Read an Excerpt
"Ms. MacGregor, could you please tell us if your husband's alleged relationship with Miss Constein really happened?"
"They don't make any bones about baring their fangs, do they?" Clayton Matthews grimaced as the reporters flocked around the tall, slim woman who was just climbing out of her car. He leaned against the edge of his truck, watching the three-ring circus that had somehow taken over Oakburn, Minnesota.
"That kind never do." His friend Jordan Andrews shifted the grocery sack from one hip to the other and frowned. "Maryann looks as if she can handle it, though."
Clay searched the familiar face, looking for some telltale sign that Maryann was bothered by the indictment. But despite the flurry of reporters and their unending questions, he saw nothing on that beautiful frozen mask that hinted at her inner feelings. He peered at her. It had been months since she'd left, and according to the reporters, she still used her own name.
"I have no comment. Please, let me pass." Maryann kept her face inscrutable, her head upright and her shoulders back as she picked her way through the horde of reporters plaguing her every step.
"Maybe I should go help her out?" Clay asked his friend.
Jordan wrapped his hand around Clay's arm, stopping the other man's sudden rush forward. He shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea, Clay. It will only make them ask more questions, speculate more. Besides, she looks like she's doing fine."
"Does Miss Constein's lawsuit against your husband's assets have some foundation?"
"Nosy Parkers!" Their rudeness got Clay's dander ruffled. "Don't these people have any inhibitions?"
"Reporters?" Jordan snorted. "Come on, Clay. They're after the story. And Maryann is big news right now. Especially with that woman's lawsuit."
Clay fumed as he watched the bloodhounds of journalism, each one out-yelling the other in hopes of eliciting a usable quote.
They'd descended on Maryann's former home in Oakburn like a swarm of hungry locusts, and yet she ignored them as if they were no more than pesky mosquitoes. Clay figured it was an art she'd obviously learned in her years away from home. Personally, he'd never perfected it. He bristled indignantly as a reporter pushed a microphone into her face.
"Surely you know whether or not your husband ever had an affair with this woman?" A snide look curled the reporter's lips.
Clay clenched his fists, flinching as Maryann's face momentarily blanched even whiter than its normal parchment color. Her beautiful eyes grew dark and impenetrable in the flash of pain that he caught just before her lashes fell, hiding whatever she was feeling deep inside.
"I have no comment."
"I'd like to put an end to this right now." Clay was aghast. "How dare they insinuate such a thing?"
"They'll dare that and a lot more," Jordan muttered. "And it doesn't look like they're giving up anytime soon. Look at all those cameras."
"If it was me, my stomach would be tied in fifty knots." Clay studied Maryann's body language for some sign of distress, but the widow didn't seem fazed.
Instead, she sauntered regally forward, ignoring the chaos around her as if it mattered not a whit. Of course, this coolly elegant woman wasn't the shy, soft-spoken Maryann that Clay remembered from his youth. Smooth, polished and classy, she bore no resemblance to the needy young girl he'd known ten years ago.
This woman was probably used to a media feeding frenzy.
"If it was you, they wouldn't be asking any questions." Jordan laughed. "You lead a dull, boring life, Clayton." He winked at his friend. "A beautiful woman, on the other hand, always enhances the fiction they like to create." Jordan straightened, his mouth tightening, as a reporter placed a hand on Maryann's arm, halting her progress, his foot firmly planted in the blooming tulips that grew along the fence.
"One more like that guy and we move in," Clay said, gritting his teeth.
"Aw, come on, Ms. MacGregor!" The reporter pressed closer. "Give us something."
"I have no comment." Maryann carefully sidestepped the man and continued on her way.
Clay watched the reporters follow her, then move directly into her path, surrounding her as she opened the gate that led to Wintergreen, the old Victorian home in which she'd chosen to hide herself. It was here she'd come to escape these horrible probing demands. It was here she'd chosen to stay, her closest friends nearby to offer support.
The awful things they were saying made Clay wince. She'd kept her troubled past hidden from the townspeople for as long as she could, protected Oakburn from the slanderous words and nasty rumors about one of their own.
