MADIGAN'S WIFE, page 1
Linda Winstead Jones
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The effect of a Ray Madigan grin could be devastating on the unprepared female. Grace popped a potato chip into her mouth as she watched him smile at the waitress and ask for a refill of his coffee and a piece of lemon icebox pie. Darn it, he should be older, slower, less attractive than she remembered. How else was she supposed to get him out of her system once and for all?
Not a speck of gray marred the honey-toned softness of his light brown hair. She knew plenty of almost-thirty-four-year-old men who had a liberal dusting of white around the edges, or the beginnings of male-pattern baldness. Not Ray. Just a little bit too long, a mixture of wavy dark blond and golden brown strands curled at his neck and over his ears.
He apparently hadn’t gained a pound in the past six years, either. In fact, he might’ve lost a couple. Tall and lean with wide shoulders tailor-made for resting a head upon, he looked just as she remembered; too good-looking for his own good and tempting as hell, darn his hide.
These days, Ray always wore the same uniform: a T-shirt, a plaid or checkered button-up shirt over that tee, blue jeans and well-worn leather work boots. He wore the loose shirt, she knew, to conceal the gun he tucked in the waistband at his spine.
No, nothing had changed. Ray played the good ol’ boy flawlessly, when it suited him. To the casual observer he looked like a hundred other rednecks interested in nothing more than a good time, a faithful truck and a six-pack of beer. They didn’t always see the spark of intelligence in his eyes, the way he watched everything and listened to every word. Grace saw, though. She always had.
His eyes had always done her in.
As the waitress walked away Ray planted his eyes on Grace once again. She did her best to appear calm and uninterested. Unaffected. Casual to the point of aloof.
“So,” he said, stirring a single pack of sugar into his coffee. “How’s Dr. Doolittle treating you these days?”
“Dr. Dearborne,” she corrected without rancor. “And I have to admit,” she said with real admiration, “you were right. I went to his office the morning after we had lunch last time, and told him I expected to be treated like a professional. I told him I’d have to start looking for another job if he didn’t stop making improper suggestions when we found ourselves alone. He hasn’t made a pass at me since.”
“He doesn’t want to lose his office manager,” Ray said, his smile gone. “Folks aren’t exactly lining up, panting to go to work for smarmy dentists.”
“Dr. Dearborne isn’t smarmy,” she said without enthusiasm. “He’s just … challenged in the personality department.”
“He’s a creep,” Ray muttered as the waitress placed the lemon icebox pie before him. “Trish went to him with a toothache a few months back, and he actually made a pass at her while he had his hand in her mouth. The bastard called her every day for two weeks.”
“Trish. She was your second wife, right?” Grace asked, as if she didn’t know perfectly well who Trish was. Wife number two, blond, a party girl. She and Ray had met in a bar, gotten totally wasted and decided they were perfectly suited for one another. The marriage had lasted all of three months. Well, officially the marriage had lasted for three months. Word was they hadn’t lived together a full two weeks.
Ray nodded. “I called Patty and she fixed Trish up with her dentist.” The look he gave her was censuring. “I can’t believe you’re working for that jerk.”
Patty was wife number three, a nurse who’d tended Ray in the emergency room more than once. A more levelheaded woman than the flighty Trish, she’d made her marriage to Ray last almost eight months. They’d parted amicably, or so she heard.
Grace thought it damned unnatural that the three of them, Ray and Trish and Patty, were friends. Of course, it was kinda unnatural that she and Ray were sitting here, together, right now.
Unnatural for most, maybe, but not for Ray. She’d rarely seen him angry; he took everything in stride. Sadly, she suspected he didn’t care enough about anything or anyone to get truly angry. People came and went, in and out of his life, and he carried on as if nothing had changed.
She tried to steer the conversation away from her boss and Ray’s ex-wives. He never seemed satisfied with the explanation that she worked for Dr. Dearborne because the pay was good and the benefits were better, and talking about Trish and Patty always made her teeth ache.
“How can you eat like that and not get fat?” she said, pointing accusingly at his huge piece of pie.
“I inherited my father’s metabolism,” he said with a grin.
“One day that metabolism of yours is gonna give out,” she said, wondering if it was true. Last time she’d seen Ray’s father he’d been fifty-nine years old, fit as a fiddle, and wolfing down a meal fit for three teenage boys. That had been nearly nine years ago. Ray and his father were not close, and didn’t visit one another often. Of course, on the few times she’d seen them together there hadn’t been any animosity, either. They acted like old acquaintances who got together now and again because they felt like they should, not because they wanted to see one another. “You should come running with me sometime.”
He made a face as he dug into the pie. “Run? On purpose? I don’t think so. Besides,” he cocked one eyebrow at her. “You run at the crack of dawn.” He shook his fork at her and deepened his lazy, honeyed Southern drawl. “It ain’t natural.”
With his pie finished and the last of his coffee drained, Ray settled his eyes on her in a way that told her he was about to say something she wouldn’t like. She saw the man behind the charmer, the intensity flashing in the friendly blue eyes he locked to hers. Her stomach flipped uneasily. This look hadn’t changed in years.
