Shades of Twilight (Chapter 2)
Roanna didn't have a car. Jessie had gotten her first car when she was sixteen, but Roanna was a rotten driver, forever drifting off into daydreams, and Grandmother had stated that, in the interest of the safety of the citizens of Colbert County, it was best not to let Roanna out on the roads by herself. She hadn't resented it all that much, because she would much rather ride than drive, but now one of her demon imps raised its head.
"I'd like to have a sports car, too," she said, the first words she'd spoken since entering the dining room. Her eyes were round with innocence.
"I've got my heart set on one of those Pontiac Grand Pricks."
Aunt Gloria's eyes rounded with horror, and her fork dropped into her plate with a clatter. Uncle Harlan choked on his tuna, then began laughing helplessly.
"Young lady!" Grandmother's hand slammed against the table, making Roanna jump guiltily. Some people might think her mispronunciation of Grand Prix had been the result of ignorance, but Grandmother knew better.
"Your behavior is inexcusable," Grandmother said icily, her blue eyes snapping.
"Leave this table. I'll speak to you later."
Roanna slipped from her chair, her cheeks red with embarrassment.
"I'm sorry," she whispered and ran from the dining room but not fast enough to keep from hearing Jessie's amused, malicious question:
"Do you think she'll ever be civilized enough to eat with people?"
"I'd rather be with the horses," Roanna muttered as she slammed out the front door. She knew she should go back upstairs and change into boots again, but she desperately needed to get back to the stables, where she never felt inadequate.
Loyal was eating his own lunch in his office, while he read one of the thirty horse care publications that he received each month. He caught sight of her through the window as she slipped inside the stable and shook his head in resignation. Either she hadn't eaten anything, which wouldn't surprise him, or she was in trouble again, which wouldn't surprise him either. It was probably both. Poor Roanna was a square peg who stubbornly resisted all efforts to whittle down her corners so she would fit into the round hole, and never mind that most people happily whittled on their own corners. Burdened with almost constant disapproval, she merely hunkered down and resisted until the frustration grew too strong to be repressed, then struck out, usually in a way that only brought more disapproval. If she'd had even one-half of Miss Jessie's meanness, she could have really fought back and forced everyone to accept her on her own terms. But Roanna didn't have a mean bone in her body, which was probably why animals loved her so much. She was chock-full of mischief, though, and that only caused more trouble.
He watched as she drifted from stall to stall, trailing her fingers over the smooth wood. There was only one horse in the stable, Mrs. Davenport's favorite mount, a gray gelding who had injured his right foreleg. Loyal was keeping him quiet today, with cold packs on the leg to ease the swelling. He heard Roanna's crooning voice as she stroked the gelding's face, and he smiled as the horse's eyes almost closed with ecstasy. If her family gave her half the acceptance the horses did, he thought, she would stop fighting them at every turn and settle into the life into which she had been born.
Jessie drifted down to the stables after lunch and ordered one of the hands to saddle a horse for her. Roanna rolled her eyes at Jessie's lady-of-the-manor airs; she always caught and saddled her own horse, and it wouldn't hurt Jessie to do the same. To be honest, she never had any trouble catching a horse, but Jessie didn't have that knack. It only showed how smart horses were, Roanna thought.
Jessie caught her expression out of the corner of her eye and turned a cool, malicious look on her cousin.
"Grandmother's furious with you. It was important to her that Aunt Gloria be made to feel welcome, and instead you went into your hick act." She paused ever so slightly and let her gaze drift over Roanna.
"If it is an act." Having delivered that zinger, so subtly sharp that it slid between Roanna's ribs with barely a twinge, she smiled faintly and walked away, leaving only the miasma of her expensive perfume behind.
"Hateful witch," Roanna muttered, waving her hand to disperse the too-heavy scent while she stared resentfully at her cousin's slim, elegant back. It wasn't fair that Jessie should be so beautiful, know how to get along in public so perfectly, be Grandmother's favorite, and have Webb, too. It just wasn't fair.
Roanna wasn't the only one feeling resentful. Jessie seethed with it as she rode away from Davencourt. Damn Webb! She wished she'd never married him, even though it was what she'd set her sights on from girlhood, what everyone had taken for granted would happen. And Webb had taken it more for granted than anyone else, but then he'd always been so damn cocksure of himself that sometimes she nearly died with the urge to slap him. That she never had was due to two things: one, she hadn't wanted to do anything that would hurt her chances Of ruling supreme at Davencourt when Grandmother finally died; and two, she had the uneasy suspicion that Webb wouldn't be a gentleman about it. NO, it was more than a suspicion. He might pull the wool over everyone else's eyes, but she knew what a ruthless bastard he was.
