Home > Thick as Thieves(8)

Thick as Thieves(8)
Author: Sandra Brown

“No. We don’t.”

“How come you think she came back here? Why now?”

“I have no idea.”

“Just seems peculiar,” Rusty said. “In this great big free country of ours, wouldn’t you say it’s odd she picked here to nest?”

“She wanted her kid to grow up in the same house she did. What’s peculiar about that?”

“Nothing. Except that she’s no longer having a kid. So why’s she sticking around?”

“I guess she likes it here.”

“Guess she does. She’s planning on fixing up the place.”

Despite his determination not to react, Ledge’s heart rate hitched. “How do you know?”

“She’s been calling around. Getting estimates.” Rusty winked. “I’ve been keeping tabs on her goings-on.”

The thought of Rusty keeping tabs on Arden Maxwell chilled Ledge to the bone. This afternoon, she’d stood her ground with him when he was being his most contrary self. She was no pushover. But he knew Rusty’s character. Or rather, his lack of it. He knew the treachery Rusty was capable of.

“Twenty years ago, she was still in grade school,” Ledge said. “If you’re thinking she knew anything about where her daddy got off to with that money, you’re wrong.”

“Am I?” Rusty leaned in again. “Think on this. The woman hasn’t held a job since she left Houston—six, seven months ago—and moved here. She’s got no visible means of support, but she’s going to renovate that big ol’ house, which will take some serious coin. Makes me wonder where she’s getting the financing.”

“Her sister.”

“Could be. She married up. Way up. Big shot in Dallas. Then he croaked a couple years ago, leaving her not only his fortune but the reins to his company. Which is why I can’t see her funding a reconnection to our little burg over here in the sticks.”

In order to try to dismantle Rusty’s interest in Arden and her unexpected return to town, Ledge groped his mind for other explanations. “Maybe Arden did so well at her former job, she doesn’t need to work. Not for a while, at least.”

Rusty shook his head. “Not likely. She sold fancy clothes at the Neiman Marcus in the Galleria. Top-dollar goods, but she worked on commission only. She didn’t cash out as the retiring CEO.”

“Generous alimony.”

“She’s never been married.”

“You know that as fact?”

“Hell, yes. I checked.”

Arden had deliberately dodged his probing about the identity and whereabouts of her baby’s father. Admittedly, he was curious, but, for Rusty’s benefit, he feigned indifference. “Then she’s got a well-heeled boyfriend.”

“There hasn’t been a man around since she got here.”

“You’ve been watching?” Ledge asked, maintaining his casual tone.

Rusty didn’t admit to that but thoughtfully scratched his cheek. “Maybe he dumped her when he found out about the kid. He paid her off, wished her luck, then sent her on her way to have the baby alone.”

“Or maybe he was a loser, and she dumped him.”

“Maybe. But that brings us back to her unknown source of income.” Rusty leered, whispering, “Take a wild guess.”

“I’ll leave the wild guessing to you.”

“Okay, how’s this? Daddy’s had it stockpiled all these years, and has just now divvied it up.”

“If that were so,” Ledge said, “she could do better than to move back here.”

“Money doesn’t stretch as far as it used to.” Rusty shook an ice cube from the glass and into his mouth. Crunching it, he said, “I intend to keep a close eye on Miss Arden Maxwell and her spending habits.” He playfully socked Ledge’s arm. “Same as I’ve kept a close watch on you, buddy.”

Although Ledge wanted to deck him for touching him, he did nothing except fix a hard stare on him. “And same as I have on you. Buddy.”

Across the short distance separating them, the two adversaries glared at each other and, in that moment, came to a meeting of the minds: The gloves were coming off. For all these years, the two of them had waged a silent war. As of now, it had been officially declared.

Don, seeming to sense the volatility of the moment, ambled over and asked Rusty if he wanted a refill.

“No thanks.” Without breaking eye contact with Ledge, Rusty pushed himself off the stool. “Like I said, I just dropped in to see what Ledge has been up to.” Then he flashed his crocodile grin and ambled out.

He was clear of the exit and the door had closed behind him before Don released his held breath. “You two look at each other, and smoke comes out of all four ears. Are you ever going to tell me the origin of this longstanding animosity?”

“No. But you didn’t have to keep fingering that sawed-off shotgun under the bar.”

Smiling wryly, Don said, “How’d you know?”

“I know.”

“I probably wouldn’t ever use it,” Don said, “but looking at that bastard’s back just now, it did cross my mind what a prime target it would make, and I don’t think many in the county would mourn the passing of our illustrious DA.”

Ledge continued to stare at the door through which District Attorney Rusty Dyle had exited. “One of these days I’ll probably have to kill him.” Then turning to Don, he added, “But when I do, I’ll be looking him in the eye.”

Chapter 5

Fresh from the shower, Arden had just finished dressing when someone knocked on her front door. Looking out the window of her temporary bedroom, she was astonished to see the enormous black pickup in her driveway.

She considered not going to the door, but he would know that she was at home because her car was there. Besides, avoidance would make her look cowardly. She pushed her feet into a pair of flats. On her way out of the room, she gave herself a quick check in the mirror above the dresser and resented herself for caring about her appearance even to that extent. Her hair hadn’t completely dried, and because she hadn’t slept well, she looked peaked. But there was nothing to be done about it now.

As silently as possible, she approached the front door, peered through the small diamond-shaped window in its center, and was startled to be met by her own reflection looking back at her from the dark lenses of his sunglasses. He was looking straight into the window as though he’d been waiting for her face to appear.

Coolly, and with a dash of spite, she repeated the question he’d asked her yesterday. “What can I do for you?”

“Let’s talk about your overhaul.”

“You said discussing it would be a waste of time.”

He pulled off the sunglasses. “I’ve rethought that.”

She stepped away from the window and out of the view of those piercing eyes. She extended his wait overlong before flipping the lock.

When she opened the door, his head was tilted back. He was looking at the eaves and lightly tapping the sunglasses against his thigh. “You’ve got wood rot.”

“That much I could have told you.”

“Your doorbell doesn’t work.”

“Again. I already know that.”

He lowered his head and looked at her; she looked back, hoping that her stare was as steady and held as much challenge as his. Neither moved or said anything, and she was beginning to think that this standoff would continue indefinitely when he folded the stems of his glasses and slid them into the breast pocket of his plain white oxford-cloth shirt.

“I’ve reconsidered taking the job.”

“What changed your mind?”

“My bank statement. I balanced my checking account this morning.”

She didn’t know if he was joking, or trying to be charming, or if he was telling the bald truth. His expression gave away no clues.

With indecision, she caught the inside of her lower lip between her teeth. Her sleepless night had been the result of worrying over what her next step should be, since his flat refusal yesterday had left her with no remaining prospects. None that she could afford. He had made this conciliatory move, and that counted for something. Each still had the option of saying no thanks to the other.

Hoping that she wouldn’t live to regret it, she opened the door wider and motioned him in.

The empty living area seemed to shrink the instant he stepped inside. His cuffs had been rolled back almost to his elbows. His shirttail was tucked into a pair of jeans, which, like yesterday’s, had been softened and faded from many washings. They were worn with a belt of tooled brown leather. The antiqued brass buckle had a military insignia. But he no longer had a military haircut. In back, his dark hair was long enough to brush against his collar.

Boot heels thumping on the hardwood floor, he advanced into the room and took a slow look around. “You play the piano?”

She had anticipated a comment, not a question, and it took her off guard. “No. Well, a little. I was taking lessons when—”

At her abrupt stop, he turned his head and looked at her expectantly.

Amending what she’d been about to say, she said, “I gave up music lessons when my sister and I moved away.”

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