But the gossips had followed her back, bringing their demeaning innuendos and personal indictments to the place she now shared with Caitlin and Beth, her two high-school friends. Yet, she still hadn't confided in anyonenot even him. Clay could remember a time when she'd told him everything. He had been her best friend.
At least he thought he'd been.
"Ms. MacGregor, did your daughter know of your husband's"
"That's enough." Clay straightened, his mouth tight. "You try and stop them, Jordan, I'll get her inside."
"Okay. Go." Jordan bounded forward like a Saint Bernard, ready to protect.
"Excuse me." Clayton pushed his way forward and grasped Maryann's arm, elbowing the rudest of her pursuers out of her way. It wasn't much, but getting her through this maze was the least he could do for an old friend.
"Hey, we're holding a news conference here, buddy. The wife who was left out in the cold"
Clay deliberately cut him off and offered a cocky response. "Didn't you hear, buddy? Ms. MacGregor has no comment. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week. Her husband is dead. Anything he may or may not have done is between him and God now. Could we leave it that way? Please?"
Clayton squeezed her hand with his fingers as he drew Maryann through the throng, along the sidewalk and up the stairs.
"Just keep going," he whispered, smiling into her huge dark eyes. "Jordan's right behind. We're almost there."
"Are you the new man in Ms. MacGregor's life, sir?" A woman Clayton had never met bellowed the question inches from his left ear, her voice implying that he was merely the latest in a long line.
"No, ma'am! I'm the old one," Clayton snapped back angrily, and then slammed the door in their faces.
"What a rude bunch." Vaguely he could hear Jordan outside, ordering them off the property, but Clay's attention was focused on Maryann.
Why hadn't she alerted the police to this mob, told her housemates to expect these dirt-diggers and their shabby suggestions? She could have asked him for help.
But then Maryann didn't confide in him anymore. And she'd always been reserved, worried about what people would think. Maybe she was uncomfortable repeating the scandalmongers' ugly hearsay to her friends.
And that's all it was, of course. No one in his right mind would cheat on Maryann MacGregor!
"I don't know how you can stand it," he said to her.
Maryann shrugged out of her daffodil-yellow lamb's wool jacket. "They're aggressive, but they aren't nearly as bad as some in the city," she murmured, her head bent to avoid his searching eyes. "I've learned to deal with it."
"Why should anyone have to deal with that? It's an invasion of privacy." He frowned as the door pushed open. In one twist of his body, he managed to shield her from the explosion of flashbulbs.
"Way to go, Clay. Now keep moving while I do a little negotiation, will you?" Jordan winked, easing inside the hall and shoving the door closed behind himself. It was clear from the lunge of bodies that the reporters weren't letting up. "Think I'll call the sheriff for backup."
Clayton nodded and with one hand on her back, guided Maryann up the curving staircase of the regal old mansion that had lately been divided into three apartments. His lips tightened with disgust at the callous treatment of this shy, quiet woman. No matter how well she'd handled them, the Maryann he knew hadn't really changed. He'd seen her vulnerability before she left town three months ago. He could still see it.
"How dare they come into town and start asking people these things? As if anyone believes that bunch of garbage! I don't know who buys those gossip papers. They're too unreal to be true."
Maryann swallowed, forcing the words down.
He doesn't know anything. Just keep up the facade. Her brain issued the orders automatically. Clay's a friend. Besides, everything will be fine. It will all get better.
She almost laughed. It wouldn't get better, of course. That was just another of the lies she told herself to keep herself focused on getting through one more day.
"I suppose they feel they have the right to speculate about us. After all, Terrence was a very high-profile public figure," she said, slipping her key inside the lock and opening the door with a sigh of relief. Home, at last! Once Clayton left, she could relax and quit pretending her mixed-up life was nearly perfect.
And Clayton would leave soon. He had to. The reporters would chew up a nice guy like him without a qualm. Besides, Maryann didn't want him hanging around, probing into her feelings, past or future. There was no room for a nice guy like Clay in her life. Not anymore.
The reporters and their ability to trail her were one of the reasons she'd chosen this upstairs apartment at Wintergreen when her old high-school friends had insisted she move in with them.
