"You and I need to talk."
"About what?" Jane asked.
"Slade. I'll only say this once then I'll come at you with something more than words. Stay away from him. I intend to marry that man."
"Honey, you can have the man. I damn sure don't want him."
"Why not? You're nothing but a hired hand. Why wouldn't you want him? Besides, if you don't want him, why are you here?"
Slade slipped up behind Kristy and kissed her on the neck.
He shot Jane a mean look. "What's going on?" he asked.
Kristy gave Jane a you-are-informed-and-you-better listen look, turned around and put her hands on his chest. "We were just talking about the recipe for this punch. It's got a lot of power for just punch, doesn't it sweetheart? Have you seen the girls? They were headed for the barn to see the kittens last time I caught a glimpse of them."
Kristy was decked out in skin-tight designer jeans that emphasized her wide hips and thick waist; a halter top made of eyelet lace that let her tanning bed skin show through the little holes right along with a back roll of cellulite begging to be released from a tight bra; high heeled shoes, and lots of chunky gold jewelry. Her dark hair was piled up on top of her hair in a style that was meant to look casual but had at least half a can of hair spray applied to keep every curl in place.
She'd certainly wasted nothing to look good but any fool could see when she looked at Slade she saw dollar signs. Poor old Slade; bless his heart. If Jane hadn't sworn off all men she might feel sorry for him, even though he had been a pain in the ass the whole previous week.
Slade kissed her on the cheek. "Come meet my cousin Griffin. You were saying that to be a Luckadeau you have to have blond hair—wait until you see him. He's got black hair with a natural white streak in it. His little girl has been playing with your daughters."
"Oh, my, I figured that child had something bad wrong with her and her hair grew back all crazy," Kristy whispered.
"Nope, born that way. Griff inherited it from his mother. His sister is as blonde as the rest of the Luckadeau clan."
Jane looked out the window. Only two pieces of cake remained. The punch bowl was half full. People were gathered in groups from two to ten and kids ran every which way. It was the very kind of family gathering she'd always imagined she would love and here she was in the midst of it feeling as out of place as a hooker on the front row of a holiness tent revival meeting.
"So this is how the hired help feels," she mumbled as she made her way into the den and flopped down in a recliner.
She leaned her head back and shut her eyes. Today she was supposed to be in Cancun on her honeymoon. John had offered her a choice of anywhere in the world she would like to go. Exotic places. Mountain tops. Italy. France. Remote islands. But she'd opted for a suite in a beachside hotel in Cancun. Later they'd vacation and see the world. She had wanted beach, sun, water, wine, and romantic evenings for their two week honeymoon.
Instead of choosing just the right sundress from her extensive trousseau for dinner, she'd gotten up that morning and had a choice between three pairs of faded jeans. Why couldn't she at least have thought to bring a few decent things when she packed?
"Because…" she muttered as she finally allowed the memories of that horrible day to flood into her mind.
It had been a glorious day at the ranch. The wedding planner was crazy with last-minute details. Her step father, Paul, was very supportive and attentive. John, the tall, dark and very, very handsome groom, was off making millions of dollars and setting everything in order at his business so he could be away for two weeks. There was the bridesmaids' luncheon and then the manicurists arrived to do mani-pedis on everyone. After that, there was the last fitting of the dress, a custom creation she'd had made locally from a picture on a romance book she'd kept stashed in her file cabinet since she was sixteen.
Then boom, it was time for the rehearsal. The yard had been transformed into something from
magazine. Celia walked down the aisle on John's arm and pretended to be the bride. After all, Jane wasn't taking any chances with bad luck. They went through the basic ceremony three times, finishing just in time to pile into the limos to take them to the rehearsal dinner at the conference center in Greenville.
John's sister, Ramona, was serving as best man and the jokes centered around her not looking anything like John—or a best man. She was a tall redhead with no freckles and a lithe figure that looked wonderful in the shimmery silver silk dress Jane had chosen for her. Jane had asked her to serve as one of the bridesmaids, but John had insisted she stand on his side, since she was the only family he had left. She'd jokingly said she'd wear a pink tux but they'd all finally agreed that she would wear a dress identical to those chosen for the bridesmaids.
Jane's reminiscing stopped cold and she opened her eyes when someone came through the back door. Ellen waved, her gypsy skirt swishing around her ankles as she headed toward the bathroom.
"Too much punch. It packs a wallop, all right, but in the bladder instead of the brain," she teased.
Jane smiled and shut her eyes again, trying to get away from the most horrible day of her entire life by thinking about grocery lists or the recipe for potato chowder or even doing laundry. It didn't work. Her mind was determined to play out every painful memory.
"So be it. Let's get it over with. And then I'm not thinking about it again," she mumbled.
"What?" A thin little voice came from her elbow.
She sat up so fast, her head swam for a minute.
"Who are you talkin' to?" The little girl asked.
"Myself. Why aren't you outside playing with the other children?" Jane asked.
The child was hauntingly beautiful, with the clearest blue eyes Jane had ever seen. A pure white forelock at the front of her otherwise jet-black hair looked like a dollop of whipped cream on a choco late cake.
"My name is Lizzy and I don't want to play with those two girls. They called me a skunk."
"One of them is Kayla and the other one is Keely but they aren't twins. I asked them. Their mommy is Kristy."
"Did you tell your mommy that they were being rude?"
"I don't have a mommy but I told my daddy and he said to renore them."
Jane smiled. "Well, that's what I'd do. I'd just renore them the whole rest of the day and find someone else to play with me."
Lizzy smiled brightly. "Okay. I'll go find Tim and Richie. Sometimes I get tired of playing with boys, but at least they don't call me names."