She had been a fool to marry him. Surely she could have gotten Grandmother to change her will and leave Davencourt to her instead of to Webb. After all, she was a Davenport, not Webb. It should have been hers by right. Instead she'd had to marry that damn tyrant, and she'd made a big mistake in doing so. Chagrined, she had to admit that she'd overestimated her own charms and her ability to influence him. She thought she'd been so smart, refusing to sleep with him before marriage; she'd liked the idea of keeping him frustrated, liked the image of him panting after her like a dog after a bitch in heat. It had never been quite that way, but she'd cherished the image anyway. Instead, she'd been infuriated to learn that, rather than suffering because he couldn't have her, the bastard had simply been sleeping with other women-while he insisted she be faithful to him!
Well, she'd shown him. He was an even bigger fool than she was if he really believed she'd kept herself "pure" for him all those years while he was out screwing those bitches he met in college and at work. She knew better than to mess up her own playground, but whenever she could get away for a day or a weekend, she quickly found some lucky guy to take the edge off, so to speak. Attracting men was disgustingly easy-just give them a whiff and they came running. She'd done it the first time at the age of sixteen and had immediately discovered a delicious source of power over men. Oh, she'd had to do some pretending when she and Webb had finally married, whimpering and actually squeezing out a tear or two so he'd think his big bad pecker was actually hurting her poor little virginal pussy, but inside she'd been gloating that he'd been so easy to fool.
She'd also been gloating because now she was finally going to have the power in their relationship. After years of having to sweetly kowtow to him, she'd thought she had him where she wanted him. It was humiliating to remember how
she'd thought he'd be more easily handled once they were married and she had him in bed with her every night. God knows, most men thought with their peckers. All of her discreet liaisons over the years had told her that she wore them out, that they couldn't keep up with her, but they'd all said it with big smiles. Jessie took pride in her ability to screw a man into limp exhaustion. She'd had it all planned: screw Webb's brains out every night, and he'd be putty in her hands during the day.
But it hadn't worked out that way at all. Her cheeks burned with humiliation as she guided her horse across a shallow creek, taking care that the water didn't splash on her shiny boots. For one thing, more often than not she was the one who was left exhausted. Webb could go at it for hours, his eyes remaining cool and watchful no matter how she panted and jerked her hips and worked him over, as if he knew she regarded it as a competition and was damned if he'd let her win. It hadn't taken her long to learn that he could outlast her, and she would be the one left lying exhausted on the twisted sheets, her loins throbbing painfully from such hard use. And no matter how hot the sex, no matter how she sucked or stroked or did anything else, once it was finished and Webb was out of bed, he went about his business as if nothing had happened, and she could just make the best of it. Well, damned if she would!
Her biggest weapon, sex, had proven to be ineffective against him, and she wanted to scream at the injustice of it. He treated her as if she were a disobedient child rather than an adult, and his wife. He was nicer to that brat, Roanna, than he was to her. She was sick and tired of being left at home every day while he roamed all over the nation, for God's sake. He said it was business, but she was certain that at least half of his "urgent" trips were conceived at the last moment just to prevent her from doing something fun. Just last month he'd had to fly to Chicago the morning before they were supposed to go on vacation in the Bahamas. And then there was the trip to New York last week. He'd been gone for three days. She'd begged to go with him, dying with excitement at the thought of the shops and theaters and restaurants, but he'd said he wouldn't have time for her and left without her. Just like that. The arrogant bastard; he was probably screwing some silly little secretary and didn't want his wife around to mess up his plans.
But she had her revenge. A smile broke across her face as she reined in the horse and spotted the man who was already lying stretched out on the blanket beneath the big tree, almost hidden in the secluded little cove. It was the most delicious revenge she could have imagined, made all the sweeter by her own uncontrolled response. It frightened her sometimes that she desired him so savagely. He was an animal, totally amoral, as ruthless in his way as Webb was, though without the cool, precise intellect.
She remembered the first time she'd met him. It hadn't been long after Mama's funeral, after she had moved into Davencourt and wheedled Grandmother into letting her redecorate the bedroom she'd chosen. She and Grandmother had been in town to choose fabrics, but Grandmother had run into one of her cronies in the fabric shop and Jessie had quickly gotten bored. She had already chosen the fabric she liked, so there was no reason to hang around listening to two old biddies gossip. She had told Grandmother she was going to the restaurant next door to get a Coke and made her escape.
She had gone there; she had learned early that she could get away with a lot more if she simply did what she really wanted to do after she'd done what she'd said she was going to do. That way she couldn't be accused of lying, for heaven's sake. And people knew how impulsive teenagers were. So, icy Coke in hand, Jessie had then whisked herself down to the newsstand where dirty magazines were sold.
It wasn't really a newsstand, but a grimy little store that sold hobby kits, a smattering of makeup and toiletries, some "hygienic" items such as rubbers, as well as newspapers, paperbacks, and a wide selection of magazines. The Newsweeks and Good Housekeepings were prominently displayed up front with all the other acceptable magazines, but
the forbidden ones were kept on a rack behind a counter in back, and kids weren't supposed to go back there. But old main McElroy had arthritis real bad, and he spent most of his time sitting on a stool behind the checkout counter. He couldn't really see who was in the back area unless he stood up, and he didn't stand up very often.