The living area overlooked the huge garden space behind the Victorian monstrosity. Beyond the garden, a private reserve covered with thick trees, prickly wild rosebushes and an electric fence ensured no one could spy on her without being detected.
"I like what you've done with the place."
Maryann flinched at his words, surprised that she'd forgotten he was still there. That was going to be the problem with Clayton. He could slide back into her life so easily, and she could lean on him without even trying. She couldn't let that happen. Above all else, she had to avoid him as much as possible before he found out her secret.
"I'm glad you like it. It suits me, though there's a long way to go yet."
Clayton stood waiting by the door, gazing around the bright, sunlit room with a soft, yearning look on his face. He took in every detail of the rich royal-blue carpet, the sparse furniture and the sheer white organdy curtains where they billowed from the spring breeze blowing in the window. She saw his perusal stop when it came to the gigantic mural she'd painted across the facing wall.
"This looks like Addie's Glen," he murmured, peering at the sparkling water with lily pads dotting the surface, the thick green fern fronds waving in the wind and the brilliant blue sky.
"It is. I painted it from memory last winter. Cait-lin told me the glen's gone now. Bulldozed to make room for high-priced condos, I think she said. What a shame." Maryann couldn't explain how sad that made her. The single most important place in her life had been wiped out.
"I didn't think you'd remember."
She twisted around to gauge his expression. What did he mean? Did he think she'd shaken off the memories as easily as she'd left him and this place behind ten years ago? Did she wear her mask so well that even Clayton suspected her of becoming what she appeared to be?
"Of course I remember it. Addie's Glen was where I learned enough geometry to pass my junior year." She smiled, harking back to those difficult school years and Clayton's easy handling of them. "You were a good tutor."
Clay had changed since Jordan and Caitlin's wedding last Christmas. He seemed less nervous around her, less worried about impressing her. Maryann couldn't help wondering if that was a good thing. She didn't want him to be too friendly.
"You were a good student."
Maryann had to look away from the bright glimmer in his dark eyes. It made her nervous. She couldn't afford to let her guard down around him. Not now.
"Addie's Glen was the one good memory I took away from this place." Maryann swallowed the rest of what she wanted to say, determined to be mature about a past that was better forgotten.
She slipped off her heels and sat down in one of the Queen Anne chairs she'd shipped from New York. Of all the opulent furnishings in their elegant home, those two burnished golden chairs were the only things she'd brought with her.
Perhaps that was because she'd chosen them herself, without Terrence's overbearing decorator to tell her they weren't suitable for the glitz and glamour of her husband's chrome-and-glass penthouse masterpiece. Perhaps she kept them because these chairs represented freedom. Maryann wasn't sure herself. She only knew they'd been a comfort when, night after night, she'd sat by the window in her bedroom and looked out on Central Park, wondering if God could or would hear her if she prayed.
"The only good memory?" Clayton turned from the mural and frowned at her, drawing Maryann out of her reminiscences. "I have to wonder why you came back here, then. Surely it couldn't have been all bad?"
Maryann smiled her professional I-am-anice-maiden-you-can't-hurt-me smile. It slid into place automatically after years of practice. "No, of course it wasn't," she agreed quietly, averting her eyes from his probing look. "Silly me, I shouldn't have said that. Would you like some coffee? Tea?"
Now that was dumb. She wanted him gone, not sitting in her apartment, chatting about the good old days.
"No, thanks." He studied her for a few more moments, hands clenched at his sides. "Maryann, will you have dinner with me?"
Her head jerked up at the question. Go out with Clayton Matthews? Here? Now? Surprisingly enough, the idea appealed to her. And it shouldn't have.
"Why?" she blurted, and immediately lectured herself silently on the wisdom of controlling her tongue.
"To talk, to eat. I haven't seen you much since Cait-lin and Jordan's wedding. You left right after Christmas. I was hoping we could spend some time together, but you were gone so fast."
She wouldn't tell him why, of course. There wasn't any point in explaining the paper she'd found, or the terror it had caused. But neither would she go out with him. Not tonight, especially not with all the reporters in town.
Not ever, she silently reminded herself.