Heartbreaker by Linda Howard

  One Monday afternoon she’d been on an errand for John, and on the return trip she detoured by her house to check things again. She walked through the huge rooms, making certain no pipes had sprung a leak or anything else needed repair. It was odd; she hadn’t been away that long, but the house felt less and less like her home. It was hard to remember how it had been before John Rafferty had come storming into her life again; his presence was so intense it blocked out lesser details. Her troubled dreams had almost disappeared, and even when she had one, she would wake to find him beside her in the night, strong and warm. It was becoming easier to trust, to accept that she wasn’t alone to face whatever happened.

  It was growing late, and the shadows lengthened in the house; she carefully locked the door behind her and walked out to the car. Abruptly she shivered, as if something cold had touched her. She looked around, but everything was normal. Birds sang in the trees; insects hummed. But for a moment she’d felt it again, that sense of menace. It was odd.

  Logic told her there was nothing to it, but when she was in the car she locked the doors. She laughed a little at herself. First a couple of phone calls had seemed spooky, and now she was “feeling” things in the air.

  Because there was so little traffic on the secondary roads between her ranch and John’s, she didn’t use the rearview mirrors very much. The car was on her rear bumper before she noticed it, and even then she got only a glimpse before it swung to the left to pass. The road was narrow, and she edged to the right to give the other car more room. It pulled even with her, and she gave it a cursory glance just as it suddenly swerved toward her.

  “Watch it!” she yelled, jerking the steering wheel to the right, but there was a loud grinding sound as metal rubbed against metal. The Mercedes, smaller than the other car, was pushed violently to the right. Michelle slammed on the brakes as she felt the two right wheels catch in the sandy soil of the shoulder, pulling the car even harder to that side.

  She wrestled with the steering wheel, too scared even to swear at the other driver. The other car shot past, and somehow she managed to jerk the Mercedes back onto the road. Shaking, she braked to a stop and leaned her head on the steering wheel, then sat upright as she heard tires squealing. The other car had gone down the road, but now had made a violent U-turn and was coming back. She only hoped whoever it was had insurance.

  The car was a big, blue full-size Chevrolet. She could tell that a man was driving, because the silhouette was so large. It was only a silhouette, because he had something black pulled over his head, like a ski mask.

  The coldness was back. She acted instinctively, jamming her foot onto the gas pedal, and the sporty little Mercedes leaped forward. The Chevrolet swerved toward her again, and she swung wildly to the side. She almost missed it…almost. The Chevrolet clipped her rear bumper, and the smaller, lighter car spun in a nauseating circle before sliding off the road, across the wide sandy shoulder, and scraping against an enormous pine before it bogged down in the soft dirt and weeds.

  She heard herself screaming, but the hard jolt that stopped the car stopped her screams, too. Dazed, her head lolled against the broken side window for a moment before terror drove the fogginess away. She groped for the handle, but couldn’t budge the door. The pine tree blocked it. She tried to scramble across the seat to the other door, and only then realized she was still buckled into her seat. Fumbling, looking around wildly for the Chevrolet, she released the buckle and threw herself to the other side of the car. She pushed the door open and tumbled out in the same motion, her breath wheezing in and out of her lungs.

  Numbly she crouched by the fender and tried to listen, but she could hear nothing over her tortuous breathing and the thunder of her heart. Old habits took over, and she used a trick she’d often used before to calm herself after one of Roger’s insane rages, taking a deep breath and holding it. The maneuver slowed her heartbeat almost immediately, and the roar faded out of her ears.

  She couldn’t hear anything. Oh, God, had he stopped? Cautiously she peered over the car, but she couldn’t see the blue Chevrolet.

  Slowly she realized it had gone. He hadn’t stopped. She stumbled to the road and looked in both directions, but the road was empty.

  She couldn’t believe it had happened. He had deliberately run her off the road, not once, but twice. If the small Mercedes had hit one of the huge pines that thickly lined the road head-on, she could easily have been killed. Whoever the man was, he must have figured the heavier Chevrolet could muscle her off the road without any great risk to himself.

  He’d tried to kill her.

  It was five minutes before another car came down the road; it was blue, and for a horrible moment she panicked, thinking the Chevrolet was returning, but as it came closer she could tell this car was much older and wasn’t even a Chevrolet. She stumbled to the middle of the road, waving her arms to flag it down.

  All she could think of was John. She wanted John. She wanted him to hold her close and shut the terror away with his strength and possessiveness. Her voice shook as she leaned in the window and told the young boy, “Please—call John Rafferty. Tell him I’ve been…I’ve had an accident. Tell him I’m all right.”

  “Sure, lady,” the boy said. “What’s your name?”

  “Michelle,” she said. “My name’s Michelle.”

  The boy looked at the car lodged against the pine. “You need a wrecker, too. Are you sure you’re all right?”

  “Yes, I’m not hurt. Just hurry, please.”

  “Sure thing.”

