The Hollow
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Seven
FOX'S FRIDAY SCHEDULE DIDN'T GIVE HIM MUCH time to think, or to brood. He went from appointment to meeting, back to appointment and into phone conference. At midafternoon, he saw a clear hour and decided to use it to take a walk around town to give his brain a rest.

Better yet, he thought, he'd walk up to the Bowl-a-Rama, grab a few minutes with Cal. He'd get a better sense of how Quinn was doing, how they were all doing if he talked with Cal.

When he stepped into reception to tell Layla, he found her talking with Cal's great-grandmother Estelle Hawkins.

"I thought we were meeting at our usual clandestine rendezvous." He walked over to kiss her soft, thin-skinned cheek. "How are we going to keep our secret affair secret?"

"It's all over town." Essie's eyes twinkled through the thick lenses of her glasses. "We might as well start living in sin openly."

"I'll go up and pack."

She laughed, swatted at him. "Before you do, I was hoping you'd have a few minutes for me. Professionally."

"I've always got time for you, in any way. Come on back. Layla's going to hold my calls." He winked at her as he took Essie's arm. "In case our passions overwhelm us."

"Should I just lock the outside door?" Layla called out as he led Essie away.

"It's a wonder you can keep your mind on your work," Essie told him as they moved into his office, "with a pretty girl like that around."

"I have Herculean power of will. Want a Coke?"

"You know, I believe I would."

"Two seconds."

He got a glass, ice, poured. She was one of Fox's favorite people, and he made sure she was comfortable before he sat with her in the sitting area of his office. "Where's Ginger?" he asked, referring to Cal's cousin who lived with Essie.

"She went on to the bank before it closes. She'll be coming back for me. This won't take long."

"What can I do for you? Want to sue somebody?"

She smiled at him. "Can't think of anything I'd like less. I wonder why people are forever suing each other."

"Blame the lawyers. Still, it's a better alternative than beating the hell out of each other. Mostly."

"People do that, too. But I'm not here for either. It's about my will, Fox."

It gave him a little pang. She was ninety-three, and he certainly understood and appreciated the value of having your affairs well in order long before you approached Essie's age. But it still gave him a little pang to think of his world without her in it.

"I updated your will and your trust a few years ago. Do you want changes?"

"Nothing big. I have a couple pieces of jewelry I wanted to earmark for Quinn. Right now, my pearls and my aquamarine earrings are going to Frannie. She understands I want to leave them to her future daughter-in-law. I've talked to her about it. And I know I can leave it like that, I can trust her to give them to Quinn. But, as I recall, you told me it's easier on those left behind if everything's spelled out."

"It generally is. I can take care of that for you." Though he trusted his memory when it came to Essie's business, Fox rose to get a legal pad and note it all down. "It won't take long to draft the change. I can bring it by for your signature on Monday if that works for you."

"That's just fine, but I don't mind coming in."

He knew she continued to go into the library nearly every day, but if he could save her a trip he'd rather. "Tell you what, when it's ready, I'll give you a call. Then we'll see which way it works best. Is there anything else you want to change, add, take out?"

"No, just those two pieces. You have everything spelled out so clearly. It gives me peace of mind, Fox."

"And if any of my grandchildren turn out to be lawyers, they can handle it for you."

Her lips curved, but her eyes stayed somber as she reached out to pat his hand. "I'd like to live to see Cal married next fall. I'd like to live through this next Seven and dance with my boy at his wedding."

"Miss Essie-"

"Wouldn't mind dancing with you at yours. And I can be greedy and say I'd like to hold Cal's firstborn in my arms. But I know that may not be. What's coming this time is worse than all the rest."

"We won't let anything happen to you."

She let out a sigh that was full of affection. "You've seen to this town since you were ten years old. You and Cal and Gage. I'd like to live to see the day you didn't have to see to it. I'm holding out for that." She gave his hand another pat. "Now I expect Ginger will be coming along to fetch me."

He rose to help her to her feet. "I'll walk you out, wait for her."

"You just go about your business. I hope you've got something fun planned for the weekend."

"I would if you'd go out with me."

She laughed, leaning on his arm as he walked her out. "There was a day."

He stood at the window, watching as Ginger eased Essie into the car.

"She's a remarkable woman," Layla commented.

"Yeah, she's something. I need you to pull her estate file. She wants a couple of changes."

