Read As Good as Dead Online

Authors: Beverly Barton

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense

As Good as Dead (4 page)

BOOK: As Good as Dead
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He hadn't paid much attention to her in years. They shared the same bedroom, the same bed, but he had not been a real husband to her in going on two years. She could remember the exact date they'd last made love. It1 had been on her sixty-sixth birthday.

If she didn't know better, she'd think he kept a mistress. But not Farlan. Since that one woman, years ago, he'd been as faithful as an old dog. To this day she blamed Dodd for Farlan's one and only indiscretion. But that was the past, water under the bridge. Best forgotten. After all, when she had strayed a couple of times after she hit forty, Farlan had forgiven her and they'd gone on as if nothing had happened.

As Veda made her way down the hall, she listened to the familiar sounds of morning in her home. Although this enormous house had seemed alien to her when she'd come here as Farlan's bride, she had soon renovated the place and made it her own. Everything in this house-from the crystal and china in the dining room to the imported soap in the bathrooms, from the landscaped grounds to the wicker furniture in the sunroom-had Veda's personal stamp on it. She ruled this house as if she were a queen. And she was. Queen Veda. Everyone in Cherokee Pointe either respected her or feared her just a little. She was known for being a vengeful bitch,! and that pleased her. Let that silly, skinny, blond Reba Upton j be the social grande dame. Who cared? She certainly didn't. She much preferred being a power to be reckoned with. No one crossed Veda Parnell MacKinnon without paying a steep price.

When she entered the dining room, Farlan glanced up from the morning paper. The Knoxville News-Sentinel, she noted, not MacKinnon Media's local Cherokee Pointe Herald. He made a habit of checking out other East Tennessee newspapers almost daily, such as the News-Sentinel, the Cleveland' Daily Banner, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and the Maysville Ledger Independent.

"Good morning, my dear," Farlan said, his gaze quickly returning to the newspaper.

Brian rose from his chair and assisted her as she sat on the opposite end of the long dining table from her husband. Her son leaned down and kissed her cheek. "You're looking lovely this morning, Mother." She offered Brian a fragile smile. She loved her only child with all her heart. If only there was something she could do to make him happy. But he'd always been rather gloomy, even as a boy. Her father had been like that-a stern, gloomy man who had wandered in and out of her life after her parents' scandalous divorce when she was an infant. Then, when she was fourteen, he'd killed himself. Veda had been the one who'd found his body, there in her mother and stepfather's library in their Atlanta ho-me.

"Thank you." Veda patted Brian's ruddy cheek. Her son resembled her a great deal, which meant he was a handsome man. But the older he became, the more he looked like her father. Sometimes when she caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye, she'd shiver, somehow feeling as if she had just seen a ghost.

"Something interesting in the News-Sentinel?" Brian asked Farlan as he returned to his seat. Farlan granted. "Nothing much." "You seem quite absorbed in nothing much," Veda said, knowing her comment would evoke a reaction from her husband. It seemed the only way he'd talk to her these days was if she provoked him.

Farlan folded the newspaper and laid it on the table beside his plate, which was empty except for biscuit crumbs. He glanced at Veda, a somber expression on his face, his faded brown eyes skimming over her quickly before his gaze settled on his coffee cup. He seldom smiled at her anymore. In fact, he seldom smiled at all.

"The news seems to remain the same, just the people and places change," Farlan said.

"A fire in a low-rent apartment! complex in Oak Ridge, two policemen accused of racial pro-' filing in Cleveland, the mayor in Harriman fighting with thei city council and a prostitute's body fished from the river outside Loudon."

"Another one?" Veda said. "I seem to recall that about six! or seven months ago, they found a prostitute's body in the river south of here. I don't remember where."

"Downstream from Watts Bar, I believe." Brian picked up1 his fork and speared the scrambled eggs in his plate.

"You have an excellent memory," Farlan said. "I used to. Never forgot anything. But lately… I suppose it comes with growing old."

Veda motioned to Abra, their cook, to pour her a cup of coffee. Abra Trumbo had been with the family for the past twenty-five years and was the only servant who actually lived on the premises; all the others, even the new housekeeper, Viv Lokey, chose to come in at seven each morning and required Sundays off. Servants just weren't what they used to be.

"You blame everything on old age," Veda said, her tone scolding. She didn't mean to always be so critical, but couldn't stop herself where Farlan was concerned. Over the past few years, it seemed they brought out the worst in each other. Perhaps they always had.

