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WITH A RELAXED SIGH Lisa Talmadge leaned against the curling backrest of the chair. It was a beautifully restored antique, reupholstered in a patterned brocade of rust, orange and brown. It complemented perfectly the solid rust-colored chair her aunt sat in.
Lisa felt she had been talking nonstop since she arrived, bringing her aunt up-to-date on the latest family happenings. Soon it would be time to get down to the true reason for her visit, which was more than just a wish to see her favorite aunt. Her aunt seemed to be of the same mind.
"We've gotten rid of the preliminaries, Lisa, I now know you've had a safe trip from Baltimore. Both your parents are fine. Your brother is having girl problems as usual. You have a drink in hand to loosen your tongue, so why don't you tell me what really brought you to Charleston?"
At fifty-two, Miriam Talmadge was warm, vivacious and darkly brunette. The latter fact Lisa would never have questioned her hairdresser about. She knew that Mitzi, as Miriam Talmadge was affectionately known by those who loved her, would grow old as gracefully as she stayed young at heart.
It had been several years since Lisa had last spent any time with her aunt. Not since Mitzi had moved back to her home town of Charleston, located on the southern end of the coastal flatlands that were known to all South Carolinians as the Low Country.
Lisa didn't try to hide the smile her aunt's pointed question had prompted. "Believe it or not, Mitzi, you brought me to Charleston."
"Me? Goodness, that's quite a burden." A wry smile deepened the corners of her mobile mouth. "I hope you haven't sought me out about man problems. Considering the mess I made of my marriage, I'm the last one to run to for advice."
"You can't claim sole responsibility for the failure of your marriage. Uncle Simon had a part in it somewhere." Lisa dismissed the statement with a shake of her silver blond hair, a gold hooped earring glittering through the long silk strands.
"That's what Slade says, too," Mitzi Talmadge sighed.
Quickly Lisa lowered her head, her jaw tightening at the name. Her aunt had just put a name to the reason Lisa had come. For the time being, however, that was Lisa's secret until she could find out what was really going on.
"But you must remember," Mitzi was continuing, and Lisa concentrated on what she was saying, "that I was raised in an era where divorce was a scandal and a woman was supposed to make the marriage last no matter what. It's understandable, I suppose, that I should have guilty feelings regarding the failure of mine. Simon and l just weren't suited at all." There was a reflective look in her dark eyes as she smiled, her cheeks dimpling. "I married him because he was so quiet. And I divorced him because he was so quiet," she laughed. "Which proves what an eternal romantic I am at heart, doesn't it? I was all caught up in the image of the strong, silent type when that wasn't what I really wanted or needed. Poor Simon didn't get any bargain with me either. I was so disorganized when it came to anything outside of my writing that it drove him to distraction. He wanted the unobtrusive, homemaking kind of wife who always had a delicious meal ready at promptly seven o'clock. I could barely boil water without a crisis. Ours was a very sad mismatch, but I'm glad he had a few happy years with his second wife before he died," she concluded.
"What about you, Mitzi? You've had time to meet somebody new?" The question was put innocently, but there was a sharp edge to the look in Lisa's olive green eyes. "Tell me about the men in your life."
"Men in the plural? You make me sound like a femme fatale. At my age!" Mitzi shook her head laughingly, a bright twinkle in her eyes. "You're going to be awfully good for my morale, Lisa. And exactly how did the subject get around to my love life when I asked about yours?"
"I thought I'd dodged the question rather expertly." Lisa smiled broadly. "The fact is at the present time I don't have a love life."
"I find that extremely hard to believe. You've grown into a beautiful woman, Lisa Talmadge, with your mother's cheekbones and her blond hair. Those green eyes are definitely from the Talmadge side, outlined with sooty lashes just the way Simon's were. They're definitely your most striking feature. But you're sidetracking me again," Mitzi scolded with mock reproof. "Now why have you come? Did you break up with some special man?
"No. There isn't anyone 'special.'" Lisa raised her hands, making mock quotation marks with her fingers. "I'm escaping from nothing but work," she insisted.
"And that young man you were engaged to?" Mitzi prompted, tipping her head slightly downward to watch Lisa's expression closely.
"Michel? That was over three years ago when I graduated from college." Lisa picked up her cocktail, touching a forefinger to the lime wedge floating on top and watching it bob in the liquid.