Jessie gave old man McElroy a sweet smile and wandered over to the cosmetic section, where she leisurely inspected a few lipsticks and selected a sheer pink lip gloss, her reason for being there should she get caught. When a customer claimed his attention, she whisked herself out of sight and slipped into the back area.
Naked women cavorted on various covers, but Jessie spared them only a brief disdainful glance. If she wanted to see a naked woman, all she had to do was strip off her clothes. What she liked were the nudist magazines, where she could see naked men. Most of the time their peckers were small and limp, which didn't interest her at all, but sometimes there would be a picture of a man with a nice, long, fat one sticking out. The nudists said there was nothing sexy about running around naked, but Jessie figured they lied. Otherwise, why would those men be getting hard like Grandmother's stallion did when he was about to mount a mare? She had sneaked into the stables to watch whenever she could, though everyone would have been horrified, just horrified, if they'd known.
Jessie smirked. They didn't know, and they wouldn't. She was too smart for them. She was two different people, and they didn't even suspect. There was the public Jessie, the princess of the Davenports, the most popular girl in school who charmed everyone with her high spirits and who refused to experiment with alcohol and cigarettes the way all the other kids did. Then there was the real Jessie, the one she kept hidden, the one who slipped the paperback porn books under her clothes and smiled sweetly at Mr. McElroy as she left his store. The real Jessie stole money from her grandmother's purse, not because there was something she couldn't have -just for the asking, but because she liked the thrill of it.
The real Jessie loved tormenting that little brat, Roanna, loved pinching her when no one could see, loved making her cry. Roanna was a safe target, because no one really liked her anyway and they would always believe Jessie rather than her if she carried tales. Lately, Jessie had begun to really hate the brat, rather than just disliking her. Webb was always taking up for her, for some reason, and that made Jessie furious. How dare he take Roanna's side instead of hers?
A secret little smile curved her mouth. She'd show him who was boss. Lately she had discovered a new weapon, as her body had grown and changed. She had been fascinated by sex for years, but now physically she was beginning to match her mental maturity. All she had to do was arch her back and take a deep breath, thrusting out her breasts, and Webb would stare so fixedly at them that it was all she could do to keep from laughing, He'd kissed her, too, and when t, she rubbed her front against him, he had started breathing real deep, and his pecker had gotten hard. She had thought about letting him do it to her, but an innate cunning had stopped her. She and Webb lived in the same house; she would be taking too much of a chance that others would find out, and that might change the image they had of her.
She had just reached out for one of the nudist magazines when a man spoke behind her, his voice low and raspy.
"What's a pretty little gal like you doin' back here?"
Alarmed, Jessie snatched her hand back and whirled to face him. She was always so careful not to let anyone see her in this section, but she hadn't heard him approach. She stared up at him, blinking wide, startled eyes at him as she prepared to go into her act of the innocent young girl who had wandered back here by accident. What she saw in the hot, impossibly blue eyes looking down at her made her hesitate. This man didn't look as if he would believe any explanation she could make.
"You're Janet Davenport's kid, ain't you?" he asked, still keeping his voice low.
Slowly, Jessie nodded, Now that she'd had a good look at him, a strange thrill ran through her. He was probably in his thirties, way too old, but he was really muscular and the expression in those hot blue eyes made her think he must know some really nasty things.
He grunted. "Thought so. Sorry about your mama." But even as he said the conventional words, Jessie had the feeling that he didn't really care one way or the other. He was looking her up and down in a way that made her feel peculiar, as if she belonged to him.
"Who are you?" she whispered, casting a weather eye toward the front of the store.
A feral grin bared his white teeth.
"The name's Harper Neeley, little darling'. Mean anything to you?"
She caught her breath, because she knew the name. She had snooped through Mama's things on a regular basis.
"Yes," she said, so excited she could barely stand still.
"You're my daddy."
He'd been surprised that she'd known who he was, she thought now, watching him as he lazed beneath the tree while he waited for her. But as excited as she'd been at meeting him, he really hadn't given a damn that she was his daughter. Harper Neeley had a bunch of kids, at least half of them bastards. One more, even if that one was a Davenport, didn't mean anything to him. He'd approached her just for the hell of it, not because he really cared.
Somehow, that had excited her. It was like meeting the secret Jessie, walking around in her father's body.
He fascinated her. She had made a point of meeting with him occasionally over the years. He was rough and totally selfish, and she often felt as if he were laughing at-her. It infuriated her, but whenever she saw him, she still felt that same electric excitement. He was so nasty, so totally unacceptable to her social circle … and he was hers.
Jessie couldn't remember exactly when the excitement had turned sexual. Maybe it had always been like that, but she just hadn't been ready to recognize it. She had been so focused on bringing Webb to heel, so careful to indulge herself only when she was safely away from her home area, that it simply hadn't occurred to her.
