The Obsession Page 97

By the time he’d unstrapped the takeout, Tag had raced around from the back of the house to greet him as though he’d been off to war.

Appreciating the welcome, he held the food up out of reach with one hand, gave the dog a rub with the other. And when the tennis ball landed at his feet, he gave it a good boot to send Tag joyfully after it.

He noted that Naomi’s car sat alone, and wondered why Kevin hadn’t waited. Even with the delay, he’d expected Kevin to hang tight until he got there.

He walked around the back, stopping long enough to give the ball another kick.

She sat on the deck alone, working on her tablet, with a glass of wine on the little table beside the glider.

“Got hung up,” he said.

She only nodded, kept doing whatever she was doing.

“I’m going to grab a beer, put this in the oven on low.”

“That’s fine.”

He didn’t consider himself particularly sensitive to moods—at least, he’d been told by annoyed women he lacked that insight—but he knew when something was off.

In his experience, the best way to handle things when something was off, and you didn’t know what, was to just keep going until whatever was off popped out.

Sometimes, if luck held, it just went away.

He came back with his beer, sat beside her, shot out his legs. And Jesus, didn’t that feel good?

“Where’s Kev?”

“At home with his wife and kids, I imagine.”

“I figured he’d hang out until I got here.”

“I insisted he go home. I don’t need a bodyguard.”

It didn’t take Mr. Sensitivity to recognize a bitchy mood when it snapped its teeth at him. He took a pull on his beer, let it ride.

The silence lasted maybe twenty seconds.

“I don’t like the two of you arranging shifts. I’m not an idiot, and I’m not incapable.”

“I never thought of you as either one.”

“Then stop hovering, and stop asking Kevin to hover. It’s not only insulting, it’s annoying.”

“Looks like you’ll have to be insulted and annoyed.”

“You can’t decide for me.”

“Marla’s body, about thirty-five feet straight down from where you’re sitting, says I can.”

“No one dictates to me, and if you think sleeping with me gives you that right, you’re very wrong.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the dog slink down the steps—looking, Xander imagined, for a safe spot out of the line of fire.

“That’s bullshit. It’s even weak bullshit. You can either tell me what crawled up your ass since this morning or not, but I know when somebody’s looking to pick a fight. I’m not in the mood for one, but that can change.”

“You’re crowding me, it’s as simple as that.” She pushed off the glider, picked up her wine, set down the tablet. “I bought this place because I like being alone, and now I never am.” She took a long drink from the glass, which he’d bet a week’s profits wasn’t her first of the evening.

“Yeah, that could change. If you’re trying to give me the boot, then be straight about it.”

“I need some space.”

“And clichés like that are more weak bullshit. You can do better.”

“I shouldn’t have started this . . . thing with you, and it’s moved too fast, gotten too complicated.”

Anger, and something he couldn’t quite pin down, spiked into her voice.

“I’m tired of feeling surrounded and boxed in. And it just needs to stop. Just stop. You, the house, the yard. God, the dog. It’s all too much. It’s all a mistake, and it needs to stop.”

He wanted to push back, and hard, because, Jesus, she’d hurt him. He hadn’t expected the punch or just how completely it flattened him.

Complicated? She had that right. Complications twisted up inside him he hadn’t known existed.

But she was shaking, and her breath came just a little too fast. She was working herself up to another panic attack, and he’d damn well know why.

“You want me gone, I’ll go. I’ll take the damn dog if that’s how you want it. I don’t force myself on anyone. But give me the truth.”

“I just did! This is a mistake. All of this, and I need to correct it.”

“By dumping me, the dog, this house, what you’ve started making here? That’s not what you want.”

“You don’t know what I want.” She hurled the words at him, along with a fear-tinted rage. “You don’t know me.”

“I damn well do.”

“You don’t! That’s the bullshit. You don’t know me, who I am, or what I am. You know weeks, the weeks I’ve been here. You don’t know anything from before. You don’t know me.”

It struck him then, clear as glass. That unidentified something under it all, the base of the anger and fear. It was grief.

“Yes, I do.” He set the beer aside, rose. “I know who you are, where you came from, what you went through, and what you’re trying to make now, away from it.”

She shook her head, took a step in retreat. “You can’t.” He saw her lips tremble before she pressed them together, saw tears glitter before she forced them back.

“Chief Winston told you.”

Now he had the match on the fuse. “No, I haven’t talked to him, haven’t seen him since the cemetery. But you have. He didn’t tell me anything. You did.”

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