He knew. He hadn’t listened to her words; instead he’d heard the underlying fear as no one ever had before. He straightened, set aside his mug, and walked over to where she was sitting. Maureen’s heart felt like machine-gun firing inside her chest. It was all she could do to keep from bolting from the office.
"I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her in the silkiest of tones, and pressed his callused palm against her cheek.
Maureen flinched involuntarily at the unexpectedness of his touch. His hand was cool against her flushed skin.
"No one’s going to hurt you,” he told her. "Not anymore.”
Maureen nearly laughed out loud. Apparently Thom hadn’t gotten the message. All at once there were tears in her eyes. She couldn’t remember thinking she was about to break into tears. She knew she should leave before she embarrassed herself any further. How she managed to keep them from falling and from making a complete idiot of herself was something she couldn’t answer.
"I’d better go now,” she said, abruptly setting her mug aside. "Thanks for the coffee,” she muttered on her way out the door.
The instant she was alone, she pressed both index fingers under her eyes and drew in several deep, stabilizing breaths.
Maybe she was coming down with a virus, she reasoned. Crazy as it seemed, she prayed that was exactly what was happening to her.
She made it back to her car just in time for Karen to come racing from the corral.
"Mom, guess what?”
"I learned all about saddles and stirrups and blankets, and I learned about the different brands used. Ken calls it cowboy calligraphy.” She stopped long enough to draw in a deep breath before starting again. Maureen swore her daughter talked nonstop for another five minutes, mentioning in detail everything she’d learned until she was nearly panting.
"And guess what else?”
"I can’t imagine,” Maureen said, struggling to hold in a smile.
"Paula said I could have a kitten if it’s all right with you, and…”
"A kitten,” Maureen mumbled. Good grief, she should have seen that coming. "I’ll think about it,” she promised, and for now that was the best she could do. Actually she wouldn’t mind a pet, but she’d need to read over her lease first.
"Oh, and one thing more,” Karen said, so excited she could barely hold still. "I asked Paula to spend Friday night with us, that’s all right, isn’t it? She’s asking her dad now.”
Coward that she was, Maureen was about to usher her daughter into the car and make a clean getaway when Thom’s daughter raced out of the barn. Thom was directly behind her. Maureen was certain his grin stretched from one ear to the other.
"I understand Karen’s invited Paula to spend Friday night,” he said with a glint in his eye. "I have a great idea. Why don’t I treat the four of us to western-style barbecue first? We’ll pick you up around six, all right?”
"Oh, Mom,” Karen said, gazing up at her mother hopefully. "Dinner in a restaurant? Can we? Oh, please, it would be so much fun.”
"Ah…” Maureen wasn’t sure what to do.
"Please,” Thom coaxed, and leveled one of his daredevil smiles on her.
"Ted!” Catherine set aside her magazine, delighted to see her grandson, especially when she wasn’t expecting him. "How nice of you to drop by.”
Ted gave her a warm peck on the cheek and sat down next to her in the parlor, which was the social gathering place for the retirement center. "I should have let you know I was stopping by.”
"Nonsense.” Catherine had given a good deal of thought to her meeting with Blythe Holmes and was beginning to think she might have overreacted. She was an old woman, set in her ways, and it was only natural that she feel a certain amount of—she hated to use this word—resentment toward the woman who’d be marrying her precious grandson.
Ted scanned the area as though looking for someone. "Do you happen to know a woman named Joy Palmer?”
"But of course.”
"I need to talk to her.”
Catherine’s spirits lifted automatically. "You need to speak to Joy?”
"You might say we had a minor run-in the other night, and I wanted to reassure her everything’s fine. She doesn’t have anything to worry about.”
"It’s nothing, Grandma,” Ted said, and patted her hand. "Before I look for Joy, tell me what’s been going on with you.”
"Well, the library committee met, and we’ve decided to hold a literary tea in order to raise money for a number of very good projects.”
"When will that be?”
"A few days before Christmas,” Catherine told him, but again she had the impression his mind wasn’t on their conversation. She patted his hand. "I think Joy must be in her office,” she whispered conspiratorially. "It’s the first door to the left, off the hallway.”
Ted grinned and squeezed her hand. "I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
"Take your time,” Catherine said as she reached for her magazine once more. "I insist. I’ve got all the time in the world.”
Catherine watched her grandson leave and couldn’t help wondering about that gleam in his eyes. It had been a good long time since she’d seen it. He was up to something. She’d stake a batch of chocolate-chip cookies on that.