But one day, about a year ago, when she had seen him, the usual excitement had suddenly sharpened, turned almost feral in its intensity. She had been furious with Webb (what was new about that?) and Harper had been right there, his thickly muscled body enticing her, his hot blue eyes drifting down her body in a way no father should ever look at his daughter.
She had hugged him, cuddled against him, sweetly called him "Daddy," and all the while she had been rubbing her breasts against him, rolling her hips against his pecker. That was all it had taken. He'd laughed down at her, then crudely grabbed her crotch and shoved her to the ground, where they had gone at each other like animals.
She couldn't stay away from him. She had tried, knowing how dangerous he was, knowing that she had no power to control him, but he drew her like a lodestone. There were no games she could play with him, because he knew her exactly for what she was. There was nothing he could give her and nothing that she wanted from him, except for the mindless, heated sex. No one had ever screwed her the way her daddy did. She didn't have to gauge her every reaction or try to manipulate his response; all she could do was simply lose herself in the hot nastiness of the sex. Whatever he wanted to do to her, she was willing. He was trash, and she loved it, because he was the best revenge she could ever have chosen. When Webb got into bed beside her at night, it served him right that he was sleeping with a woman who, only hours before, had been sticky with Harper Neeley's leavings.
Roanna stared after Jessie as she rode away from Davencourt, up toward the hilly part of the Davenport lands. Jessie usually preferred a less demanding ride, over fields or level pastures. Why would she deviate from custom? Come to think of it, she had ridden that way a couple of times before, and Roanna had noticed it but not paid attention to it. For some reason, this time she was puzzled.
Maybe it was because she still felt resentful at Jessie's last zinger, though God knows it hadn't been any worse than the usual cut at her fragile self-esteem. Maybe it was because she, unlike everyone else, expected Jessie to be up to no good. Maybe it was that damn perfume. She hadn't been wearing it at lunch, Roanna thought. A scent that strong would have been noticed. So why had she doused herself with perfume before going for a ride by herself?
The answer dawned on her with blinding clarity.
"She's got a boyfriend!" she whispered to herself, almost overcome with shock. Jessie was slipping around behind Webb's back and seeing someone! Roanna almost suffocated on her indignation on Webb's behalf. How could any woman, even Jessie, be fool enough to jeopardize her marriage to him?
Quickly she saddled Buckley, her current favorite, and set out in the same direction she'd seen Jessie take. The big gelding had a long, slightly uneven gait that would have been Jarring to a less experienced rider but covered distance at a fast clip. Roanna was used to his stride and settled herself into his rhythm, moving fluidly with the motion as she kept her eyes on the ground, following the fresh imprints of Jessie's horse.
Part of her didn't believe Jessie really had a boyfriend-it was just too good to be true, and besides, Jessie was too smart to drop her bread butter-side down-but she couldn't resist the tantalizing possibility that she might be right. Gleefully she began plotting some vague revenge against Jessie for the years of hurts and slights, though she didn't know exactly what she could do. Real revenge wasn't part of Roanna's makeup. She was far more likely to punch Jessie in the nose than she was to plot and carry through some long-term plan, and she would get a lot more enjoyment out of it. But she simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to catch Jessie doing something she shouldn't; it was usually she who was goofing up and Jessie who was pointing it out.
She didn't want to overtake Jessie too quickly, so she reined Buckley to a walk. The July sun broiled down so white and merciless that it should have washed out the colors of the trees, but it didn't. The top of her head burned from the heat. Usually she crammed a baseball cap on her head, but she was still dressed in the silk blend stacks and shirt she had worn to lunch, and the baseball cap, like her boots, was in her bedroom.
Dawdling was easy in that heat. She stopped and let Buckley drink from a small stream, then resumed her leisurely tracking. There was a slight breeze blowing into her face, which was why Buckley caught the scent of Jessie's mount and gave a soft whicker, alerting her. She immediately backtracked, not wanting the other horse to alert Jessie to her presence.
After tethering Buckley to a small pine, she quietly made
her way through the trees and up a small hill. Her thin-soled sandals slipped on the pine needles, and she impatiently kicked them off, then clambered barefooted the rest of the way to the top.
Jessie's mount was about forty yards below and to the left, calmly cropping a small patch of grass. A large, moss covered rock jutted up just over the crest of the hill, and Roanna crept over to crouch behind its bulk. Carefully she peeked around it, trying to locate Jessie. She could hear voices, she thought, but the sounds were odd, not really words.
Then she saw them, almost directly below her, and sank weakly against the hot surface of the rock, shock clanging through her body. She had thought to catch Jessie meeting with one of her friends from the country club, maybe necking a little, but not this. Her own sexual experience was so severely limited that she couldn't have formed the images in her mind.
