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You're certain?"The doctor nodded bleakly. His operating room greens were still fresh. He hadn't been in surgery long enough to sweat them. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Lancaster. It's extensive and rampant."
"There's nothing you can do?"
"Beyond keeping him comfortable and as free of pain as possible, no." He touched her arm and glanced meaningfully at the man standing by her side. "He doesn't have too long. A few weeks at the most."
"I see." She blotted her eyes with a crumpled, damp tissue.
The doctor's heart went out to her. When family members reacted to bad news with hysteria, he felt competent to handle them. This valorous acceptance from a woman so feminine and frail-looking left him feeling callow and awkward. "If he had come in for a checkup sooner, maybe . . ."
She smiled a sad, wistful smile. "But he wouldn't. I begged him to see you when his stomach kept bothering him. He insisted it was nothing more than indigestion."
"We all know how stubborn Roscoe can be," the man with her said. Gently Granger Hopkins folded Caroline Lancaster's fingers around his arm. "Can she see him?"
"In a few hours," the doctor replied. "He'll be under anesthetic until this afternoon. Why don't you go home for a while and get some rest?"
Caroline nodded and let Granger, an attorney and friend, lead her toward the elevator. They waited for it in glum silence. She was dazed but not surprised. Never had her life been rosy and without complication. Why had she idealistically clung to the hope that Roscoe's exploratory surgery would prove that he had nothing more than a treatable ulcer?
"Are you all right?" Granger asked softly when the elevator doors closed behind them and they were free from prying eyes.
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "As all right as a woman can be when she finds out her husband is going to die. Soon."
She looked up at him and smiled. Granger's heart melted. Her smiles, which were often sweetly apologetic for some invisible deficiency, had a way of touching both men and women. "I know you are, Granger. I can't tell you how glad I am to have you as a friend."
They crossed the lobby of the newly refurbished hospital. Personnel and visitors glanced at Caroline and then quickly away. The averted faces were curious but deferential. Everyone already knew. When a leading citizen in a town the size of Winstonville was dying, the news spread like wildfire.
Granger escorted Caroline to her car and opened the door for her. She got inside but didn't turn on the ignition. She sat, staring dejectedly ahead, lost in thought, in worry, in grief. So many things to see to. Where would she start?
"Rink will have to be notified."
The name went through her like an ice pick, cold, needle-sharp and piercing. It punctured all her vital organs. His name thundered through her head. The pain of hearing it paralyzed her.
"Caroline, did you hear me? I said"
"Yes, I heard you."
"Before he went into surgery, Roscoe made me promise to contact Rink if the prognosis was bad."
Eyes the elusive color of woodsmoke sought the lawyer's. "He asked you to contact Rink?"
"Yes. He was most emphatic about it."
"I'm surprised. I thought the quarrel between them was irreconcilable."
"Roscoe is dying, Caroline. I think he knew when he went into the hospital that he'd never leave it. He wants to see his son before he dies."
"They haven't seen or spoken to each other in twelve years, Granger. I don't know if Rink will come back."
"He will when he knows the circumstances."
Would he? Oh, God, would he? Would she see him again? How would she feel when she did? What would he look like? It had happened so long ago. Twelve years ago. Her hands gripped the padded steering wheel of her Lincoln. Her palms were damp. She went damp all over.
"Don't worry about it," Granger said, sensing her distress. "Since you don't know Rink, I'll call and tell him."
Caroline didn't correct his assumption that she didn't know Rink. That they had known each other had been a well-kept secret for twelve years. She didn't intend now to start revealing it. Instead she laid her hand over Granger's where it rested on the windowsill of the car door. "Thank you for everything."
His face was plain and lumpy and as long and drooping as a basset hound's. His cheeks hung like empty leather pouches on either side of his jaw. Incongruously, when she touched him, he blushed like a schoolboy. He was rumpled and stooped, slow-moving, soft-spoken and kind, but his demeanor had fooled many. Behind that caricature of a face operated a shrewd, though scrupulously honest, mind. "I'm glad to be of any help I can. Is there anything else?"