“You remember Stan Wilkins?” be asked.
“Sure. He moved south a few years back, didn’t he?”
Ray nodded, a slow, deliberate motion. “Yep. He’s in Mobile. He called me a couple of days ago.”
Grace wanted to believe it had been a purely social call, but the fluttering in her stomach suggested otherwise. “Great,” she said indifferently. “How’s Mary?”
“Fine,” Ray said with a small smile. “Their oldest is in high school, can you believe it?”
Had it been so long? Deep down, she shivered. Yes, it had been. One day melted into another, and then another, and then another, and the next thing you know years have passed. Days you can’t get back are gone. “Hard to imagine.”
Ray leaned forward, forearms on the table, eyes clear and guileless. He looked like a man who could do no wrong, who knew what he wanted and would do anything to get it, the rest of the world be damned. Darn his hide, she knew this look, too. No good ever came of it. He hesitated, drummed his fingers on the tabletop, and in an instant Grace knew what was coming.
“Stan’s heading up the narcotics unit in Mobile, and he’s looking for someone to come in and work undercover. When he heard what had happened up here…”
“You’re not considering it,” she said softly. Her face paled – she could feel it, as if her skin turned suddenly cold. “Tell me you’re not even thinking about…”
Unrepentant, Ray said casually, “I told him I’d call in a few days and let him know.”
Taking a deep breath, Grace reminded herself that she shouldn’t be angry. She should be able to take anything and everything Ray Madigan did in stride. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.
“You’ve been off the Huntsville force for a year,” she snapped, trying to keep her voice low. “You
He didn’t look surprised by her response. “I told Stan I’d think about it.”
All of a sudden she remembered, too clearly, why she’d left him in the first place. The worry, the horror, the feeling that at any moment someone would knock on the door and reach deep inside and yank her heart out again were too much for her to bear.
She started to slide from the booth, but Ray’s quick hand on her wrist stopped her. His fingers manacled her, long, strong fingers tight and warm against her pale wrist. She stared at his hand on her arm for a long moment, marveled, for a heartbeat, at the size and power and undeniable masculinity of that hand.
She’d been so careful not to touch him, so cautious on the occasions they’d met for coffee or lunch, like any two civilized human beings might be. They didn’t hug hello, they didn’t kiss goodbye, they didn’t even shake hands. And now here she sat motionless while he held her in place, his hand firm and heated on her wrist. The sensation brought back so many memories … good and bad.
He peeled his fingers away from her skin, slowly, as if he’d just realized what he’d done. “Sorry.”
She settled back in her seat, still rattled but no longer furious. “You were shot three times while you were working narcotics, Ray. Three damn times!” Her heart clenched as she remembered that third, most horrifying time. “What on earth would make you want to walk into that again?”
He didn’t have an answer for her, but he wasn’t ready to give in, either. She saw the determination in his eyes, the flicker of restlessness. He hadn’t yet told her why he’d quit his job with the Huntsville Police Department, but she knew there had to be more to it than a simple early retirement or the need for a change. He’d loved his job too much, he’d devoted too much of himself to it. He’d given up too much for the job; including her.
Grace hadn’t looked up many old friends since her return to Huntsville, but she had called Nell Rose and Sandy. Cops’ wives, both of them. They were more than happy to catch up, have lunch, go shopping and gossip about Trish and Patty, but when Grace had asked why Ray left the force she got the runaround. Nell Rose said she had no idea and then decided she wanted dessert after all, launching into a glowing rave about chocolate. On another afternoon, Sandy’s soft answer was, “same ol’ same ol’,” just before she reached for a pair of suddenly exciting half-price black heels.
“I told him I’d think about it, that’s all,” Ray said softly. “I haven’t made any promises.”
No, Ray Madigan didn’t make promises.
The waitress came back and dropped two tickets on the table. Separate checks, always.
Grace dug in her purse for a ten-dollar bill, more than enough for her barbecue plate and a generous tip.
“At least listen to me,” Ray said softly. “I know you don’t like what I do…”
“I don’t care what you do, not anymore,” she said coolly, hoping her fury didn’t show. She tried so hard not to care. “If you want to go to Mobile and get yourself killed, go right ahead.” She slid quickly from the booth and tried to walk past him.
“Dammit, Gracie, sit down.” Ray reached out and grabbed her wrist again, effectively restraining her as she tried to make her escape.
“Let me go.” Her voice didn’t rise above a whisper. Something unwanted welled up inside her and made her long to sit beside him, lay her head on his shoulder and beg him not to go to Mobile. She’d fought these feelings for a long time, and she fought them now.
“Just sit back down,” he insisted softly, refusing to release his grip as he assaulted her with his most cajoling, most seductive voice.
“No,” she said, just a little bit louder.
The waitress walked by to pick up Grace’s check and the ten-dollar bill. Maybe she sensed the tension, maybe she was concerned about the other customers who stared over their own coffee and pie. To defuse the situation she smiled, winked and said, “Why don’t you just marry the poor guy and put him out of his misery?”