A bush partially concealed them, but still she could see the blanket, Jessie's pale, slim body, and the darker, more muscled form of the man on top of her. They were both stark naked, he was moving, and she was clinging to him, and they were both making sounds that made Roanna. cringe. She couldn't tell who he was, could only see the top and back of his dark head. But then he moved off Jessie, rising up on his knees, and Roanna swallowed hard as she stared at him, her eyes huge. She had never seen a naked man before, and the shock was jarring. He pulled Jessie up on her hands and knees and slapped her rear, laughing harshly at the hot, guttural sound she made, then he was driving into her again the way Roanna had once glimpsed two horses doing it, and dainty, fastidious Jessie was clawing at the blanket and arching her back and rotating her butt against him.
Bile rose hotly in Roanna's throat, and she ducked down behind the rock, pressing her cheek against the rough stone. She closed her eyes tight, trying to control the urge to vomit. She felt numb and sick with despair. My God, what would Webb do?
She had followed Jessie out of a perverse, mischievous desire to cause trouble for her hateful cousin, but she had expected something minor: teasing kisses, if another man was involved at all, maybe meeting some of her friends and slipping away to a bar or something. Years ago, after she and Jessie had first come to live at Davencourt, Webb had sternly neutralized Jessie's spitefulness by threatening to spank her if she didn't stop tormenting Roanna, a threat Roanna had found so delicious that she had spent days trying to provoke Jessie, just so she could watch her hateful cousin get her rear end warmed. Amused, Webb had finally taken her aside and warned her that the punishment could come her way, too, if she didn't behave herself. That same impish impulse had prompted her today, but what she had found was far more serious than she had anticipated.
Roanna's chest burned with impotent rage, and she swallowed convulsively. As much as she disliked and resented her cousin, she had never thought Jessie was stupid enough to actually be unfaithful to Webb.
Nausea rose again, and she quickly turned around to drape her arms across her drawn-up knees and rest her head on them. Her movements scraped against some small gravel, but she was too far away for them to hear the slight noises she was making, and at that moment she was too sick to care. They weren't paying much attention to anything around them anyway. They were too husk pumping and humping. God, how silly it looked … and not gross, all at the same time. Roanna was glad she wasn't closer, glad that the bush had hid at least part of them.
She could just kill Jessie for doing this to Webb.
If Webb knew, he might kill Jessie himself, Roanna thought, and a chill ran through her. Though he normally controlled it, everyone who knew Webb well was aware of his temper and took care not to arouse it. Jessie was a fool, a stupid, malicious fool.
But she probably thought she was safe from discovery, since Webb wouldn't be back from Nashville until tonight. By then, Roanna thought sickly, Jessie would be all freshly bathed and perfumed, waiting for him and wearing both a pretty dress and a smile, and silently making fun of him because only a few hours earlier she'd been screwing in the woods with someone else.
Webb deserved better than that. But she couldn't tell him, Roanna thought. She could never tell anyone. If she did, the most likely outcome would be that Jessie would lie her way out of it, saying that Roanna was just jealous and trying to make trouble, and everyone would believe her because Roanna was jealous, and everyone knew it. Then both Webb and Grandmother would be angry with her rather than with Jessie. Grandmother stayed exasperated at her most of the time anyway for one reason or the other, but she couldn't bear for Webb to be mad at her.
The other possibility would be that Webb did believe her. He might really kill Jessie, and then he would be in trouble. She couldn't bear for anything to happen to him. He might find out some other way, but she couldn't do anything to prevent that. All she could do was not say anything herself and pray that if he did find out, he wouldn't do anything to get himself arrested.
Roanna slipped from her place of concealment behind the rock and quickly made her way back over the hill and through the stand of pine trees to where she had tethered Buckley. He blew a soft greeting and shoved his nose at her. Obediently she stroked the big head, scratching behind his ears, but her mind wasn't on what she was doing. She mounted him and quietly walked him away from the scene of Jessie's adultery, heading back to the stables. Misery weighed heavily on her thin shoulders. She couldn't understand what she'd seen. How could any woman, even Jessie, not be satisfied with Webb? Roanna's childhood hero worship had only intensified in the ten years she had been living at Davencourt. At seventeen, she was painfully aware of other women's response to him, so she knew it wasn't just her opinion. Women stared at Webb with unconscious, or maybe not so unconscious, yearning in their eyes. Roanna tried not to look at him that way, but she knew she wasn't always successful. because Jessie sometimes said something sharp to her about mooning around Webb and making a pest of herself. She couldn't help it. Every time she saw him, it was as if her heart gave a great big leap before starting to beat so fast that sometimes she couldn't breathe, and she would get warm and tingly all over. Lack of oxygen, most likely. She didn't think love caused tingles.
Because she did love him, so much, in a way Jessie never would or could.
