“It suits you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
James let out a low chuckle as he leaned forward and looked her straight in the eyes. “Maggie, please. I’m not interrogating you, and I’m not about to try to bluff you again. I hope you can forgive me for assuming that you would be less intelligent and less beautiful than you are. My information was sorely out of date. I promise I won’t underestimate you again.”
The tension she’d been holding in rushed out of her in a loud whoosh. That was, hands down, the best compliment she’d ever gotten. She knew she was blushing, but she couldn’t help it, not when he was close enough to touch, looking at her with that mix of respect and desire.
“Why are you here?” The words came out a little shaky, so she cleared her throat and hoped that would help.
“I need you.” His words, on the other hand, were strong and sure. There wasn’t a trace of doubt in them.
Rationally, she knew he was talking about the big court case and his insurance policy. He needed her testimony—that was all. But the way his gaze searched her face? Nothing about that said legalese.
“I can’t do it.” Stupid voice, she mentally kicked herself. Why couldn’t she sound as confident as he did? It didn’t matter how he needed her. She couldn’t be swayed with compliments.
He leaned back, looking not disappointed at all. In fact, he seemed almost amused. “Did you call that lawyer?”
“No.” Although, clearly, her strategy of ignoring this whole situation in the hopes that it would go away hadn’t worked. “I can’t afford a lawyer.”
“She’ll do it pro bono. And she’ll tell you the same thing I am. I’m not asking you to go before the court and make a public statement. All I want is a deposition. We’ll meet in my office with a court reporter. I’ll ask you some questions. You’ll answer them honestly. No one else will be there. No one else will know you’ll be there, unless you tell them.”
That didn’t sound as bad as the Law and Order–style scenario she’d envisioned. “Pro bono—that means free, right?”
“Right.” At least he had the decency not to act as if that simple question was an agreement. “It’ll be a couple of hours of your life. If the case goes as I think it will, your name will never even come up in court. You’ll never have to see me again.” He paused. “Not if you don’t want to.”
She couldn’t meet his unwavering gaze. Part of Maggie wanted to get the hell out of this kitchen and as far away from this unusual man as she could. Nothing good could come of anything that involved him and his mixed signals. She wasn’t some pliable little girl anymore. She was a smart, intelligent woman now, the kind of woman who made wise decisions, stood on her own two feet and never, ever did anything regrettable. And no matter how sexy and understanding James was, and no matter how much she might want to find out what those muscles looked like, doing anything with him would be regrettable.
She peeked up at him. He was still watching her, waiting for some sort of response. Maybe she’d take it back. Would one regrettable action really be so bad?
“You don’t have to make a decision right now,” he finally said into the silence. “But I would like you to call Rosebud and talk to her. She can help you explore your options and walk you through the process.”
Something Nan had said came back to her. “Why should I?” Gardening supplies were nice and all, but she wouldn’t be bought off so cheaply. She wasn’t cheap anymore.
Something in his smile sharpened, and James began to look a little bit dangerous. “That’s a good question. You should because it’s the right thing to do. You’re a good person, Maggie—an honest, decent woman. I can see that. You run your own business and pay your bills. And because you are, you’ll do this because you know you’ll be making the world a little better, a little safer. So, good question. But not the correct one. The correct question is—what’s in it for you? Am I right?”
It wasn’t fair to make her feel guilty for looking out for herself, but he had done just that while simultaneously complimenting the hell out of her. She nodded.
He crossed his arms, his smile growing ever sharper. “You may have been not guilty, but you still have an arrest record. I can make that whole rap sheet disappear. Margaret Touchette disappeared, after all. Her record should disappear with her.”
Maggie knew she shouldn’t react, but she couldn’t stop the “Really?” that escaped from her lips. Starting over, just like that.
One of his eyebrows lifted a little. It made him look thoughtful. “Most people do not get notice when certain persons are released from prison. However, I can guarantee that if one Leonard Low Dog ever sees the free light of day again, you’d know well in advance.”
