Read Maxine Online

Authors: Sue Fineman

Tags: #General Fiction

Maxine (6 page)

He had to take Cara out of the picture. Locked up or dead, it didn’t matter which to him, but one way or the other, he would have her money.

All
of it.

<>

 

Cara wasn’t the only one who felt grubby. While she napped in his bed, Nick heated water on the woodstove and shaved and bathed by candlelight. If not for Cara, he would have hiked up to Aunt Sophia’s house to shower, but he couldn’t leave her alone that long, especially with her husband looking for her.

He started a pot of stew cooking on the woodstove, straightened up the cabin, sorted the laundry, and refilled the oil lamp. Cara slept like a baby. He didn’t mind having her there, but she belonged in her own home, with her own people taking care of her.

Low clouds rolled in over the water and a light rain dampened the deck. Nick lit the oil lamp in the living room and put a candle in the bathroom. The stew was done, so he set the pot on the bricks beside the woodstove to keep warm.

It grew dark outside. Cara had been asleep for hours. He hated to wake her, but she had to eat and take her medicine before she went to sleep for the night.

Squatting beside the bed, Nick gazed at Cara’s face, relaxed in sleep. She’d be pretty when those scratches healed and that black stuff washed out of her hair. She had a nice shape, cute little nose, pretty eyes, great legs, and a laugh he’d hear in his dreams.

He put his hand on her cheek, then touched her lips. “Come on, sleepyhead. Time to wake up.”

She made a sleepy little sound. “Cara, wake up.”

She stirred and opened her eyes. “Mmm, Nick? What time is it?”

“It’s late. I’m sorry to wake you, but you need to take your medicine.”

Cara reached out to touch his face. The sleepy look in her eyes and the gentle touch of her hand made him want to kiss her and crawl into bed with her, but he backed away and returned to the living room before things got out of control. He sure as hell didn’t need to get involved with another woman.

Especially this one.

<>

 

Cara sat at the kitchen counter and Nick put a bowl of stew in front of her. “Bread? Crackers?” His guarded look was back, and he sounded like a waiter.

She threw down her paper towel napkin and glared at him. “Will you stop tiptoeing around me? Why can’t you treat me like a normal person?” There were times when she hated being rich, like now. Knowing who she was had put distance between them. Why couldn’t he understand that she wasn’t that different from other people?

She walked to the front window and Nick followed. “Cara, you need to eat.”

She turned to face him. “Look at me. Do I look special? Do I have two heads or three arms or a big zit on the end of my nose?”

Eyebrows raised, Nick scanned her face and body. “You look like hell.”

“I feel that way, too, in case you were wondering. Until I met you, my mother and grandfather were the only people who treated me like a real person. After my grandfather and little brother died and my mother went to the sanitarium, I had guardians who told me what to do and how to behave, but they never showed me any affection. Last night, when you tucked me in, I almost cried. It’s been years since someone cared enough to tuck me in.”

“I thought you were asleep.”

“I know. Please don’t go back to acting like I’m some kind of freak.”

Nick lifted his hands and dropped them. “Okay, from now on, you’re a regular person, not a woman with more money in her purse than I’ve ever seen in one place in my whole life.”

“It’s only money, Nick. It doesn’t keep me warm at night, and it doesn’t buy affection.”

“Or love?”

“If you mean my husband, the only thing Lance loves is my money. I was so gullible, so starved for affection, I thought he loved
me
. I can’t believe I fell for his line and married him. I’ve never in my life done anything that stupid.”

Nick cleared his throat. “Come on. Eat. The stew is getting cold.”

Cara watched Nick’s brows knit in a worried frown and wondered what he was thinking. The flicker of longing she’d seen in his eyes earlier was gone. He didn’t want her here, that much was clear, but he wouldn’t throw her out while she was sick. She had no way to leave anyway and nowhere to go except back to the estate in California.

She wasn’t the least bit hungry, but she didn’t want to hurt Nick’s feelings, so she ate every bite of her stew. “That was very good, Nick. Thank you.”

“I got a couple steaks in the freezer. I’ll put them on the barbecue grill tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to fix anything special for me.”

“That stuff in the freezer has to be used or thrown out. It won’t keep without power.”

“What else is in there?”

“Vegetables, ice cream.” He shrugged. “Not much.”

She cocked her head. “What kind of ice cream?”

“Rocky road.”

“Rocky road is okay. Butter pecan is better.”

Nick pulled the ice cream from the freezer. “It’s half melted.”

“Then we’d better eat it quick.” She searched in his cupboards for bowls.

He opened the carton and wrinkled his nose. “You want to eat this goop?”

“Shut up and scoop or pour, whichever. I hate wasting good ice cream.”

He filled both bowls to the rim. The ice cream was mushy and half-melted, but she ate it anyway.

She pointed to his shirt. “You’re dripping.”

“So are you.”

She wiped a blob of ice cream off her shirt with her finger, then licked her finger. “I’m eating with the wrong hand. What’s your excuse?”

“Smart-ass woman.” He wiped his shirt.

She dipped her spoon in his dish, scooped out a nut, and popped it into her mouth.

“Hey! Cut that out.”

“You got more nuts.”

He grinned. Cara felt the flush of embarrassment on her face, but she stifled the urge to say something unkind. She wanted him to be himself around her.

When she finished eating, he said, “Take your medicine, then go sit by the woodstove and let me check your leg. Dr. Taylor said to change the bandage twice a day and check for infection.”

“I can’t look at it or I’ll throw up again.”

“You do and you’ll clean it up yourself.”

“And I used to think you were a nice guy.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Boy, was I ever wrong.”

The corners of his mouth twitched in a suppressed smile. “Is this the first time you’ve had stitches?”

