The memories went on.
John danced with her all evening, whispering the sweetest and also the sexiest things in her ear the whole time. She wore a cotton halter sundress with big red roses on a white background and red high heeled shoes. He told her that she was the single rose in his vase of life and he would cherish her until death parted them.
He was speaking the gospel truth and that's exactly what would have happened in Cancun if she hadn't been in the wrong place at the right time. She couldn't sleep that night. Excitement from the whole day and anxiety for the up and coming one combined to keep her wide awake. At two o'clock in the morning, she finally tiptoed to the kitchen for a glass of milk and a handful of cookies.
Those in hand, she carefully slid open the door to the deck and slipped out to the far corner to look at the full moon. At that same time tomorrow she would be in the bridal suite of the hotel in Jackson for the first night of her life as John's bride. The next morning they'd fly to Cancun. If she didn't stop thinking about it all, she would have bags under her eyes for her wedding.
That's when she heard the voices from the other side of the hedge surrounding the deck. Whispers, actually, with a few panting moans thrown in. Surely Celia and that groomsman who'd been flirting all day weren't actually having a midnight rendezvous on the grass. Not when Celia had a king-sized bed in the room she used at the ranch.
"Oh, Jonathan, darling, I can't bear to think of you with her."
That got Jane's attention in a hurry and she dropped down on her knees on the deck, pushed the hedge back enough to create a peep hole, and saw John and his sister making out, right there before her eyes.
"I hate this as much as you do, darlin', but just remember the whole time I'm with her I'll be thinking of you and that wonderful life insurance policy. I promise I'll try to get out of it but remember, even if I do sleep with her, it's only sex and it's worth a million bucks," he said.
She laid her head on his shoulder and sighed. "Knowing that is the only thing that keeps me sane."
"Don't think about it. Once this job is over, what do we do next?"
"You get to play my husband in Germany. I need a good cover to get in close to a couple. We'll get ten times what Paul is paying us to create an accident for Ellacyn. You were a genius to think of the insurance policy. We might do that again if I can get past the idea of you sleeping with another woman."
"She is a pretty little thing and it hasn't been hard to pretend to fall in love with her. Paul has no idea that I'm the hired gun. That's the beauty of it. He knows the accident will happen in Cancun and he'll pay the other half when it does. She'll be dead before her twenty fifth birthday and that puts the oil company totally in his name. He'll own it all and he can play the heartsick stepfather. We'll console each other. And he'll never know he paid me to be the grieving widower."
"Isn't that double dipping?" Ramona asked.
"Yes, it is. Genius, isn't it? But we both get what we want. He gets a dead daughter. I get a dead wife. He gets a company. I get to collect on the life insurance I insisted on buying for each of us. She's my beneficiary and I am hers. The minute we say 'I do' they go into effect. Everyone gets what they want and everyone feels sorry for us."
"I don't feel sorry for you," she said.
"Yes, you do. I'm sleeping with someone other than you and pretending to enjoy it. You have to feel sorry for me for doing such a sweet little deed."
"I won't be there, so let's go over it again. No way it can be a suicide?"
"I've got it under control. There's no way there will ever be a question to void that insurance. She's going to drown very accidentally." And he went on to tell her every detail of the scuba diving accident that could never be traced back to him.
Jane's blood ran as cold in Ringgold, Texas at the Double L Ranch as it had that night. She couldn't believe what she'd heard and for a while she had almost convinced herself she had just had a horrible, horrible nightmare.
But after blinking a dozen times and seeing her groom removing the woman's bra and kissing her so passionately it left no doubt that she was most certainly not his sister, Jane faced the cold hard truth.
She'd been duped; not only by her fiancé but also by her stepfather, Paul. The oil company was hers by inheritance. It had belonged to her great-grandfather, passed down to her grandmother and then to her mother. Paul had been the CEO when her father was living and as she sat there in the den, replaying the events of her life, she wondered what had really caused her father's private plane to crash when she was a little girl.
The next step had been getting back into the house without alerting John and his cohort. It had taken forever for her to quietly gather her glass and check for cookie crumbs. She had eased inside even more quietly than she'd gone out and had gone straight to her room. Without turning on a light, she had packed, written John an email in the dark, sent another one to Celia, and before daybreak been in her car on the way to the Jackson airport.
She'd lived in mortal fear that John would be waiting at every bus stop and had spent most of the next day and a half looking over her shoulder. She'd be twenty-five in six weeks and the company held in trust until that time would be hers on her birthday. At that point, Paul would be at her mercy—if she could survive. She had no innocent illusions that John would stop looking for her or that Paul would call off the contract on her life. She was worth far more dead than alive and until midnight of the eve of her birthday, they'd turn over every single rock searching.
A hand touched her arm. In that moment, she expected to look up and see either Ramona—or whatever the hell her name really was—or John, but instead found herself gazing into the eyes of Lizzy again.
"Are you really my friend?"
"Yes, I am," Jane said.
"Well then, would you play with me?"
"I sure will. Shall we take a walk and find a pot of gold?"
Lizzy's chin quivered. "They said I wasn't magic because I didn't find it fast enough. They said I was a skunk after all and they held their noses and ran away from me."
Jane came up out of the chair in an angry flash and took her hand. "I think they are wrong. Let's me and you go hunt for it and when we find it, we won't even tell them."
They played a game of hiding from everyone as Jane suggested next moves until they reached the barn. Behind this tree. Over to that rose bush. Under the fence so fast no one could see them. Now behind the barn doors. Once inside she listened carefully and put a finger over her lips to keep Lizzy quiet.
