place now. I’ll deal with him when I get there. Hold my hand. You’re important to me, let me be here for you.” He held her hand and led her into the shop.
Nobody had ever told her such things, and he said them without pushing for anything more intimate?
Hammering on the front door made her jump so hard her teeth ground together.
“It’s okay,” Angel said, but he shoved her behind him and a gun appeared in his hand. “Hell, will you look at this?”
He holstered his weapon and strode to open the door.
Sonny just about fell inside. Drenched, covered with mud and, unmistakably, smeared with blood, he staggered and Angel stopped him from tripping.
“What’s the matter?” Angel said.
Eileen rushed to him. “Where’s Aaron?”
“I gotta get back,” Sonny said, dragging in breaths, not looking at Eileen. “You gotta come with me, Angel.” He looked into Angel’s face, a hard stare as if he was sending a silent message.
“Where’s Aaron?” Eileen felt herself losing it. “Sonny”
“Hush,” Angel said, but his face wasn’t expressionless now.
“It’s all my fault,” Sonny said. “I shouldn’t have been . . . I went where I shouldn’t have, and talked to the wrong people. They kind of dared me. I got Aaron and me into trouble. It’s bad.” His big, dark eyes stretched wide and she could feel his fear. “Angel, do you think someone”
“Let’s go,” Angel said.
“Tell me where Aaron is?” Eileen begged.
“Oh, God,” Sonny moaned, hanging his head. “He’s in the swamp. North of town. I know how to get back. Chuzah made sure. I hope he made sure. He sent me in hisercar.”
“Stop it,” Angel said. “Calm down, both of you. Chuzah is?”
Sonny looked as if he could cry. “Um, a doctor.”
“Oh, thank God,” Eileen said.
“In the swamp?” Angel said. “This doctor just happened by, huh?”
“He lives there.”
“Aaron hurt himself?” Eileen said.
“No, someone else . . .” Sonny swallowed. “He got hurt.”
“But there’s a doctor there. A general practitioner?”
Angel pushed them both through the door and locked it behind him. “Eileen, we’ll have to take your van. My truck’s at home.”
“I’ve got to drive Chuzah’s vehicle back,” Sonny said. “I’m afraid he’d do something awful to me if I didn’t get his car back. I know the way. Follow me.”
Angel grabbed Sonny’s arm and spun him around. “What do you mean, something awful?”
“Oh,” Sonny said. “He’s a root doctor.”
Eileen felt faint. She held Angel’s sleeve. “We need a real doctor. I’ll get on to Mitch Halpern. And let’s call Matt”
“No,” Sonny said. “Chuzah knows about other medical stuff. If we show up with some new guy he doesn’t expect, he won’t let us find him.”
“You said you knew the way,” Angel said.
Sonny scrubbed at his oiled scalp. “Do what I’m tellin’ you. Please. I know how to get to where there’ll be someone waiting to guide us in.”
To the right, at the curb, was a dark green vintage Morgan sports car. Again, all Eileen could do was stare.
“This root doctor threatened you,” Angel said.
“Well . . . he was nice about it.”
“I’m calling Matt now,” Eileen said. “Some voodoo practitioner has kidnapped my son.”
“Anything could happen if you call the law,” Sonny said, with his familiar hard stare. The street-wise kid from Brooklyn was back. “I know Aaron’s okay with Chuzah. He helped us.”
“That isn’t his Morgan, is it?” Angel said.
“Uh, huh. He’s really weird.”
“And you left Aaron alone with him?” Eileen said.
Sonny broke away and hurried toward the driver’s door on the Morgan. “He saved Aaron’s life,” he said and climbed in, slamming and locking the door behind him.