One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace bikini underpants. They weren’t hers.
Up until then it had been a fairly decent day. The microwave had snapped and died when she’d tried to heat a muffin for Em’s breakfast, but the sun had been shining on their blue frame house, and the temperature hadn’t hit ninety before noon, and Em had been absorbed in planning her school shopping, and contentment had reigned. Even Brent, muttering about what a mess his car was, had cheered up when Maddie volunteered to clean it, something she’d done more from a sense of guilt than a sense of obligation. It seemed fair that she should clean the car since she had summers off from work and he didn’t, and she’d been bending over backward to be fair lately because it was so tempting not to be fair. “I don’t even like you,” she wanted to say. “Why would I clean your car?” But Brent was a good husband by default: he didn’t yell, drink his paycheck, hit her, or do most of the other things the country music she loved complained about. He was doing his part, the least she could do was play hers. “Em and I will clean your car this afternoon,” she’d said when he’d hugged Em good-bye and was on his way to the door. “Call Howie and have him pick you up on his way out to the company.” And Brent had been so surprised, he’d kissed her on the cheek.
Em had done her usual eight-year-old eye roll behind her glasses when she’d heard the good news. But then she’d gotten a calculating look in her eye and become the Angel Daughter, trooping out to Brent’s gleaming Caddy after lunch with no protest. Something was up, and Maddie waited for the other shoe to drop while she cleaned the trash out of her husband’s front seat and sang along with Roseanne Cash on the tape deck.
Em hauled enough junk from the back seat to fill a cardboard box. “I’m taking this stuff inside and putting it away right now,” she announced, her thin arms wrapped around the box, and then she escaped into the bright yellow air-conditioned kitchen while Maddie waved her on from the floor of the front seat.
Maddie reached under the seat and grabbed an Egg McMuffin wrapper as Roseanne sang “Blue Moon with Heartache.” Good song, nice day. A screen door wheezed to her right, and she craned her neck to see their next door neighbor, Mrs. Crosby, shuffle out onto her immaculate little white porch and lean into her immaculate little marigold-edged yard to squint in the direction of Brent’s Caddy which should not have been in the driveway because it was a workday.
Mrs. Crosby was festive today, topping the red leggings that hung on her skinny little thighs with a hot orange T-shirt that said “World’s Greatest Grandma,” cotton proof that hypocrisy began young in Frog Point, Ohio. Maddie waved and called, “Hello, Mrs. Crosby, we’re just cleaning out the car.” Mrs. Crosby didn’t have the hearing or the eyesight she’d had twenty years ago, but she still had the mouth, and there’d never be an end to the hell she could start if she was ignored. “There was that car,” Mrs. Crosby would say, “big as life, just like he didn’t have a job to go to.” It was easier to wave and yell now than explain later.
Mrs. Crosby flapped her hand at Maddie and shuffled back inside, now sure that nothing interesting was happening in the driveway next door. Maddie stuffed the Egg McMuffin wrapper in her garbage bag, and then she went under the seat after the last of the trash and found the underpants.
Mrs. Crosby had been wrong.
Maddie sat with her bare legs stretched out the car door, and stared stupidly at the lace and elastic dangling from her hand. It took her a minute to figure out what it was because the middle was missing, there were just four black lace triangles held together by loops of black elastic, and then she realized they were panties, crotchless panties. She thought not again, and Beth and thank God Em went inside, and, now I can leave him, and then a car door slammed next door to the left, and she jerked and crumpled the lace into a hard ball that scratched her palm.
Gloria was home. It would be bad if Gloria peered over the big picket fence as she always did and caught Maddie on the floor of Brent’s car with another woman’s underwear. Roseanne started singing “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” and Maddie snapped the tape player off and groped for sanity.
