The Ideal Man (Buchanan-Renard 9)

Page 16

She then began to talk about all the wedding arrangements, and in the midst of describing the wedding cake, she burst into tears.
Ellie was astonished and alarmed. She hadn’t seen her mother cry in years, not since the day she had to leave her with the Wheatleys.
“Mother, stop that,” Ellie demanded. She grabbed a tissue from the box on the shelf and handed it to her. “Please, stop crying.”
“I know how hard this is for you,” her mother began. She wiped the tears away as she continued. “I wish things were different. It breaks my heart to see you and Ava not getting along. I love all my girls, but I’ll admit that Ava has been a trial for your father and me. She’s so headstrong, and what she did to you was cruel and despicable.”
Ellie was speechless. She knew her mother loved her, and she also knew she didn’t favor one daughter over the others, but she had never expressed strong feelings about what happened between the two sisters until today.
“Ava knows how her father and I feel. After you left so abruptly—and who could blame you—we got into quite an argument. You were so devastated and destroyed by the betrayal.”
No, she wasn’t, Ellie admitted to herself. She was neither devastated nor destroyed. She was furious and humiliated, but there hadn’t been any heartbreak.
“Ava said it wasn’t deliberate, that there was this instant attraction between the two of them. That does happen.”
Yes, it does, Ellie agreed as she replayed her initial reaction to meeting Max. There had definitely been an instant attraction, and it seemed to be getting stronger.
“Then she should have come to me and told me instead of jumping into bed with him,” Ellie said.
“Yes, she should have,” her mother said. “I know you don’t want excuses, and I understand that, but Eleanor, we have to find a way to get past this. Ava’s going to marry John a week from Saturday, no matter how any of us feel. She loves him, and he loves her. Please try to be all right with it.”
“Okay, Mom. I’ll try. Now please, stop crying,” she pleaded as she handed her mother another tissue.
“Do you want to hear about the preparations for the garden party?”
“What garden party?”
“You didn’t get your invitation?”
Ellie shook her head. “Maybe,” she said then. “There was a lot of mail piled up. I paid the bills, but I didn’t have time to go through all the rest . . .”
“Annie’s giving a garden party here Saturday evening for Ava. It’s going to be lovely. Annie’s taken care of all the preparations long distance, if you can imagine. Of course, Ava insisted that she approve every choice. There will be about eighty people here, maybe more.”
Ellie continued to listen while her mother talked about all the difficulties with the planning and how nervous and demanding Ava had been to have everything just so.
“You’re not paying for this wedding, are you, Mother?”
“No, no,” she rushed. “Ava and John are paying for everything.”
Ellie didn’t think she was telling the full truth, but she didn’t argue.
“Ava’s done most of the work. It’s just been very stressful. I’ll be so thankful when this is over.”
Max walked in with her father but stopped when he saw Ellie’s mother dabbing at her eyes.
“You told her?” he asked.
Ellie was shaking her head. “Not a good time.”
“Tell me what?” her mother asked, the worry already creeping back into her eyes.
Ellie braced herself for the battle ahead. “Something’s happened, and we have to leave. I didn’t think it was necessary for Max to tell you because we wouldn’t be here, but he insisted, said it was important that you know and I . . .” She realized she was rambling and forced herself to stop.
“What’s happened?” her father asked.
“Max, why don’t you explain.”
Max pulled out a chair next to Ellie, sat, and quickly told them about the Landry case and the shooting of Sean Goodman. The rest of the account took only fifteen minutes, but for the next hour Ellie tried to calm them down.
“But if you’re not a witness and you can’t identify these terrible people, why would they send someone to harm you?” her mother asked.
“They don’t take chances,” Max explained. “And they have their ways of finding out who potential witnesses are. She and Sean saw them.”
“They were both wearing disguises, you said,” William said.
“Yes, Dad, they were. I really couldn’t identify them.”
“What should we do, William? I don’t want to let Ellie out of my sight. I want to keep her locked up in the house until they catch that man, but I know I can’t.”
“We’ll figure something out.”
Figure something out? “Dad, unless you want a plus two at the wedding, Max and I need to leave.”
“What plus two?” her mother asked, not understanding.
Max understood. He put his arm around the back of Ellie’s chair and gently tugged on her hair. Plus two would be Max and the hired killer. Not funny.
“I’ve been accused of ruining several of Ava’s parties, and I don’t think she’ll appreciate someone shooting up the church during the ceremony.”
“Oh my Lord, don’t talk like that,” her father said.
“I’m putting everyone in danger staying here. I do wish I could stay for a little while. I haven’t seen Annie in over three years. And all the aunts and uncles will be here, some I haven’t seen since I was a little girl.”
“It’s too dangerous for you,” her mother said. “I so wanted you to attend the garden party, though. Annie’s going to be disappointed. The whole family would be together, and that hasn’t happened in years, has it, William?”
“Mom, please don’t tell Annie or Ava the real reason I had to leave. Make up an excuse.”
