Home > Thick as Thieves(14)

Thick as Thieves(14)
Author: Sandra Brown

“A Mad Max movie.”

He chuckled. “That’s the owner’s nephew. Without all the gear, he looks only a little ferocious. In fact, ladies of all ages pine after him.”

Arden took a sip of wine. “What does his wife think of that?”

“He’s never married. Soldiered for a long time, then when he got home, there were other things to see to. Top off that glass?”

“No, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Let me know when you need another.” He excused himself to attend two men in angler hats who’d just come in. He called them by name and asked if they’d had any luck on the lake.

Well, she’d had one of Lisa’s questions about Ledge answered. Although Lisa had probably learned Ledge Burnet’s marital status before she had.

“Excuse me?”

Arden turned. One of the ladies from the bachelorette party was standing behind her, smiling tentatively. “Ms. Maxwell? I thought it was you.”

Arden regarded her for several moments before recognition dawned. Gray hair. A blue-and-white-striped shirt. Pleasant face and kind eyes. “You’re the lady who helped me in the store.”

“I wasn’t sure you would remember me.” She smiled and stuck out her hand. “Lois Miller.”

Arden shook her hand, then clasped it between hers. “I remember how extremely kind you were that day.”

“I didn’t learn who you were until after.” She paused as though about to say more before thinking better of it. Arden was relieved she didn’t bring up her family or her return to Penton.

“I’m glad you came over and introduced yourself, Mrs. Miller. I’ve regretted not knowing how to contact you so I could thank you.”

“I was so sorry to hear about your baby. I wish there was something I could have done to—”

“There was nothing to be done. It couldn’t have been prevented. Your presence of mind and kindness were very helpful.”

“Oh, I didn’t do anything. Not like that young woman who calmed you down with deep breathing.”

“She was dressed in yoga clothes. I would like to thank her, too. Do you know who she is?”

“No. I’m sorry, I don’t.” She looked remorseful, then her face brightened, and she motioned to the picture on the back bar. “Ledge was the only person there I recognized.”

Arden’s insides went into a free fall. Stunned, she divided a look between the photograph and the well-meaning woman’s smiling face. “Ledge?” said huskily.

“Ledge Burnet. The soldier in the picture. This is his uncle Henry’s place.”

“Yes. The bar…bartender told me who he is.” She swallowed dryly. “He was in the store that day? Are you sure?”

The older woman gave Arden an odd look. “Well, yes, honey. I can’t claim to be closely acquainted with Ledge, but he’s hard to mistake. And he was right there the whole time. It was him holding you till the paramedics arrived.”

He was there? Holding her?

“I thought for sure you would remember him.”

Absently, Arden shook her head. “No.” Holding her?

“Well, with what you were going through, that’s understandable.” She reflected a moment. “He was ready to throttle a man who took your picture on his cell phone. After they wheeled you out, Ledge bore down on him, dropped a few f-bombs, and threatened to stuff his phone where the sun don’t shine. He hung around, too, with several of us, waiting till we got word. Again, I’m very sorry.”

“Thank you.”

A fresh round of laughter erupted from the party table. Lois Miller looked over her shoulder in that direction, then said to Arden, “We’re telling naughty jokes. That one must’ve been a doozy.”

Arden worked at holding her smile steady. “You had better rejoin the party before you miss another one.”

She patted Arden’s shoulder. “I’m glad we got to chat. And really glad to see you looking so well.” She glanced at the picture. “If you come out here often enough, you’re bound to run into Ledge. You’ll have a chance to thank him, too.”

Chapter 8

Rusty rolled off his wife and flopped onto his back. She took a lot more effort than she was worth. After giving himself a couple of minutes to regain his breath, he swung his feet to the floor and bent down to retrieve his discarded trousers and undershorts, then got up and started for the bathroom.

From her side of the bed, she asked, “You’re getting up?”

“Go back to sleep.”

“I was hardly asleep.”