Grace gave the young girl a wide, unconcerned, very calm grin. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”
The waitress’s eyes widened in surprise. Ray lifted a lazy hand. “Tamara sweetheart, this is Grace. Mrs. Ray Madigan number one.”
He leaned back in the booth and watched Grace walk away, and the smile he’d worn all through lunch faded. Her thick dark hair, longer than she used to wear it, bounced around her squared shoulders. She didn’t toss a glance back as she walked away; he didn’t expect her to. Gracie Madigan didn’t look back, ever.
In her silly moss green suit and sensible low-heeled shoes she looked joyless. Annoyed. And too damn good. His gaze lingered on her legs, well revealed beneath an almost too-short green skirt. She’d always had great legs, he mused as she disappeared from sight.
Well, he’d known she wouldn’t like the idea of him going back into narcotics, though he hadn’t expected her to lose her temper. After all, they weren’t married any more, hadn’t been for six years now. As of two months ago, they’d been divorced as long as they’d been married.
He knew too well what Grace thought about his chosen profession. She hated it. After all, that was the reason she gave for leaving him. Yeah, she was real good at walking away when the going got tough.
“So that’s number one,” Tamara said as she began to efficiently clear the table, balancing plates and glasses on a small round tray. She flashed him a wicked smile; too wicked for one so young.
“Yep,” he said.
“She’s pretty,” Tamara said, careful to keep her tone conversational. Just a trace of curiosity crept into her soft voice to give away her interest.
“Yep.” Pretty and sexy, the kind of unforgettable pretty and sexy that got under a man’s skin and stayed there. Having Grace back in his life in such a platonic way was torture; a torture he wasn’t about to give up. A friendly lunch every two weeks or so was better than nothing, so he purposely refrained from talking about the past. He kept the conversation light and friendly and safe, so she wouldn’t run off again.
Hellfire, this was getting complicated. The best thing he could do for himself would be to hurry back to the office, call Stan, and agree to be in Mobile on Monday.
He paid for his lunch and walked back to the office, trying to enjoy the sun on his face and the gentle breeze that wafted past. Spring in Alabama was always a reminder of why he stayed here, why he’d made Huntsville his home. Up north they were still fighting snow and ice in some places, but down south the girls had started sunbathing and the kids ran around in shorts and Tshirts after school. Dogwoods bloomed, birds flitted and chirped, summer was just around the corner.
And Mobile was just a hop, skip and a jump from Gulf Shores, the Redneck Riviera.
There wasn’t anything on his calendar that couldn’t be farmed out to another P.I.; an insurance fraud case he was about to close up and a couple of divorce cases – the least favorite and most profitable part of his business.
But beach or no beach, he wasn’t leaving just yet. Gracie was the one who did the running away, not him.
The modest offices of Madigan Investigations were situated on the ground floor of an old redbrick building in the heart of downtown Huntsville. The furniture was cheap, the sign painted on the glass door discreet and tasteful. He got a lot of his business from the lawyer on the second floor.
“You had two phone calls,” Doris said the minute he opened that door. She waved two pink slips of paper before her and then dropped them on the desk. “One about business, one from that second ex-wife of yours. She’s getting married again, and she wants you to give her away.” Doris showed her disapproval with a wrinkling of her nose and a pursi
In Doris he’d found the perfect secretary. Built square and solid, she was old enough to be his mother, sassy one minute and mothering the next, more than competent where her secretarial duties were concerned, and – most important – he’d not been tempted even one time to ask her to marry him.
“Take the rest of the afternoon,” he said, well aware that his lunches with Grace usually ran long. “I can answer the phone for a couple of hours.”
Doris smiled as she walked by, stopping just long enough to reach up and give him a maternal pat on the cheek. “You’re a good boy, Ray.”
Rather than go into his own inner office, he sat at Doris’s desk to read his messages. One of his most persistent clients had called; a man who was certain his wife was cheating on him, even though Ray hadn’t been able to discover that the woman did anything more illicit than floor it through the occasional yellow light. When he read the other message he smiled.
He’d have to call Trish, wish her luck and decline her request. He hadn’t met her fiancé, but even the most saintly man would have to balk at having his bride walk down the aisle on the arm of her ex-husband.
Oddly enough, he wouldn’t actually mind giving Trish away. She was a sweet girl and he wanted to see her start a new, wonderful life. She deserved it. And if Patty ever married that doctor she’d been seeing for the past year, he’d be there with bells on, he’d toast the bride and groom and wish them a long and happy life together.
If Grace ever decided to get married again … his smile faded. Hellfire, no matter how nonchalant he tried to be about Gracie, he couldn’t quite pull it off. No matter how hard he tried – and dammit he gave it his best shot – he still thought of her as his wife.
To take his mind off of a subject he’d rather not ponder, he recalled a more pleasant memory; the look on Dr. Doolittle’s face when the dentist had opened the door to his fine home two weeks ago and found Ray standing there. The way the creep had paled when Ray had very calmly threatened to rip out his spleen if he ever harassed Grace again, and then threatened to do the same if he ever felt the need to share the details of their conversation.
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