It was probably paranoid to think that Gloria Meyer could identify another woman’s underwear at forty paces, but this was Frog Point, so there was no room to take chances. If Gloria saw, her nose would twitch, and she’d wave and scuttle inside, and an hour later Maddie’s mother would be calling to find out if it was true because she’d heard it from Esther by the toaster ovens at K-Mart and now everybody in Frog Point was talking about what a fool Maddie was and what a shame it was for Emily and how it was all Maddie’s mother’s fault because she hadn’t raised Maddie right.
The sun-baked suburban landscape dipped and swerved, and her stomach rose up to meet the curves. She realized she wasn’t breathing and filled her lungs with the hot dusty air as the blood pounded in her ears.
Next door, Gloria’s screen door slapped shut as she went inside.
Think, Maddie told herself. Forget the dizzy part. The talk before had been awful. And Em was old enough to understand now. Em would know.
And then there was her mother. Oh, God, her mother.
Think. Stop panicking. Well, one thing she could do. She could make sure she wasn’t a fool again. She could get a divorce. She nodded to herself and then felt like a fool anyway for nodding alone on the floor of a car.
Divorce. Maddie put her forehead down on the edge of the seat for a moment. Divorce wasn’t a new thought–it had been lingering in the back of her mind for the five years since she’d found out about the affair with Beth–but because of Em, it had remained a lousy one. Up until today it had been lousier than reality. Now it and reality were neck and neck and divorce was gaining.
She couldn’t sit in the car forever with her head on the seat. Somebody would notice.
She put her hand on the hot beige leather seat and pushed herself out of the car to stare at her backyard. Funny how normal everything looked. The pine picket fence was still where it was supposed to be, and the splintered picnic table, and Em’s beat-up blue bike, and yet she’d found somebody else’s underwear, here on this spot, on Linden Street, between Gloria Meyer and Leona Crosby, right in the middle of her life.
Maddie took a deep breath and walked up the back porch steps and into the cool of her kitchen, making sure to slam the back door which had started to stick in the heat. It was the details that mattered, like not air conditioning the outdoors because she was distracted and had let the door pop open. She stood next to the sink and held the pants in her hand, trying for a moment to make them fit into her every day reality the way Em used to sing along with Sesame Street: one of these things does not belong here, one of these things is not the same. Yellow Formica counter. Dead microwave. Blue-checked hand towel. Flintstone glass with milk in bottom. Mac and cheese pan soaking in sink. Brown calico potholder with “i love you mom” embroidery.
Black lace crotchless underwear.
Maddie dropped the underwear into the mac and cheese mess with nerveless fingers and shoved it to the bottom of the pan, splashing scummy dishwater on her T-shirt. She turned and saw Em in the doorway, lost in her black oversize Marvin-the-Martian T-shirt, her baby-fine brown hair curling around her face, vulnerable as only a eight-year-old can be vulnerable.
Maddie leaned on the sink for support. “What, honey?”
“What was that?” Em stared at her, her brown eyes huge behind her glasses.
Maddie stared back stupidly for a moment. “What?”
“That thing.” Em came closer, sliding her hip along the yellow counter as she moved, bouncing over the cabinet handles. “That black thing.”
“Oh.” Maddie blinked at the pants floating in the pan and shoved them under the water again. “It’s a scrub thing.” She began to scour the mac and cheese pan with the wadded-up pants, taking great satisfaction in the way the pale cheese clogged the lace.
“A scrub thing?” Em peered over her arm.
“It’s not a very good scrub thing.” Maddie let the sodden lace sink to the bottom of the pan. “I’m getting rid of it. What’s up with you? Got everything put away?”
“Yes,” Em said, full of virtue. “And I put the box in the basement so nobody would trip over it.”
Fear caught at the back of Maddie’s throat. Em’s virtue was obviously part of some plan for whatever it was she was up to this time, some plan she could make because her world was secure and ordinary, and it was all about to blow up in her face. Maddie’s knees went and she pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down before she fell on the floor and made a fool of herself in front of her daughter.
“Mom?” Em said, and Maddie held out her arms and pulled Em close to her.