She wasn't sure.

"Old age is-" Farlan began, but was interrupted by the rumble of thundering footsteps.

Wallace MacKinnon, a towering bear of a man, came barreling out of the kitchen and into the dining room, his eyes bright, his fat cheeks pink from having been exposed to the cool morning air. He still wore his heavy gray sweater, the one Veda had thrown away several times only to have him drag it out of the garbage again and again. With his faded overalls, ratty sweater and scuffed leather boots, her brother-in-law looked like a bum.

"She's here!" Wallace clapped his huge, calloused hands together, the way an excited child might do when exclaiming he'd just seen Santa Claus.

"Calm down," Farlan said. "Who's here?" "Miss Jazzy's sister. I told you she was coming in from Chattanooga today, didn't I?" Wallace grinned. "I saw her over at the restaurant. She and Miss Jazzy were eating breakfast together. They look just alike."

"For the life of me, I can't understand why you go into town to eat breakfast at that restaurant so often when you could eat at home with your family." Veda frowned disapprovingly.

"Let him be," Farlan said. "He enjoys the company at Jasmine's. He's especially fond of Miss Jazzy, who he tells me is always very nice to him. And he gets a chance to run in-to all sorts of interesting people."

"Interesting indeed. As I recall, this Jazzy person is the town trollop." Like most other Cherokee County residents, Veda knew all about that woman's shameful reputation. "She was accused of killing Jamie Upton a few months back, wasn't she?"

"Jazzy Talbot didn't kill him. You know as well as I do that it turned out she was innocent." Farlan stood and walked over to his brother. "Take off your sweater and have a se-at. Tell us all about seeing Jazzy and her sister." With Farlan's assistance, Wallace removed his heavy sweater, handed it to Abra and then sat next to Brian.

"They're twins. They look just alike," Wallace repeated. "Except Miss Jazzy's got short hair and Miss Reve's got long. Only she wears it done up. Everybody at the restaurant was talking about them and saying that they had to be sisters, that two people don't look that much alike unless they're twins." Veda reached over and patted Wallace's hand. "Ha-ve you already eaten, dear? Or should I have Abra-"

"I ate over at the restaurant," Wallace replied. "I had pancakes."

"Very well, do go on with what you were saying." Veda offered her brother-in-law an approving smile.

"Must we hear all of this? You shouldn't encourage him, Mother," Brian said. "It's just the latest Cherokee Pointe gossip. Jazzy Talbot and some woman named Reve Sorrell may turn out to be long-lost sisters. Why should this concert us?"

"Why indeed?" Veda agreed.

"Reve Sorrell is Spencer Sorrell's daughter," Farlan said. "The Sorrels have been stock-holders in MacKinnon Media for decades. I knew Sorrell slightly, but I never met his wi-fe or his daughter. The man died ten years, ago and his wife took control of the family business, which his daughter now owns."

"If this woman is Spencer Sorrell's daughter, why on earth would she want to claim Jazzy Talbot as a long-lost sister?" Veda asked.

Brian scooted back his chair and stood. "As much as I hate to leave in the middle of such scintillating conversation, I'm afraid I need to go or I'll be late getting into the office; this morning."

"Are you working on a Saturday morning?" Farlan asked.

"You often did, didn't you, Father?" Brian said. "I wouldn't want you to think I'm a slacker."

"Will you be home for dinner?" Veda smiled warmly at her son.

"I'll phone if I make other plans."

Once Brian had left the dining room, Veda sipped on her coffee and half listened to Wallace as he launched into a blow-by-blow account of his early morning venture into town, where he went almost every day to eat breakfast at Jasmine's. Her brother-in-law knew everyone in Cherokee County and associated with people of every social class. Since his teens, Wallace had spent his weekdays working up in the mountains at the Cherokee Pointe Nursery, now operated by the original owner's granddaughter, that odd young woman, Genny Madoc, who'd recently married Dallas Sloan, the new chief of police. The girl was lovely-dark and exotic, a quarter-breed Cherokee. And said to possess the gift of sight, as her grandmother, the old witch woman, had.

"Veda? Veda!"

Hearing Farlan calling her name, she snapped to attention and stared at her husband.

"Yes, what is it?"