"What really happened between you two?"
"A conflict of careers. He wanted a country-club wife and I wanted to work—that's why I'd got my degree. He didn't see it that way. To him, my education was supposed to be just a safeguard for my future in case anything ever happened to him. In the meantime he wanted me home taking care of him and raising a family." Lisa shrugged. The bitterness had long since fled. "I didn't object to that as much as I objected to him telling me that was what I wanted. It's just as well, because it would never have worked between us."
"You're not sorry, then?" Mitzi prompted.
"Not a bit," Lisa returned without any regret. "Now I just steer clear of the strong, masterful types like Michel with their super male egos that constantly have to be fed."
"You said you were escaping from your job. Hasn't it turned out to be what you wanted?" The older woman relaxed in the cushioned chair, its rusty orange a pleasant contrast to her dark coloring. "Your last letter seemed fried with complaints about staff and management."
"I think you can mark that up to almost a year and a half without a vacation rather than the job," Lisa stated, following her aunt's suit and leaning back in her chair. "Since the television station gave the go-ahead on the new show a year ago, it's been hectic, to say the least, but very rewarding and satisfying. I'd only worked as an assistant on other shows. This is the first one I've produced myself, so I put in a lot of hours to prove myself, postponing my vacation, certain the show would fall apart without me. Finally I realized I would fall apart if I didn't get away for a while."
"So you came hero." Mitzi's curiosity over Lisa's choice was still evident.
"I couldn't think of a better place than Charleston. Time seems to pass so leisurely here. Plus, I have you for company," Lisa concluded, keeping to herself the other very pertinent reason for her choice.
"For whatever reason, I'm glad you're here for a few weeks. I only hope you don't find it too boring after the exciting life you've been leading working in television." Before Lisa had a chance to refute her aunt's statement, Mitzi Talmadge made one of her lightning changes of subject. One thought often triggered off another in Mitzi's mind; it was a trait that was characteristic of her personality. "Do you remember the letter you wrote me when you first went to work for the broadcasting company? I can't help laughing when I think about it. You'd put in your application and were so irate when they called you back to hire you as their weather girl."
"At the time, I was a very militant feminist," Lisa agreed with a laughing smile. "I hope I've mellowed with age."
"Mellowed with age—and you're all of twenty-four," her aunt mocked.
"You don't know how vocal a Women's Libber I was," Lisa declared. "When I think of the lecture I gave the company about their weather-girl job, I wonder why they ever hired me!"
"That's what Slade said. I told him about the incident when I heard you were coming for a visit."
The mention of his name set Lisa's teeth on edge. She attempted a bright smile. "I'm dying to meet this paragon you call Slade Blackwell. You've mentioned him half a dozen times in your letters." A half a hundred would have been closer.
"I would have invited him to dinner this evening, but because it's your first night here, I thought it would be best with just the two of us. I promise you that you'll meet him soon. Maybe tomorrow night," suggested Mitzi Talmadge as the idea began to form in her mind.
"I believe you said he was the son of an old family friend?" Lisa's tongue felt almost honey coated as she made the casual inquiry—too sweet to be sincere—but Mitzi didn't seem to notice.
"Mmm, yes," Mitzi sipped her drink, replying absently. "I met him quite by accident shortly after I moved back here to Charleston when my divorce from Simon was final. If you remember, my mother died soon after my divorce, so I really had a very trying few months."
"I can imagine," Lisa murmured.
"But Slade was wonderful," Mitzi continued, not hearing Lisa's low comment. "I never had a head for business—not that I'm as stupid as some people, but I just find it very tedious and dull. Anyway, things became quite complicated with the divorce and the settlement of the family estate. Slade simply took over for me and handled everything. You know how I loathe details, Lisa," Mitzi smiled at herself. "Now that Slade is looking after everything I don't have to be bothered with them. He makes out all the checks and all I have to do is sign them."
With sinking heart, Lisa felt as if her worst suspicions had been confirmed. How could her aunt be so gullible? Her letters this past year had been filled with "Slade said," "Slade suggested," or "Slade told me." He had been quoted as a veritable authority on anything and everything.
It was at Slade Blackwell's instigation that Mitzi had reopened the family home in Old Charleston. Lisa remembered that it also had been the interior decorator he had recommended who had been given the task of renovating the mansion.
