Book 2 in The Art of Living Duet

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Excerpt
The Art of Retribution

Prologue

Monday, July 20, Present

WHY DIDN'T YOU  just tell me what had happened?” I ask.
     On the deck of my father’s house, we sit on the steps leading down to the back yard. At first, Angeline doesn’t answer. “I thought it would be better if you found out little by little,” she finally says. “If I told you all at once… Well, would you have believed it?”
     “I would’ve believed you.” I sighed. “But you’re right, it would’ve been a lot to absorb all at one time.” After a few minutes, I add, “I’ll never be able to forgive them for what they did.”
     “You will, Maddie. It’ll take a while. You have to, though. Promise?”
     “I can’t promise that. How is it possible to pardon such evil?” Angeline has such a sad expression that I relent. “Okay. For you, I’ll try.” I don’t tell her I vowed to make Father pay for what he’d done.
     She nods, accepting my compromise. We listen for a time to the hypnotic rhythm of the cicadas. Crickets saw, and occasionally a frog croons, adding to the song of the new-washed country night. I gaze up at the partly cloudy sky. I’ve put off my question as long as I can.
     “Does this mean you won’t talk to me anymore?” Part of me doesn’t want to let her go, despite the implications regarding my sanity.
     “Do you want me to?” she inquires.
     My chin quivers and tears spill. How can I say goodbye? I didn’t realize how final it would be. I’ll never again be comforted by her or hear her contagious giggle. Never see her eyes dance when she smiles. I say nothing.
     “I know,” she whispers. “I’ll miss you, too.”
     Pulling her into a hug, I rest my cheek on her hair. “I love you, Angeline.”
     “Love you more, Maddie.”

Chapter 1

 Friday, September 18, Present

I DIDN’T WANT to be here.
     After I knocked at Bobby’s door, I waited nervously, hoping that, when he saw me, his response wouldn’t be violent. I gulped; my mouth had suddenly gone dry.
     A woman answered. She was in her early forties with leathery skin, too weather-beaten to be pretty. Her wispy strands were a mousy brown, and her voice sounded like that of a smoker.
     “We don’t need what you’re selling,” she said and started to shut the door.
     “I’m a friend of Bobby’s,” I blurted. Well, so much for not lying. “Is he home?”
     She gave me an appraising look. “You Stephany?”
     “Uh, no. I’m Madisen.” Remembering how his six-year-old son Tony had greeted me, I stuck out my hand and said, “I’m very pleased to meet you.”
     She shook my hand, relaxing a little. “Hi. I’m Amber. Bobby’s not home right now. He ran to the store.”
     A cute blond boy pushed his way around Amber. “Hi!” he sang out.
     “Hi, Tony. Nice to see you again. I don’t know if you remember me.”
     “’Course I remember,” Tony replied, as if his intelligence was being insulted. “You’re Madisen.” Amber’s lips tipped up when Tony admitted that he knew me; it took years off her.
     “Do you expect Bobby home soon?” I inquired.
     “He should be home any minute. Come on in and have a seat.”
     Once in the little living room, sitting on the shabby sofa beside Tony, I had second thoughts about my decision to stop by. It had certainly caused trouble with my boyfriend, Zac, and led to our first big fight. Maybe you should’ve listened to him after all.
     Our argument had occurred during the two-hour drive to Clantonville, after he’d picked me up from the Kansas City airport. I’d requested to borrow his truck, wanting to get my confrontation with Bobby out of the way, so I wouldn’t be preoccupied at the bachelorette party that night.
     “Where do you need to go?” Zac had asked, curiosity showing in his beautiful chocolate eyes.
     I’d hesitated to answer. At the encouragement of my therapist, I’d adopted a new personal rule: avoid lying and instead be open about my feelings, especially with the people I was close to. Staying with Zac for almost two weeks would put it to the test.
     I was afraid that this subject might cause tension between us. Already stressed about my other troubles, I’d had to un-grit my teeth before I could speak.
     “I’m going to drive to Winnser to talk to Bobby Wittford,” I'd said.
     I’d been wrong. Tense was not Zac’s reaction. The defined muscles in his arms had bunched as he launched into full-on, overprotective, testosterone-driven chauvinist.
     “The hell you are, Maddie!” he’d shouted. “I’m not letting you get within ten miles of that son of a bitch. Didn’t you learn your lesson the last time you went to see him? He threatened you. You admitted that only his son’s interruption kept him from shoving you backward down the porch steps to the sidewalk.”
     “Don’t try to tell me what to do!” I’d shouted back.
     “Stop taking stupid risks that could get you hurt. Your judgment is way out of line on this.”
     I’d recoiled at the cutting remark. It was difficult for me not to internalize other people’s opinion of me, especially if it was negative. Inhaling and exhaling slowly, an ache settled in my limbs. I hadn’t known whether to cry because Zac’s opinion of me was so low or be angry at myself for being so easily wounded.
     Choosing anger, the tremor in my voice had revealed I was close to tears. That had made me even madder. In the past two and a half months, I’d cried more than I had during the previous twenty-eight years of my life.
     “Don’t insult me,” I’d said. “If you insist on being cruel, I won’t tell you my plans. I can borrow Tabitha’s car.”
     “I’m sorry.” Guilt had etched his gorgeous face, though he’d remained upset. “What I said was thoughtless.” To let him know he wasn’t getting off the hook that easily, I’d crossed my arms. “I’m afraid you’ll put yourself in a situation where you’ll be injured. You know that would tear me apart. No way can I let it happen.”
     “Your words bruised me more than Bobby ever could. And he’s not someone who claims to care about me.”
     “Oh God. I apologize. I was wrong.” He’d rubbed the sexy stubble on his defined jaw as if that might scrub away his frustration. “You may not think you need protecting. What happened in July kind of brings out that instinct in me.”
     His point was valid. During my first visit, I’d spent a week in the hospital with a bullet wound. It had been partly my fault. I’d just discovered my father had been abusing my twin sister before she died, and I’d screamed threats at him, promising to send him to prison as a pedophile. And, if that weren’t possible, to ruin his law practice and get him disbarred. In hindsight, a little restraint might have prevented the incident. Oh well, add subtlety to the long list of things you need to work on, Madisen.
     
