Heartbreaker by Linda Howard

  “I’ll start checking. There are a few favors I can call in. You might put a tape on your phone, so if he calls back you’ll have proof.”

  “There’s something else,” John said, rubbing his forehead. “Michelle had an accident a few weeks ago. She said someone ran her off the road, a guy in a blue Chevrolet. I didn’t believe her, damn it, and neither did the deputy. No one saw anything, and we didn’t find any paint on the car, so I thought someone might have gotten a little close to her and she panicked. But she said he turned around, came back and tried to hit her again.”

  “That’s not your usual someone-ran-me-off-the-road tale,” Andy said sharply. “Has she said anything else?”

  “No. She hasn’t talked about it at all.”

  “You’re thinking it could be her ex-husband.”

  “I don’t know. It might not have anything at all to do with the phone calls, but I don’t want to take the chance.”

  “Okay, I’ll check around. Keep an eye on her, and hook a tape recorder up to the phone.”

  John hung up and sat there for a long time, silently using every curse word he knew. Keeping an eye on her would be easy; she hadn’t been off the ranch since the accident, hadn’t even gone to check her own house. Now he knew why, and he damned himself and Roger Beckman with equal ferocity. If he’d only paid attention the night of the accident, they might have been able to track down the Chevrolet, but so much time had passed now that he doubted it would ever be found. At least Michelle hadn’t connected Beckman with the accident, and John didn’t intend to mention the possibility to her. She was scared enough as it was.

  It infuriated him that he couldn’t do anything except wait for Andy to get back to him. Even then, it might be a dead end. But if Beckman was anywhere in the area, John intended to pay him a visit and make damned certain he never contacted Michelle again.

  MICHELLE BOLTED UPRIGHT in bed, her eyes wide and her face chalky. Beside her, John stirred restlessly and reached for her, but didn’t awaken. She lay back down, taking comfort in his nearness, but both her mind and her heart were racing.

  It was Roger.

  Roger had been driving the blue Chevrolet. Roger had tried to kill her. He wasn’t in France at all, but here in Florida, biding his time and waiting to catch her out alone. She remembered the feeling she had had before the accident, as if someone were watching her with vile malice, the same feeling the phone calls had given her. She should have tied it all together before.

  He’d found out about John. Michelle even knew how he’d found out. Bitsy Sumner, the woman she and John had met in Tampa when they’d gone down to have the deed drawn up, was the worst gossip in Palm Beach. It wouldn’t have taken long for the news to work its way up to Philadelphia that Michelle Cabot was very snuggly with an absolute hunk, a gorgeous, macho rancher with bedroom eyes that made Bitsy feel so warm. Michelle could almost hear Bitsy on the telephone, embroidering her tale and laughing wickedly as she speculated about the sexy rancher.

  Roger had probably convinced himself that Michelle would come back to him; she could still hear him whispering how much he loved her, that he’d make it up to her and show her how good it could be between them. He would have gone into a jealous rage when he found out about John. At last he had known who the other man was, confirming the suspicions he’d had all along.

  His mind must have snapped completely. She remembered what he’d said the last time he had called: “How could you do this to me?”

  She felt trapped, panicked by the thought that he was out there somewhere, patiently waiting to catch her alone. She couldn’t go to the police; she had no evidence, only her intuition, and people weren’t arrested on intuition. Besides, she didn’t put a lot of faith in the police. Roger’s parents had bought them off in Philadelphia, and now Roger controlled all those enormous assets. He had unlimited funds at his disposal; who knew what he could buy? He might even have hired someone, in which case she had no idea who to be on guard against.

  Finally she managed to go to sleep, but the knowledge that Roger was nearby ate at her during the next few days, disturbing her rest and stealing her appetite away. Despite the people around her, she felt horribly alone.

  She wanted to talk to John about it, but bitter experience made her remain silent. How could she talk to him when he didn’t believe her about the phone calls or the accident? He had hooked a tape recorder up to the telephone, but he hadn’t discussed it with her, and she hadn’t asked any questions. She didn’t want to know about it if he were only humoring her. Things had become stilted between them since the last time Roger had called, and she felt even less able to approach him than she had before. Only in bed were things the same; she had begun to fear that he was tiring of her, but he didn’t seem tired of her in bed. His lovemaking was still as hungry and frequent as before.

  Abruptly, on a hot, sunny morning, she couldn’t stand it any longer. She had been pushed so far that she had reached her limit. Even a rabbit will turn and fight when it’s cornered. She was tired of it all, so tired that she sometimes felt she was dragging herself through water. Damn Roger! What did she have to do to get him out of her life? There had to be something. She couldn’t spend the rest of her days peering around every corner, too terrified to even go to a grocery store. It made her angry when she thought how she had let him confine her as surely as if he’d locked her in a prison, and beginning today she was going to do something about it.

  She still had the file that had won her a divorce; now that his parents were dead the file didn’t mean as much, but it still meant something. It was documented proof that Roger had attacked her once before. If he would only call again, she would have his call on tape, and perhaps she could get him to say something damaging. This was Florida, not Philadelphia; that much money would always be influential, but down here he wouldn’t have the network of old family friends to protect him.