Webb. His dark hair and cool green eyes, the slow grin that made her dizzy with delight. The tall, muscled body that made her go both hot and cold, as if she had a fever; that particular reaction had been bothering her for a couple of years now, and it got worse whenever she watched him swimming and he was wearing only those tight brief trunks. His deep, lazy voice, and the way' he scowled at everyone until he'd had his morning coffee. He was only twenty-four, but he ran Davencourt, and even Grandmother listened to him. When he was displeased, his green eyes would get so cold that they looked like glacier ice, and the laziness of his tone would abruptly vanish, leaving his words clipped and cutting.
She knew his moods, how he looked when he was tired, how he liked his laundry done. She knew his favorite foods, his favorite colors, which professional sports teams he liked, what made him laugh, what made him frown. She knew what he read, how he voted. For ten years she had absorbed every little detail about him, turning toward him like a shy little violet reaching for the light. Since her parents had died, Webb had been both her defender and her confidant. It was to him that she had poured out all her childish fears and fantasies, he who had comforted her after nightmares or when she felt so alone and frightened.
But for all her love, she had never had a chance with him
and she knew it. It had always been Jessie. That was what hurt most of all, that she could offer herself to him body and soul, and he would still have married Jessie. Jessie, who sometimes seemed to hate him. Jessie, who was unfaithful.
Tears burned Roanna's eyes, and she dashed them away. There was no point in crying about it, though she couldn't help resenting it.
From the time she and Jessie had come to live at Davencourt, Webb had watched Jessie with a cool, possessive look in his eyes. Jessie had dated other boys, and he had dated other girls, but it was as if he allowed her only so much rope, and when she reached the end of it, he would haul her back in. He had been in control of their relationship from the start. Webb was the one man Jessie had never been able to wrap around her finger or intimidate with her temper. A single word from him could make her back down, a feat even Grandmother couldn't match. Roanna's only hope had been that Jessie would refuse to marry him, but that hope had been so slim as to be almost nonexistent. Once Grandmother had announced that Webb would inherit Davencourt itself plus her own share of the Davenport business concerns, which was fifty percent, it had been a foregone conclusion that Jessie would have married him even if he'd been the meanest, ugliest man on the earth, which he wasn't. Jessie had inherited Janet's twenty-five percent, and Roanna had her father's twenty five percent. Jessie saw herself as the princess of Davencourt, with the promise of becoming its queen by marrying Webb. There was no way she would have accepted a lesser role by marrying someone else.
But Jessie had been fascinated by Webb, too. The fact that she couldn't control him as she did other boys had both irritated and entranced her, keeping her dancing around his flame and to his tune. Probably, with her overweening conceit, she had thought that once they were married she'd be able to control him with sex by bestowing or withholding her favors according to how he pleased her.
If so, she had been disappointed in that, too. Roanna knew that their marriage wasn't happy and had been secretly pleased. Suddenly she was ashamed of herself for that, because Webb deserved to be happy even if Jessie didn't.
But how she had gloated every time Jessie hadn't gotten her way! She always knew, because although Webb might control his temper, Jessie never made any attempt to do so. When she was angry, she raged, she pouted, she sulked. In the two years they had been married, the fights had come more and more frequently, with Jessie's yelling heard all over the house, to Grandmother's distress.
Nothing Jessie did, however, could sway Webb from whatever decision happened to displease her. They were locked in almost constant battle, with Webb determined to oversee Davencourt and do his best by their investments, a job that was grinding and often kept him working eighteen hours a day. To Roanna, Webb was obviously adult and responsible, but he was still only twenty-four and had told her once that his age worked against him, that he had to work twice as hard as others to prove himself to older, more established businessmen. That was his primary concern, and she loved him for it.
A workaholic husband, however, wasn't what Jessie wanted in life. She wanted to vacation in Europe, but he had business meetings scheduled. She wanted to go to Aspen at the height of the ski season; he thought it was a waste of time and money because she didn't ski and wasn't interested in learning. All she wanted was to see and be seen. When she lost her driver's license due to four speeding tickets within six months, she would have blithely continued driving and counted on the Davenport influence to keep her out of trouble, but Webb had confiscated all of her car keys, sternly ordered everyone not to let her borrow theirs, and made her sit at home for a month before hiring a driver for her. What had enraged her even more was that she had tried to hire a driver herself, but Webb had anticipated her and stymied that. It hadn't been difficult; there weren't that many limousine services in the Shoals area, and none who
would cross him. Only Grandmother hadn't received the rough end of Jessie's tongue during that hellish month when she'd been grounded like a rebellious teenager. Maybe sleeping with other men was Jessie's revenge against Webb for not letting her have her way, Roanna thought. She was willful enough and spiteful enough to do it.