  Either John called the sheriff’s department or the boy had, because John and a county sheriff’s car arrived from opposite directions almost simultaneously. It hadn’t been much more than ten minutes since the boy had stopped, but in that short length of time it had grown considerably darker. John threw his door open as the truck ground to a stop and was out of the vehicle before it had settled back on its wheels, striding toward her. She couldn’t move toward him; she was shaking too violently. Beneath his mustache his lips were a thin, grim line.

  He walked all the way around her, checking her from head to foot. Only when he didn’t see any blood on her did he haul her against his chest, his arms so tight they almost crushed her. He buried his hand in her hair and bent his head down until his jaw rested on her temple. “Are you really all right?” he muttered hoarsely.

  Her arms locked around his waist in a death grip. “I was wearing my seat belt,” she whispered. A single tear slid unnoticed down her cheek.

  “God, when I got that phone call—” He broke off, because there was no way he could describe the stark terror he’d felt despite the kid’s assurance that she was okay. He’d had to see her for himself, hold her, before he could really let himself believe she wasn’t harmed. If he’d seen blood on her, he would have gone berserk. Only now was his heartbeat settling down, and he looked over her head at the car.

  The deputy approached them, clipboard in hand. “Can you answer a few questions, ma’am?”

  John’s arms dropped from around her, but he remained right beside her as she answered the usual questions about name, age and driver’s license number. When the deputy asked her how it had happened, she began shaking again.

  “A…a car ran me off the road,” she stammered. “A blue Chevrolet.”

  The deputy looked up, his eyes abruptly interested as a routine accident investigation became something more. “Ran you off the road? How?”

  “He sideswiped me.” Fiercely she clenched her fingers together in an effort to still their trembling. “He pushed me off the road.”

  “He didn’t just come too close, and you panicked and ran off the road?” John asked, his brows drawing together.

  “No! He pushed me off the road. I slammed on my brakes and he went on past, then turned around and came back.”

  “He came back? Did you get his name?” The deputy made a notatio
n on his pad. Leaving the scene of an accident was a crime.

  “No, he didn’t stop. He…he tried to ram me. He hit my bumper, and I spun off the road, then into that pine tree.”

  John jerked his head at the deputy and they walked over to the car, bending down to inspect the damage. They talked together in low voices; Michelle couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she didn’t move closer. She stood by the road, listening to the peaceful sounds of the deepening Florida twilight. It was all so out of place. How could the crickets be chirping so happily when someone had just tried to commit murder? She felt dazed, as if none of this were real. But the damaged car was real. The blue Chevrolet had been real, as had the man wearing the black ski mask.

  The two men walked back toward her. John looked at her sharply; her face was deathly white, even in the growing gloom, and she was shaking. She looked terrified. The Mercedes was an expensive car; did she expect him to tear a strip off her hide because she’d wrecked it? She’d never had to worry about things like that before, never had to be accountable for anything. If she’d banged a fender, it hadn’t been important; her father had simply had the car repaired, or bought her a new one. Hell, he wasn’t happy that she’d wrecked the damn car, but he wasn’t a fanatic about cars, no matter how much they cost. It would have been different if she’d ruined a good horse. He was just thankful she wasn’t hurt.

  “It’s all right,” he said, trying to soothe her as he took her arm and walked her to the truck. “I have insurance on it. You’re okay, and that’s what matters. Just calm down. I’ll take you home as soon as the deputy’s finished with his report and the wrecker gets here.”

  Frantically she clutched his arm. “But what about—”

  He kissed her and rubbed her shoulder. “I said it’s all right, baby. I’m not mad. You don’t have to make excuses.”

  Frozen, Michelle sat in the truck and watched as he walked back to the deputy. He didn’t believe her; neither of them believed her. It was just like before, when no one would believe handsome, charming Roger Beckman was capable of hitting his wife, because it was obvious he adored her. It was just too unbelievable. Even her father had thought she was exaggerating.

  She was so cold, even though the temperature was still in the nineties. She had begun to trust, to accept that John stood behind her, as unmoving as a block of granite, his strength available whenever she needed him. For the first time she hadn’t felt alone. He’d been there, ready to shoulder her burdens. But suddenly it was just like before, and she was cold and alone again. Her father had given her everything materially, but had been too weak to face an ugly truth. Roger had showered her with gifts, pampering her extravagantly to make up for the bruises and terror. John had given her a place to live, food to eat, mind-shattering physical pleasure…but now he, too, was turning away from a horribly real threat. It was too much effort to believe such a tale. Why would anyone try to kill her?

  She didn’t know, but someone had. The phone calls…the phone calls were somehow connected. They’d given her the same feeling she’d had just before she got in the car, the same sense of menace. God, had he been watching her at her house? Had he been waiting for her? He could be anywhere. He knew her, but she didn’t know him, and she was alone again. She’d always been alone, but she hadn’t known it. For a while she’d trusted, hoped, and the contrast with that warm feeling of security made cold reality just that much more piercing.