  But the file was in the safe at her house, and she wanted it in her possession, at John’s. She didn’t feel secure leaving it in an empty house, even though she kept the door locked. The house could easily be broken into, and the safe was a normal household one; she doubted whether it would prove to be all that secure if anyone truly wanted to open it. If Roger somehow got the file, she’d have no proof at all. Those photographs and records couldn’t be replaced.

  Making up her mind, she told Edie she was going riding and ran out to the stables. It was a pleasant ride across the pastures to her ranch, but she didn’t enjoy it as she normally would have, because of the knot of tension forming in her stomach. Roger had seen her the last time she’d been there, and she couldn’t forget the terror she’d felt when she’d seen the blue Chevrolet bearing down on her.

  She approached the house from the rear, looking around uneasily as she slid off the horse, but everything was normal. The birds in the trees were singing. Quickly she checked all the doors and windows, but they all seemed tight, with no signs of forced entry. Only then did she enter the house and hurry to the office to open the safe. She removed the manila envelope and checked the contents, breathing a sigh of relief that everything was undisturbed, then slid the envelope inside her shirt and relocked the safe.

  The house had been closed up for a long time; the air was hot and stuffy. She felt dizzy as she stood up, and her stomach moved queasily. She hurried outside to the back porch, leaning against the wall and gulping fresh air into her lungs until her head cleared and her stomach settled. Her nerves were shot. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand it, but she had to wait. He would call again; she knew it. Until then, there was precious little she could do.

  Everything was still calm, quiet. The horse nickered a welcome at her as she mounted and turned toward home.

  The stableman came out to meet her as she rode up, relief plain on his face. “Thank God you’re back,” he said feelingly. “The boss is raising pure hell—excuse me, ma’am. Anyway, he’
s been tearing the place up looking for you. I’ll get word to him that you’re back.”

  “Why is he looking for me?” she asked, bewildered. She had told Edie that she was going riding.

  “I don’t know, ma’am.” He took the horse’s reins from her hands as she slid to the ground.

  Michelle went into the house and sought out Edie. “What has John in such an uproar?” she asked.

  Edie lifted her eyebrows. “I didn’t get close enough to ask.”

  “Didn’t you tell him I’d gone riding?”

  “Yep. That’s when he really blew up.”

  She thought something might have come up and he couldn’t find the paperwork he needed on it, but when she checked the office everything looked just as it had when she’d left that morning. Taking the manila envelope from inside her shirt, she locked it inside John’s safe, and only then did she feel better. She was safe here, surrounded by John’s people.

  A few minutes later she heard his truck come up the drive, and judging from its speed, his temper hadn’t settled any. More curious than alarmed, she walked out to meet him as the truck skidded to a stop, the tires throwing up a spray of sand and gravel. John thrust the door open and got out, his rifle clutched in his hand. His face was tight, and black fire burned in his eyes as he strode toward her. “Where in hell have you been?” he roared.

  Michelle looked at the rifle. “I was out riding.”

  He didn’t stop when he reached her, but caught her arm and hauled her inside the house. “Out riding where, damn it? I’ve had everyone combing the place for you.”

  “I went over to the house.” She was beginning to get a little angry herself at his manner, though she still didn’t know what had set him off. She lifted her nose and gave him a cool look. “I didn’t realize I had to ask permission to go to my own house.”

  “Well, honey bunch, you have to do exactly that,” he snapped, replacing the rifle in the gun cabinet. “I don’t want you going anywhere without asking me first.”

  “I don’t believe I’m your prisoner,” she said icily.

  “Prisoner, hell!” He whirled on her, unable to forget the raw panic that had filled him when he hadn’t been able to find her. Until he knew what was going on and where Roger Beckman was, he’d like to have her locked up in the bedroom for safekeeping. One look at her outraged face, however, told him that he’d gone about it all wrong, and she was digging her heels in.

  “I thought something had happened to you,” he said more quietly.

  “So you went tearing around the ranch looking for something to shoot?” she asked incredulously.

  “No. I went tearing around the ranch looking for you, and I carried the rifle in case you were in any danger.”

  She balled her hands into fists, wanting to slap him. He wouldn’t believe her about a real danger, but he was worried that she might sprain an ankle or take a tumble off a horse. “What danger could I possibly be in?” she snapped. “I’m sure there’s not a snake on the ranch that would dare bite anything without your permission!”

  His expression became rueful as he stared down at her. He lifted his hand and tucked a loose strand of sun-streaked hair behind her ear, but she still glared at him like some outraged queen. He liked her temper a lot better than the distant manner he’d been getting from her lately. “You’re pretty when you’re mad,” he teased, knowing how that would get her.

  For a moment she looked ready to spit. Then suddenly she sputtered, “You jackass,” and began laughing.

  He chuckled. No one could say “jackass” quite like Michelle, all hoity-toity and precise. He loved it. She could call him a jackass any time she wanted. Before she could stop laughing, he put his arms around her and hauled her against him, covering her mouth with his and slowly sliding his tongue between her lips. Her laughter stopped abruptly, her hands coming up to clutch his bulging biceps, and her tongue met his.