Oh. That. That could be a useful thing, but she felt ashamed that was even a bargaining chip. So much for starting over. She kept her mouth shut, though. She wished Nan was in here. First off, Nan would see that James was a very good lawyer. He’d figured out what she wanted and needed, and was prepared to exchange it for her testimony. But more than that, she’d know what Maggie should do next.
James made a huffing noise, as if Maggie were twisting his arm when all she was doing was sitting here and getting confused. “In the event that certain persons, such as Low Dog, do manage to locate you, I would be willing to move you—new name, new place. At no cost to you.”
“Pro bono,” she whispered as she stared at the forgotten cake, as if it held all the answers. He was offering to protect her. No one but Nan had ever protected her. Tommy had tried, but … “For how long? Does the offer stand, I mean?” That sounded like something Nan would ask. She was proud of herself for coming up with it all by herself.
“As long as it takes.”
She did some quick math. Low Dog might be in his forties. “Until he dies?”
“If that’s what it takes, yes.”
That was a hell of a promise. She could see James in twenty years—the president of the freaking United States personally guaranteeing the safety and well-being of a nameless Indian woman.
But Tommy trusted him—with his life, he’d said. James Carlson was a man of his word—assuming, of course, that Tommy was, as well.
A couple of hours of her time—and in exchange, she’d get her whole life back. Margaret Touchette would be dead and gone, for good this time. She wouldn’t have to worry anymore. She’d finally be free of all the stupid mistakes she’d made in the past.
“I’ll inform Rosebud of the terms of my offer in writing,” he said. “She’ll be able to explain the full implications of this offer.” He leaned forward then, stretching out his hand until he touched her shoulder. He gave it a squeeze, sending that unusual warmth cascading down her back. If she could stop blushing in front of this man … “Please call her. If not for me, then for yourself. Will you promise me that?”
She shouldn’t have looked up at him then, but she did. He was close enough that she could see the brown flecks in his hazel eyes and the faint scattering of freckles that were almost the same color as his skin.
He was close enough to touch.
She didn’t. Instead, she stood up. His hand fell away from her, but his eyes stayed on hers. “I’ll call,” she promised.
What else could she do?
The law office of Rosebud Armstrong was in a nice building—high ceilings, marble flooring and polished mahogany. Everything about it said money. Lots of it.
Maggie thought about bailing. She didn’t belong in a place like this, and God only knew how much this meeting was going to cost. Yes, James had said pro bono, but someone had to pay. Marble didn’t come cheap.
The receptionist immediately ushered her into the office. The woman behind the desk was beautiful, and her clothes were obviously expensive. Maggie had expected all of that. She hadn’t expected to see the two babies in matching jumpers crawling around the floor.
“Ms. Eagle Heart, I’m Rosebud Armstrong.” They shook hands, and she turned to her receptionist. “Clark, can you handle the boys?”
“Can do. Come on, big guys. Let’s go crawl on the rug!”
Ms. Armstrong gave Maggie an apologetic look. “It’s okay,” Maggie said. “I like kids.” Which was somewhat true. She did like kids. They just scared the hell out of her.
Clark scooped up both babies and managed to shut the door behind him.
“Thank you,” Ms. Armstrong said. “I don’t usually have Tanner and Lewis with me, but our sitter had an emergency today.”
“How old are they?” For some reason, Maggie felt more comfortable making small talk with this woman than she had with anyone in a long time. Maybe it was that they were physically similar—light brown skin, dark brown eyes and long black hair. Sure, Ms. Armstrong’s trousers and silk top made Maggie’s skirt look shabby, but she got the feeling that Ms. Armstrong wasn’t looking down her nose at Maggie.
“Eleven months. But enough about them,” she added. “It’s so nice to meet you. It’s not often I get calls from both Yellow Bird and Carlson about the same woman.”
Maggie’s face flushed hot. “Is that bad?”
“It’s interesting, more than anything.” Ms. Armstrong looked Maggie over with a calculating eye. “Not too many people are capable of confounding one of them, much less both of them.”