“I love you, baby,” Maddie said into her hair as she rocked Em back and forth. “I love you so much.”
“I love you, too, Mommy.” Em pulled away a little. “Are you all right?”
“Yes.” Maddie forced herself to let her daughter go. “I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Em backed up a little and began to sidle out of the kitchen. “Well, if you need me for anything, yell. I’m going to go work on my school list some more. It’s pretty long this year. Third grade is harder.”
“Right,” Maddie said. Whatever it was that Em was going to ask, she’d postponed it until her mother was normal again. But normal was going to be never unless Maddie could handle this mess somehow. The key was in not over-reacting. That was the key. Think everyday life. If she hadn’t found the underwear, what would she be doing? Finishing the mac and cheese pan. Taking out the trash. Today was trash day. She’d definitely be taking out the trash.
She got up and pulled on the blue plastic trash basket under the sink. It stuck, and she pulled on it again and again, gritting her teeth, finally yanking at it savagely until it gave up and popped out. Damn right, she thought, and caught her breath. She dumped the water out of the mac and cheese pan and threw it and the gross, cheese-encrusted panties in the trash. Overcome with revulsion, she grabbed the can of Lysol out from under the sink and sprayed the trash and her hands until they dripped and her nose stung from the chemical-rich air. Then she dragged the trash outside and upended the basket into the dumpster at the side of the yard, carefully not looking at Brent’s car. She was supposed to bag everything she put into the dumpster, but today was not a bagging kind of day. She slammed the dumpster closed and straightened as the screen door of the next house wheezed and bounced. Gloria again.
“Uh, Maddie?” Gloria peered over the fence and pushed a wisp of pale hair behind her ear. Maddie squinted at her in the sunlight. Gloria was pretty in a faint, pale, overbred way. Maybe Brent was cheating with Gloria. She was right next door, so he wouldn’t have to make much effort. That was like Brent.
“Maddie, I wanted to ask you, what do you think about the grass?”
Maddie gritted her teeth. “I don’t think about the grass much, Gloria.” She turned back to the house, knowing she was being rude and not caring. Well, caring a little bit; there was no point in making Gloria feel rejected. Or in giving her a reason to talk, for that matter. She turned to smile at Gloria as she walked past her, but it was feeble. You can do better than that, damn it, she told herself, but Gloria wasn’t noticing anyway.
“I don’t know.” Gloria’s forehead creased as she frowned. “Don’t you think yours is getting a little long? Could you ask Brent to come over tonight to talk about it?”
Maddie restrained herself from ripping her neighbor’s face off. Gloria Meyer was a pain in the rear, but there was no way she could be sleeping with Brent. For one thing, Gloria would never wear crotchless panties. For another, sex would mean she’d have to stop talking about her damn lawn. “The grass will be okay, Gloria.”
“Do you think so? I really think I should talk to Brent.” Gloria pursued Maddie obliquely, sliding down her side of the fence much the way Em had slid down the side of the counter.
Maddie reached the steps and didn’t stop. “I have to go,” she said and escaped into her kitchen.
She was probably over-reacting. Absolutely, she was over-reacting. She was ready to murder Brent and over what? A pair of underpants that there might very well be a good explanation for. She was behaving as if she were in a bad TV show, the kind that began with a misunderstanding that any idiot could see through, and then continued while the two stars plotted and fought all through the half hour without ever discussing the problem like reasonable people until the last five minutes of the show when they talked and everything was all right in time for the Arch Deluxe commercial. How ridiculous. She’d just wait and mention the pants to Brent when he got home. Like a rational adult.
“Hi, honey. What the hell were black lace underpants doing under the front seat of your car?”
Calm down. Be rational.
There was a good idea. Chocolate spurred the production of endorphins which would calm her down and was full of caffeine which would give her the energy to kill her husband. The best of both worlds.