"All right."

"Do you ever think we'll lose this? That we'll lose the town, ourselves, the whole damn ball?"

She hesitated. "Don't you?"

"No." He glanced back at her. "No, I know we'll win this. But we won't all make it. Not everyone who's out there going about their business today is going to come through it."

Instead of taking his walk, Fox went back into his office. He took a copy of his own will out of the desk drawer to review it.

JUST AFTER FIVE HE WALKED HIS LAST CLIENT TO the door, then turned to Layla. "We're out of here. Grab your things. We're going bowling."

"I really don't think so, but that's a nice thought. I want to check in with Quinn."

"She's meeting us there. The whole gang's hitting the Bowl-a-Rama. It's Friday night. Pizza, beer, and duckpins."

She thought of the quiet meal of soup she'd planned, a glass of wine and a book. "You like to bowl."

"I hate it, which is problematic seeing as one of my closest friends owns a bowling alley." He got her coat as he spoke. "But the pizza's good, and there are pinball machines. I love me some pinball. Regardless, we earned a break. From everything."

"I guess we did."

He held out her coat. "Friday night in the Hollow? The Bowl-a-Rama's the place to be."

She smiled. "Then I guess we'd better get there. Can we walk?"

"Read my mind. Figuratively speaking. I've been antsy all day." He paused after they'd stepped outside. "Pansies in the tub outside the Flower Pot and see there? That's Eric Moore, clean-shaven. He shaves off his winter beard every March. Spring's coming."

He took her hand as they hit the sidewalk. "Do you know what I love as much as pinball and pizza?"

"What?"

"Taking a walk with a pretty girl."

She aimed a look at him. "Your mood's improved."

"Anticipation of pizza does that for me."

"No, I mean it."

He shot a wave at someone across the street. "I wallowed some. I need a good wallow once in a while, then I scrape it off."

"How?"

"By remembering we all do what we do. By reminding myself I believe good mostly wins out in the long run. Sometimes the long run's a bitch, but good mostly wins out."

"You're cheering me up."

"Good. That was the plan."

"I wasn't exactly wallowing. I think I got jammed up at worrying. Pansies in the tub, that's a good sign, but I hate that it's offset by ones like this." She gestured toward the gift shop. "I want to believe good mostly wins out, too, but it's hard knowing it costs so much, that some people have to lose."

"Maybe it's not a loss. Maybe they'll relocate to Iowa and hit the lottery, or double their business. Or they'll just be happier there, for whatever reason. The wheel's got to turn before you get anywhere."

"So says the man practicing law in the town where he was born."

"I turned the wheel." They crossed at the Square. "It brought me right back here. Brought you here, too."

He pulled open the door, and led her into the noise of the Bowl-a-Rama.

"To pizza and pinball."

"And pansies, to continue the alliteration. Then there's bowling and bonhomie."

"Bonhomie. Triple word score."

"Play your cards right." He turned her and, letting the mood carry him, laid his lips on hers before she could prepare herself. "There could be sex and satisfaction."

"I'm not playing cards just yet."

"So we settle for friends and frivolity. And boy, am I done with that." He led her to lane six, where Cal sat along with Quinn and Cybil, changing shoes. "Where's Turner?"

"Deserted us for the arcade," Cybil told him.

"And the pinball rivalry continues. Catch you later."

"No problem. I'll have three beautiful women to myself." Cal held out a pair of bowling shoes. "Size seven?"

"That would be me." Layla slid into the booth as Fox gestured Cal a few steps away.

"How'd you get Gage to come in?"

"It's his father's night off. Bill's not around, so..."

"Got it. I'm going to go whip his ass at Tomcat. He'll be buying the beer."

"Tomcat?" Cybil's eyebrows rose dramatically. "Isn't that a war game?"

"Maybe." Fox eyed her narrowly. "What are you, my mother? And you don't have to mention me whipping Gage's ass at a war game to my mother if you should happen to run into her."

An hour with the lights, the bells, the patter of antiair-craft cut away even the fading edges of Fox's pensive mood. It didn't hurt to stand and watch a trio of attractive women bend and stretch while he drank a victory beer. Gage had never been able to beat him at Tomcat.

"Best view in the house," Gage commented as they stood back, studying Quinn's posterior as she approached the line.

