The Guests on South Battery (30 page)

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
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“That's normal,” I said taking my shopping bag from Sultana. “If you work more closely with Sophie, she can help you put your personal stamp on things to make it feel more like yours. Well, assuming they're historically accurate. She's a little fanatical about that kind of stuff.” I smiled brightly. “Of course, I can help you work around them. I'm a real expert on that.” My smile faded as I remembered a few times when Sophie had discovered my subterfuge, my knees aching at the memory of me being forced to strip floors by hand after a contraband electric sander had been discovered in my possession. “As long as you don't let her know.”

Jayne gave me a worried glance. “Okay. That's good to know. But I still wouldn't feel right. Maybe I'm holding out hope that Jack will discover some answers so I can move forward—mentally, anyway.” The air behind her shifted, the temperature dropping as if an air conditioner had been switched on behind us, and I watched her shiver. She reached up a hand and brushed at the back of her neck, as if something had touched her, and I was glad for the scarf I wore that hid the scabs from the scratches I'd received in Button's bathroom. I met my mother's gaze, her eyebrows rising in acknowledgment that we weren't alone.

“Thank you, Ginette,” Jayne said as she took her bag. “This wasn't necessary, but I do appreciate it. I had fun.”

“Me, too,” Ginette said, sneaking a glance behind us as she held open the door and we said good-bye to Sultana with promises to return.

Heavy clouds had been forming while we were inside, and a crack of thunder sounded above us as we made a dash down the street, trying to beat the rain. I turned my head to catch our reflection in the window, not surprised to see the pale form of a young girl in a white nightgown standing behind us, staring directly at me.
Help me
. Her lips didn't move, but the words sounded loud in my ear. I turned and ran faster to catch up, the words reverberating over and over until I began to hum loudly to block them out.


sat at the vanity in front of my bathroom mirror, playing with the makeup we'd purchased the previous day, frowning at my reflection and thinking I looked more like Tammy Faye Bakker than the glamorous appearance I was going for.

Nola sat on the counter, studying me as I'd seen her do at museum exhibits. “Can I do the eyeliner? I'm good at the cat's-eye look, and I don't think I can watch you remove everything and start over one more time. You're going to wear down your eyelid if you're not careful, and then you'll have to put makeup on your bare eyeball.”

“Can that really happen?” I asked, not completely sure she was joking.

Instead of answering she jumped off the counter and took the eyeliner from my hand. Relieved, I closed my eyes, happy to have her expertise. “What would I do without you, Nola?”

“Same thing I'd do without you, so I guess that makes us even.”

It took me a moment to realize that she'd just said something nice to me, most likely taking advantage of the fact that my eyes were closed and our positions made it difficult for me to hug her. “Thanks,” I said.

She responded with a grunt. After a moment, she said, “I wish you'd
go talk to Jayne. She thinks her dress is too revealing and wants to bring a sweater to cover her shoulders and cleavage. I'm thinking it's a pretty conservative dress and no sweater is needed. She'll just look ridiculous.”

I remembered having the same conversation with my mother about the red dress she'd picked out for me for my fortieth birthday party. Jack had really liked it. I blushed a little at how much he'd liked it, sobering quickly when I remembered it had led to JJ and Sarah.

“If she feels more comfortable in a sweater, then she should bring it. It's still a little chilly at night and she might need it.”

I felt Nola pull back. “Open,” she commanded. She examined me closely, a small frown on her face. “Close,” she said, then leaned toward me again with the eyeliner wand. “As soon as I'm done here, I'll go pack my overnight bag. I just hope Alston and her mom don't get here before Detective Riley. I want to be able to hear Jayne say hello to him.”

She pulled back again and I opened my eyes. “Awesome!” She closed the wand and placed it on the vanity. She paused for a moment and then said, “Lindsey is spending the night at Alston's, too.”

Nola didn't sound excited. “You like Lindsey, don't you?” I asked.

“Yeah. It's just . . .” She began picking at her cuticles and I had to bite my lip to not tell her to stop, as I'd found that usually made it worse. “It's just that she's always asking me about you. About when you're going to help her mom find out what happened to her aunt.”

I remembered the uncomfortable conversation I'd had with Lindsey's father, something I'd only shared with my mother, since it didn't involve Jack and I didn't think he needed more stress. “It's not that easy, Nola. My brain is pretty much fully occupied with the issues at the Pinckney house, not to mention my career and family. I promised my mother that I would help just as soon as I scraped off a little more from my plate.”

“Yeah, that's what I keep telling her.” Nola paused. “She wants to bring the Ouija board to Alston's house tonight.”

I sat up. “Don't, Nola. That's definitely a bad idea. It's like opening a window—you never know what might fly inside.”

