This is from a sequel to an unsold novel, but I love these characters so much that they’re going to get their own story one day.
Emily stopped short, waiting in the dimly lit hallway with keys hanging useless in her hand.
Because her apartment door was standing wide open.
The door jamb was intact, and the deadbolt was back, meaning someone had used a key to get in initially. Her neighborhood wasn’t a bad one, but it wasn’t a great one either. She listened for a moment, hearing nothing.
From somewhere inside, she heard a kitchen chair scrape on the tile, and something in her chest loosened.
Then she heard a male voice. Dry, familiar, but not Max. “He’s in his room.”
She froze in the doorway, wishing she could turn around and walk out of the building. But she would never leave Max here. Not with him.
She braced herself and walked into the apartment, quietly pushing the door closed behind her.
Her ex-husband was sitting at her kitchen table. He was almost ten years older than she was, but he still looked as good at forty as he had at thirty. Dark blond hair kept short, the faint trace of stubble along a strong chin. Calculating blue eyes—a salesman’s eyes, her mother had said.
Appropriate. He’d sure sold her.
He was a contractor, and his job—and his ego—kept him in shape. When she’d been twenty, with a hyperactive four-year-old to raise, he’d been the man of her dreams.
Now she knew better.
Her mail was open on the table in front of him.
That pissed her off, and it forced words out of her mouth though she knew better. Provoking him was never a good idea.
“What the hell are you doing here, Scott?”
He leaned back in the chair. “I needed to come check on you. Make sure someone was still raising that kid of yours.” His eyes flicked down her form, somehow making her feel far more exposed than she really was. There was nothing immodest about her running sweats, but something about the way his eyes traced her form made her want to duck behind a door.
“I’m fine. You can go.” She wanted to grab her mail, but she didn’t want to move that close to him.
“When’d that little shit put the lock on his door?”
She refused to flinch. “You can go, Scott.”
He was out of the chair with all the compressed force of a tornado. Some billing statements fluttered in his wake. “You better get control of that kid, Em.” He grabbed her arm, his fingertips squeezing into her bicep. “Or I’m going to do it for you. You get me?”
She put steel in her voice, though her insides felt like Jell-O. “Let me go. Right now.”
It was the wrong thing to say. His grip tightened. “You don’t have any idea what he did, do you?”
It took all of her will to hold still. “I know what you’re doing right now. Get your hands off me.”
“Call him out here.”
She stared up into his eyes, knowing any visible weakness—any vulnerability at all—would put her at his mercy. “Get out, Scott. You have no right to be here.”
They stood locked like that for the longest time. Her arm was screaming to be free of his grip, and she could feel her heart in her chest, working double time from the adrenaline. But she wouldn’t look away, and she wouldn’t grovel at his feet, begging for leniency.
“I own this apartment,” he said, his voice low and lethal. “I have every right to be here. Call him out. He wants to pull this crap, he can stand here and take what’s coming to him.”
She had to take a long, slow breath, knowing exactly how that would turn out. “Scott—whatever he did, I’ll make him apologize—”
“Apologize!” He shoved her against the refrigerator, as if he could somehow rattle the knowledge into her brain. It hurt. Saliva was pooling under her tongue, but she wouldn’t swallow, wouldn’t give him any satisfaction.
“I don’t want a goddamned apology.” His voice had gotten softer, carrying a hidden edge. “Those are my work trucks, Em. If I catch him at this again, no lock on his door is going to stop me. Hear me?”
“Yes, Scott. I hear you.” The words were out before she could stop them, a submissive whisper borne of practice.
She hated that part of herself—hated that Scott could still find it and push the right buttons.
Then his fingers were loosening, his hand smoothing up and down the muscle of her arm. A familiar touch, falsely soothing as his thumb stroked over her shoulder. “I don’t like you being out here all by yourself. You can’t control him.”
She almost nodded, feeling herself lean into his touch.
It was terrifyingly easy to fall back into this role, to let him dictate terms.
Emily slid away from him. All the ground she’d gained was lost now. “Whatever damage he did, I’ll make him pay for it.”
She lifted a hand to push stray hair back from her face, and she felt a pull in the arm he’d grabbed, like a reminder of the danger: This man is bad for you.
She spurred her eyes to lift to his, washing any feeling out of her expression. “Go home, Scott. You don’t live here.”
He saw the change. She watched it register in his eyes. “You tell him, Emily.”
She nodded and held her breath as he walked down the hallway, closing her door softly behind him.
Don’t lose it.
She wanted to get Max, but he couldn’t see her yet. Not like this. Those days were gone.
Her hands were trembling, and she pulled a pot out of the cabinet above the sink. She started water to boil on the stove. Pulled a box of spiral pasta out of the pantry. Started browning ground beef in a pan.
Paper slid against paper behind her, and she spun, almost sending the hot skillet flying. Her back braced against the counter ledge.
But it was Max, picking up the bills and mail scattered on the floor.
“Hey,” she said softly, looking down at him.
Are you okay, Max?
What did you do to Scott, Max?
Why, Max? Why give him a reason to come here?
His movements were tight, forced. He wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Hey.”
But he was out here in her presence. She started with a safe topic. “You hungry?”
Max nodded, a quick jerk of his head as he stacked the bills on the corner of the table. Then, without being asked, he pulled plates and glasses from the cabinet, even going so far as to pour her a glass of iced tea from the pitcher in the refrigerator.
He was feeling guilty.
She stirred pasta sauce into the ground beef, keeping her voice mild. “Did you let him in, Max?”
He was quiet for so long that she wondered if he was going to answer. “I forgot to lock up. When I got home.” Then, without waiting for a response, he added, “Jesus, Mom! Not so much sauce!”
Emily flashed a glare over her shoulder, wanting to snap, because Max was a safe target. But she froze. For an instant, she saw a little boy sitting there, a crayon clutched in his fist, trembling because he’d colored off the paper and onto the table.
She’d yelled then because her wrath was a hell of a lot safer than Scott’s.
He must have read it in her eyes, because he flushed and seemed to pull back into himself.
She turned back to the stove and lowered the heat on the sauce. “What did you do, Max?”
“Nothing.” She could hear the scowl in his voice.
“He wouldn’t come here for nothing.”
He muttered something under his breath.
She half turned. “What did you say?”
“Forget it.” The chair scraped on the linoleum.
“Max. Wait.” She killed the heat on the stove and blocked him from leaving the kitchen.
When had he gotten taller?
He stopped there, meeting her eyes from an inch higher than she remembered. He was growing into a man, exploring uncharted territory without a guide. She’d read in a book once that teenage boys who never found an outlet for anger, who never had a man to show them constructive ways to balance rage and temperance, would find control with their finger on the trigger of a gun.
The thought terrified her more and more every day. What kind of example had she set? What kind of example had Scott set?
What had Max done?
“Wait,” she said again. “Eat some dinner.”
To her surprise, he did, sitting at the table and stabbing pasta with his fork. His eyes remained on his food throughout the meal, but he was sitting there with her.
“Did you do something to Scott’s trucks, Max?”
His fork froze on his plate. His voice was very small. “It wasn’t just me.”
He shoved the plate away, eyes fresh with rage now. “Why? So you can get them all in trouble?” She thought he meant with the school, but he continued, “What’s he going to do, beat the crap out of us all?”
She put a hand on his arm, feeling the tension in his muscles. “He’s not going to hurt you or your friends, Max. I won’t let him—”
“Whatever.” He jerked his arm away and bolted from the table, all but shoving her out of his way.
She tried to follow, but then he was through his door.
And the lock was thrown.