"Hard to beat. Friday night leagues are coming in." Fox glanced over where men and women in bowling shirts passed by the front desk. "Cal's going to have a full house tonight."

"There's Napper." Gage sipped his beer while he studied the man in the maroon and cream team shirt. "Is he still-"

"Yeah. Had some words with him just a couple days ago. He's just an older asshole now, with a badge."

"A fifty-eight." Layla plopped down to change her shoes after her last frame. "I don't think I've discovered my newest passion."

"I like it," Cybil said as she sat beside her. "I'd vote for more attractive footwear, but I like the game, the destruct, reconstruct of it."

"Meaning?"

"Deliver the ball, destroy the pins. Hit them right, you can make them destroy each other. Then, wait a minute, they're all back again, like ten soldiers. After all those war games," she said with a teasing smile for Fox, "I'm starving." She tipped her head back, looked at Gage. "How'd your battle fare?"

"I do better with cards and women."

"I kicked his ass, as promised. Beer's on Gage."

They didn't discuss the morning as they sat around a table with pizza and beer. They didn't talk about their plans for the next day. For the moment, they were simply a group of friends enjoying one another and the entertainment offered in a small, rural town.

"My game next time," Gage announced. "A nice friendly game of poker." He sneered at Fox. "We'll see who's buying the beer then."

"Anytime, anywhere." Fox grinned as he grabbed a slice of pizza. "I've been practicing."

"Strip poker doesn't count."

"Does if you win," he said with his mouth full.

"Look who's back!" Shelley Kholer wiggled her way over in jeans designed to bruise internal organs and a shirt sized for an undeveloped twelve-year-old. She grabbed Gage's face with both hands and gave him a long, greedy and slightly drunken kiss.

"Hey, Shell," he said when he had his tongue back.

"I heard you were back, but haven't seen hide or hair. Aren't you just as yummy as ever? Why don't we-"

"What's new?" he interrupted, and picked up a beer to shield his mouth from another assault.

"I'm getting a divorce."

"Sorry to hear it."

"I'm not. Block's a worthless, two-timing bastard with a dick the size of a pickle. One of those little ones, you know?"

"I didn't know that."

"Shoulda run away with you," she said and sent everyone at the table a blurry smile. "Hi, y'all. Hey, Fox! I want to talk to you about my divorce."

She wanted to talk about her divorce twenty hours out of every twenty-four, Fox thought. The other four were reserved for talking about her sister who'd gotten a little too friendly with Shelley's husband. "Why don't you come into the office next week?"

"I can talk freely here. I got no secrets. I got no secrets in the whole damn town. Every sumbitch in it knows my husband got caught with his hand on my sister's tit. I wanna add that thing, that loss of consortium-that loss of nookie thing to the complaint."

"We'll talk about that. Why don't I buy you a cup of coffee up at the counter, and we can-"

"Don't want coffee. I got a nice buzz on to celebrate my upcoming divorce. I want another beer, and I want to make out with Gage. Like the old days."

"Why don't we have one anyway?"

"I could make out with you," she said to Fox as he rose to lead her away. "Did we ever make out?"

"I was fifteen in the old days," Gage announced when Fox steered Shelley to the counter. "I just want that on record."

"She's so unhappy. Sorry," Layla murmured. "It's one of those things I can't help but pick up on. She's so miserable."

"Fox'll help her through it. It's what he does." Cal nodded toward the counter where Shelley sat, listening to Fox, her head resting on his shoulder. "He's the sort of lawyer who takes the term counselor to heart."

"If my sister played squeeze the melons with my husband, I'd want to skin him in a divorce, too." Cybil broke off a tiny corner of a nacho. "That's if I were married. And after I'd beaten them both to bloody pulps. Is her husband really named Block?"

"Unfortunately," Cal confirmed.

At the counter, Shelley ignored the coffee, but she listened.

"It'd be better if you didn't badmouth Block in public. Say whatever you want about him to me, okay? But it's not good for you to go off on him, especially the size of his dick, in public."

"He doesn't really have a little pickle dick," Shelley muttered. "But he should. He shouldn't have any dick at all."

"I know. Are you here by yourself?"

"No." She sighed now. "I came with my girlfriends. We're in the arcade. We're having a Fuck Men night. In the bad way."

"That's fine. You're not driving, are you, Shelley?"

"No, we walked from Arlene's. We're going back there after. She's pissed at her boyfriend."