“How safe is my daughter going to be back in her apartment?” her father asked Max. “Strangers stick out here, but not in the big city.” His face was getting red with anger, for it was all sinking in.
“There will be more agents and police to watch over her.”
“What about you, Max? Are you going to keep my daughter safe?”
“Yes, sir, I am. I’m not going to let anyone hurt her.” It was a promise he would die to keep.
“Then you aren’t her friend, Max?” her mother asked. “You’re here to protect her?”
He didn’t hesitate. “I’m both.”
“I know you care about Ellie. I can see it in your eyes,” her father said. “Will that interfere with your ability to do your job?”
“No.” His voice was emphatic.
“Did I mention that the garden party is in our backyard?” her mother asked.
Ellie could see how rattled she was. “Yes, you did mention it.”
“By Saturday there will be large planters at each end of the yard and flowers galore all along the borders. The nursery will be here tomorrow morning to do the planting. There will be fullblown flowers in every imaginable color. Oh, and at the end of the yard will be a pristine white tent with tables covered in white linen cloths and covered chairs for those who don’t want to stand. There will be music, too, a violin. I’ll take lots of pictures to send you, Ellie, so you won’t feel excluded.” Tears welled up in her eyes.
None of this was her fault, but Ellie still felt guilty and responsible for her parents’ pain. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Seeing the disappointment on his wife’s face, Ellie’s father turned to Max. “Couldn’t you two stay until after the party Saturday? You could make it safe. If Ellie stayed in the house or in the tent during the party, and if we could get someone else to help with security, wouldn’t it be possible?”
Her parents were looking eager and hopeful. Ellie knew how important it was to her mother that she stay, and she didn’t want to disappoint her, but Ellie had to be realistic. Others could get hurt.
“It could be dangerous for
you and your guests if I stay,” she warned.
“I know we can make it safe,” her father insisted. “Even if we have to hire security here. You’ve got that man’s picture, so we’d know who we’re looking for . . .”
“Landry could have hired someone else,” Max said.
Claire looked hopeful. “But like William said, everyone knows everyone else around here. A stranger would stick out.”
“Even a cable guy or a repairman? Would you look twice?” Max asked.
“I know the repairman I’m going to call to fix the air conditioner,” William said. “And we won’t let any other repairmen near here until the party’s over.”
“No one knows you’re home, Ellie,” her mother said. “Because none of us were certain you’d be able to get away. I only told the relatives that you were going to try to get home but that your schedule was difficult. We’ll keep it a secret until the party. I’ll tell Ava and Annie to keep it low-key, too, and not mention you.”
The parents had a plan now and looked at Max for approval. When he didn’t immediately agree, Claire asked, “What do you think?”
Ellie couldn’t break their hearts. She made up her mind that if Max told her no, that she had to leave, she would pull rank and simply say that she was staying.
Max’s cell phone vibrated, telling him he had a text. He pushed the chair back and stood. “Let me talk to some people and see what I can do.”
Ellie’s mother clasped her hands together, and her father smiled. “Good, that’s good.”
Max put one hand up. “I’m not promising anything. If I don’t get the people I want, then Ellie and I are leaving. You’ll have to accept that. All right?”
“Yes, of course,” her father said as her mother nodded.
“I really think I should stay for the party . . . ,” Ellie began.
The look Max shot her suggested she not continue. If she thought she could show a little independence and throw her weight around with the I-can-do-whatever-I-want attitude, she was sadly mistaken.
Ellie stood up, thinking that she and Max should have their disagreement in another room so her parents wouldn’t hear them, but Max didn’t seem to care who heard what he had to say.
“Sweetheart, you don’t make the decision. I do. And where I go, you go.”
He excused himself and went into the living room to read his text and respond.
Ellie decided to clean the kitchen while her mother went in search of her good Irish linens. She’d packed them away in the attic when the hardwood floors were being refinished.
Ellie had just started the dishwasher when she got a call from Carlos Garcia’s wife, Jennifer. The woman was hesitant and sounded fearful over the phone.
“We met at the police station, and my husband, Carlos, had a mole on his neck . . .”
“I remember, Jennifer. How is everything?”
“We have a problem, and you told me to call.”
“Yes, I did. What’s the problem?”
“We’re in the doctor’s building next to the hospital, but the doctor’s reception lady says we don’t have insurance.”
“Is the doctor in the office now?”
“Yes. I heard him talk to a patient.”
“Okay, good. Could you give me the number for that office?”
A minute later Ellie had the number written down. “Sit tight for a few minutes, and I promise you Carlos will see the doctor today.”
“Thank you, Dr. Sullivan.”
“You’re welcome, Jennifer, and please call me if there are any other problems.”
Then Ellie dialed the doctor’s office. Max walked into the kitchen just as she ripped into the receptionist, who had identified herself as Michelle.
“This is Dr. Sullivan. You knew that Carlos Garcia was scheduled to see Dr. Shultz today. I set that up before I left town.”
“But you didn’t tell us he didn’t have insurance.” Michelle sounded snippy.