Bitterly, Roanna knew that she would have made Webb a much better wife than Jessie had, but no one had ever considered it, least of all Webb. Roanna was abnormally observant, a trait developed from a lifetime of being shoved to the side. She loved Webb, but she didn't underestimate his ambition. If Grandmother had made it plain that she would be very pleased if he married Roanna, the way she had with Jessie, then very probably they would now be engaged. Granted, Webb had never looked at her the way he'd looked at Jessie, but she'd always been too young. With Davencourt in the balance, he would have chosen her, she knew he would. She wouldn't have cared that he'd wanted Davencourt more than he wanted her. She would have married Webb on any terms at all, grateful just to get any part of his attention. Why couldn't it have been her? Why Jessie?
Because Jessie was beautiful, and had always been Grandmother's favorite. Roanna had tried hard at first, but she had never been as graceful or as socially adept, or had Jessie's good taste in clothing and decorating. She would certainly never be as pretty. Roanna's mirror wasn't rose tinted; she could plainly see her straight, heavy, untidy hair, more brown than red, and her bony, angular face with her weird, slanted brown eyes, the bump on the bridge of her long nose, and her too-big mouth. She was rail thin and clumsy, and her breasts were just barely there. Despairing, she knew that no one, especially no man, would ever willingly choose her over Jessie. At seventeen, Jessie had been the most popular girl in school, while Roanna, at the same age, had never had a real date. Grandmother had arranged for her to have "escorts" to various functions she'd been forced to attend, but the boys had obviously been shanghaied by their mothers for the duty, and Roanna had always been embarrassed and tongue-tied. None of the draftees had ever volunteered for another opportunity for her company.
But since Webb's marriage, Roanna had tried less and less to fit herself into the mold Grandmother had chosen for her, the appropriate social mold of a Davenport. What was the point? Webb was lost to her. She had begun withdrawing, spending as much time as she could with the horses. She was relaxed with them in a way she never was with people, because the horses didn't care how she looked or if she'd knocked over yet another glass at dinner. The horses responded to her light, gentle touch, to the special crooning note in her voice when she talked to them, to the love and care she lavished on them. She was never clumsy on a horse. Somehow her thin body would move into the rhythm of the powerful animal beneath her, and she would become one with it, part of the strength and grace. Loyal said he'd never seen anyone ride as good as she did, not even Mr. Webb, and he rode as if he'd been born in a saddle. Her riding ability was the only thing about her that Grandmother ever praised.
But she would give up her horses if she could only have Webb. Here was her chance to break up his marriage, and she couldn't take it, didn't dare take it. She couldn't hurt him that way, couldn't take the chance that he would lose his temper and do something irrevocable.
Buckley sensed her agitation, the way horses do, and began to prance nervously. Roanna jerked her attention back to what she was doing and tried to soothe him, patting his neck and talking to him, but she couldn't give him her full attention. Despite the heat, cold chills roughened her skin, and again she felt as if she might vomit.
Loyal was far more attuned to horses than he was to people, but he frowned when he saw her face and came over to take Buckley's reins as she swung down from the saddle.
"What's wrong?" he asked bluntly.
"Nothing," she said, then rubbed a shaky hand over her face.
"I think maybe I got too hot, that's all. I forgot my cap. 11 "You know better'n that," he scolded.
"Go on up to the house and drink some cold lemonade, then rest up for a while. I'll take care of Buck."
"You told me to always take care of my own horse," she said, protesting, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.
"And now I'm tellin' you to go on. Scat. If you don't have enough sense to take care of yourself, I don't know that you can take care of Buck."
"All right. Thanks." She managed a weak smile, because she knew she must really look sick for Loyal to bend his rule about the horses, and she wanted to reassure him. She was sick, all right, sick at heart, and so full of impotent rage that she thought she might explode. She hated this, hated what she'd seen, hated Jessie for doing it, hated Webb for letting her love him and putting her in this situation.
No, she thought as she hurried up to the house, stricken by the idea. She didn't hate Webb, could never hate him. It would be better for her if she didn't love him, but she could no more stop that than she could stop the sun from rising the next morning.
No one saw her when she slipped in the front door. The huge hall was empty, though she could hear Tansy singing in the kitchen, and a television played in the den. Probably Uncle Harlan was watching one of the game shows he liked so much. Roanna moved silently up the stairs, not wanting to talk to anyone right now.
Grandmother's suite was at the front of the house, the first door on the right. Jessie and Webb's suite was the front one on the left side. Over the years, Roanna had finally settled on one of the back bedrooms, away from everyone else, but to her dismay she saw that Aunt Gloria and Uncle Harlan had chosen the middle suite on the right side of the house, and the door was standing open, Grandmother's and Aunt Gloria's voices coming from within. Listening, Roanna could also make out the voice of the housekeeper,
Bessie, as she worked to unpack their clothes, She didn't want to see any of them, especially didn't want to give Aunt Gloria the opportunity to start in on her, so she reversed her steps and went out the double French doors onto the upper story gallery that completely encircled the house. Using the gallery, she went around the house in the opposite direction until she came to the French doors that opened into her own bedroom and gained sanctuary.