Ted didn’t understand why he felt it necessary to personally relay to Joy the information about Blythe’s car. His grandmother would have been happy to give her the message. The thing was, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Joy Palmer since their little run-in.
She wasn’t his type. That was a definite. He liked his women a little more sophisticated, a little more glamorous, a little more…like Blythe, he decided.
When he was with Blythe, heads turned. Ted liked that. His friends envied him because such a beautiful, distinguished woman loved him. Call him a male chauvinist or whatever the popular terminology was these days, but he didn’t care.
Nevertheless, over the last few days he’d found himself smiling whenever he thought about the resident service director naming her car Edith. He chuckled when he remembered the way she’d gotten all feisty when it looked as if Blythe were going to insult her car.
That was the one problem he had with Blythe, Ted admitted. The woman just didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor. He hoped that would change in time.
Ted found Joy sitting at her desk, reading a letter, her brow furrowed.
"Hello again,” he said, leaning against the doorjamb.
She glanced up in surprise. Her eyes were round and expressive, Ted noted. He liked that, too. One wouldn’t need to guess what she was thinking; it was right there for him to read, plain as a page in a book.
"Hi.” She stood and then seemed surprised to find herself on her feet. She sat down abruptly and stared up at him as if she weren’t sure what to expect.
"May I come in?” Ted asked, enjoying her discomfort.
"Of course. I’m sorry.” She motioned toward the only other chair in the room, as if he needed guidance.
Ted sat down, relaxed against the back of the chair, and crossed his legs. He hoped she’d take the hint. The woman was wired as tight as unwaxed dental floss. "I stopped by to let you know I had Blythe’s car checked out with a body shop.”
"Was there any damage?”
"None that he could see.” Blythe hadn’t believed it and had insisted on a second opinion, but there wasn’t any need for Joy to know that.
"What about a mechanic?”
"Not yet, but I doubt there’s anything to be concerned about.”
"My dad runs a shop no more than three miles from here. If you want, he could look at the engine for you, and he’d do a good job.”
Problem was, Ted would have a difficult time convincing Blythe of that.
"What about…your friend? I hope there weren’t any lingering effects from the accident.”
"No, she’s fine.” Blythe had complained of a headache, but it had disappeared by the following day—until he’d made the mistake of asking her about it. Then, all of a sudden, she’d seemed to be suffering from low back pains as well as intense headache. Soon afterward, she’d mentioned contacting an attorney.
When Blythe had first hinted at a lawsuit, Ted had thought she was joking. Only later had he realized she was serious. It irritated him that she would try to make much more of the incident, and his aggravation must have showed. Keeping his anger in check, he’d pointed out that there hadn’t been any damage to either vehicle and it would be difficult to prove personal injury. He hadn’t mentioned anything about her making an appointment with a doctor. No need to give her more ideas.
"You say your father’s a mechanic,” Ted said. "Then I’d like to suggest he give Edith a thorough checkup.”
"I talked to him about what happened, and he said it wasn’t possible. The only feasible explanation was that I hadn’t put on the emergency brake, but I know I did.” She paused as if attempting to recall the events of that evening. "I could have sworn her engine was running at the time of the accident. I remember how frustrated I felt because I was going back to my office to phone triple A.
"Then not only does Edith start up, but she does so without the key in the ignition, backs out of the parking space all on her own. It was as if she were aiming for your…Blythe’s car. But that’s impossible.”
"Sounds like one for the textbooks to me,” Ted agreed.
"Here’s something else for the books,” she said, holding up the letter she’d been reading when he’d first arrived. "It’s from radio station KIWI. I don’t even listen to that station, unless they’re broadcasting the Lakers games.”
"They wrote you a letter?”
"It’s more than that. The letter says my name was a winner in their drawing for two courtside seats for Friday night’s basketball game.”
"That’s fabulous.” Frankly, Ted would give his eyeteeth for those tickets. Courtside, no less. The game was scheduled against the red-hot Seattle SuperSonics and was sure to be one of the best of the year. From what he understood, the Forum had been sold out for weeks.
"I know, but for the life of me I can’t remember entering their contest.”
She shook her head.
"Maybe someone put your name in for you?”
"A friend. Your father.” As far as he was concerned, she shouldn’t be asking so many questions.
Joy frowned. "That’s not likely. I was trying to decide what I was going to do.”
Ted couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "Going to do? What do you mean? You’d be crazy to ask questions. Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to look a gift horse in the mouth?”
"I know, but—”