She shook her head. It was a relief that he had volunteered to call Rink. How would she ever have brought herself to do that? "I have to tell Laura Jane." The gray eyes filled with tears. "That won't be easy."
"You'll handle it better than anyone else could." He patted her hand and backed away. "I'll call you this afternoon and if you like, I'll drive you back to the hospital whenever you want to return."
She nodded, started the car and engaged the gears. The town was bustling as she drove through it. Roscoe's surgery had been scheduled early that morning. By now the workday's business was in full swing. People were going about their daily routines, unaware that Caroline Dawson Lancaster's world had once again been turned upside down.
The man she had looked to, first as an employer, then as a husband, was going to die. Her future, which for a short while had seemed secure, was once more precarious. Not only would Roscoe's death mean the loss of someone important to her, it would mean the loss of her new station in life as well.
She drove past the Lancaster Gin. They were gearing up for a heavy cotton crop this year. The foremen would have to be told about Roscoe's condition soon. That would be left up to her, since she had been tending to the gin's business for several months, ever since Roscoe's health had prevented him from handling it himself. The foremen would pass on the word to the workers. Before long everyone in town would know that Roscoe Lancaster was dying.
It had been a hot gossip item when Caroline Dawson married Roscoe Lancaster, who was more than thirty years her senior. Folks had said that that trashy Dawson girl had bettered herself all right, living at The Retreat and driving a shiny new Lincoln, always dressed fit to kill no matter what the occasion. Shoot! Who did she think she was? Everybody could remember when she wore patched clothes and worked at Woolworth's after school. Now that she was Mrs. Roscoe Lancaster, married to the richest man in the county, she put on airs.
Actually, Caroline avoided the townsfolk because she couldn't stand their speculative glances, glances that told her they were wondering just what kind of witchcraft she had practiced on ol' Roscoe to get him to marry her after being a widower for so many years.
Soon those same people would be coming to her to pay their respects. She closed her eyes briefly and shuddered at the thought. Only the sight of The Retreat could lift her despondency. Until the day she died, a mere glimpse of the house would thrill her. From the first time she had seen it as a little girl, creeping through the woods and peering through the trees at the mansion, it had enchanted her.
It was encircled by stately live oaks. Their massive branches, dripping curly gray moss, spread over it protectively like embracing arms. The house sat like a Southern coquette with her wide hooped skirts ballooned around her. The brick was kept painted a pristine white. A file of Corinthian columns adorned the front, three on each side of the front door. They supported the second-story balcony over the wide veranda that surrounded the house. White wicker furniture dotted the porch. It was brought in only during the cold, wet winter months. White wrought iron, as lacy as a petticoat, bordered the balcony. Forest-green shutters flanked tall windows that gleamed like mirrors in the sunlight.
Summer insects buzzed crazily, ecstatically, around the profusion of blooming flowers, their colors so brilliant and rich they hurt the eyes. No place on earth had greener grass than that which spread like a carpet around The Retreat.
An aura of serenity hovered over the house like the magic mist that surrounded the castle in a fairy tale. For almost as long as she could remember, the house had represented all that was desirable in the world. Now she lived in it. After today, she knew her residence would be temporary.
She brought the car to a stop on the gravel drive that arced in front of the house. For a moment, she collected her thoughts and built up the resources from which she would have to draw strength for the next few hours. It wouldn't be a pleasant afternoon.
The entrance hall was dim after the blinding sunshine outside. The Retreat was a typically designed plantation house of the antebellum period. A wide central foyer ran from the front door to the back. Opening off one side of it were the formal dining room and the library, the room Roscoe used as his office. On the other side were the formal and informal parlors, divided from the foyer and from each other by enormous sliding doors which disappeared into the walls. To Caroline's recollection the doors had never been used. A sweeping curved staircase rose majestically to the second floor and its four bedroom suites.