The cupboards were full of canned vegetables and cereal, but in the freezer, in back of the frozen peas and last week’s chicken soup, she found one permafrosted brownie. Thank God. She peeled the plastic wrap from it in strips and then dropped it on the counter where it skated and spun like an ice cube.
Great. And the microwave was broken. A deeper woman might see this as symbolic of the breakdown of her life. Fortunately, she wasn’t deep. She’d just eat the damn brownie frozen.
She tried to bite off a piece, but it was like chocolate rock. She yanked open a drawer and pulled out her big carving knife. The brownie sat on the counter, sullen, cold, unresponsive. She poised the knife over it and then slammed it into the heart of the cake, but the knife skidded off the top and gouged the yellow Formica. Brent would be mad about that. Well, too bad. Lately he’d been mad about everything; for the past week, she hadn’t done anything right. That was one of the reasons she’d been out there in the heat, cleaning his damn car. She thought of the car and felt her blood pound in her temples. He was doing it again. With Beth? Visions of the perky little redhead loomed before her. Maddie hated perky. The hell with both of them.
Maddie held the knife point to the center of the brownie. Precision work. Gritting her teeth, she shoved the knife into the center where it jammed, the brownie still refusing to split into edible chunks. Maddie exhaled through her teeth. She’d never met a more irritating piece of fat and sugar. Just her luck: one damn brownie in the house and it had to be male.
She picked up the knife, and the brownie stuck to the end, impaled. It was a nice image, full of vengeful satisfaction. She carried the knife to the stove, turned up the gas burner, and began to toast the brownie like amarshmallow over the flame. The smell of burning chocolate filled the room.
Who was it this time? Beth? Or somebody new? Her mind ticked over the usual adultery suspects.
Gloria next door?
His secretary, Kristie?
Somebody at the bowling alley?
Somebody he and Howie had built a house for?
Did it matter, really?
Maddie turned the flame up higher. After it happened once, did it matter who it was the next time? This was Brent’s fault, he was the one doing it to her. And to Em. Oh, God, Em. She hoped he–
The phone rang, and Maddie snarled in frustration before she turned off the gas and went to answer it, the knifed brownie still in hand. “Hello?”
“Maddie, honey, it’s Mama.”
Maddie closed her eyes and waited for her mother to say, “Maddie, you’ll never guess what I heard about Brent today.”
“Maddie? Are you all right, honey? I tried to call about fifteen minutes ago, but there was no answer.”
Maddie swallowed. “We were outside cleaning Brent’s car.” And guess what we found. She went into the living room and sank down on her blue-flowered overstuffed couch, stretching the phone cord tight across the room as she dropped. Maybe if she propped the knife up in the living room, Brent would come home and trip over the phone cord and fall onto it. She pictured his body toppling, massive and solid, and the scrunch the knife would make going in.
“Well, it’s too hot to clean cars,” her mother was saying. “You stay inside.”
“We are,” Maddie said. “Now.” She gripped the knife until her knuckles turned white and gnawed a small chunk off the corner of the brownie. It was hard and icy, but it was chocolate. She sucked on it, making it melt with the heat of her angry mouth, and then swallowed it, choking a little as it went down. Slow down, she told herself, and drew in air through her nose.
“Are your allergies acting up?” her mother demanded.
“Well, take a Benadryl just in case. You sound wheezy. I won’t keep you, I just wanted to let you know that you’re getting company any minute now.”
“You’re kidding.” Maddie gnawed off another corner of brownie.
“It’s Sheriff Henley’s nephew, the one you went to high school with.”
“Nephew?” The news took a moment to sink in, and then Maddie dropped her knife, brownie and all. C.L. Sturgis. He’d been her first mistake. If she’d stayed a virgin, none of this would be happening. She tried to sound uninterested as she groped around on the navy carpet for the knife. “I don’t remember.”
Her mother did, but that wasn’t unusual. Her mother’s memory was a natural database of all the times everybody in town had screwed up, so she’d definitely have a file on C.L. And now her file on Maddie, never small to begin with, was about to get bigger.
