Hell. He’d stayed away for twelve lousy years, and she was separated.
He slid out from behind the table, overtaking her before she reached the hostess station.
“How long?” he demanded.
She slapped a receipt on the spindle by the cash register, her movements quick and agitated. “What are you talking about?”
He caught her elbow. “How long since you and Rob broke up?”
Broke up. Shit. Now he even sounded like some high school moron.
She turned, her face white. “Let go of my arm.”
He loosened his grip. “Just tell me how long.”
“A year. Let go of me.”
Her eyes were dark and enormous, the pupils nearly swallowing the green. Damn. He was thirty-one years old, a veteran cop, a sergeant, and the sight of the woman could still reduce him to a raging lump of testosterone. He released her abruptly.
Beneath her neat white blouse, her breasts rose and fell with her breath. “I have work to do,” she said clearly. “Customers. Would you please leave me alone?”
Customers. Right. He glanced around the dining room. People were staring. Bag lady Baggett had practically fallen into her plate in her eagerness to eavesdrop. And over by the kitchen door, the Misses Minniton were glaring at him as if he’d firebombed their garage sixteen years ago instead of merely throwing up into their rosebushes after drinking too much beer one hot August night.
“Sure thing, darlin’. You don’t have to ask me twice.”
Oh, now, that was cool. He sauntered back to his table, feeling like an idiot, and sat with his back to the wall so he could keep an eye on the room and on Annie. Gladys Baggett met his gaze and smiled, very tentatively. He stared back until she reddened beneath her makeup and looked away.
“Catfish sandwich,” the waitress said, sliding it expertly in front of him. “Will there be anything else?”
Her smile, wide and white against her honey-gold skin, suggested there could be. Not everybody in Cutler remembered him as the town screw-up. Of course, the waitress probably didn’t remember him at all. She must have been skipping rope on the playground when he’d left home.
He picked up the sandwich, looking over the thick sliced bread at Annie seating guests on the other side of the room. From a distance, she looked sixteen again, too skinny and so pretty with her quick, neat movements and shy smile. Her smooth light brown hair still brushed her shoulders when she walked, and she still had the nervous habit of tucking it behind one ear. From a distance, he couldn’t see the faint lines bracketing her mouth or the wariness in her eyes.
She didn’t come near his table again. Well, she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t want anything to do with him, any more than she had in high school. His fault, he acknowledged, coming on to her like a gorilla on Viagra. Again.
The catfish tasted like paste in his mouth. He needed a cigarette. Dropping a couple bills on the table, he made his way to the cash register, choosing a moment when Ann was ringing up another customer and couldn’t avoid him.
She took his receipt and busily punched some buttons on the register. “How was your lunch?”
“Fine. Look, I—”
“I’ll tell Val. She’ll be glad you enjoyed it.” She handed him his change, not quite meeting his gaze.
He was suddenly, unreasonably ticked off. Maybe once upon a time, in a dumb effort to win his father’s notice, he had run wild. But he’d never done anything to make Ann afraid of him. Only that one October night... And he’d stayed away from her after that, hadn’t he?
“Maybe I’ll be back for dinner,” he said.
She looked at him directly then, and her eyes that he remembered as the color of spring grass were cool and sharp as a broken beer bottle. There was a bump in the bridge of her nose he didn’t remember at all.
“We’re closed for dinner Monday through Thursday,” she said. “But I can make a reservation for the weekend if you like.”
“Never mind. I might not be around then.”
Just for a second, her pretty lips parted, and his heart revved in his chest like a dirt-track race car. And then she hit him with her fake, hostessy smile, and he knew he’d been imagining that brief moment of regret.
“That’s too bad,” she said.
“I’ll get over it,” he drawled. So, they both were lying. He wasn’t about to admit his breath still backed up in his lungs every time he looked at her. “Goodbye, Maddox.”
She didn’t have to tell him twice.
* * *