Okay, her mind was wandering and her thoughts had become loopy. Max had walked to the other side of the office and was listening intently to what Ben was telling him. Ellie didn’t particularly want to leave him to join the others, but she was about to get up and go into the kitchen to help when her cell phone rang.
Dr. Westfield was calling, announcing to her that she had, indeed, won the Chapman Award. She was shocked and humbled. She thanked him profusely, then she listened as he raved about what the award would mean to his department. She had never heard Westfield jubilant before and doubted that she ever would again.
Ellie decided to wait to tell the family. Tonight was all about Ava and the wedding, but she did want to tell Max right away.
After he finished his call, he turned to her. She saw the grim look on his face and forgot all about her happy news.
“Someone got to Greg Roper.”
“What do you mean, got to him? Did he get hurt?”
He shook his head. “We don’t know, he’s missing.”
Ellie’s mother appeared in the doorway. “Dinner’s on the table.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” he said.
Dinner was a trial of endurance for Ellie. Her parents tried to keep the conversation light, but there was an undercurrent of tension waiting to erupt. After two glasses of wine, Ava was no longer even pretending to be interested in anything anyone else had to say. She wanted to talk about the wedding and all the work she had done to make it perfect. No one was going to ruin it, she declared more than once, and Ellie couldn’t help but notice she stared at her each time she said it.
Ava made another snide remark, this time about Ellie’s outfit, and that did it.
“John, you’re right,” Ellie said. “I just heard from Dr. Westfield. I did win the Chapman.”
“I told you so,” John said, beaming. “I really wasn’t surprised when I heard. I always knew you were the best surgeon in the hospital. The residents were amazed at your skill. You should have heard them talking about you in the lounge. Westfield called you brilliant. Did you know that?”
She shook her head. “No, I didn’t.”
“And getting him to say anything positive about any of his surgeons would take a miracle. You were always special, Ellie.”
Ava didn’t utter a word, but the evil eye she gave John said it all. She was seething inside.
“Congratulations,” Annie said. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Honey, that’s wonderful news,” her father said.
“Yes, wonderful,” her mother agreed.
“Does everything always have to be about you?” Ava demanded.
Ellie burst into laughter. “Oh, Ava, you just never change, do you?”
Ava’s chin came up. “I’m taking that as a compliment,” she said. “And by the way, you are going to be in my wedding.”
“Are you asking?”
“No, I’m telling you.”
Max was fascinated by the conversation among the sisters. He’d lived with brothers most of his life, and he now realized how unbelievably different sisters were. In his family, any major argument was settled with a couple of good punches, unless their parents were around, and then the problem was resolved and they moved on. There were no hard feelings. His brothers didn’t hold grudges, but Ellie’s sister Ava certainly did.
“My being in your wedding isn’t going to stop any rumors, Ava,” Ellie protested.
Annie nodded. “She’s right, Ava. This wedding is making you a little paranoid.”
Their father offered everyone at the table a glass of wine, but Ellie declined. After Ava’s third or fourth argument on the subject of the wedding, Ellie excused herself from the table, went to the kitchen, and carried back a gallon of milk and a glass. She plopped both down in front of her plate.
“Put the milk in a pitcher,” Ava instructed. “We aren’t hillbillies.”
Ellie ignored her, poured herself a glass, and took a sip.
“I don’t think I want to listen to this,” their father said. “Come on, Claire. You, too, Max and John. We’ll let the girls hammer out their differences.”
Her mother gave Ellie a slight shake of the head and a warning look before she left to sit on the porch with the others. Ellie wouldn’t have been surprised if she had used two fingers to point to her eyes and then point to Ellie’s to let her know she would be watching her.
As soon as the sisters were alone, Annie turned to Ellie. “Why didn’t you tell me about Max? He’s hot,” she whispered. “Isn’t he? A man with a gun and a badge. There’s something sexy about it, don’t you think?”
“He wears a gun and carries a badge because he works for the FBI, and he’s also a friend, so I invited him to come along.”
“Bet he didn’t know what he was getting into,” Annie said with a quick nod toward her twin.
“He’s too tough looking for my liking,” Ava said with a shrug. “John’s so much more polished.”
“Is he just a friend?” Annie asked.
“Yes, and, Ava, I’m not going to be in your wedding.”
“Yes, you are. It’s the only way.”
“Please, let’s not argue,” Annie begged.
“Annie, are you feeling okay? You’re so pale,” Ellie asked.
“I’m tired,” Annie said. “I’ve been up since five this morning, and I didn’t get to bed until late.”
Ellie turned back to Ava. “What do you mean, it’s the only way?” “Yes, the only way to what?” Annie asked.
Ava explained, “Being in the wedding is the only way to put those vicious rumors to rest.”
“What vicious rumors?” Ellie asked. She poured another half glass of milk and took a sip. Being close to Ava was going to give her an ulcer. Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to put up with her for long.
“No, I don’t know. Explain the vicious rumors.”
Ava straightened in her chair and glared at Ellie. “Fine. People are saying I broke up your engagement.”
“I don’t understand how people in town would know that,” Annie said. “Who would have told them?”