  “You worried the hell out of me,” he murmured when he lifted his mouth.

  “Not all of it, I noticed,” she purred, making him grin.

  “But I wasn’t kidding. I want to know whenever you go somewhere, and I don’t want you going over to your place alone. It’s been empty for quite a while, and a bum could start hanging around.”

  “What would a bum be doing this far out?” she asked.

  “What would a bum be doing anywhere? Crime isn’t restricted to cities. Please. For my peace of mind?”

  It was so unusual for John Rafferty to plead for anything that she could only stare at him. It struck her that even though he’d said please, he still expected that she would do exactly as he’d said. In fact, she was only being perverse because he’d been his usual autocratic, arrogant self and made her angry. It suited her perfectly to be cautious, for the time being.

  The dizziness and nausea she’d felt at the house must have been the beginning symptoms of some sort of bug, because she felt terrible the next day. She spent most of the day in bed, too tired and sick to worry about anything else. Every time she raised her head, the awful dizziness brought on another attack of nausea. She just wanted to be left alone.

  She felt marginally better the next morning, and managed to keep something in her stomach. John held her in his arms, worried about her listlessness. “If you aren’t a lot better tomorrow, I’m taking you to a doctor,” he said firmly.

  “It’s just a virus,” she sighed. “A doctor can’t do anything.”

  “You could get something to settle your stomach.”

  “I feel better today. What if you catch it?”

  “Then you can wait on me hand and foot until I’m better,” he said, chuckling at her expression of horror. He wasn’t worried about catching it. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even had a cold.

  She was much better the next day, and though she still didn’t feel like riding around the ranch, she did spend the morning in the office, feeding information into the computer and catching up on the books. It would be easier if they had a bookkeeping program for the computer; she made a note to ask John about it.

  Roger still hadn’t called.

  She balled her fist. She knew he was somewhere close by! How could she get him to come out of hiding? She could never live a normal life as long as she was afraid to leave the ranch by herself.

  But perhaps that was what she would have to do. Obviously Roger had some way of watching the ranch; she simply couldn’t believe the blue Chevrolet had been a coincidence, unconnected to Roger. He’d caught her off guard that time, but now she’d be looking for him. She had to draw him out.

  When John came to the house for lunch, she had twisted her hair up and put on a bit of makeup, and she knew she looked a lot better. “I thought I’d go to town for a few things,” she said casually. “Is there anything you need?”

  His head jerked up. She hadn’t driven at all since the accident, and now here she was acting as nonchalant about driving as if the accident had never happened at all. Before he had worried that she was so reluctant to go anywhere, but now he wanted her to stay close. “What things?” he asked sharply. “Where exactly are you going?”

  Her brows lifted at his tone. “Shampoo, hair conditioner, things like that.”

  “All right.” He made an impatient gesture. “Where are you going? What time will you be back?”

  “Really, you missed your calling. You should have been a prison guard.”

  “Just tell me.”

  Because she didn’t want him to deny her the use of the car, she said in a bored voice, “The drugstore, probably. I’ll be back by three.”

  He looked hard at her, then sighed and thrust his fingers through his thick black hair. “Just be careful.”

  She got up from the table. “Don’t worry. If I wreck the car again, I’ll pay for the damages with the money from the cattle sale.”

  He swore as he wa
tched her stalk away. Damn, what could he do now? Follow her? He slammed into the office and called Andy Phelps to find out if he had any information on Roger Beckman yet. All Andy had come up with was that no one by the name of Roger Beckman had been on a flight to France in the last month, but he might not have gone there directly. It took time to check everything.

  “I’ll keep trying, buddy. That’s all I can do.”

  “Thanks. Maybe I’m worried over nothing, but maybe I’m not.”

  “Yeah, I know. Why take chances? I’ll call when I get something.”

  John hung up, torn by the need to do something, anything. Maybe he should tell Michelle of his suspicions, explain why he didn’t want her wandering around by herself. But as Andy had pointed out, he really had nothing to go on, and he didn’t want to upset her needlessly. She’d had enough worry in her life. If he had his way, nothing would ever worry her again.

  Michelle drove to town and made her purchases, steeling herself every time a car drew near. But nothing happened; she didn’t see anything suspicious, not even at the spot where the Chevrolet had forced her off the road. Fiercely she told herself that she wasn’t paranoid, she hadn’t imagined it all. Roger was there, somewhere. She simply had to find him. But she wasn’t brave at all, and she was shaking with nerves by the time she got back to the ranch. She barely made it upstairs to the bathroom before her stomach rebelled and she retched miserably.

  She tried it again the next day. And the next. Nothing happened, except that John was in the foulest mood she could imagine. He never came right out and forbade her to go anywhere, but he made it plain he didn’t like it. If she hadn’t been desperate, she would have thrown the car keys in his face and told him what he could do with them.

  Roger had been watching her at her house that day. Could it be that he was watching that road instead of the one leading to town? He wouldn’t have seen her when she’d gone over to get the file from the safe because she had ridden in from the back rather than using the road. John had told her not to go to her house alone, but she wouldn’t have to go to the house. All she had to do was drive by on the road…and if Roger was there, he would follow her.

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