"The rainbow comes first. We have to see the rainbow because it leads to the pot of gold that only you can find because you are special and have a lucky streak in your hair. Now be very quiet and shut your eyes tightly and imagine a rainbow of purple and blue and yellow and pink. Can you see it?"
Lizzy's nose as well as her eyes puckered up. "I can see it in my head," she whispered.
"Okay, now what do you hear?"
She grinned. "Baby kittens?"
"Where is Lizzy?" Griffin Luckadeau asked Tim and Richie.
"She ran away because…"
"Where did she go?"
Griffin was beginning to get that prickly feeling on the back of his neck. Something was very, very wrong.
"I asked you boys to tell me where she went."
"She and the maid went sneaking off. We went to find her in the house because that's where she went the first time she ran off and then we saw her and the maid running away. The maid was playing a game with her and they were hiding," Richie said.
"Yeah, and the maid told us a lie. She said that Lizzy's hair was a lucky streak and she could find a pot of gold with it but she can't. She's just a…" Keely stopped in the middle of a breath.
"A what?" Griffin asked.
"They said she was a skunk, but we didn't say it," Tim said.
Keely pointed a finger at them. "Yes, you did. You said it first."
"Where did the maid take her?" Griffin asked.
"To find the gold but she's just a crazy old maid 'cause there ain't no gold," Keely said.
Griffin hopped up on a picnic table and yelled. "Everyone, Lizzy has gone missing. The kids say she was with the maid. Anyone seen her?"
"I think they went to the barn," Slade said. "Come on, I'll go with you."
"But Slade, darlin'," Kristy said.
"I'll be right back," he said.
"I hope she doesn't hurt the child. Who knows what she was before she came here? She was probably a child molester or a kidnapper. Maybe that's why she wanted a job here, so she could kidnap one of our kids for the ransom," Kristy said loudly enough for everyone to hear.
"And you are full of shit," Ellen said. "That girl wouldn't hurt a fire ant."
Kristy glared at her.
The two men started off in a trot toward the barn.
"Lizzy!" Griffin called out from the door.
"Shhhh," he heard her over behind a stack of square hay bales.
He and Slade practically tripped over each other's feet getting around the corner of the bales only to find Jane and Lizzy facing each other with a litter of yellow and white kittens between them.
"I found the gold, Daddy," Lizzy whispered.
"Jane is my friend. She is playing with me because I have a lucky streak and no one else wants to play with me. Kayla and Keely said I was a skunk and that I stink, so Jane and me went hunting the rainbow where the gold is and we found it. Jane says that gold isn't always money. This time it was yellow kittens. Ain't they cute, Daddy? Look at this one. It's all furry."
Griffin sat down beside his daughter, heaved a sigh of relief, and began to pet the kittens in her lap. "I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Jane. Any friend of Lizzy's is a friend of mine. Thank you for helping her
Slade wanted to slap his cousin or strangle Jane. Everyone thought she was the sweetest woman in the world—even his cousin, who had no time for women since his wife ran off and left him with a baby to raise. But he knew different. She was playing a game for some reason, and by damn he'd find out what it was, or else.
"I'm sorry those kids were rude to you. I'm going to tell Tim and Richie's mom and I bet they won't act like that again," Griffin said.
"Neither will Kayla or Keely," Slade said.
"Yes, they will. Their momma said they'd have to wash dishes for a month and all kinds of other things if they made you mad, but they said they would call me a skunk forever because they don't like me. It's all right, Uncle Slade. They can't help it if they are sorry bastards. Their momma is just as mean as they are."
"Lizzy!" Griffin exclaimed.
Jane laughed aloud.
"Sorry Daddy. It just slipped out."
Slade set his jaw. "I can't imagine Kristy's little girls saying such a thing."
"Monkey see, monkey do," Jane said.
"Don't you have things to do in the house?" Slade growled.
Jane slid the two kittens she was holding into Lizzy's lap and stood up slowly. She saluted Slade smartly. "Sir, yes, sir. I'll get right in there and do my work, sir, just as you say, sir."
JANE HAD NEVER HAD A SINGLE ARGUMENT WITH JOHN. FROM the time he'd walked into her office at the oil company until the day she'd walked out on the marriage, he had been attentive, kind, considerate, and generous with his time and finances. Of course he'd had an ulterior motive, but all the same she'd never fought with him.
Now it was the exact opposite side of life. Every single morning she awoke wondering how long it would be before she and Slade began slinging verbal mud at each other. They broke the record the day after the birthday party. The argument started before his hind end hit the kitchen chair for breakfast.
"What you drug home sure ruined your party yesterday, didn't it, Granny? I told you she was bad news."
"Pass the eggs and quit your bitchin', Slade Luckadeau," Ellen said.
"I'm stating fact."
"You are angry and taking it out on Jane, who did nothing wrong. You're going to have your hands full with those little demons Kristy is raising if you decide to stay with her. I always wanted a daughter or a granddaughter, but God was probably looking out for me. If He'd have given me two kids like that, I'd have sold them into slavery. Thank God I got three boys," Nellie said.
"They're just little girls. They need a father," Slade said.
"They are clones of their mother," Nellie said.
"Kristy is not childish. They were just playing kid pranks. Griffin and Andy and I used to play tricks on each other when we were kids."
"Tricks are one thing. Mean is another," Ellen said.
"Lizzy is just a little girl who needs a mother, and she doesn't act like that," Jane said.
Slade pointed at her. "You don't have a say in this."
Jane's brown eyes danced as she slapped at the air around his finger. "Don't you point that thing at me. Since I was the culprit who was accused of kidnapping and perhaps even child molestation, I will take a say whether I have one or not. Your argument isn't valid. Those little girls are merely mimicking their mother's actions. They see her act ugly and they act the same way."