“That doesn’t give you the right to tell me what to do,” I’d said flatly, brushing my long hair over my shoulder. “And I won’t need you to rescue me. I’m going to tell Bobby I’m sorry for causing trouble for him the last time I was here.”
     “No way. He doesn’t deserve it.” Zac’s knuckles had turned white on the steering wheel. “And when Dad finds out what you’re doing, I might not be able to defuse his temper. He’ll be furious.”
     “He won’t find out unless you tell him. And you’re not going to change my mind, so we might as well drop it.” I’d fumed.
     “Fine,” he’d said snidely, staring ahead. “I’ll go with you.”
     “Oh no, you won’t. Don’t make me call you a ‘sasshole’ again.” I’d made an attempt to derail the quarrel with our personal humor. “Besides, my stubbornness is the quality you like best about me.” The oppressive mood had lightened somewhat, although he’d still looked concerned.
     “You are stubborn, I’ll grant you that,” he’d agreed. If I go with you, I can guarantee he won’t harm you.” Instinctively starting to object, I’d clamped down on the gut reaction. He was compromising. The least I could do was meet him half way.
     “Okay. How about you drive me there and drop me off at his house. If you won’t sit in the truck outside. I promise I’ll call you if Bobby doesn’t behave like a perfect gentleman.”
     He hadn’t replied for a long time, finally grumbling, “Fine.”
     “Thank you. However, you need to show how much you regret criticizing me.”
     “Can you forgive me?” He’d looked at me out of the corner of his eye, like he was trying to gauge my mood. “When your wellbeing is at risk, I go a little crazy. What else can I do to make it up to you?”
     I’d raised a brow suggestively. “You’ll have to get on your knees and grovel when we get to your house.”
     “Can I do more than grovel when I’m on my knees?” Raw desire radiated from him. “Baby, I’ll show you how remorseful I am over and over and over.” He’d brushed a finger over my thigh, causing an electric throb through my whole body.
     When we arrived at his house, he’d done just that.
     Amber broke into my reflections, handing me a glass of iced tea. I thanked her as I heard a car pull into the drive. I was relieved. At least I could get this over with.
     I should’ve known better.
     Bobby came in the back door. My apprehension started again as his footfalls paused. The refrigerator door opened and closed. When his heavy tread carried him into the living room, he seemed to take up the whole space. I’d forgotten what a tall, muscular man he was. At six feet four, he was ten inches taller than me. When he found me sitting beside Tony, he immediately became angry.
     “What the…? What are you doing here?” he demanded, stalking toward me with his hands fisted.
     “I came to apologize,” I said, leaning away. I hoped it would prevent his temper from getting out of control. He stopped short with an open mouth. “Can we talk?” I motioned discreetly toward Tony to indicate it would be better if we spoke in private.
     Bobby looked confused as he opened the front door. He towered over me as we stepped onto the porch and into the pleasant evening. A breeze smoothed away the jagged edge of the humid afternoon heat. There weren’t any chairs outside, so I sat on the narrow concrete steps. From there, I figured, it would easier to get away from him, if he tried to hit me...

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