“Yes. Looks like you’ve had some yourself.” He looked like he’d had a rough life, with that scar over his eye, another one on his chin, and one on his hand.

He gently pulled her bandage off and she looked away, afraid she’d get sick to her stomach again.

He looked up. “It looks okay. Does it hurt?”

“Not as much as it did before. My shoulder feels better. Those pills help.”

“Pills? And here I thought it was my TLC.”

Warmth spread through her body as Nick put a clean bandage on her leg. He was right. It was his TLC.

She’d never met a man quite like Nick. She wondered how many men would have crawled under a pile of rubble to help a complete stranger and then cared for her with as much compassion as Nick had.

In spite of his friendly teasing and gentle care, she couldn’t stay long. Lance had a temper and she didn’t want him to hurt Nick. As soon as the roads were fixed, she’d find another place to hide until she ended her marriage.

 

 

 

Chapter Four

T
he next morning, Tony arrived with another man and a big, friendly dog they called Riley. The dog ran straight to Cara, wagging his tail, and Nick grabbed the dog to pull him away.

“He’s all right, Nick. Let him say hello.”

“I don’t want him to bump your sore leg.”

Riley put his front paws in Cara’s lap and licked her face with his big, pink tongue.

“Hey, quit that,” said Nick. On his way outside, he said to the dog, “If anybody gets to kiss her, it’s me. You got that? Keep your slobbery tongue off her.”

Cara laughed and wiped her face with her sleeve. There were times when Nick looked at her as if he wanted to kiss her, and she wanted him to, but aside from his teasing, he’d kept his distance.

Nick came back in with Angelo, another cousin. He was a little shorter and rounder than Tony and Nick, who were both about six feet, and not as handsome as Tony, who could model for the cover of a romance novel. Angelo had soft brown eyes and a warm smile. He kissed her hand. “Cara Andrews. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Tony didn’t tell me it was you.”

All the air left her lungs, and she couldn’t breathe. Since Nick and Tony didn’t recognize her and no one at the hospital had, she thought no one would. She was wrong.

“Cara Andrews,” Tony said with a touch of awe. “I never would have known.”

“I saw your husband on television,” said Angelo. “He’s so worried about you, he’s offering a reward.”

“Oh, no,” she whispered mostly to herself.

“He wants to lock her up in an institution,” said Nick. “He’s after her money.”

Angelo’s mouth dropped open. “No way.”

Would these men go after the reward? Nick wouldn’t, but she wasn’t so sure about Tony and Angelo. She didn’t know them.

“Hey, don’t worry about us,” said Tony. “We won’t turn you in.”

If only she could be sure. If the road was fixed, she’d leave today, but with Lance on television, where could she hide that someone wouldn’t recognize her?

Nick fingered Cara’s hair. “Angelo, can you fix her hair? I had to chop it off to get her loose. Be careful of her right shoulder. It’s banged up pretty bad.”

Angelo ran his fingers through Cara’s hair. “What a shame to lose all that pretty hair. How do you want it?”

“Whatever you think, Angelo. I’ve never had short hair, so I’ll leave it up to you.”

As Angelo worked, Tony talked about an elderly neighbor whose house had been damaged in the earthquake. Poor woman couldn’t stay in her home unless it was fixed, and quickly.

“I don’t know how to fix a house,” said Cara, “but I can help with money.”

Nick shook his head. “Cara, there are agencies—”

“Come on, Nick,” said Angelo. “You know Mrs. Cooperman would never ask an agency for help.”

Cara felt Angelo’s gentle hands in her hair, combing, snipping, shaping. “As soon as I find an attorney, I’ll have him set up a company, but that takes time. I want you to take care of Mrs. Cooperman right away.”

“What are you going to call this company?” asked Angelo.

She looked from one face to another. “Any suggestions?”

Nick answered, “Max and Company.”

Cara exchanged a long look with Nick. She would have called it Donatelli Construction. Maybe someday there would be a company by that name, but Nick was a proud man, and he needed the satisfaction of building it on his own. “Max and Company. I like it.”

Angelo finished and handed Cara a hand mirror. He had layered her hair to take advantage of the natural curl. “Angelo, you’re a genius. I won’t let anyone cut it but you.” Running her fingers through her hair, she felt the curls spring back. Her first short haircut. No more braids or ponytails, no more twenty-minute sessions with the hair dryer. No more snarls that took forever to work out. It felt light and free. She should have cut it years ago.

Cara pulled a few thousand dollars from her purse and handed it to Angelo. “Is this enough to get started?”

Tony shrugged. “Yeah, sure.”

“Track your expenses and don’t forget to pay yourselves. As soon as I can get around, I’ll get the company set up and you can help other people, too.” Whether she stayed here in Gig Harbor or not, she’d set up the company to help other people with earthquake repairs. It was the least she could do for other victims.

Nick walked outside and played Frisbee with the dog, and Tony and Angelo followed. Cara had longed for a dog like Riley when she was a kid, especially after her little brother, her only sibling, died from a tragic fall. Johnny’s death threw their mother into a deep depression and she needed full-time medical help, so the trustees of the estate sent her to a sanitarium, where she lived until her death last October. Johnny had a collie, but the dog wasn’t allowed in the house after Cara’s guardians moved in. Mrs. Corinth proclaimed the dog ‘unclean’ even though he was kept bathed and brushed. The dog lived with a member of the household staff until he died of old age.

Tony and Angelo said goodbye and took Riley home. Cara found Nick sitting on the front steps, staring out at the water. She sat beside him. “Nick? Did I do something wrong?”

“Helping Mrs. Cooperman was a nice thing to do, but you didn’t stop there. You’re setting up a company, for God’s sake.”

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