The Obsession

By: Nora Roberts



“It’s dishwater.”

“No, indeed. It’s like deer hide, all the tones of blonde mixed up, and all sun-streaked now from summer. Nice and thick, too. I’m going to ask you a couple of things, maybe hard things, sweetie. But they’re important things.”

“Where’s Ashley?”

“They’re taking her to the hospital now. She asked after you, asked if we could bring you in to see her. Would you want to?”

“Yes, ma’am. Please, I want to.”

“All right. But now, I have to ask you if your father ever hurt you. I know that’s a hard thing to ask.”

“He’s never laid a hand on me or Mason. My mama gives out the hidings if we need it, and they don’t count for much. She doesn’t have the heart for a real hiding, so we pretend, all three of us. Because Daddy says, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’”

“I never liked that one myself. The harder one is asking if he ever touched you in a bad sort of way.”

Naomi stared straight ahead while Lettie ran the brush through her hair. “You mean like he did to Ashley. He raped her. I know what rape is, ma’am. They raped the Sabine women in the Bible. He never did that to me. He never touched me wrong.”

“All right, then. Did he ever hurt your mama?”

“I don’t think so. Sometimes . . .”

“It’s all right.” In practiced moves, Lettie used a little band to pull Naomi’s hair back into a tail. “All you have to do is tell me the truth.”

“Sometimes he looked like maybe he wanted to hurt her, but he didn’t. If he got really mad, he’d just go off for a day or two. Cooling off, Mama said. A man needs to cool off on his own time. She didn’t know, Miss Lettie. Mama didn’t know he hurt people, or she’d have been afraid. More afraid.”

“People?”

When Lettie came back around to sit again, Naomi stared straight ahead. “Ashley said she thought she’d been down there for a day or two. There was more rope down there, and pictures. There were pictures on the wall of other women, tied up like she was. Worse than she was. I think some of them were dead. I think they were dead. I’m going to be sick.”

Lettie tended to her, holding her hair back as she hugged the toilet, bathing her face with a cool cloth when she was done.

She gave Naomi something minty to rinse out her mouth, brushed a kiss over her forehead.

“You’ve had enough. Maybe you want to rest awhile.”

“I can’t go home, can I?”

“Not right now, I’m sorry, honey. But I can take you to my house, and you can use the guest bed, try to sleep.”

“Can I just stay here until Mama and Mason come?”

“If that’s what you want. How about I get you some toast, we see how that settles. You save that Snickers bar for later.”

“Thank you.”

Lettie rose. “What you did, Naomi? It was right. And more, it was brave. I’m awful proud of you. I’m only going to be a couple minutes. How about some tea with honey to go with the toast?”

“That’d be nice, thank you.”

Alone, Naomi laid her head on the table, but she couldn’t rest. She sipped at the Coke, but it was too sweet. She wanted water—just cold and clear. She thought of the water fountain, rose.

She stepped outside the little room, started to call out, ask if it was all right.

She saw the deputy hauling her father across the room toward a big metal door. His hands were in cuffs behind his back; a raw bruise bloomed on his right cheek.

He didn’t look wild now, or upset or sorry. He had a sneer on his face—the sort he got when somebody said maybe he was wrong about something.

He saw her—and she braced for his fury, his hate, his wrath.

All she got was an instant of indifference before he walked to the metal door, and through. And away.

The room was crowded with people, noise, and something that sparked darkly on the air. She felt she floated in it, as if her legs had just gone somewhere else and her body hung suspended.

She heard words, disjointed, tinny to her ear.

FBI, serial killer, forensics, victims.

Nothing made sense.

No one noticed her, a gangly girl with eyes too wide, too bright in a face pale as a ghost, swimming in too-big clothes and shock.

No one glanced her way, and she wondered, if they did, would their eyes pass over her—through her—just as her father’s had.

Maybe none of it was real. Maybe she wasn’t real.

But the pressure on her chest, that felt real. As if she’d fallen from the high limb in the old oak tree out back and knocked away her breath. So far away she couldn’t get it back.

The room took a slow, sick spin, and the light faded. A cloud over the moon.

With Bowes secure, Wayne came out in time to see Naomi’s eyes roll back in her head. He shouted, and he leaped toward her. He was fast, but not fast enough to catch her before she hit the floor.

“Get some water! Where’s the damn doctor? What the hell’s she doing out here?” He gathered her up, cradled her. Gently tapped cheeks he thought looked pale enough for his hand to pass through.

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