Authors: Patricia MacDonald
DELL PUBLISHING CO. INC.
1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza
New York, New York 10017
Copyright © 1986 Patricia J. MacDonald
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
Dell®™ 681510, Dell Publishing Co., Inc.
Printed in the United States of America.
To my guys
Big D and Mac, with love
IT STARTED AS IT USUALLY DID.
A barked command, a barbed insult, a festering grievance burst open into shouts too muffled to be understood in the far reaches of the darkened house. All that was clearly perceptible was a crackle of menace, like the creak and groan of shifting earth that bring a camper on a mountainside awake, alert, and clammy with fear and the knowledge that there is danger in the air.
The man’s heavy tread caused tremors through the floors, and then he slammed the closet door in the large but shabby foyer, and the very frame of the house shook. He rammed his fists into the sleeves of his coat and turned his collar up high against the cold night air which seeped under the front door and circulated through the drafty house.
The woman, who had followed him from the kitchen where the fight started, pulled her sweater close around her and watched him with flinty eyes. “I don’t know why I care. Why should I care?” she muttered in a low, disgusted tone. “I should have packed your bags long ago and thrown you out. You’ve never been anything but vile and selfish and crude…”
The man turned to face her, and there was an odd expression on his face, almost a smile, as he spoke. “Well, you won’t have to put up with me any more now, will you? Let me tell you something. Walking out that door is going to be walking out the gates of prison. It’ll be like having freedom for the first time after years in some stinking pit.”
“You, you’re so filthy. I always said that about you.”
The man started to laugh in a high, hysterical tone. “That’s true,”
he said. “That is true. You always did say that. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times. ‘Filthy. A pig. Every breath I take fouls the fucking air.’”
The woman’s thin hands tightened into fists, and she stepped up close to her husband. “So now you think you can do as you please. Run off with some little tramp. It’s that teenager, isn’t it? That little slut that works at the luncheonette. That’s who you’re running off with, isn’t it? I’ve seen you looking at her.”
The man curled his lip and seemed to be holding himself rigid with great effort. “Don’t make me laugh. Do you think I’d want a woman, any woman, after you? I might never want a woman again. I don’t think I could get it up for Raquel Welch. Not after being married to you.”
“Don’t be disgusting,” she said with a shudder. “You’re disgusting.”
“That’s right,” he said, and then, gathering up the saliva in his mouth, he spit at her feet. The spit landed on her shoe and bubbled there. She stared down at it for a moment, stiff with revulsion. The man strode to the door and reached for the doorknob. But the woman darted over and blocked his way.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said. “You’re not going to desert us for some little slut. Humiliate me in front of this town.”
“Get out of my way,” he said through gritted teeth.
The woman pressed herself up against the door and shook her head frantically. “I’ve been a good wife to you. I did everything for you. You had nothing when you met me. My father gave you that job. He left us this house. Now you think you can just abandon me here,” she whined.
“Don’t tempt me,” he growled, slowly raising his arm.
“You’re nothing without me. You’ll always be noth—”
The blow from his meaty hand caught her on her cheekbone and jerked her whole upper body sideways. She slumped down to her knees, still resting against the door. In a daze she pushed her ash blond hair away from the darkening bruise on her face.
“I told you to get out of the way,” he roared.
The woman struggled to her feet, her eyes still unfocused from the blow. “No,” she whimpered. “Don’t go.”
The man bent down and, grabbing the collar of her sweater, lifted her up with both hands and shook her. “I’m so sick of you,” he snarled, and then he pulled her forward as if he were about to heave her aside like an unwieldy bag of garbage.
Her eyelids fluttered as if she were going to faint. Then, suddenly, her gaze widened, and she stared over his shoulder with fearful eyes. “Look,” she whispered. “Look out.”
“What?” the man yelled, eyeing her suspiciously.
The woman raised a finger feebly and pointed. Dropping his hands from her neck, the man wheeled around and looked in the direction of her startled glance. “Oh, no,” he whispered.
The two stared in the direction of the staircase behind them. There, on the landing, stood a small child, dressed in a pair of flannel slipper-footed pajamas decorated with rabbits and furry yellow chicks. The child was holding a large revolver pointed in the direction of the quarreling couple.
“You fool,” the woman snarled. “I knew we should never keep a gun in this house. I warned you—”
“Oh, shut up,” the man said, turning carefully toward the stairs so as not to frighten the child with any sudden movement.
“Put the gun down, baby,” the man crooned. “We’ll get you another toy to play with, won’t we, Mommy?”
The woman curled her lip in disgust at her husband and then hurried forward toward the staircase.
“Go slowly,” the man warned.
“Give me that awful thing,” the woman demanded. “Give it to Mommy.”
The child stood gazing at the two of them, the gun raised in a wobbling hand.
“Right now,” said the woman firmly. “Do as Mommy says.”
“Get back,” the man warned, his frown turning to a look of disbelief. “Sweetie, put it down. Don’t…” he cried, lunging toward the mother and child.
“Now,” insisted the woman.
The crack of the shot rocked the quiet house. The man groaned, and the woman let out an agonized scream. Blood splattered and flew, like the tumbling dirt and stones that announce the landslide.
PINK AND GREEN GIRAFFES STRETCHED THEIR LONG NECKS
to nibble from the leaves on the high branches of a tree, while a red monkey peeked at them from behind the trunk. A blue and purple tiger stalked the high grasses on another wall with little matching tiger cubs tumbling behind him. Rare toucans and parrots preened among the foliage with colors vivid as life, and a friendly rhino and his mate, one orange, the other yellow, gazed, horn to horn into each other’s eyes.