The house was cool, a haven against the summer humidity. Caroline peeled off her suit jacket, hung it on the coatrack and plucked at the silk blouse that was damply sticking to her back.
"Well? What's the news?"
The housekeeper, Mrs. Haney, who had been at The Retreat since Marlena Winston had married Roscoe Lancaster, stood in the arched doorway that led into the dining room. Having come from the kitchen beyond, she was drying her large, rough, capable hands, which matched the rest of her, on a muslin cup towel.
Caroline went to her slowly and embraced her. The housekeeper's stout arms closed around the slender woman. "Bad, then?" she asked softly, stroking Caroline's back.
"The worst. Cancer. He won't be coming home."
Haney's enormous bosom heaved on a sob that she didn't let go of. Together the two women leaned into each other, offering and accepting solace. Haney wasn't all that fond of Roscoe, though she had tolerated him for over thirty-five years. Her grief was mostly for the ones he would leave behind, including his young widow.
Haney had at first been suspicious and resentful of the new mistress of The Retreat. But when she saw that Caroline wasn't going to change anything in the house, that she intended to leave it as Marlena had wanted it to be, she began to be won over. Of course, the girl couldn't help coming from trash. Haney wouldn't be so prejudiced as to judge her by her folks. Caroline treated Laura Jane affectionately and kindly. That was reason enough for sainthood in Haney's book.
"Haney? Caroline? What's the matter?" They turned to see Laura Jane standing on the bottom stair. At twenty-two, Roscoe's daughter looked little more than an adolescent. Her soft brown hair hung straight from a center part. It framed a face whose features were so delicate they looked ethereal. Her complexion was as translucent as porcelain. Her waiflike eyes were large and soulful and velvety brown, surrounded by long lashes. Her figure had matured only as far as her mind. She was like an exquisite bud not quite in full flower. All the curves of womanhood were there, but they would never ripen. Just as her mind had stopped developing, so had her body. She would forever remain untouched by time.
"Is Daddy's operation over? Is he coming home?"
"Good morning, Laura Jane," Caroline said, going to her stepdaughter, who was only five years younger than herself if one measured in years alone. She looped the girl's arm through hers. "Will you walk with me outside?
It's a beautiful day."
"All right. But why is Haney crying?" Haney was dabbing her eyes on the cup towel.
Caroline propelled the young woman through the front door and out onto the veranda. "Because of Roscoe. He's very sick, Laura Jane."
"I know. His stomach hurts all the time."
"The doctor said it's not going to get any better."
They strolled over the well-manicured lawn. A team of workmen came twice a week to keep the grounds at The Retreat in immaculate condition, no matter the season. Laura Jane plucked a daisy from a clump growing near the lichen-covered brick path. "Has Daddy got cancer?"
Sometimes her astuteness surprised them. "Yes, he does," Caroline replied. She wouldn't shelter Laura Jane from the severity of her father's illness. That would be cruel.
"I've heard a lot about cancer on television." She stopped and faced Caroline. The two women were about the same height and their eyes were on a level. "Daddy could die with cancer."
Caroline nodded. "He is going to die, Laura Jane. The doctor said he could die in a week or so."
The deep brown eyes remained tearless. Laura Jane raised the daisy to her nose as she pondered the news. Finally she looked up at Caroline again. "He'll go to Heaven, won't he?"
"I guess so. . . . Yes, yes, of course he will."
"Then Daddy'll be with Mama again. She's been there a long time. She'll be glad to see him. And I'll still have you and Haney and Steve." She glanced toward the stables. "And Rink. Rink writes to me every week. He says he'll always love me and take care of me. Do you think he will, Caroline?"
"Of course he will." Caroline clamped her lips together to keep from crying. Would Rink ever keep a promise? Even to his sister?
"Then why doesn't he live with us?" Laura Jane demanded logically.
"Maybe he'll come home soon." She wasn't going to tell the girl that Rink would be there until she knew for certain that he would be.