She took off in a dead run out the back door yelling for Richie the whole way. Jane leaned back again and for a split second wished she was Lizzy's mother. Then she would have a good reason to go snatch Kristy bald-headed for raising her daughters to be as rude as she was.
The minute she shut her eyes, the incident with Lizzy faded and she was right back in the middle of the memories.
The toasts had been made, with John giving the longest one declaring that he'd been a self-proclaimed bachelor and never intended to marry until he met Ellacyn Jane Hayes. He must have liked the sound of his own voice because he talked a long time about how they'd met when he walked into the Ranger Oil Company to convince them to purchase a piece of art from a recent collection he'd acquired, only to find true love instead of a sale.
She remembered every word verbatim of his toast to her but it was only as she relived it on a ranch in Ringgold, Texas that she also realized that he hadn't looked at her while he talked. Rather he'd made eye contact with the guests and his sister.
"Sorry bastard," she whispered.
"That's a dirty word," Lizzy whispered back from the other side of the chair where she was rolled up into a ball, her blue eyes the only thing visible from the shadows.
"It just slipped out," Jane said.
"Sometimes a dirty word just slips out of my mouth, too," she whispered.
Jane cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow.
"That's the way Daddy looks at me when he's going to give me a talking to."
Jane giggled. She didn't mean to, but she couldn't keep it in. It was the first time she'd laughed in a week and it felt so good she didn't want to stop. "You are funny, Lizzy. Want to be my friend?"
"I don't want to be Kayla and Keely's friend. Or Tim and Richie's neither. They all ran away and told me I can't play with them. Kayla said Tim is her new boyfriend. Yuk! She's crazy. Boyfriends are for big girls, not little girls like us. My daddy said so."
Jane tried to put on her serious adult face. "Your daddy is right."
"I might be your friend if you don't tell them I'm hiding from them."
"It's a deal."
Kayla, a freckle-faced, brown-haired child, yelled from the back door. "Hey, maid lady, have you seen Lizzy? She's got hair like a skunk and we can't find her."
Jane dropped her hand down beside the chair and Lizzy grabbed it. "Why are you looking for her?"
"Because…" Kayla searched for a lie.
"Because she was mean to us and we told our mother and she's going to tell Slade and he's going to tell her daddy and she's going to be in big trouble," Keely gushed.
"What did she do that was so mean?" Jane asked.
"She…" Kayla started again.
"She took our friends away from us and said if they were her friends they couldn't be ours." Keely was evidently much more experienced at the game than her younger sister.
"Are you sure she said that to you, or did you say that to her?"
Kristy walked up behind the girls. "What is going on? I told you to go play and here you are pestering the maid."
"We're hunting for Lizzy. Remember Mommy, we told you she was a mean little girl who looks like a skunk. Her daddy looks like one too, and I bet her mother does too. She's weird and we don't want to play with her but we have to find her even if she's not our friend. What if she went off somewhere and died like a skunk on the road?" Keely said.
Lizzy squeezed Jane's hand.
"That isn't nice to call Lizzy that name. I think her hair is beautiful. It's like she's been kissed by the lepre chauns and that's really a lucky streak in her hair. I bet wherever she goes she brings good luck to her friends. Maybe she ran off to play with Tim and…" Jane couldn't remember the other name.
"Richie," Lizzy barely whispered.
"Richie," Jane said. "They probably are hunting for a black kettle of gold, which only a little girl with a white streak in her hair can find."
Kristy grabbed each of them by an arm. "Come on, you two. I don't have time to listen to nonsense from the hired help. Go play with someone else and stay out of my hair. One more ounce of trouble out of you and you'll wish you'd been good. I'll take away your television, video games, and the trampoline for a month. You'd better listen to me. If you embarrass me in front of Slade again, you'll be washing dishes until your hands wither up like prunes." She was still hissing out threats when her voice faded and blended in with the buzz of the rest of the party.
Lizzy poked her head up over the edge of the chair. "I don't want a mommy after all. I thought I did, but that lady scares me. I feel sorry for Kayla and Keely even if they are sorry bastards."
Jane covered her mouth but it didn't stop the laughter.
"What's so funny?" A little snaggle-toothed boy asked as he made his way through the breakfast nook and into the den. "Hi, Lizzy. Kayla said you could help us find a pot of gold. She said because of the white in your hair you are special and you can find gold. Want to go on a treasure hunt with us?"
Lizzy grinned. "Where's Richie?"
Tim hung his head. "He's keeping Kayla and Keely out there. I'm supposed to beg you to play with us. He says you might if I ask."
Suddenly the little girl who'd been the ugly duck ling had a use. Weren't kids a total hoot? She wanted a dozen of them, starting with a little girl exactly like Lizzy. She wouldn't even care if she had a white streak in her hair.
"Okay, but no more calling me names," Lizzy said.
Tim crossed his heart with his fingers and held up two in a serious gesture. "We promise."
"I'm sorry you all don't have a lucky streak and I can't promise there's a pot of gold out there. Sometimes the little elves hide it on a ranch and sometimes in a castle, but I'll help you hunt for it if you don't be mean to me," Lizzy said.
"Okay," Tim grinned.
Lizzy hugged Jane tightly. "You really are my friend."
"Thank you," Jane said past the lump in her throat.
They ran off to play and she shut her eyes again but kept her ears acutely aware of anyone else sneaking in to hide beside the recliner. The memories started again like a movie that had been put on pause.
John had finished his speech. Before his fanny hit the chair, Ramona was on her feet with a raised glass. She began by telling how fortunate she'd been to have John look after her when their parents died and how much it meant to her to finally see him happy. She accredited Ellacyn for the glow in his eyes and hoped that she'd always be a part of their lives.
"Yeah, right," Jane said and promptly popped her eyes open to see if there was a child right beside her. "Lousy bitch," she said when she knew the coast was clear.