“Dr. Shultz is doing the surgery free of charge,” she explained. “He must not have remembered.”
“He doesn’t do free surgeries.”
Ellie’s voice turned to steel. “You get him on the phone, and if he’s too busy, tell him I’m going to get Dr. Westfield on the line, and Shultz can explain the little surgery he did on his girlfriend three months ago. Oh, wait. You’re the girlfriend, aren’t you, Michelle? Why don’t we get Shultz’s wife on the line, too. We’ll do a nice little conference call.”
“I’m getting him. I’m getting him.”
Shultz was on the phone a minute later, and he was hopping mad. “I’m swamped today. I don’t have time for any charity cases. You don’t even know this man. Didn’t you tell me you met him at the police station?”
“Yes, I did meet Carlos at the police station, and that’s when I noticed the mole. You gave me your word you’d do the surgery.”
“I don’t have time . . .”
“Okay, that’s it. I’m going to the hospital board, and I swear to you your privileges will be revoked by the end of next week. That’s when I get back.”
“I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“Then I’m going to the state board and file a complaint,” she continued. “And, of course, I’m going to have a nice chat with your wife—”
“Wait a minute. I know I promised . . .”
“You are required by the hospital to do a certain number of surgeries without compensation, and I know for a fact you haven’t done any. I’ll be sure to mention that to Westfield, too. When I’m done with you—”
“Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. I’ll see your patient as soon as I get off the phone.”
“Listen up,” she said. “You treat him and his family like they’re my closest friends. I better not hear you screwed up.”
Max had heard the entire conversation. He remembered that Ben had told him how she had talked to a man at the police station but had refused to explain what it was all about. Now he knew what she was doing for him.
Ellie ended the call muttering, “Big jerk.” Then she noticed Max watching her. He was smiling.
He didn’t answer. He walked over and lifted her chin to give her a kiss.
“What was that for?” she asked.
“Just because,” he answered. He took a seat next to her. “I’ve got some news from Ben,” he said.
“Cal and Erika Landry just walked into the FBI office with their attorneys.”
Ellie was going stir-crazy, desperate to get out of the house for a little while. Max had disappeared into William’s home office and was making calls on his cell phone, so she tried to keep busy and not interrupt him. She came across her father, who was searching through the kitchen and hearth room for his car keys.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Lipton,” he answered. “The only thermostat available for the new air conditioner is at Waid’s Hardware Store.”
“What about the Waid’s Hardware Store here?”
“They’re out, which is why I’m driving all the way to Lipton now. They won’t be charging me for the new thermostat, since the first one was faulty, but if you and Max want air-conditioning tonight, I’ve got to get over there and back lickety-split.”
“Max and I will go,” she offered.
Shaking his head, he said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go out. Besides, Max has done enough. If he hadn’t talked to the owner of the appliance store, I wouldn’t have gotten a new air conditioner. I think he scared them into doing the right thing. Eighty percent off broken is still broken, right? It isn’t legal to sell something you know doesn’t work.”
“Did he say that?”
“No, I did.”
Ellie was pleased with Max. She hadn’t known that he had done that for her father.
“It would be a big help if someone could go
to Lipton for me,” William admitted. He thought for a few seconds and said, “And I wouldn’t need the thermostat until four. That would give us time to install it.”
“But you said you had to get back lickety-split.”
“Because the air conditioner is going to be delivered, and I’ve got to sign for the fountain and all the rest of the things your sister ordered for the garden party. Someone has to be here to direct where everything goes, and your mother is going to get her hair done and her nails and God knows what else. Pots today, more plantings tomorrow, and fresh flowers Saturday morning.”
“Can’t Ava and Annie help while Max and I go pick up the thermostat?”
“Ava can’t leave her store . . . oops, I mean her boutique. She hates it when I call it a store. And Annie won’t get in until late afternoon. Besides, there’s no reason for anyone to help me. All I have to do is sign and point to where I want the pots.” He smiled as he added, “Ava drew me a diagram. And while I’m waiting, I’ll get some paperwork done.”
“All right. I’ll go get Max now, and we’ll leave right away.”
“Eleanor, you’re jumping the gun. Max agreed to let you stay here if he could get extra protection, remember? Are you sure he’s going to let you remain in Winston Falls?”
“I’ll go ask him now.”
She went down the hall to her father’s office. Max was sitting at the desk talking on the phone. She stood in the doorway waiting for him to notice her. When he motioned to her, she walked over and leaned against the desk facing him.
“Okay then, and thanks. I really appreciate this,” he said and disconnected the call. He looked up at Ellie. “I’ve got two agents until Saturday. Both of them are coming from Columbia. They’ll be here tomorrow.”
“Who are they?”
“Agents Clark and Hershey.”
“Aren’t those candy bars?”
Grinning, he said, “Don’t let them hear you say that.”
“Then we can stay here.”
“Until your yard-party thing is over.”
“Garden party,” she corrected.
He noticed a frown cross her face. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m concerned about two agents showing up suddenly. Won’t they be hard to explain? Everyone at the party will wonder who they are.”