Authors: Linda Wisdom
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Romantic Suspense, #contemporary romance
“The bastard came by the school this afternoon and told the office that he was supposed to pick up Brian for a dental appointment!” Mitzi sobbed, twisting her purse straps between her fingers.
Josh handed her a tissue. “The school is aware of the restraining order you obtained. Did they call the police?”
She nodded, taking several deep, calming breaths. “The secretary was alert enough to write a note to one of the clerks to call the police while she stalled Steve by claiming she didn’t know what class Brian was in and would have to look up his file. He got suspicious and started screaming that they were keeping him from his son. When the police showed up, he was running down the halls, yelling Brian’s name and frightening the children, especially the smaller ones.” She covered her nose with the Kleenex and blew noisily. “By the time I got there, Brian was in hysterics. He…”—she stopped to catch her breath—”he thought Steve had killed me and had come to kill him.”
“Shit,” Josh said under his breath, easily visualizing what had to be a chaotic scene as he glanced over the notes of the incident. He knew the official report wouldn’t be written up yet, and therefore, he’d asked Ginnie to get any information on it she could. Naturally, she came through with flying colors. He decided Mitzi wasn’t ready to learn that the officer who arrested Steve found a loaded handgun in her ex-husband’s jacket pocket.
“Mitzi, the man was uncontrollable when the police officer tried to arrest him. He was taken to the hospital because his behavior was so erratic and they thought at first he might be on drugs. He’s since been placed under psychiatric observation, so you have nothing to worry about.”
“Until he gets out.” She swiped at her tears with her fingertips. “I can’t live this way, Josh. I’m always afraid that he’ll show up again. Afraid that he’ll break into the house one night and hold a knife to my throat, the way he did that one night. I’m so scared he’ll lose what little control he has.”
Her words ended in a sob. “What if he turns all that anger on Brian? He’s just a little boy, and he sometimes acts as if he’s lived through a major war. He jumps at the slightest sound. He has nightmares. He’s suffering emotional problems at school. His teachers understand, but it can’t keep on this way,” she appealed to him, grabbing hold of his hand. “Josh, you’re the only one I feel safe saying these things to. It’s times like this I’m embarrassed to work in the public defender’s office. They work to keep people like Steve out of jail when I’m begging the system to keep him in there!”
“Honey, it’s their job to worry about a person’s rights,” he soothed, uneasily aware she was right.
Ginnie slipped inside the office and placed her hands on Mitzi’s shoulders. “Come on, honey, let’s wash your face. You’ll feel much better.” Her gentle voice was at odds with her usual acerbic nature. She pulled the younger woman to her feet and led her out while shooting a telling look at Josh over her shoulder
. Okay, hotshot, do something
He picked up the phone, at first having no idea who he was going to call or what he was going to say. He only hoped he could come up with something in the next few minutes that would ease Mitzi’s mind. “Why not just come right out and ask for a damn miracle while you’re at it? That might be the easiest thing.”
As Josh quickly made several calls, a question nagged at the back of his mind. Could Mitzi be the one behind these nasty jokes? Could she have misunderstood his assistance for something on a more personal level? The idea of his not daring to trust any woman he came in contact with, no matter how casual, wasn’t a pleasant prospect. He didn’t consider himself a perfect individual, and the hellish limbo he felt himself in at times wasn’t anything he was used to.
“Dr. Hunter’s on line two for you,” one of the other secretaries called through the open door. “Shall I tell her you’ll call her back later?”
“No, I’ll take it now. She can’t have any worse news for me than what I’ve already been hearing,” he muttered, picking up the phone. “Lauren?”
“One and the same.”
He grinned. “By calling me, you’ve made my day. What can I do for you?”
“It’s more what I can do for you. Kevin sent over copies of the reports last week and I immediately faxed them to Dana, my psychiatrist friend. She called me last night and said if you’re available, she’d like to get together with you next Friday afternoon around three to discuss what she’s come up with. Shall I tell her that’s all right, or would you like to call her directly?”
He turned the calendar pages until he came to the appropriate day and scanned his schedule. “There shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you’re free, too, and I don’t need to talk to her ahead of time.”
“Then I’ll let her know we’ll be there.” A man’s voice sounded faintly in the background. Lauren uttered a sigh of disgust. “Excuse me, but I have to go kick some butt and carve up a few bodies to earn my living. Try to keep yourself out of trouble, Counselor.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He was still smiling when he hung up.