“I ran into him outside the police station,” her mother was saying. “He was looking for Brent, but I told him you were home this afternoon, so he said he’d try you next.”
Thank you, Mother. Where was that damn brownie?
“And oh, Maddie, I was so embarrassed.” She lowered her voice. “I couldn’t remember his name. I knew he wasn’t a Henley because he was Anna’s sister’s son, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of who he was. He was a year behind you in school. He was always in trouble for fighting and such a reckless driver, remember?”
“Sort of.” Maddie put her head between her knees so she could think and found the knife and her brownie on the floor under her legs, only slightly hairy from the carpet. So C.L. was back, was he?
Maddie picked up her knife and shoved herself up off the floor so she could pace. Gee, and just yesterday she’d been thinking her life was boring and empty. Well, bring back yesterday. Her skin prickled and her breath came funny again. She tried to focus on brushing the debris off the brownie, but it was difficult one-handed while she was pacing.
Her mother was still talking. “He married Sheila Bankhead and moved away, but then she left him and took him for everything he had. Don’t you remember? Maybe he’s come home because she’s getting married again. What was his name? Something strange.”
Maddie cradled the phone on her shoulder as she dusted the last of the lint off the brownie and her mother ran down a list of wrong names. When her mother ran out of steam, Maddie gave her the right one: “C.L. Sturgis.”
“That’s him! That Sturgis boy. He should be there any time now.” Then her mother’s voice changed. “Now how’d you come to remember his name?”
“Lucky guess.” Like she could forget. Well, the hell with C.L. Sturgis. The hell with all men. Especially the hell with Brent. She started to pace again, chewing off chunks of the thawing brownie as she walked.
“Well anyway, Sheila’s marrying Stan Sawyer.” Her mother sighed. “He’s dumber than squat, but she’s probably after his money not his brains. He just inherited all that Becknell money from his aunt. Cancer. Terrible. At least Sheila’s better than that Beth he was dating.”
Maddie stopped as her stomach started up her esophagus again, full of brownie this time. Beth. She tested herself, looking for the rage she’d felt for Beth five years before, but it wasn’t there. She should be mad at Beth. She definitely didn’t like her. But hating Beth didn’t solve anything. At least, it hadn’t solved anything five years ago. Beth wasn’t her problem, even if turned out that she was the one missing the underwear. Brent was her problem. She should leave the son of a bitch. Then he could marry Beth. That would be one way to get even with Beth.
Her mother was still talking. Her mother would talk through the second coming, doing the play-by-play. “And now the sinners are in the lake of fire. I can see Beth the slut from here. I believe, yes, she’s doing the backstroke.” Maddie could sympathize; she felt as if she were in the lake of fire, too. Going down for the third time with Brent tied around her neck. She leaned her forehead against the wall as her mother moved on to another topic.
“I talked to Candace Lowery at the bank. She was wearing a beautiful beige jacket. To look at her, you’d never think she was a Lowery.”
“Mom.” Maddie could hear Frog Point talking now. She stayed with him after the first time, what did she expect? The way she acts, you’d never think she was a Martindale. She rolled her shoulders back against the wall and clenched the knife in front of her and ate another chunk of brownie.
“I ran into Treva at Revco. She said Three’s home from college for a month. Doesn’t that sound like a long time?”
“It sounds nice.” Maybe she’d go see Treva. Maybe she’d say all these thoughts out loud, and Treva would make sarcastic remarks about her being paranoid, and they would have a good laugh. They were long overdue. She hadn’t talked to Treva since last week.
“Didn’t you know? She’s your best friend, and you didn’t know her son was home?” Her mother’s voice was starting to rise.
“We’ve been busy.” Maddie didn’t know why she hadn’t seen Treva, and at the moment she didn’t care. One trauma at a time. She shut down all thought and ate the last of the brownie. It was a very good brownie, considering its circumstances.