“I'll tell her.” She opened the door to leave.

“Will Cooper be home this weekend?”

Her cheeks flushed. “I'm not sure. Alston acts funny when I ask about him, and I don't want to be the kind of girl always texting a guy to find out where he is. I like to keep him guessing.”

“Smart girl. Don't forget to kiss the twins good-bye—especially JJ. He'll keep looking for you if he doesn't know you're gone. My mom and dad should be here in about fifteen minutes to pick them up; if you could, please let Mrs. Houlihan know.” I'd asked the housekeeper to watch the babies while we got dressed, knowing that if JJ were let loose we'd have food stains or holes somewhere on our dresses and need to change.

“Will do,” she said, then closed the door after a quick wave.

I lifted the lid to my jewelry box and pulled out the necklace my mother had given me and slipped it over my head. I picked up the ring and slid it on the middle finger of my right hand, admiring its shape and glossy black stone. I brought it closer to my face, studying it, a stray memory pinging in my brain. I was pretty sure I'd seen it before. Most likely when I was a little girl and my mother still wore it. I stared at it for a little longer, trying to remember a moment from my childhood, but couldn't. I closed the jewelry box and stood.

I entered my closet and took the black sparkly gown from the padded hanger, wondering not for the first time how I'd let my mother talk me into buying another sexy dress. At least this one wasn't red. I slipped it over my head, then spent about five minutes doing all sorts of yoga poses to get the zipper all the way to the top.

“Can I help?”

I startled at the sound of Jack's voice, then melted into him as he slid his warm hands under the open zipper, caressing bare flesh. “If you wouldn't mind,” I managed.

He bent to place a kiss on my bare neck. “You look beautiful in this dress,” he whispered in my ear, sending my nerve endings into a stadium-size wave of excitement. “But you'd look even better out of it.”

“Hold that thought,” I said. “I think I just heard a car pull up and it could be Thomas or my parents.”

“Your mother's coming?” Jack pulled back.

I twisted in his arms. “Yes—don't you remember? I told you that the twins were staying with my parents tonight.”

He frowned. “Yes, of course. I remember. I guess I was thinking that Jayne would have brought them over earlier or something.”

“Jayne had to get dressed—hair, makeup, and all that. I didn't want her to have to pack up the twins and bring them over to my parents', especially since my mother said she'd be happy to do it.”

He was still frowning, and I noticed again the lines that seemed to have appeared overnight. I stepped toward him, my palms flat against his chest. “What's wrong, Jack? Is there something you need to tell me? Something's been bothering you ever since you got back from Alabama.”

He smiled his Jack smile, which would have reassured me completely if it hadn't been for the fact that his eyes didn't smile, too. “It's just the book. It's not coming along the way I thought it would.”

I stood on my tiptoes to kiss him lightly. “It will. It always does. Just give it time.”

He nodded, but his eyes remained worried. “Is Jayne driving with us tonight?”

“Yes. Thomas is coming over and we're driving over together.”

“Oh.” Jack sounded disappointed.

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing. I was just hoping for some time to talk with Jayne. We never get a chance to have a conversation.”

I frowned up at him. “She's the nanny, Jack. Why would you need to have a conversation with her unless it involves the children and me?”

He smiled. “Just being friendly, Mellie. And I thought she'd want to know that Rena—the housekeeper at the Pinckneys' lake house—wants to hear it directly from Jayne that she's forgiven about taking some stuff from the house.”

“I'm sure that can wait, Jack. I don't think there's much urgency there.”

“No, I guess not,” he said, kissing the tip of my nose. “Probably just looking for an opportunity to check it off my list.”

I smiled up at him, trying to pinpoint exactly what it was in his expression that I found so unsettling.

My parents were already waiting downstairs when Jack and I joined them just as Thomas rang the doorbell. The dogs went crazy with barking until they saw that it wasn't anybody who seemed intent on scalping us all and calmed down, even allowing behind-the-ear scratches from Thomas. My dad was corralling the dogs in the kitchen when Jayne came down the stairs, and I wished that I had gone to the kitchen with him so I didn't have to see the look on Jack's face. It was different from the one on Thomas's face, but still full of admiration and appreciation of the feminine form. But there was something else in Jack's expression, something that looked a lot like familiarity. Or maybe it was recognition? Either way, it made something thick and hard form in the pit of my stomach.

“You look stunning,” Thomas said, walking forward and taking her hand. For a minute it didn't look as though she'd relax her arm for him to move her hand to his lips, but at the last moment she allowed him to take it, dropping her sweater in the process.

