His expression froze. “If you agree, why not change?”
The question ate through her eroding composure. “Gee, I don’t know. Because I don’t have any real job skills? Or maybe it’s because I can’t deal with people, their expectations. You should’ve seen how pissed I made Finney yesterday. A customer grabbed me by the arm, to take his order. I nearly sent his ass to the floor. I reacted like he’d come at me in an alley.”
“Get off the street and you won’t have to be streetwise. There are other ways to live.”
And what would that involve? Monthly bills, a car payment—responsibilities. “You make it sound simple. It’s not,” she replied. “No one taught me the basics. How to keep a schedule. Hold down a job. Pay bills.”
“You have a job. You do pay bills—rent at least.”
“I can handle a short stint. Then it falls apart. I don’t get it.”
“Sure you do.” He drilled her with a hard stare. “It takes perseverance to change, but you want it easy. You’ll grab the rubies and go. When the money runs out, you’ll go back to drifting.”
Christ, she did want to cry. “And you’re an expert on change? I should follow your lead?”
“I can help you rehabilitate.”
“I manage fine on my own.”
“Oh, yeah? Seems like you need something before you manage your life straight into jail.”
He’d tapped her deepest fear and the harsh tenor of his voice made the horror vivid. The steel cage. Miles of cement, like a tomb. If she was ever forced to spend time in prison, locked up like an animal, she wouldn’t survive.
He grunted. “So you are scared.” He blocked her path when she tried to flee. “You should be. The U.S. has grown a conservative hide. Most people think criminals like you should be warehoused for the long haul. They aren’t big on rehabilitation, Birdie. They’d just as soon incarcerate your ass and throw away the key.”
“Why won’t you lay off?”
“I can’t. Not while you’re screwing up your life.”
She wasn’t taking it. “Aren’t you the guy who derailed his life when he wrote about some do-gooder’s cheating husband? Didn’t the woman drown?” She got into his face, enough so he flinched. It was an awful victory. “Isn’t it your fault she died? Oh, and you’ve been doing so well ever since.”
The accusations sucked the air from Hugh’s lungs. She was taking gutter swipes and she knew it. No glory in winning, not with the pain in his eyes mainlining straight to her heart. She wanted to double over and wallow in the body blow she’d doled out to them both.
Theodora trotted up. “Cain and Jezebel! What are you fools arguing about?” She planted herself between them. “Hugh, you’re not fixing to faint, are you?”
The question drew his shoulders up. “Stand off, buckaroo. I’m all right.” He scraped his hand through his hair, unwilling or unable to draw his eyes away from Birdie’s. The pain in his face ebbed to low tide, with gale winds rising.
Theodora screwed down her hat. “Make another comment about my Western wear and you won’t be fainting. You’ll be dead.” She grabbed the duct tape dangling from his hand. “We’ll finish together. Birdie, get the lights. Move!”
Stiffly Birdie swung onto the ice-crusted lawn, where decorations were heaped in boxes. When she returned with her arms full, Hugh lobbed fiery glances. Enough so that Theodora noticed. Her mouth worked silently while the air between them congealed. When she’d had enough, she stamped her foot.
“All this high emotion is poisoning my disposition. What were you rascals discussing?” She thumped Hugh on the hip, as if he were the one more prone to honesty. Glowering, he was as mute as marble.
Theodora’s mistrust stung but it was manageable. “We weren’t discussing anything important,” Birdie snapped. She flung one end of the string at his chest. She ached from her ankles to her neck, as if his displeasure were a virus running rampant in her system.
“Horse manure. Hugh, tell me what’s going on.”
He glanced at Birdie, the hurt extinguished from his face. His predatory smile pooled fear in her belly. “We were arguing about Justice Postell,” he said, and her blood ran cold. “Birdie swears the freedwoman brought rubies to Liberty. I wasn’t buying it.”
“The story is true. I told Birdie myself.”
“Yeah, but you weren’t the first. She’d already heard about the gems.”
His announcement coiled the moment so tight it came to a standstill. Birdie considered strangling him even if it wasn’t in keeping with the holiday spirit. What was he doing? She’d told him about the clues in the strictest confidence. How dare he betray her?
There wasn’t time to figure it out, not with Theodora regarding her. “You don’t say.” She stared unblinking, an owl spotting prey. “Birdie, who told you about the rubies?”
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