“Josh?” Mitzi hovered just inside the office, still tearstained, and uncertain whether to walk into the room the rest of the way.
“Come on in.” He quickly returned to the present and gestured for her to enter as he looked over the notes he’d taken during his phone calls while she was gone. “I was right. Steve has been hospitalized for a thirty-day psychiatric evaluation. During his first five minutes in there, he’s already punched out an orderly and slammed a nurse against a wall. At the rate his popularity is growing, I have an idea he’s going to be there a hell of a lot longer than thirty days.”
The woman looked as if she wasn’t sure whether to smile her relief or cry. “You’ve been a great help, Josh,” she said, in a husky voice bordering on tears. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay you for your help.”
He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s just that few men care about women victims the way you do, and I want you to know how much I appreciate all you’ve done for us,” she insisted, clasping his hand between hers as she reached up and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you.”
After she left in the midst of another wave of tears, these of relief, he leaned back in his chair, feeling as if he’d just gone through an intense session. For a moment he felt as if there had been more than your normal everyday gratitude in Mitzi’s voice when she’d thanked him. He hated to consider that she might be the one making his life hell. But then, he couldn’t discount anyone, and Mitzi did have access to his schedule.
Right about now, he hated anything and everything that had to do with women.
“What, no flowers?” one of the other attorneys kidded Josh, as the two men walked past the desks of clerks and secretaries. “Did I lose track of time, or did your secret admirer move on to someone else?”
“Up yours, Hampton,” Josh told him.
“That’s right, Brandon, keep that stiff upper lip! You can always find another woman.”
“It is pretty odd, no flower delivery,” Ginnie told him, as she followed him into his office. “They’re always here first thing in the morning. Sheila’s devastated. It was her turn this week.”
“Then call a damn florist and have something delivered to her,” he growled, starting to drop his briefcase on his desk, but he changed his mind after seeing the pile of message slips. He sifted through them and grimaced at one in particular. “Did she say why she was calling?”
“Just that she’s been thinking about you a lot lately and she’s so sorry for all those horrible things she said to her honey bunny the last time you were together.” Ginnie uttered the last few words in a syrupy drawl. “I’d say she wants you back. She exuded enough hormones over the phone that even I could have gotten horny.”
Josh crumpled the message slip in his hand and dropped it in the wastebasket.
“You know she’ll call back.”
“And if I’m here, I’ll talk to her and remind her she was the one who broke up with me and I have no desire to get back with her again. But I won’t bother calling her back.”
If that was to be his only dark spot for the day, he didn’t care. He was only relieved that his unknown admirer hadn’t somehow found out about his appointment with Lauren’s friend. There were days he’d felt so paranoid, he even wondered if his phone was bugged, and he’d had it electronically swept on a regular basis to make sure it was clean.
He’d also taken special steps by not putting his meeting with Lauren’s friend down on his desk calendar or mentioning it to anyone. Not even to Ginnie. While he trusted his assistant implicitly and knew she couldn’t be the one, he still couldn’t trust that a certain someone might find out without Ginnie realizing what was going on. His loyal assistant could keep her mouth shut, but what if it was someone around here who knew how to push all the right buttons? He didn’t even want to consider it.
Not when he could feel a faint, cold spot on the back of his neck. Heather wanted back in his life, and she had been strange to begin with. Funny, he hadn’t even considered her when all this began. He was grateful he was going to see that psychologist friend of Lauren’s. Too many strange things were happening in his life. He needed something to balance it. Other than thoughts of Lauren.
First thing Friday, he merely told Ginnie he was taking off early that day and that she could do the same. Feeling the need to be cautious, he took a circuitous route to Lauren’s house, just to be on the safe side.
“Our crime rate isn’t that bad, you know,” he commented, inclining his head toward the security alarm keypad bolted into the wall by the front door.
“I’m from LA and believe in being safe and not sorry. I don’t appreciate unwanted visitors.” She pulled on a dark green jacket.
He was positive there was a lot more to her not-so-casual statement. He told himself there was no reason to have those unsettling feelings; he wasn’t officially dating Lauren. But lately, he’d gotten suspicious of everyone, including the paperboy. “Have you had any lately?”
“No more than most people. I just like to be prepared.” She paused and looked back as she picked up her shoulder bag.
“Such as?” he persisted.