Laura Jane's mind was at peace. "Steve's waiting for me. The mare had her foal last night. Come see it."
Taking Caroline's hand, she dragged her toward the stable. Caroline envied Laura Jane's resilience and wished she could approach Roscoe's death with the simple faith in the future that his daughter had.
The air in the large stable was warm and thick and smelled pleasantly of horseflesh, leather and hay. "Steve," Laura Jane called out merrily.
"Here," the low voice responded.
Steve Bishop was manager of the Lancaster stables. Raising thoroughbreds was an avocation of Roscoe's, though he bothered little with the actual care of the horses. Bishop stepped out into the center aisle from one of the stalls. He wasn't very tall but was powerfully built. His features were heavy and coarse, but somehow their expression softened the bluntness of his face. He wore his hair long, usually with a bandana sweat band around his head or, as now, with a straw cowboy hat on it. His jeans were old and frayed, his boots dusty, his shirt sweat-stained. But his face was alight with a smile as Laura Jane skipped toward him. Only his eyes never lost their look of sadness and disillusionment, even when he smiled. They seemed much older than his thirty-seven years.
"Steve, we came to see the foal," Laura Jane said breathlessly.
"Right in there." He tilted his head toward the stall he had just left.
Laura Jane went inside it. Steve searched Caroline's eyes inquisitively. "Cancer," she said in answer to his silent question. "Only a matter of time."
Steve cursed under his breath and glanced toward the young woman kneeling in the hay, crooning to the foal. "Have you told her?"
"Yes. She accepted it better than any of us."
He nodded and smiled at Caroline ruefully. "Yes. She would."
"Oh, Steve, she's beautiful, isn't she?"
He touched Caroline's shoulder briefly, self-consciously, then went into the stall. Caroline followed and watched him as he awkwardly knelt down beside Laura Jane. The Vietnam War had left him without the lower half of his left leg. He wore a prosthesis that was virtually indiscernible unless he had to bend it, as now.
"She is pretty, isn't she? And her mama's so proud of her." He patted the mare's rump, but his eyes were on Laura Jane. Caroline watched as he reached up and pulled free a straw that had attached itself to Laura Jane's hair. His fingers lightly grazed her flawless cheek. Laura Jane raised her eyes to him and they smiled at each other.
Caroline was momentarily stunned by the intimate exchange. Were these two in love with each other? She didn't quite know what to make of the idea. Tactfully she withdrew, but Steve looked up at her. "Mrs. Lancaster, if there's anything I can do . . ." He left the offer open-ended.
"Thank you, Steve. For the time being just carry on as you have been."
"Yes, ma'am." He knew she had been instrumental in Roscoe's hiring him. She had been working for Roscoe when Steve Bishop had showed up to apply for the job of stable manager, carrying his bitterness in front of him like a shield. His ponytail had grown halfway down his back, his denim vest was covered with peace signs and patches with antiwar and anti-American slogans on them. He had been surly and belligerent, almost daring Roscoe to give him a job, a chance, when so many others had refused to.
Caroline had seen through his disguise and into the real man. He was desperate. She felt an automatic affinity with him. She knew the hurt that could come from being labeled, knew what it was like to be judged by an appearance and background one couldn't help. Because the veteran said he had worked on a horse ranch in California before the war, Caroline had talked Roscoe into hiring him.
Roscoe had never regretted it. Steve had cut his hair and modified his appearance immediately, as though the trappings of rebellion were no longer necessary. He worked diligently, conscientiously, and had a rapport with the thoroughbred horses that was uncanny. The man had only needed a vote of confidence to restore his self-esteem.
Caroline mused on all that as she went back toward the house. Steve and Laura Jane in love. She shook her head, smiling, as she entered the foyer. The telephone was ringing and she automatically picked it up before Haney had a chance. "Hello?"
"I've spoken with Rink. He'll arrive some time this evening."