She didn't know how she could ever look at Jessie again without screaming at her and slapping her stupid, hateful face. Tears dripped down her cheeks, and angrily she dashed them away. Crying never had done any good; it hadn't brought back Mama and Daddy, it hadn't made anyone like her any better, it hadn't kept Webb from marrying Jessie. For a long time now she had fought back her tears and pretended that things didn't hurt her even when she felt as if she would choke on her hidden pain and humiliation.
But it had been such a shock, seeing Jessie and that man actually doing it. She wasn't stupid, she'd been to an R-rated movie a couple of times, but that really never showed anything except the woman's boobs and everything was all prettied up, with dreamy music playing in the background. And once she'd glimpsed the horses doing it, but she hadn't really been able to see anything because she'd sneaked out to the stables for that very purpose and hadn't been able to find a good vantage point. The noises had scared her, though, and she'd never tried that again.
Reality was nothing like the movies. It hadn't been romantic at all. What she'd seen had been raw and brutal, and she wanted to blot it out of her memory.
She took another shower, then collapsed across the bed, exhausted from her emotional upheaval. Perhaps she dozed; she wasn't certain, but all of a sudden the room was darker as twilight gathered, and she realized she had missed supper. Another black mark against her, she thought, and sighed.
She felt calmer now, almost numb. To her surprise she was even hungry. She pulled on some clean clothes and
trudged down the back stairs to the kitchen. Tansy had already cleaned up the dishes and gone home, but the industrial-size stainless-steel refrigerator would be full of leftovers.
She was nibbling at a cold chicken leg and a roll, with a glass of tea at her elbow, when the kitchen door opened and Webb strolled in. He looked tired, and he'd removed both coat and tie, the coat slung over his shoulder and hanging from one crooked finger. The top two buttons on his shirt were open. Roanna's heart gave its customary jump when she saw him. Even when he was tired and disheveled, he looked like heaven. The sickness roiled in her stomach again at the thought of what Jessie was doing to him.
"Are you still eating?" he teased with mock amazement, green eyes twinkling.
"Got to keep my strength up," she said, striving for her usual flippancy, but she couldn't quite achieve it. There was a somberness in her tone that she couldn't hide, and Webb gave her a sharp glance.
"What've you done now?" he asked, taking a glass down from the cabinet and opening the refrigerator door to pour himself some iced tea.
"Nothing unusual," she assured him, and even managed a wry, crooked smile.
"I opened my big mouth at lunch, and both Grandmother and Aunt Gloria are mad at me." "So what did you say this time?"
"We were talking about cars, and I said that I wanted one of the Pontiac Grand Pricks."
His broad shoulders heaved as he controlled a spasm of laughter, turning it into a cough. He dropped into the chair beside her.
"My God, Ro."
"I know." She sighed.
"It just popped out. Aunt Gloria made one of her snide remarks about the way I eat, and I wanted to get her goat." She paused.
"What did Aunt Lucinda do?"
"She sent me from the table. I haven't seen her since." She picked at the roll, reducing it to a pile of crumbs, until
Webb's strong hand suddenly covered hers and stilled the movements.
"Had you eaten anything before you left the table?" he asked, and there was a stern tone in his voice now.
She made a face, knowing what was coming.
"Sure. I had a roll and some tuna."
"A whole roll? How much tuna?"
"Well, probably not an entire roll."
"More than you've eaten of this one?"
She eyed the demolished bread on her plate, as if judiciously weighing each crumb, and was relieved to be able to say, "More than that."
It wasn't much more, but more was more. His expression told her he wasn't fooled, but he let that slide for now.
"All right. How much tuna? How many bites?"
"I didn't count them!"
"More than two?"
She tried to remember. She knew she'd taken a couple of bites just to show Aunt Gloria that her verbal swipe had fallen short of the mark. She might try to evade the truth, but she wouldn't lie outright to Webb, and he knew it, so he would continue to pin her down with explicitness. With a little sigh she said, "About two, I guess."
"Did you eat anything afterward? Until now, that is?" She shook her head.
"Ro." He turned his chair toward hers and put his arm around her thin shoulders, hugging her to him. His heat and strength enveloped her the way it always had. Roanna burrowed her untidy head against that broad shoulder, bliss overtaking her. When she'd been young, Webb's hugs had been a haven for a terrified, unwanted little girl. She was older now, and the quality of her delight had changed. There was a heady, faintly musky scent to his skin that made her heart beat faster, and made her want to cling to him.
"You have to eat, baby," he said cajolingly, but with a firm undertone.
"I know you get upset and lose your
appetite, but I can tell that you've lost even more weight. You're going to damage your health if you don't start eating more."
"I know what you're thinking," she charged, lifting her head from his shoulder to scowl at him.
"But I don't make myself throw up or anything like that."
"My God, how could you? There's never anything in your stomach to be thrown up. If you don't eat, soon you won't have the strength to work with the horses. Is that what you want?"