“Busy doing what?” her mother said, and then the doorbell rang, and Maddie let her head fall back against the wall.
This couldn’t go on. Maybe it wasn’t C.L. Maybe it was somebody else. College kids selling magazine subscriptions. Political candidates. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gypsies come to steal her away. Any of those would be fine.
“It’s summer,” her mother was saying. “Teachers don’t do anything in the summer–”
The doorbell rang again, and Maddie straightened away from the wall. “Mom, there’s somebody at the door, I have to go.”
“That Sturgis boy. Maybe you better talk to him on the porch. You know how people are. I’ll hang on until you find out.”
“No, Mom, I’m going to go now. I love you.” Her mother was still talking as Maddie hung up. Just her luck, she’d answer the door and there would be a serial killer, and he’d murder her on her doorstep, and then at her funeral her mother would tell everybody, “I told her not to hang up but she never would listen.” Some screw-ups lasted beyond death, and answering the door right now was probably one of them.
She did not need C.L. Sturgis. She especially did not need C.L. Sturgis right now because every time things went wrong with Brent, C.L. Sturgis was the memory that popped into her head. Things could be worse, she’d tell herself. You could have married C.L. Sturgis. Except that things couldn’t get much worse, and C.L. was not that bad a memory, and for all she knew in the twenty years since he’d lured her into his back seat, he could have improved. Brent hadn’t, but that didn’t mean C.L. couldn’t have.
The doorbell rang again, and Maddie walked into her white-on-white hall and yanked the door open.
Sure enough, there on her porch, lit by the sun, was C.L. Sturgis, choreographed back into her life by her mother and a malignant Fate, looking better than he had any right to after twenty years. He said, “Hey, Maddie,” and she adjusted her memory of C.L. at seventeen to the real C.L. at thirty-seven. His face was more lined, and he was taller and broader through the shoulders under his blue-striped shirt, but his dark hair was still thick and rumpled, and his eyebrows still did that V thing that made him look like Satan’s delivery boy, and he still had those hot, dark eyes and that wide, brainless, sheepish grin. Yep, it was C.L., all right. Rebel without a clue.
“Maddie? Your mom said it was all right to stop by.” C.L.’s voice was light and his grin was still in place, but his dark eyes had cooled to wary. What had she ever done to make him look at her like that? Well, besides dumping him after one night in his back seat. He couldn’t still be holding that grudge after twenty years. C.L. took a step back on her porch, and Maddie’s frown hardened. Sure, he could. The way things were going today, somebody she’d pushed on the playground in second grade was probably heading her way with a grenade.
He ducked his head and peered at her, and for a minute he looked seventeen again, unsure of himself and doubly dangerous because of it. There was nothing worse than C.L. looking vulnerable, she remembered, because he so rarely was. “Uh, bad day?” he asked.
Oh, great. He knew about Brent, too. Maddie scowled harder at him. “What makes you think so?”
He pointed at her left hand. “The knife. Big sucker, too.”
She glanced down. She still had the blade clenched in her hand, poised to jab. “I was eating a brownie.”
C.L. nodded, looking not relieved at all. “Sure. That would explain it. Listen, I don’t want to keep you.” His eyes went back to the knife. “Is Brent here?”
It was so surreal. An hour ago, her life had been fine and now she was talking to C.L. Sturgis who wanted to talk about her cheating jerk of a husband. “You know, my mother told me you were coming over, but somehow I just didn’t believe it.”
He kept his eyes on the knife. “Believe it. About Brent–”
The hell with Brent. She waved the knife to get his attention. “Look, C.L., I’m kind of busy right now–”
He reached out and took the knife from her so swiftly that she was left staring at her empty hand. “No offense, Mad, but it’s been awhile and for all I know you’ve gone homicidal on me.” He stepped back off the porch and shoved the knife up to the hilt into the flower bed by the steps. He still had the same great butt he’d had in high school, Maddie noticed, and from the condition of his jeans they could have been from high school, too. Then he came back to her and smiled again, and she could have sworn his smile was the same it had been in high school, part happiness, part invitation to trouble. It was impossible to be cold when he hit her with that smile. There was something about C.L. that insisted you smile back even though you knew it was a mistake.