  The wrecker arrived with its yellow lights flashing and backed up to the Mercedes. Michelle watched with detached interest as the car was hauled away from the pine. She didn’t even wince at the amount of damage that had been done to the left side. John thought she’d made up a wild tale to keep from having to accept blame for wrecking the car. He didn’t believe her. The deputy didn’t believe her. There should be blue paint on the car, but evidently the scrapes left by the big pine had obscured it. Maybe dirt covered it. Maybe it was too dark for them to see. For whatever reason, they didn’t believe her.

  She was utterly silent as John drove home. Edie came to the door, watching anxiously, then hurried forward as Michelle slid out of the truck.

  “Are you all right? John left here like a bat out of hell, didn’t stop to tell us anything except you’d had an accident.”

  “I’m fine,” Michelle murmured. “I just need a bath. I’m freezing.”

  Frowning, John touched her arm. It was icy, despite the heat. She wasn’t hurt, but she’d had a shock.

  “Make some coffee,” he instructed Edie as he turned Michelle toward the stairs. “I’ll give her a bath.”

  Slowly Michelle pulled away from him. Her face was calm. “No, I’ll do it. I’m all right. Just give me a few minutes by myself.”

  After a hot but brief shower, she went downstairs and drank coffee, and even managed to eat a few bites of the meal Edie had put back when John tore out of the house.

  In bed that night, for the first time she couldn’t respond to him. He needed her almost desperately, to reassure himself once again that she was truly all right. He needed to strengthen the bond between them, to draw her even closer with ties as old as time. But though he was gentle and stroked her for a long time, she remained tense under his hands. She was still too quiet, somehow distant from him.

  Finally he just held her, stroking her hair until she slept and her soft body relaxed against him. But he lay awake for hours, his body burning, his eyes open. God, how close he’d come to losing her!

  Chapter Nine

  JOHN LISTENED IMPATIENTLY, his hard, dark face angry, his black eyes narrowed. Finally he said, “It hasn’t been three months since I straightened all that out. How the hell did you manage to get everything in a mess this fast?”

  Michelle looked up from the figures she was posting in, curious to learn the identity of his caller. He hadn’t said much more than hello before he’d begun getting angry. Finally he said, “All right. I’ll be down tomorrow. And if you’re out partying when I get there, the way you were last time, I’ll turn around and come home. I don’t have time to cool my heels while you’re playing.” He hung up the phone and muttered a graphic expletive.

  “Who was it?” Michelle asked.

  “Mother.” A wealth of irritation was in the single word.

  She was stunned. “Your mother?”

  He looked at her for a moment; then his mustache twitched a little as he almost smiled. “You don’t have to sound so shocked. I got here by the normal method.”

  “But you’ve never mentioned… I guess I assumed she was dead, like your father.”

  “She cut out a long time ago. Ranching wasn’t good enough for her; she liked the bright lights of Miami and the money of Palm Beach, so she walked out one fine day and never came back.”

  “How old were you?”

  “Six or seven, something like that. Funny, I don’t remember being too upset when she left, or missing her very much. Mostly I remember how she used to complain because the house was small and old, and because there was never much money. I was with Dad every minute I wasn’t in school, but I was never close to Mother.”

  She felt as she had when she’d discovered he had been married. He kept throwing out little tidbits about himself, then dismissing these vital points of his life as if they hadn’t affected him much at all. Maybe they hadn’t. John was a hard man, made so by a lifetime of backbreaking work and the combination of arrogance and steely determination in his personality. But how could a child not be affected when his mother walked away? How could a young man, little more than a boy, not be affected when his new wife walked out rather than work by his side? To this day John would do anything to help someone who was trying, but he wouldn’t lift a finger to aid anyone who sat around waiting for help. All his employees were loyal to him down to their last drop of blood. If they hadn’t been, they wouldn’t still be on his ranch.

  “When you went to Miami before,
it was to see your mother?”

  “Yeah. She makes a mess of her finances at least twice a year and expects me to drop everything, fly down there and straighten it out.”

  “Which you do.”

  He shrugged. “We may not be close, but she’s still my mother.”

  “Call me this time,” she said distinctly, giving him a hard look that underlined her words.

  He grunted, looking irritated, then gave her a wink as he turned to call the airlines. Michelle listened as he booked a flight to Miami for the next morning. Then he glanced at her and said “Wait a minute” into the receiver before putting his hand over the mouthpiece. “Want to come with me?” he asked her.

  Panic flared in her eyes before she controlled it and shook her head. “No thanks. I need to catch up on the paperwork.”

  It was a flimsy excuse, as the accumulated work wouldn’t take more than a day, but though John gave her a long, level look, he didn’t argue with her. Instead he moved his fingers from the mouthpiece and said, “Just one. That’s right. No, not round trip. I don’t know what day I’ll be coming back. Yeah, thanks.”

  He scribbled his flight number and time on a notepad as he took the phone from his ear and hung up. Since the accident, Michelle hadn’t left the ranch at all, for any reason. He’d picked up the newly repaired Mercedes three days ago, but it hadn’t been moved from the garage since. Accidents sometimes made people nervous about driving again, but he sensed that something more was bothering her.

Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]