“Could’ve fooled me.” He shut the bathroom door.

Judy called something through it, but he caught only the bitterness behind the words, not the words themselves, and they didn’t matter anyway. He took a shower just long enough to wash off his sweat, then dried hastily and went back into the bedroom.

Judy had turned onto her side, her back to him, the sheet pulled up over her shoulders. He took a pair of track shorts and a t-shirt from his chest of drawers and put them on, then headed for the door.

From the depths of her pillow, Judy mumbled, “Joey has a playoff game tomorrow at four-thirty.”

Joey was their oldest. He was a freshman in high school and already hoping for a college baseball scholarship. Rusty was hoping he would get one, too. Joey’s sister and little brother were close behind him in age. Having to funnel money into three institutes of higher learning at the same time made Rusty want to drive his fist through the wall.

He said, “I’ll make it if I can.”

Judy flopped onto her back and came up on her elbows. “If his team wins that game, they’ll play for the championship.”

“I’ll be there if I can.”

“Asshole.”

“Love you, too, sweetie.”

“I know what you do in your man cave.”

“You don’t know shit and never have.”

“You lurk on porn websites. It’s pathetic.”

“Take a look in the mirror, see how your tits have gone south and your ass has spread. That’s pathetic.”

“While you’ve got your hand in your pants and dreaming about Crystal Ivers, think about what she’s doing to Ledge Burnet.” She licked her lips.

He slammed out of the room, her disparaging laughter trailing him.

Judy had been a freshman looker when she was introduced to him at a fraternity party at Stephen F. Austin. When he learned that her family owned a fleet of logging trucks that did a thriving business in timber-rich East Texas, he regarded her not only as a pretty and sought-after coed, he saw dollar signs.

He moved quickly to secure her and her family’s affluence. They got engaged over Christmas break. By the time he’d graduated in the spring, he had wooed her into dropping out of college and marrying him. He’d told her she didn’t need a college education to be Mrs. Rusty Dyle. Dumb her thought he was joking. Down the overly decorated aisle of First Methodist they had marched. Joey was born before their first anniversary.

Determined not to let her taunts ruin the remainder of the night for him, he made his way down the darkened upstairs hallway. No lights shone beneath their kids’ closed doors. He went downstairs, and, out of habit, checked to see that the alarm was set, although he set it religiously.

He’d had the elaborate security system installed after a prosecutor in a neighboring county had been gunned down by a disgruntled ex-con recently released. Broad daylight. Middle of the street. In cold blood.

Rusty’s daddy always told him that if he played the game right, he would be the Big Dick that everyone was afraid of and that nobody would dare to cross. He hoped his legion of enemies had gotten that memo.

He went into his study, the room Judy had dubbed his man cave. He locked the door behind him, poured himself a neat vodka, booted up his computer, and settled into his soft leather chair to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.

But Judy’s ridicule had soured him on it tonight.

On his way home from work, he’d driven the route that took him past Crystal’s place. She owned two corner lots in the center of town that backed up to each other. Crystal’s Hair and Nail Salon faced the commercial street, her house faced the residential one.

She ran a successful business, having made more of herself than one would expect from a woman with such a mucky background. Judy was one of the few women in town who wasn’t a loyal customer of the salon. His wife wouldn’t wipe dog shit off her shoes on the doormat of the place.

Other women, though, flocked to it, none seeming to remember or care about the rumors that had circled Crystal like turkey buzzards when she was younger. The hell of it was that Crystal seemed to care the least of anybody about those rumors. Over time, she had developed an elegance and poise that Rusty resented. Her newfound confidence, in combination with the provocative allure she’d always had, only made her more desirable…and unattainable.

Burnet never had been bothered by the gossip about her.

Her salon was closed when Rusty had driven past tonight, so he’d turned the corner to the front of her house. Through the window blinds, he had detected the flicker of a television. There had been two cars in the driveway, Crystal’s and Marty’s.

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