She relaxed, exhaling in relief as some of the tension left her neck. “I’m sorry. I’m having a bad day.”
He nodded, warm and sympathetic, and she remembered why she’d climbed into his back seat twenty years before. “That’s because you’re still living in Frog Point” he said. “Every day here is a bad one. You look great, by the way.”
Maddie looked down at her soap-stained pink T-shirt, still blotchy with the water from the sink. “You know, C.L., there’s such a thing as carrying politeness too far.”
“No,” he said. “You really do look great. Just like in high school.”
He wanted something. He had to, nobody could look at her and say “Just like in high school,” not after twenty years of wear and tear and Brent. She felt the chill return. “Thanks,” she told him. “So what do you want?”
C.L. looked taken aback but not for long. “Well, now that the chitchat’s out of the way, and we’re all unarmed, is Brent home?”
Brent. The son of a bitch. Everywhere she went, there he was. She glared at C.L. “No. I’m busy. Try the office.” She swung the door closed, but he put his foot in the way and stopped her.
“Wait a minute. I tried there.”
He was closer now, and she realized he’d grown more than shoulders and height since seventeen. There was weight to C.L. now; he was solid, and his dark eyes under the thick fringe of his lashes were sure. He’d grown up.
Too bad Brent hadn’t.
Maddie took a deep breath. “Look, this is not my day to watch him, okay? I don’t know where he is. It’s been nice seeing you, but I have to go.”
“I can’t believe this.” C.L. frowned. For a moment, all his warmth went away, and Maddie took a step back. “There is no way anybody can disappear in this town. You’re his wife. You must know where he is.”
This Maddie didn’t need, her first romantic disaster commenting on her current one. “Look, I don’t know where he is. Now go away.”
“All right, all right.” C.L. held his hands up to ward her off. “All I want to do is talk to him. Mind if I come in?”
“Yes,” Maddie said. “I mind a lot.” She shoved his foot out of the way with hers and slammed the door, surprising herself with how fast and how mad she was. Two men in her entire life, and they’d both taken her for a ride. Well, the hell with them.
“Maddie?” C.L. said from the other side of the door.
“Not now, C.L. Not now, not ever. Go away.” Maddie listened for a moment to see if he was gone, and then jumped when Em said, “Mom?” behind her.
Em stood there with her school list. “I heard you talking. Who was that? You look funny.”
Em. Every time she got to a place where she could make jokes and pretend it wasn’t happening, there was Em with disaster bearing down on her. She couldn’t do this alone anymore. “That was nobody,” she told Em. “Let’s walk over to Aunt Treva and Mel’s.”
“All right,” Em said, but her eyes were cautious.
Ten minutes later, Maddie stood in her best friend’s back doorway, trying to look mentally healthy while Treva blinked up at her, startled.
“Mel’s in the family room,” Treva said to Em, not taking her eyes off Maddie’s face. “Go find her.” Once Em was down the hall, Treva grabbed Maddie’s arm. “What’s wrong with you? You look awful. Is this my fault? I know I haven’t called. What’s wrong?”
“Brent’s cheating on me.” Maddie swallowed. “I have to leave him. Divorce him.” It was a lot more awful than she’d thought, saying it out loud, and she staggered back a step and threw up her brownie into Treva’s bushes.
“Oh, hell,” Treva said.
As a semi-mature, rational adult, C.L. Sturgis knew that a crush that had blindsided him in the fifth grade and then come back to wipe him out again in high school could not possibly have any impact on his life now. Then he realized he’d driven four blocks down Linden Street with no idea of where he was going and no idea of where he’d been since he’d seen Maddie in her wet T-shirt. So much for semi-maturity. Figuring his reputation in town was bad enough, he pulled over and parked his convertible before he ran down a Frog Point citizen while having carnal thoughts about a married woman and got another couple of sins added to the list of Things C.L. Done To Shame Henry and Break Poor Anna’s Heart.
