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Apprehension gripped Sonya as she glimpsed Uncle Alex's house, rising like an antebellum mansion from the gently rolling Kansas plain. Despite the sturdy row of columns, the long front porch seemed to sag. Paint peeled in places, revealing the naked gray-brown boards beneath. The Rathmell Place, as people still called it, no longer possessed the look of aloof nobility, but now seemed marred, on the brink of decay.
Sonya had talked to Dan Rathmell, Uncle Alex's stepson, on the phone before she'd left Boston. He'd tried to prepare her. "Everything's changed," he'd said, an edge to his voice. "Alex has made a bad mistake, remarrying again so soon after my mother died."
"Uncle Alex is all right, isn't he? He's recovering from the stroke?"
"He's fine, but nothing else is. I'm afraid this time he's got mixed up with some real con artists. But you'll be able to judge for yourself soon. How long will you be able to stay?"
"For about a month. While I'm here, Alex and I plan to settle Dad's estate and dispose of the business."
She could picture the sparkle that would have lighted his dark eyes. "I can't wait to see you again!"
As Sonya turned into the circular driveway, she thought of Dan and she as children looking for nonexistent treasures imagined to be hidden away by robbers along the banks of the Smoky Hill. She thought of Dan as she had last seen him over a year ago, when she'd wondered when the boy had changed so completely into a man--a very handsome man.
Sonya remained in the car for a while, weary from the long, monotonous miles of driving, filled with growing concern for Uncle Alex.
Before she'd reached the front steps of thehouse, Uncle Alex opened the door. "Look who's here," he drawled.
Sonya felt a sense of relief. In spite of his recent illness and the troubling events that had taken place in the long interval of her absence, Alex Brighton looked quite the same.
Uncle Alex couldn't possibly have married this woman! Through the huge front window of the Rathmell mansion, Sonya, a sinking sensation around her heart, watched Alex's bride, young enough to be his daughter, climb from the station wagon and move unhurriedly toward the house. She walked slowly, her exaggerated form giving her a voluptuous appearance. Silently Sonya compared her with Dan's mother--neat, fragile, righteous little Anna. Sonya could feel Alex's gaze on her. Of course he knew what she was thinking. He always did.
Her total disbelief at Uncle Alex's marrying only four months after Aunt Anna's death now changed to censure. The Brightons had suffered many shocks from Uncle Alex's activities, but none where his judgment about women was concerned.
Uncle Alex's wife was inside before she noticed any visitor. She wandered into the kitchen to set down a grocery sack and entered again, tossing a faded sun jacket on the buffet and reaching for a package of cigarettes.
Sonya glanced at Uncle Alex. The frosty, faded eyes, large with crinkled lines about them, always betrayed some contradiction, reading both laughter and meanness, sullenness and humor, suspicion and deep affection. Thin lips curved downward, deep furrows cut around them.
After an awkward silence, Sonya said, "I'm Alex's niece, Sonya Brighton. You must be Constance. Welcome to the clan."
"Call me Connie. You from Boston?"
"She runs Dexter Publications," Alex joked.
"I've heard Alex talk about you."
"So have I," Sonya answered, then to lighten the atmosphere, added, "Unfortunately."
Alex broke in again.
"This niece of mine is more like me than anyone on earth."
Sonya thought she detected some change in Connie's expression, an implication this was not what Connie considered good. Connie's gaze dropped to the canvas bag Sonya had placed beside the oak rocker. "You staying tonight?"
"She's staying as long as she can," Alex answered shortly. "Why don't you sell me that suitcase of yours? I'll give you a buck-fifty for it right now."
"I just paid ninety-nine-fifty."
"So, you got took. You'd better sell now while you've got a buyer."
"He has to have someone to quibble with all the time," Connie observed coldly.
"I'll bet Sonya's hungry. Why don't you go open a couple of cans?"
Connie drew deeply on a cigarette and eyed him. He stared back.
"I hope you brought something home from town. All I could find here at noon was Meow Mix." He paused. "That blasted stray cat I took in eats better than I do. I think I'll start swapping meals with him."
Connie stuffed out the cigarette. "Shouldn't we wait for Emil and Sis?"
Alex answered a loud, definite, "No."
Sonya rose. "I love to cook. Let me help."