Lauren shook her head. “Somebody with kinky thoughts decided it was fun to rummage through my clothing and makeup. No big deal.”
He wasn’t convinced. “It could be.”
She looked up. “I prefer to keep it low key, all right?”
Josh was frustrated by her refusal to take it seriously, but he figured if he said too much she’d think he was merely being paranoid. He’d let it drop—for now.
“How many people know about your appointment with Dana today?” she asked, as they walked to his car.
“You, naturally, and me, and I guess Dana. I figured it was better if no one else knew. I only told Ginnie I was taking the rest of the day off for personal reasons. I recently finished a heavy-duty case, so it’s not surprising I’d want to take a day for myself.”
Lauren didn’t speak again until they were in the car and on the road. “Has anything happened recently?”
Josh shook his head. “So far, the lady has been quiet. There weren’t any flowers delivered yesterday. That was the most noticeable. And the house has even been left undisturbed. I guess I’m just one of those who always waits for the other shoe to drop, and the waiting is the hardest. How about you?”
“I’m not the one with the problem.”
“Then why would you install a heavy-duty security system?” He pulled over to the side of the road.
Lauren made a production of looking at her watch. “We’re going to be late.”
“Why, Lauren? I can’t imagine you’re one of those paranoid women who look under the bed before climbing into it. There has to be a reason.”
She took a deep breath. She wasn’t surprised he figured it out. “I came home from work one night and something about the house made me think someone had been there.” She didn’t have to look at him to sense his interest. She looked up. “Nothing was taken and nothing was out of order, except for a perfume bottle top left on my dresser.”
“And you hadn’t worn that perfume that day,” he easily guessed.
She nodded. “I told Detective Peterson about it. End of story.”
Josh took a deep breath. “She’s found a new outlet. You.”
“There’s no guarantee it was the same person,” she protested.
“And there’s no guarantee it wasn’t.” He touched her cheek with the back of his fingers. “Please be careful, Lauren.”
“Don’t worry, I fully intend to.”
He still wasn’t convinced, but he knew he had to take her word.
Lauren knew she wasn’t going to tell Josh just how she felt about all that. That she didn’t sleep as soundly as she used to. And that she kept her gun within easy reach. She knew she wouldn’t hesitate shooting anyone who dared to break in while she was there.
“It’s really getting to you, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I’m not used to having someone know my movements more intimately than even I do,” Josh admitted.
“Probably another term for it would be male frustration over something they can’t control. I wonder if more men are stalked by women or vice versa.”
“I don’t know. It used to be you only heard about men stalking women, but now more and more men are becoming the victims nowadays.” He chuckled, but there was no humor in the sound. “I guess you could call it another strike for women’s lib.”
She nodded. “Rumor has it you’re very active in women’s issues—domestic violence, rape. That you even successfully prosecuted a date rape case before it became such a hot issue. That’s not an easy crime to convict, and back then it was even harder than it is now.”
“It was easy to convict when the attacker had a less-than-desirable background like this kid had. He liked to date girls who didn’t have a strong family life and might be known to have low self-esteem. He scared them out of filing charges by saying no one would believe them and then convinced them it was actually something they’d brought on themselves. Except one time, he chose a girl who refused to be scared off,” he said grimly. “She took a lot of flack from him and his family and their high-priced lawyer as they tried to paint a pretty dirty picture of her, but she refused to back down from any of the slime they threw at her. She said he deserved everything he could get. Unfortunately, the judge only gave him community service, but his past caught up with him.”
She stared, unseeing, out the window. “I hope a woman finally had enough and shot him.”
He shook his head. “He’d have been better off had he been shot. Instead, he died of AIDS about eighteen months ago. All of his known victims were contacted with the news, and so far, only two have tested positive.”
Lauren sighed. “No wonder so many people talk about the darker side of justice.”
She sat back in the seat, taking covert glances at Josh as they traveled down the freeway. Since her divorce, she’d deliberately kept herself away from the opposite sex because she knew she was still working things out in her mind. Except Josh was proving to be a different breed of man than she’d met in the past, and she felt something about him she never did about Ron, her ex-husband. She still wasn’t sure if it was the dawning of sexual interest, or something more complex. And with what was going on in Josh’s life and what she’d heard about his social past, so to speak, she also wasn’t sure he was the kind of man she’d even consider getting involved with.