He tapped his fingers on the wheel, trying to get his thoughts back where they belonged. No matter how desirable she’d been standing in her doorway, all dark curls and warm curves and cool eyes that made him stupid, Maddie Martindale was history. And all he’d done was talk to her on her porch step, so there was nothing for him to feel guilty about, especially now that he wasn’t driving in a lust-fogged stupor. He was an adult in a car he’d paid for, and he had every right to be where he was and to talk to anybody he wanted.
C.L. looked around at the tall old houses, every one of them staring into the well of the street with dark windows, and slid a little further down in the seat, weighed down by guilty memories of toilet-papered trees and soaped windows and potatoes in tail pipes and cherry bombs in mailboxes. Then he caught himself. He hadn’t done anything wrong around here for almost twenty years. He was innocent. He could even get out of the car. The hell with Frog Point. He jerked on the emergency brake and got out and slammed the door.
The noise seemed to echo up and down the street. He lit a cigarette and leaned against the car door, wondering why he still had the feeling he was going to get busted for smoking. He was thirty-seven. He was allowed to smoke in public.
Across the street, a woman opened her front door and came out on the front porch, jerking her head at him suspiciously, no doubt drawn out of her musty living room to see who he was and why he was parked on her street in the middle of the day when a decent man would be at work. She looked familiar, and then he recognized her and realized that he’d parked where he had from force of habit. Mrs. Banister. He’d spent most of his senior year parked right here in front of her house trying to seduce her daughter, Linda, and succeeding an amazing number of times. And now here he was, back one last time, betrayed by his instincts again.
C.L. straightened and waved at her to let her know he wasn’t some pervert or, worse, some stranger casing the joint to rip off her Hummels. She squinted at him and then stomped back inside, slamming the door. He couldn’t tell whether it was from recognition or heightened suspicion, and he didn’t care.
What he cared about was Maddie.
She’d looked unhappy and angry and lost when she’d opened the door, and she’d been brittle and smart-mouthed, not the smiling girl he’d remembered from high school. Whenever he’d thought of Maddie in the past years, he’d remembered her warmth, but she wasn’t warm any more. Somebody had hurt her, and he had an idea who’d been doing the hurting and that made him mad. Somebody should have to pay for all this misery, and he was pretty damn sure that somebody was Brent Faraday.
And C.L. was also pretty damn sure he knew how to do it. His ex-wife, of all people, had handed him the weapon.
“I need you for this, C.L.,” Sheila had said on the phone when she’d called him the week before. “I need an accountant I can trust. You were a lousy husband, but you’re a damn good accountant.” After that come-on, he’d had no problem saying no when she said she was afraid her fiancé might be getting swindled, no problem saying no when she cried, no problem saying no when she offered to sign away her right to alimony since she’d have to give it up when she married Stan anyway. But then she’d said, “Please, C.L. All you have to do is come down here and look at the books and tell me if Brent Faraday is ripping Stan off by asking for two hundred and eighty thousand for a quarter of the company. Just yes, he is, or no, he isn’t, that’s all.”
And he’d said, “I’ll do it.”
He took another long drag on the cigarette, sucking in nicotine to blunt the memory. Sheila had said, “There’s probably nothing wrong, after all, it is Brent Faraday,” and he’d known there had to be a lot wrong. More than he hated Frog Point, he hated Brent Faraday, who got away with murder while Frog Point loved him, and Maddie married him, and C.L. got caught over and over again.
Thank God all that was behind him now. He was a solid citizen with a solid job and a solid future. He might finally be able to catch Brent at something, he was sincerely hoping he would, but his own days of worrying about getting busted were over.
A squad car pulled up behind C.L.’s Mustang, and a cop got out and came toward him.