“No one had to tell them,” Ava said. “Mom had spread the word about John before Ellie ever brought him home. All of her friends knew she was bringing him to meet the family. They had to wonder why he was suddenly marrying me and not her.”
“But that’s not so awful,” Annie protested. “That wouldn’t necessarily ruin your reputation.”
Ava scoffed. “That’s not all. Someone, and I don’t know who it was but I’m guessing it was Mom’s best friend, Mrs. Grimes—you know Mom had to confide in someone—anyway, someone spread the rumor that John and I were found in a . . . compromising position the day after Ellie brought him home.”
“Didn’t that happen?” Annie asked. “I wasn’t here, but Mom said—”
“Whose side are you on?” Ava demanded.
“I’m not on anyone’s side. I’m simply asking if it really happened. Did it, or didn’t it?”
“That isn’t relevant,” Ava snapped.
“I guess I’ll have to ask John,” Annie said.
“You keep him out of this. Yes, okay, I did have sex with John while he was engaged to Ellie, but I don’t think anyone needs to know about it.”
“So it’s the truth, not a rumor. You do know the difference,” Annie said.
“Look at you,” Ava said. “Just finished law school, and you think you’re a prosecutor. Quit interrogating me.” Her voice reeked of sarcasm.
“I’m simply asking you how you can call the truth a rumor,” Annie persisted.
“Because I want to.” Ava raised her voice to a shout. “I am determined to quell these vicious rumors because I have to live in this town, and I don’t want people talking about me behind my back, saying terrible things about my character.”
Annie looked at Ellie and rolled her eyes. “Ava, are you sorry for what you did to Ellie
“No, of course not. Why should I be sorry? It was meant to be. John loves me, and I love him.” She pushed away from the table and stood. “I’m going to check the backyard again before John and I leave. I probably won’t get back here until the garden party, but if I need anything, I’ll call you.”
Annie and Ellie watched Ava until she’d disappeared into the kitchen. Annie was the first to start laughing, but Ellie quickly joined in. The two sisters began to clear the table.
“Should we ask Ava to help do the dishes?” Ellie asked innocently.
They shared another good laugh.
“Remember when we were kids? Ava always had something more important to do whenever it was time for chores,” Annie said.
“I remember,” Ellie said. “After I left, you got stuck with all the work. I don’t understand why Mother didn’t make Ava do her share.”
“It was easier not to argue with her.”
Ellie stacked the dinner plates and carried them into the kitchen. Annie followed with glasses.
“I haven’t said congratulations to you for finishing law school,” Ellie said.
“I’m not a lawyer yet, not until I know I’ve passed the bar. I told Mom and Dad we couldn’t celebrate until then.”
“Do you know what you want to do?”
“I liked the antitrust courses I took. That area interests me. I’m kind of at a crossroads, I guess. I thought I had my future all mapped out, but now everything’s changed.”
Before Ellie could ask her to explain, Annie went back into the dining room to finish clearing the table. Ellie stood at the sink rinsing the dishes and putting them in the dishwasher.
“I couldn’t do what you do,” Annie said as she handed Ellie a platter. “Cutting into bodies. Just thinking about all that blood makes me sick.”
“The coolest thing happened a couple of weeks ago.” She told her sister about a case she found fascinating, but Annie appeared to be grossed out. “He swallowed coins? Why?”
“He couldn’t explain why. Eleven dollars and fifteen cents.”
“Yes,” she said. She laughed at Annie’s expression. “It weighed a lot, but he didn’t rupture. Then there was this man who got into a knife fight. Those can be nasty,” she explained as she continued to rinse salad plates. “His femoral artery was nicked and blood started spurting everywhere. I plugged the hole with my finger while . . .” She stopped when Annie gagged. “Queasy stomach?” she teased.
“I don’t know how you do it. Don’t you ever get sick?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I throw up on patients all the time.” She thought what she’d said was funny, but Annie didn’t laugh.
“Blood makes me gag,” she said. “Where does Mom keep her plastic bags for leftovers?”
“Third drawer down,” she answered.
Annie put the platter of leftover chicken on the table and searched the drawer. She held up a bread bag and smiled. “She still saves these. She used to put our sandwiches in them to take to school for lunch.”
“Mom saves everything. There’s a drawer with nothing but rubber bands, paper clips, and twist ties.”
Annie put the chicken in the refrigerator and said, “Tell me about Max.”
Ellie leaned back against the sink and wiped her hands on a dish towel. “What do you want to know? That I’m starting to panic because I can feel myself getting more and more attached to him? Leaving him is going to be painful.”
“Then don’t leave him.”
“He lives in Honolulu.”
“ ‘Oh’ is right,” she said. “I’ve got to figure out a way to distance myself. You’re so practical, Annie. Any ideas on how I can do that?”
“Let me think about it,” she answered. She glanced out the window. “Here comes Ava,” she whispered.
“We had twenty minutes without listening to wedding plans, and I’m thankful for that,” Ellie said.
Ava didn’t stop to talk to her sisters. She walked through the house and went to sit with the others on the front porch.