She still wondered what the real story behind the man was. So far, all she’d heard were rumors why a hotshot prosecutor was working in an out-of-the-way area where chance of advancement was minimal and headline-grabbing cases very few and far between. But then, considering she was there to lick her wounds after her divorce and to rethink her life, she knew she had no reason to question him without inviting unwanted questions on his part.
Josh was also taking stock of Lauren. She was dressed more casually today than the other times he’d seen her, with her hair pulled back in a French braid and dark tan pants, paired with a teal blue print silk top under a darker teal lightweight jacket. He wasn’t about to tell her he’d done a little discreet checking on her, but the reports he received on her were surprisingly sparse, containing things he already knew. She was divorced, and she was gaining an excellent reputation in forensic medicine. He used to think there wasn’t a woman on earth who could completely fascinate him. Now he learned there was. He couldn’t help but wonder if it didn’t have to do with his feeling that there was a darker side to Lauren Hunter. The trouble was, he would be the first to admit his life wasn’t exactly ready for what could be a big change when there was so much turmoil going on. He only hoped there would be a chance to find out, once everything settled down.
The rest of the drive was spent in silence, punctuated only by Lauren’s directions the closer they got to the Los Angeles city limits.
“Turn left at the next signal,” she directed, suddenly realizing how close they were to their destination.
“Pretty humble digs for a doctor with her credentials,” he commented, when she directed him to a small medical complex not far from the county courthouse.
“Dana likes to keep a low profile, which is why she shies away from the ultramodern medical buildings where doctors like to make themselves look more important,” Lauren explained, as Josh helped her out of the car and they crossed the parking lot toward the sprawling one-story building. “She also works a lot with the police and fire departments with burnout cases, so this is more accessible for them.”
A stocky man wearing jeans and a denim jacket stared at her for a moment before quickly crossing in Lauren’s path, forcing her to stop short. “Well, if it isn’t the Queen Butcher herself,” he said in greeting. “How ya’ doing, Laur?”
Her smile froze on her lips. “Hello, Mark, still working Vice?”
“Nothing but. Still screwing up a cop’s case with your so-called ‘expert testimony’?” He flicked a glance in Josh’s direction and quickly dismissed him as any kind of threat.
“Mark had a murder case he was positive was airtight. Unfortunately, it turned out not to be after I performed the autopsy on a man he’d shot, because he was convinced he was the killer. The man turned out to be a poor soul who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Lauren didn’t take her eyes off the man’s sneering features as she related the facts to Josh. “Internal Affairs took over from there.”
Mark leaned forward and snarled in her face, the smell of beer heavy on his breath. “All you had to do was erase one little line and no one would have known the difference, but you were too self-righteous to do that, weren’t you? You refused to help out one of your husband’s friends.”
“Mark, this gentleman is an assistant district attorney for the County of Riverside. Are you sure you want to say anything more about tampering with evidence? I’m sure he’d love to hear all about it, so he can get hold of his colleagues here to come by and take a statement.” Her pleasant tone was steel-coated.
He reared back. “The boss always said you were a grade-A bitch when you were in your doctor mode and how he was better off without you after everything that happened. No wonder you’re running around with an ADA.”
“You know what, Mark? I could really care less what he thinks about me. We have an appointment to keep. Don’t expect me to say it’s been nice seeing you, because it’s not.” She pushed past him.
“Lady, you’ve got some interesting friends,” Josh drawled, following Lauren down the narrow hallway. “So tell me, what does he do for kicks? Terrorize hookers for freebies, or does he just beat up kids when he’s had an off day?”
“He’s been known for that and more, but nothing’s ever been proven, which is why the bastard’s still on the force.” She stopped at a door and opened it. A buzzer sounded discreetly from within the next room. Lauren dropped into a chair and immediately picked up a magazine. The jerky way she flipped through the pages told Josh how much the encounter had angered her.
He walked around the waiting room, noticing the lack of a desk for any front-office personnel. “No receptionist?”
“Dana’s work is all by appointment, and even that’s only part time, since she still consults with various government agencies so much.” She didn’t look up from the article she pretended to read.
Josh turned when the inner door opened. His jaw nearly dropped to the floor. The woman walking out was definitely not his idea of a psychiatrist.
“Lauren, my dear, you’ve achieved the impossible. You’ve somehow managed to find a reincarnation of the Marlboro Man.” Dana’s low voice was pure sex on the hoof as she studied Josh from head to toe. “Why can’t I get that lucky?”