There were a million things to be done in the afternoon, a million people to notify. Roscoe had no living relatives save his son and daughter, so there was no family to be concerned with. But everyone in the county, and many in the state of Mississippi, would want to know of Roscoe's illness. Caroline divided the list with Granger and spent a great deal of time on the telephone.
"Haney, you'd better get Rink's old room in order. He's coming home tonight."
At that the housekeeper burst into copious tears. "Praise God, praise God. I've been praying for the day my baby would come home. His mama is dancing in Heaven today. She surely is. All that room needs is fresh bed linens. I've been keeping it clean against the day he'd come back to it. Lordy, Lordy, I can't wait to clap eyes on him."
Caroline tried not to think of the moment when she would have to look at the prodigal son, speak to him. She busied herself with the myriad tasks at hand.
Nor did she think of Roscoe's imminent death. That would come later, in private. Not even when she visited the hospital late in the afternoon and sat by his bedside did she let herself dwell on the thought that he would never leave the place. He was still a captive of the anesthetic, but she thought a small pressure was applied to her hand when she took his and squeezed it in good-bye.
At dinner, she told Laura Jane about Rink's coming home. The girl jumped out of her chair, grabbed Haney and began to dance her around the room. "He promised he would come back someday, didn't he, Haney? Rink's coming home! I've got to tell Steve." She raced out the back door toward the stables, where Steve had an apartment.
"That girl's gonna make a nuisance out of herself if she doesn't leave that young man alone."
Caroline smiled secretly. "I don't think so." Haney cocked one inquiring eyebrow, but Caroline didn't elaborate. She picked up her glass of mint-sprigged iced tea and went out onto the front veranda. As she sat down in a wicker rocking chair, her head fell back onto the flowered cushion and her eyes closed.
This was the time she loved best at The Retreat, the early evening, when lights from inside the house shone through the windows and made them look like jewels. Shadows were long and darkly hued and melded into one another so that there were no sharp angles or distinct shapes. The sky overhead was a rare and lovely shade of violet, dense and impenetrable. The trees were looming black etchings against it. Bullfrogs down on the river channel croaked hoarsely and cicadas filled the breezeless, humid air with their shrill soprano notes. The rich delta earth smelled of fecundity. Each flower gave off a unique and heady perfume.
After long moments of rest, Caroline opened her eyes. That was when she saw him.
He was standing motionless beneath the branches of a sprawling live oak. Her heart rocketed into her throat and her vision blurred. She didn't know if he were real or a mirage. Dizziness assailed her and she gripped the slippery iced-tea glass hard to keep it from sliding through her cold, stiff fingers.
He nudged himself away from the trunk of the tree and moved, pantherlike and silent, coming closer until he stood at the brick steps leading up to the porch.
He was only a shadow among many, but there was no mistaking the clean masculine lines of his shape as he stood with his feet widely separated. Physically the years had been kind to him. He was no less trim than the first time she had seen him. Darkness hid his face from her, but she caught the shine of straight white teeth as he smiled slowly.
It was an indolent smile if it matched his tone of voice. "Well as I live and breathe, if it isn't Caroline Dawson." He placed one booted foot on the bottom step and bent at the waist to prop his arms on his knee. He looked up at her and the light from the entrance hall fell on his features. Her heart constricted with pain . . . and love. "Only it's Lancaster now, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's Lancaster now. Hello, Rink."
That face! That face had haunted her dreams and filled her fantasies. It was still the most marvelous face she had ever seen. Good in his twenties, he was magnificent in his thirties. Black hair, the Devil's own, intimated the wildness of his spirit with swirling strands that defied control. His eyes, which had mystified her from the first time she had seen them, intrigued her anew. People with no imagination would call them light brown. But they were gold, like the purest dark honey, the finest liquor, like sparkling topazes.
The last time she'd seen him, those eyes were blazing with passion. Tomorrow. . . . Tomorrow, baby. Here. In our place. Oh, God, Caroline, kiss me again. Then: Tomorrow, tomorrow. Only he hadn't returned the next day or ever again.