Annie and Ellie had just finished cleaning the kitchen when their mother joined them. She took one look at Annie and said, “Go up to bed. You’re exhausted. Say good night to your father,” she added.
“Where’s Max?” Ellie asked.
“He’s in your father’s office. I think all the wedding talk spooked him. Now, Ellie . . .”
“Yes?” she asked suspiciously.
“I want you to go over the guest list for the wedding with me. I’m worried sick I’ve left out a relative.” She went to a cabinet drawer and pulled out a thick notebook.
Annie left the kitchen before Ellie could ask her to stay and help.
Sighing, Ellie pulled out a chair at the table and sat beside her mother. “Isn’t it too late to add another guest?”
“I’ve got extra invitations. If I’ve missed someone, I’ll simply tell them that their invitation was returned. A little lie is better than hurting someone’s feelings.”
What her mother was asking of her didn’t make any sense. Ellie had left home when she was twelve. She didn’t even remember half her relatives. She decided to humor her mother, though, because she knew the stress of having everything perfect for Ava’s wedding was wearing on her.
It turned out to be a pleasant task. Ellie would read a name while her mother crossed it off the list. If she couldn’t remember the people, her mother would tell her a story about them. It made Ellie feel more connected to her family, and when she did remember an aunt or an uncle or a cousin, her mother was so pleased.
They sat together until almost ten o’clock when Ava and John came in to say good-bye. Her mother and father were clearly worn-out and headed to bed. Ellie went into the living room and read a magazine while she waited for Max. Annie walked in a minute later.
“I thought you went to bed,” Ellie said.
Max poked his head into the room and said, “Come find me when you’re ready to leave the house.”
“I will,” Ellie promised.
“What was that all about?” Annie asked. She plopped down next to Ellie on the sofa, kicked her shoes off, and tucked them under her.
“It’s a long story.”
“I don’t have anything to do but sleep.”
“What about tomorrow?”
“Ava has me going ten different places with her. So tell me the long story now.”
“Confidential,” Annie agreed.
“There was a shooting just outside my hospital,” she began and told Annie everything that had happened since that day, and of course the real reason Max was with her. Annie asked a lot of questions, but she didn’t seem worried.
“Mom and Dad know all about it, and they understand I’ll have to leave after the garden party.”
“Is it safe for you to stay that long?”
“I wanted to leave, but it’s really important to Mom that I stay at least until the party’s over. Max has other agents coming to help with security,” she answered. “And I don’t plan to stroll down the street alone. I’ll stay close to the house during the party.”
“You don’t want Ava to know about this.” Annie was making a statement not asking a question.
Ellie kicked her shoes off and sat back. They talked a little more about the shooting, and then Annie changed the subject.
“Do you think Ava will sweeten up once she’s married?”
“I don’t know. Once you go to the dark side, it’s tricky coming back.”
Annie poked her arm. “You love her. You know you do. She’s your sister. You have to.”
Leave it to Annie to find the positive, Ellie thought. Whenever things were strained, she was the peacemaker. Ava and Ellie had caused their share of strife in the family over the years, but not Annie. She was the kind, gentle soul who brought everyone together. She had been the perfect daughter, the one who h
ad never been a source of worry in the family.
Ellie finally relented. “Yes, I love her. I don’t like her, though.”
“If she heard about a hit man, she’d flip out.”
“No, she’d blame me,” Ellie said. “Not many people have a stalker, and I’ve now got two.”
“Actually, you’ve got a stalker and a hit man. There’s a difference.”
“They’re both trying to kill me,” she said. “Bet you can’t top that.”
“Bet I can,” she said, nudging Ellie again. “Guess what.”
“I think I’m pregnant.”
TWENTY – ONE
Max made sure all the windows and doors were locked in the main house and then took Ellie up to their apartment. The air was stifling.
“I thought Dad had the repairman install a window unit,” Ellie said.
“He did. He didn’t turn it on, though. It must be ninety in here.”
Ellie thought it was hotter. She followed Max into his bedroom but stopped when she saw the oversize window unit. “It’s huge. Does it fit, or will it fall on the floor during the night?”
Max checked it out. “It barely fits,” he said, smiling. “If it falls, it will go out the window, not in.”
He looked at all the switches and dials and finally located the on and off button. He pushed it on and waited. The unit shuddered and began to make a low humming sound. Cool air immediately poured out of the vents.
“Okay, I think we’re in business,” Max said. “It’s set for seventy degrees.”
Ellie was feeling hot and sticky and took a quick shower. She put on an extra-large T-shirt for a nightgown, then went into the living room to see if SportsCenter was on while Max showered.
He walked into the living room wearing a pair of gray boxer shorts and nothing else. His hair was still wet, and he was drying it with a towel. Ellie felt that familiar stirring in her body just looking at him. He had a massive chest. It was all muscle. She knew that for a fact because she had kissed every inch of it. His dark, curly chest hair tapered to a V at his belly button. She’d kissed that, too, she remembered, and oh God, what hadn’t she kissed? His legs and thighs were just as muscular. She remembered squeezing those thighs in the throes of passion.