“Thank you,” she said, smiling shyly, making her eyes sparkle and her skin flush becomingly against the pale blue of her chiffon gown. My mother had done a great job of selecting a dress that was not only beautiful, but also cleverly styled to hide the sheer sexiness of it. The material shifted and swayed over Jayne's body, giving a tantalizing glimpse of skin a little at a time. A high slit that started midthigh gave it that little extra oomph.

Thomas bent to pick up her sweater and she took the opportunity to give him the once-over. “You're wearing pants.”

His mouth twitched. “Yes, I usually do when I leave the house. But these match my tuxedo jacket, so I figured I'd wear these instead of my khakis.”

My mother stepped forward, her hands outstretched. “You look lovely, Jayne. And so do you, Mellie,” she said almost as an afterthought. She looked from one of us to the other. “Did you plan to wear your hair the same way?”

We looked at each other with surprise, noticing we'd both gone
with the messy-bun look, complete with a rhinestone clip tucked into the left side. “Actually,” I said, “it's just a coincidence.”

Before Jack could say there was no such thing, Nola came bounding down the stairs with her Vera Bradley overnight bag. It was pink and floral and not to her taste at all, but Amelia had given it to her for Christmas, so she used it. “Picture time!” she said, holding up her iPhone.

“That's not really necessary . . .” I began, but my father was already reaching for the phone.

He gestured for us to all stand at the base of the stairs, and it felt absurdly like the senior prom I'd never had. He and my mother discussed the best poses and positions as he snapped away, taking so many pictures that my face started to hurt from smiling.

“That's enough, Dad,” I said, reaching up to grab the phone from him.

Instead he took hold of my hand and turned it so that the ring faced him. He studied it for a long moment before turning to my mother. “You gave this to her?”

Ginette actually flushed. “Well, yes. I certainly wasn't wearing it, and it was just sitting in a jewelry box. It's a lovely ring, and I thought Melanie could get some wear out of it.”

He turned to look at it again, his lips pressed together in a hard line. “Can't believe you still hung on to this, considering it was given to you by a previous boyfriend.”

I looked back at my mother, who was definitely red. “It was a long time ago, James. I didn't even remember that I still had it until Mellie and I were looking through all my jewelry for a necklace and found it. It has no sentimental value to me anymore, so that's why I gave it to her.”

“An old friend gave this to me for my sixteenth birthday.”
That was what she'd said when she gave the ring to me. I'd thought by “old friend” she'd meant Button and wondered if the confusion had been simply my misunderstanding or a deliberate avoidance on her part of telling the whole truth.

I wanted to ask her more, but Nola's ride appeared and we spent a few moments saying good-bye, and then my parents went upstairs to
relieve Mrs. Houlihan and gather the children and their belongings. I thought it was my imagination, but it almost seemed that Jack was avoiding my mother, orchestrating where he stood to be at the farthest spot from her. When I pointed out that we needed to move the car seats from my car to theirs, Jack seemed almost excited to be going outside.

He kissed the babies good-bye, then excused himself to check on the dogs, lingering in the kitchen long enough that he missed my parents' leaving. I allowed him to help me with my shawl, then held back as Thomas and Jayne stepped out on the piazza, using the moment to have a private conversation.

“Are you all right?” I whispered. “You're acting strange.”

He smiled, although the gesture was more of a grimace. “Sorry. It's a difficult night for me, remember? We're going to celebrate Marc Longo's greatest achievement, which involves stealing from me, and I have to pretend I'm thrilled and happy for him.”

“You're right—I'm sorry. It's just . . .” I paused, then decided to come right out and say it. “Did you have an argument with my mother? You seem to be avoiding her.”

His eyes widened in childlike innocence. “An argument? No, of course not. Like I said, my head isn't in the right place tonight.”

He made to move forward, but I clutched at his sleeve. “And why are you looking at Jayne like that?”

“Like what?”

I wished it weren't so dark so that I could read his eyes. “Like, I don't know. Like you really know her. Almost like the way you look at me.” There. I'd said it. The new mature Melanie was alive and well.

He put both hands on my shoulders and looked squarely in my face. “She's an attractive woman, so of course I'm going to notice. I'm not blind. But I could never, ever, look at a woman the way I look at you, because I will never love another woman the way I love you.” He pressed his lips against mine in the slow, lingering way he knew I liked, and I felt all my worries and concerns evaporate, leaving only small crumbs of doubt clinging to my bowl of insecurity.

We rode in Thomas's car, with Jack and me in the back. He reached
for my hand and held it between us on the drive down to Spring Street. I'd only been to Cannon Green a couple of times for dinner. Despite their claims of locally grown food and healthy options, I'd adored my eating experiences there each time, finding the food delicious and the service impeccable.

BOOK: The Guests on South Battery
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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