"If you're ready to go while I'm still here, and you want someone to drive you, or walk you, come and get me."

"You're the sweetest damn thing in the whole world."

"Do you want to go back to the arcade?"

"Yeah. We're going home soon anyway to make apple martinis and watch Thelma and Louise."

"Sounds great." He took her arm, steered her clear of Gage and the table, and walked her to the arcade.

Deciding he'd earned another beer, he swung back by the counter, ordered one on Gage's tab.

"So, you're sticking it to Shelley in more ways than one."

Fox didn't turn at Napper's voice. "Slow night for crime, Deputy Take-a-Nap?"

"People with real jobs take nights off. What's your excuse?"

"I like watching people without balls throw them."

"I wonder what'll happen to yours when Block finds out you're doing his wife."

"Here you go, Fox." Behind the counter, Holly set down Fox's drink, gave him a quick, understanding look. She'd worked the counter for enough years to know when trouble was brewing. "Get you something, Deputy?"

"Pitcher of Bud. I bet Block's going to kick your pansy ass into next week."

"You're going to want to stay out of that." Fox turned now, faced Napper. "Block and Shelley have enough problems without you screwing with them."

"You telling me what to do?" He jabbed a finger into Fox's chest, bared his teeth in a fierce "dare you" grin.

"I'm telling you Block and Shelley are going through a tough time and don't need you making it worse because you want to fuck with me." Fox picked up his beer. "You need to move."

"I don't need to do a goddamn thing. It's my night off."

"Yeah? Mine, too." Fox, who'd never been able to walk away from a dare, tipped the beer down Napper's shirt. "Oops. Butterfingers."

"You stupid fuck." He shoved, and the force of it would've knocked Fox on his ass, if he hadn't anticipated it.

He danced lightly to the side, so that Napper's forward motion sent the deputy careening into one of the counter stools. When he righted himself, spun to retaliate, he wasn't just facing Fox, but Gage and Cal as well.

"That's a damn shame," Gage drawled. "All that beer wasted. Looks good on you though, Napper."

"We run your kind out of town these days, Turner."

Gage spread his arms in invitation. "Run me."

"None of us are looking for trouble here, Derrick." Cal took a step forward, his eyes hard on Napper's. "This is a family place. Lots of kids in here. Lots of witnesses. I'll take you over to our gift shop, get you a new shirt. No charge."

"I don't want a damn thing from you." He sneered at Fox. "Your friends won't always be around to protect you, O'Dell."

"You keep forgetting the rules." Now Gage stepped forward, effectively blocking Fox before his friend rose to the bait. "You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. But Cal and I? We'll be happy to hold Fox's coat while he kicks the shit out of you. Wouldn't be the first time."

"Times change." Napper shoved his way past them.

"Not so much," Gage murmured. "He's as big a dick as ever."

"Told you." With apparent ease, Fox stepped back up to the counter. "I'm going to need another beer, Holly."

When he walked back to the table, Quinn gave him a sunny smile. "Dinner and a show. This place has it all."

"That show's been running about twenty-five years."

"He hates you," Layla said quietly. "He doesn't even know why."

"There doesn't have to be a why for some people." Fox laid a hand over hers. "Forget him. How about a round of pinball-any machine. And you get a thousand-point handicap."

"I think that may be an insult, but... Don't! Don't drink that. God. Look."

The beer glass in Fox's hand foamed with blood. He set it down slowly. "Two wasted beers in one night. I guess the party's over."

WHEN QUINN OPTED TO STAY AT THE BOWLING center with Cal until closing, Fox walked Layla and Cybil home. It was only a couple of blocks, and he knew they were far from defenseless. But he didn't like the idea of them being out at night on their own.

"What's the back story on the jerk currently wearing your beer?" Cybil asked him.

"Just a bully who's needled me since we were kids. Deputy Bully now."

"No particular reason?"

"I was skinny, smaller than him-smarter, too-and came from tree-hugger stock."

"More than enough. Well..." Her fingers gave his biceps a testing pinch. "You're not skinny now. And you're still smarter than him." She sent Fox an approving smirk. "Quicker, too."

"He wants to hurt you. It's on his top ten list of things to accomplish." Layla studied Fox's profile as they crossed the street. "He won't stop. His kind doesn't."