"Do you think perhaps we should invite Ms. Sorrell to stay with us while she's in Cherokee Pointe?"

"What?"

"I'm simply thinking along the same lines you were," he told her. "After all, Spencer Sorrell was a business associate, if not a friend. And his daughter is unlikely to find anyone, other than the Uptons, in these parts who are her social equal. She'll have no place to stay other than one of those dreadful cabins. I hardly think she'll choose to stay with Jazzy Talbot, at least not unless they do find out they're siblings."

"How old is Ms. Sorrell?" Veda asked.

"How old? I have no idea. The same age as Jazzy Talbot, I suppose, if they believe they're twins." Farlan rubbed his chin. "I'd say Jazzy is in her late twenties, early thirties."

He eyed Veda speculatively. "What sort of crazy notions have you got going on in that silly head of yours?"

"I don't think it's silly to want to see our son married and providing us with grandchild-ren, do you?"

"If you decide to invite Ms. Sorrell to stay with us, do not"-he stressed the word not-"try to play matchmaker for Brian and her. Do I make myself clear?"

"Brian needs a girlfriend," Wallace piped in. "Ever since Miss Genny got married, he's been so sad. He doesn't like Miss Jazzy, but I think Veda's right-Brian might like Miss Reve. She's awfully pretty. Not quite as friendly as Miss Jazzy, but-"

Farlan shot to his feet, the move silencing his brother and bringing a soft gasp from Ve-da. "God help me!"

Farlan marched out of the room and went straight to his study. Veda knew without following him where he'd gone.He holed up in what he considered his private domain every morning and she'd yet to work up the courage to interrupt him. Though a good man at heart, her husband had a terrible temper.

"Is Farlan mad at me?" Wallace asked.

Veda patted his hand again. "No, dear, no. He's upset with me. But he never stays angry with me, so don't you worry about it." Although she felt more like crying, she smiled. "Later on, why don't you come outside with me and we'll work in the flower garden.

I always count on you to help me. You've learned so much about gardening over the years. First from Melva Mae Butler and in recent years from Genny."

Veda loved gardening. It was one of the few passions left her in life. She'd been born with the proverbial green thumb, as had her brother-in-law. Most of the time, she considered Wallace a nuisance, a burden she and Farlan had to bear. But she genuinely enjoyed his company when they worked together in the yard.

"Veda, how's it possible for Miss Jazzy and Miss Reve to be twin sisters and not grow up together or even know each other?" Wallace asked.

"That's a complicated question with a very complicated! answer."

"If you explained, do you think I'd understand?"

"Probably. It's just that I really don't know anything about! it. Let's just say that when they were born-twins are usually born within minutes of each other-for some reason their mother couldn't keep them…" Veda grew silent as ancient memories invaded her thoughts. Painful memories.

"Yeah, go on. If their mother couldn't keep them, what?"

Veda cleared her throat. "The girls would have been given to other people, people who couldn't have their own child and wanted a baby to raise."

Wallace's face screwed up in a pondering frown. "Is that what folks call adoption?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Miss Jazzy ain't adopted," Wallace said. "But I heard somebody say that Miss Reve's mama and papa adopted her when she was a baby."

Not wanting to continue the conversation about babies-twins in particular-Veda rose from her chair. "I'm suddenly not very hungry. I-I think I'll take my coffee"- she lifted the cup and saucer -"into the parlor and catch the morning news on WMMK."

"I'm sorry, Veda," Wallace said, his voice trembling with emotion. "I just remembered that talking about babies makes you sad."

"It's all right, dear. I-I'm perfectly fine. I'll see you after a while. We'll work in the garden together later this morning."

She escaped from her brother-in-law's scrutiny as quickly as she could. She hated the way he often stared at her with such pity in his eyes. The poor old fool had such a kind heart. Wallace wasn't very bright, but he wasn't totally stupid either. Since he'd always lived with them, he'd been around when she had suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, trying again and again to have another child, not wanting Brian to be raised without at least one sibling. Perhaps if he'd had younger brothers and sisters, if she'd been able to fill this house with more joy and laughter, her son wouldn't be such an unhappy man now.

And maybe her husband would still love her.

 

The mention of the word twins shouldn't bother me the way it does. After all, just because Jazzy Talbot and Reve Sorrell might turn out to be long-lost twin sisters really has
nothing to do with me, with what happened thirty years ago.

BOOK: As Good as Dead
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