"Funny," he commented in a tone that left her to believe it wasn't funny at all, "us sharing the same last name."
There was no answer for that. She wanted to shout that they could have shared the same last name years ago if he hadn't been a liar, if he hadn't betrayed her. Some things were better left unsaid. "I didn't hear your car."
"I flew in, landed on the airstrip and walked from there."
The landing strip was about a mile away. "Oh. Why?"
"Maybe I didn't know what kind of welcome I was going to get."
"This is your home, Rink."
His curse was vicious and rank. "Yeah, sure it is."
She wet her lips with her tongue and wished she had the courage to try standing. She feared to, afraid her legs wouldn't support her. "You haven't asked about your father."
"Granger filled me in."
"You know he's dying, then."
"Yes. And he wants to see me. Wonders never cease."
His scathing remark brought her out of the chair without having to think about it. "He's a sick old man, Rink. Not at all the way you remember him."
"If he's got one breath of life in his body, he's exactly the way I remember him."
"I won't argue with you about this."
"I'm not arguing."
"And I won't have you upsetting him or Laura Jane or Haney. They're looking forward to seeing you."
"You won't have? My, my. You do consider yourself mistress of The Retreat, don't you?"
"Please, Rink. The next few weeks are going to be difficult enough without"
"I know, I know." His long sigh reached her where she stood tensely on the porch, her hands clasped tightly together. She had set her glass of tea on the porch railing for fear of dropping it. "I can't wait to see them, either," he said and glanced toward the stables. "I saw Laura Jane come out of the house a while ago, but didn't want to suddenly appear out of the dark and scare her. I remember her as a little girl. I can't believe she's all grown-up."
An image of Laura Jane and Steve kneeling in the hay of the stall together, his rough fingers brushing her cheek, came to Caroline's mind. She wondered what Rink would think of his sister's romance. It made her uneasy to surmise. "She's a woman now, Rink."
She felt his eyes on her, touring, analyzing, assessing. Like warm brandy they poured over her and touched everywhere. "And you," he said softly. "You're all grown-up now, too, aren't you, Caroline? A woman."
She was remarkably unchanged. The beauty of the fifteen-year-old girl he had known had only mellowed. He had hoped to find her fat, disheveled, frumpy, with lackluster hair and heavy thighs. Instead she was still reed slender, with a waist that looked like a strong Gulf breeze would snap her in two. Her breasts had matured to a soft fullness, but they were still high, round and achingly touchable. Damn her! How often had his father touched her?
He took the steps up to the porch slowly, like a predator who wasn't hungry but only wanted to torment his prey. The golden eyes, gleaming through the darkness, held hers. The wide sensuous lips were fixed in a sly, knowing smile, as though he knew she was remembering things she wished she could forget, like how his lips felt on her mouth, on her throat, on her breasts.
She spun on her heel. "I'll call Haney. She'll be"
His hand flashed out to manacle her wrist and she was jerked to a halt. He forced her around to face him. "Hold on a minute," he said silkily. "After twelve years, don't you think we can greet each other more cordially?"
His free hand wrapped around the back of her neck and brought her face up dangerously close to his. "Remember, we're kinfolks now," he whispered tauntingly. Then his lips swooped down on hers, hard and angry. He took them brutally with his mouth, punishing her for all the nights he had had to think about her, his unspoiled Caroline, sharing her bed, her body, with his father.
Her fists dug into his chest. There was a roaring in her ears. Her knees went to jelly. She fought him. She fought herself harder. Because she wanted to fling her arms around him and hold him close, to know again the thrill of being in his embrace.
But this wasn't an embrace, it was an insult. She struggled for all she was worth to tear her mouth free.
When she succeeded, he slid his hands into his jeans pockets and grinned with mocking triumph at her outraged expression and bruised lips. "Greetings, Mom," he drawled.
© 1984 by Erin St. Claire"