For the Birds:Rose Gardner Investigations #2(7)

By: Denise Grover Swank

“Even from me?” I asked, the pain clear in my voice.

“And how many secrets have you kept from me?” she asked without a hint of malice. “How many secrets have you shared with Skeeter Malcolm that you never once considered sharing with me?”

I sucked in a breath.

“And before you try to deny it,” she said, her tone picking up some heat, “don’t forget about those Tuesday night meetings you refused to tell me about.”

I’d been meeting James every Tuesday night for months right up until our falling out three weeks ago. Neely Kate had known about the arrangement, but I’d never acknowledged it. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

Her gaze still held mine. “I wanted to tell you about Scooter, but I couldn’t. I kept my word. Just like I’m sure you kept yours.”

She was right. About all of it. I’d kept more secrets from her than I could count. And they were all tied to James Malcolm. Why did it feel like everything tied back to James? “Well, we’re not mixed up in the Fenton County crime world anymore, so no worries about keeping secrets.”

I snatched the paper from her, kissed Ashley and Mikey goodbye, and headed out to my truck. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the street that I realized Neely Kate hadn’t agreed.

Chapter 3

Bruce Wayne was working on a yard in a neighborhood south of town, so the fifteen-minute drive gave me plenty of time to think.

It shamed me to think I’d let James get between Neely Kate and me. I’d kept his secrets and then some—unquestionably. What had he ever done for me?

Treated me with more respect than any other man in my life.

When he saw me, he didn’t see the weak and naïve woman Joe had met over a year ago while working undercover. And he didn’t see the woman I’d been with my boyfriend Mason, intelligent but in need of protecting. James was the first man who’d challenged me to think myself capable of so much more. He’d helped me create my alter ego, the Lady in Black, and then encouraged me to meld the strong, take-charge woman I became while wearing the veiled disguise with the woman I was to everyone else. In turn, I’d helped him see something in himself: the good man behind the criminal. He owned a diner that was losing money, but he kept it so he could continue to employ a kind woman from his childhood . . . and because he liked the pancakes. He was intolerant of violence against women and children and came down hard on anyone who disobeyed his decree. His legitimate businesses made him more than his illegal enterprises, but while part of him wanted to try the straight and narrow, he maintained his position to ensure none of the sociopaths waiting in the wings took over.

James Malcolm and I had become friends, and we’d both shared things with each other that we’d never shared with anyone else, so I’d believed our Tuesday night meetings—which had consisted of sitting on the back of my truck and talking about what was going on in our lives for an hour or more—had softened his heart.

All of which had made the pain of his betrayal so much worse.

The parley I’d set up had been between James and his adversaries, Buck Reynolds and Kip Wagner. Neely Kate and I had been looking for a necklace for her “friend,” only to discover he’d stolen it from Buck Reynolds. No surprise, Reynolds had wanted it back. James had hoped to prevent that, suspecting that his challenger planned to sell the necklace to finance his bid to take over the county crime world. I’d set up the meeting to return the necklace in exchange for peace in the county. Except James had never intended to cooperate—his intention had been to use the meeting to force their surrender.

It wasn’t actually his plan that had upset me—I might have even gone along with it. It was the fact that he hadn’t trusted me enough to tell me the truth.

After everything we’d been through together.

A tiny voice in my head said he’d orchestrated this. That he’d wanted me to get pissed enough to write him out of my life. I’d suspected for some time that he had feelings for me, but at first it had been a moot point. I’d been happy with Mason. Then Mason had left, and I’d spent months recovering from our breakup. Several weeks ago, I’d finally admitted to myself that I was attracted to James, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. And while the one time we’d kissed had been hotter than any kiss I’d ever experienced in my life, James had pushed me away and declared it impossible. If his enemies caught word that he had feelings for me, I would become his greatest liability.

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