Twinkling white lights arched around them all and threw a becoming glow on the tuxedoed men and women in cocktail dresses, who milled beneath the jungle murals, their heels clicking on the shining floors. At intervals around the perimeter of the giant rotunda were tables covered in white linen and manned by waiters in short red jackets, serving cocktails and an elegant buffet to the guests, whose laughter and murmurs filtered up above the fronds of the large tropical trees to the skylighted roof, where stars pricked the night sky.
The only indications that the party was not being given in the home of some eccentric big game lover were the sign reading emergency with an arrow over one of the doors and the row of wheelchairs which were lined up against one of the curving walls.
An attractive young woman dressed in a simple green silk dress stood alone in the midst of the buzz, surveying the scene with a critical eye and sipping her drink. Her gaze traveled restlessly around the room, and the look on her face was that of a parent watching a child perform in a school play, part anxiety, part satisfaction.
A sleek-looking man with silver at the temples strode up to her and interrupted her thoughts. “Beth,” he said, “this is the architect’s equivalent of a smash Broadway opening.”
“I know, Brewster,” the woman replied. “It did turn out great.”
“Oh, look sharp,” he demanded, nudging her. “I want you to meet someone. Bob,” he called out, collaring a passing man, who joined them, “it’s good to see you here.”
The newcomer, a dark-haired man with heavy circles under his eyes, smiled and shook Brewster’s hand. “This wing is a very impressive addition to the hospital,” he said.
“Well, credit where credit is due,” said Brewster. “Bob, I’d like you to meet Beth Pearson. This is the talented lady who actually designed the pediatric wing and saw it through. Beth, this is our city councilman. Bob Tartaglia.”
“I recognized you,” Beth said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She returned the councilman’s firm handshake.
“Miss Pearson…is it Miss?”
“You should be very proud of the way this facility turned out. Truthfully, as a parent—I’ve got two daughters myself—and, God forbid, if I ever had to bring them to the hospital, I would feel more comfortable bringing them here than to any pediatrics hospital I’ve seen.”
“That’s the best compliment there is,” said Beth.
“Really, I mean it.”
“Well, we wanted to design a place that would be cheerful and even a little homey for the kids, while at the same time providing the latest in equipment and technology.”
“And using her considerable feminine powers of persuasion,” said Brewster proudly, “she managed to get the DiSeca brothers to bring it in on time and within the budget.”
The councilman rolled his eyes. “Two concepts almost unknown to us in city government.”
Beth felt the praise making her a little giddy, like champagne bubbles, and she laughed aloud. All the setbacks she had encountered in getting the wing done to her satisfaction seemed to be only a vague memory now, fading in the pleasant glow of compliments.
“By the way, Miss Pearson—”
“Oh, Beth, please…”
“Beth, then. Did you meet the mayor? I see him over there talking to Mrs. Forster, from the fund-raising committee.”
“Actually,” said Beth, with an ill-concealed flush of gratification, “the mayor spoke to me earlier and said some very kind things.”
“And well deserved,” said Councilman Tartaglia. “Well, Brewster, I know you got the contract for the new condo complex by the river. Have you got Miss Pearson here on the case already?”
“Unfortunately not,” said Brewster Wingate, frowning with mock disapproval at Beth. “Miss Pearson is not with Wingate, Stubbs, and Collins anymore. This pediatrics wing was her last project for us.”
The councilman raised his eyebrows. “Did I just make a faux pas?”
“No, no,” Beth said hurriedly, shaking her head.
“She won a contract for having the best design for a new hospice being built out on the Main Line and decided to go into business for herself. She’s the competition now,” said Brewster sternly.
“No hard feelings, I hope,” said Tartaglia, a shade mischievously.
“Well, I wasn’t happy about it,” said Brewster. “You can be sure of that. But I did it myself years ago, so I can understand it. We miss her, though.” He smiled at Beth like a proud parent.
“How do you like being in business for yourself?” asked the councilman pleasantly.
“It’s nerve-racking,” said Beth. “But so far, so good. There’s a company moving here from California that I’ve been talking to about doing their headquarters. If I land that, I’ll be in good shape.”
“Well, good luck to you,” said Tartaglia. “I think you’re going to do very well.”
“Thank you, I hope so,” said Beth.
“Bob!” exclaimed a chunky woman in a red chiffon dress. “Just who I’ve been looking for!” She smiled brightly at Beth and Brewster. “Could you excuse us for a minute? I have been trying to get this man’s ear all evening about a teeny-weeny favor we need for the school.”
The councilman smiled and gave a little shrug of his shoulders. “Teeny-weeny favors are my specialty. It’s been a pleasure,” he said as his insistent female constituent locked his arm in hers and began to lead him away.
Brewster turned to Beth. “Have you enjoyed yourself tonight?”
“It’s been wonderful, every minute,” said Beth, “although I will admit to being a little tired. There was the dedication this afternoon and this affair tonight.”
“And knowing you, I’ll bet you spent the hours in between working.”
Beth nodded sheepishly. “How true.”
A dark-haired young man carrying a plate of grapes and cheese walked up and joined them, shaking his head. “You would think,” he said, “that they would at least provide handmaidens to peel these things for you.”
“Don’t look at me,” said Beth with a laugh.
The young man raised a hand as if to disavow any such intention and then extended his hand to the older man. “Hello, Mr. Wingate.”
“Dr. Belack,” said the older man, nodding his head. “It’s good to see you. Well, I’m going to leave you two now. I promised Pris an early evening. Listen here. Doctor, take care of this girl, will you? See that she gets her mind off the work now and then.”
“I’m gonna do my best.”
Responding to a sudden impulse, Beth stretched up and gave her former boss a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for the support, Brewster. I really appreciate it.”