"Napper's top ten list isn't my biggest concern. He has to get in line."

"Ah, home again." Cybil climbed the first step, turned, looked around the quiet street. "We managed bowling, dinner, a minor brawl, and a memo from evil, and it's still shy of eleven. The fun never ends in Hawkins Hollow." She laid her hands on Fox's shoulders. "Thanks for walking us home, cutie." She gave him a light kiss. "See you in the morning. Layla, why don't you work out the logistics- timing, transportation-with Fox and let me know. I'll be upstairs."

"My parents should be out of the house by eight," he told Layla when Cybil strolled away. "I can come by and pick you all up if you need."

"That's all right. We'll take Quinn's car, I imagine. Who's going to walk you home, Fox?"

"I remember the way."

"You know what I mean. You should come in, stay here."

He smiled, eased in a little closer. "Where here?"

"On the couch, for now anyway." She put a fingertip to his chest, eased him right back.

"Your couch is lumpy, and you only have basic cable.

You need to work on your strategy. If you'd asked me to stay because you were worried about it just being you and Cybil in the house, I'd be trying to sleep on your couch with a rerun of Law and Order while I was thinking about you upstairs in bed. Kiss me good night, Layla."

"Maybe I am worried about being in the house, just me and Cybil."

"No, you're not. Kiss me good night."

She sighed. She really was going to have to work on her strategy. Deliberately, she tipped her face up, and gave him the light, friendly kiss Cybil had. "Good night. Be careful."

"Careful doesn't always get the job done. Case in point."

He caught her face in his hands, lowered his lips to hers. Though the kiss was soft, though it was slow, she felt the impact from the top of her head to the soles of her feet. The glide of his tongue, the brush of his thumbs at her temples, the solid line of his body dissolved her bones.

He held her face even as he lifted his head, looked into her eyes. "That was a kiss good night."

"It was. No question about it."

He kissed her again with the same silky confidence until she had to grip his forearms for balance.

"Now neither one of us will get any sleep." He stepped back. "So my work here is done. Unfortunately. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Okay." She made it to the door before she turned, looked back at him from what she considered a safe distance. "I have a careful nature, especially when it's important. I think sex is important, or should be."

"It's on my top ten list of personal priorities."

She laughed, opened the door. "Good night, Fox."

Inside, Layla went straight upstairs where Cybil came out of the office, eyebrow lifted. "Alone?"

"Yeah."

"Can I ask why you're not about to get a good taste of adorable lawyer?"

"I think he might matter too much."

"Ah." With a knowing nod, Cybil leaned on the doorjamb. "That always tangles things up. Want to work off some sexual frustration with research and logs?"

"I'm not sure charts and graphs have that kind of power, but I'll give it a shot." She shrugged out of her jacket as she stepped into the office. "What do you do when they might matter too much?"

"Generally, I run-either straight into it or away. It's had mixed results." Cybil walked over to study the map of the town Layla had generated and pinned to the wall.

"I tend to circle around and around, weigh and think entirely too much. I'm wondering now if it was because I tuned in." She tapped her head. "Without really knowing I was tuning in."

"That may be." Cybil picked up a red pushpin- representing blood-stuck it into the bowling center on the map to signal another incident. "But Fox would be a lot to think about under normal circumstances. Add in the abnormal, and it's a lot to consider. Take your time if time's what you need."

"Under normal circumstances that would be reasonable." At the desk, Layla chose a red index card, wrote: Bloody Beer, Fox, Bowl-a-Rama, and the time and date. "But time is one of the issues, isn't it? And how much we may actually have."

"You sound like Gage. It's a good thing you two didn't hook up or you'd never look beyond the dark side."

"That may be, but..." Frowning, Layla studied the map. "There's another pin, a black pin on the road between Fox's house and Cal's."

"Standing for the big, ugly dog. Didn't I tell you? No, that's right, you went straight from work to the center. Sorry."

"Tell me now."

Once she had, Layla selected a dark blue card, the color she'd chosen for any demon-in-animal-form sighting, filled it in.

"I hate to say this, but while my mind is now occupied and my hands busy, I'm still sexually frustrated."

"There, there." Cybil patted Layla's shoulder. "I'm going to go make some tea. We'll add some chocolate. That always helps."

Layla doubted if candy was going to satisfy her appetite for adorable lawyer, but she'd take what she could get.