Her green gaze swept the living room with its high ceilings and rich cypress woodwork. Lisa was unable to find fault with the completed product. The decor was a smooth mix of antique and modern. It invited a guest to sit back and relax, instead of giving a museum effect that said, Fragile, Keep Off.
Yet it grated, just as it grated to know that Slade Blackwell had suggested the landscape architect for the walled garden outside the colonnade portico. In the waning hours of a March dusk, it was ablaze with spring flowers—azaleas and camellias and the magnolia trees budding, the scent of honeysuckle drifting in the air. Magnificent spreading oaks dominated it all with their elegant draping of silvery beardlike moss.
The same company that designed the garden still maintained it. Lisa couldn't help wondering what kind of a kickback Slade Blackwell made out of the deal. Those two items were just the obvious ones; she guessed there were many other small deals as well. Now Mitzi had informed her that Slade Blackwell made out the checks for her signature. Lisa doubted if Mitzi even verified what she was signing. The man was probably stealing her blind.
"Does this Mr. Blackwell handle all your money?" There was a faint challenge in Lisa's question. She simply couldn't keep it out even though she tried.
"All except some that I keep in an account of my own. I call it my mad money." An impish smile made the woman appear even younger.
Heaven only knew how much was in that account! Heaven or Slade Blackwell—Lisa wouldn't even hazard a guess. She did know that her aunt had received a considerable amount from Simon Talmadge when they had divorced. Lisa's father had understood that Mitzi's mother had been quite wealthy and Mitzi had been an only child.
Plus, there was the income Mitzi made writing romance mysteries. The latter wasn't a large sum, but combined with the other, it was probably a sizeable amount that Mitzi Talmadge was worth.
"Aren't you worried that you're a bit too trusting, Mitzi?" Lisa set her glass on the ornate coaster sitting atop a marble inlaid table, trying to disguise the sharpness of her tone.
"Do you mean where Slade is concerned?" There was faint surprise in the woman's answering question. Then she laughed, a gay melodious sound. "A more honest, dependable man couldn't be found. You haven't met him yet, but when you do, I know you'll like him." Mitzi hesitated, her gaze sharpening. "On second thought, maybe you won't."
"Oh?' Lisa was instantly alert. "Why?"
"You said a moment ago that you have an aversion for the strong, masterful type. I'm afraid those adjectives would fit Slade. Of course, he can be very charming and gracious, too."
When it suits him to be. Lisa added the qualification silently. An older woman probably seemed an easy target to Slade Blackwell. Mitzi didn't have any close family—her parents dead, no aunts or uncles living, the husband she had divorced gone, too. What money he didn't steal from her while she was alive he probably hoped to inherit on her death.
"What did he say when he learned I was coming for a visit?" Lisa asked.
"I don't recall that Slade said anything in particular except that he was glad Simon's family hadn't forgotten me."
"We didn't forget you," Lisa protested quickly. Anger against this Slade Blackwell slowly began to grow hotter. No doubt he wanted Mitzi to be isolated and totally dependent on him.
"I didn't mean to imply that you had," her aunt hastened with a dismissing laugh. "But you must admit it was awkward when Simon was alive. After all, he was your father's brother and we were divorced, I couldn't very well be included as if nothing had changed. I wouldn't have wanted it that way if your parents had tried."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, you are still part of my family," Lisa stated emphatically, "regardless of any divorce."
"God love you, Lisa," Mitzi laughed. "I still think of you as my niece, too. That's why I'm so glad you've come for a visit." Just as quickly, she became thoughtful. "There's only one thing I regret in my life. Oh, not the years I spent with Simon," she assured Lisa hastily. "But the fact that we never had any children and that Simon wouldn't adopt any. You seem like my own daughter, though, and Slade my son."
"Is Slade Blackwell related to you?" Lisa questioned. It suddenly occurred to her that he might be some distant relation.
"No," Mitzi denied somewhat ruefully. "His father once proposed to me, though, many years ago. Sometimes, when I'm in a really sentimental mood, I start thinking that if I'd married him instead of Simon, Slade would be my son. But of course, I didn't and he isn't and it's all water under the bridge." She dismissed the subject with a wave of her hand and a smile. "Tell me what you would like to do while you're in Charleston."
"Don't worry about entertaining me." Lisa folded her hands in her lap, relaxing more fully into the cushioned chair. "I know you're in the middle of a book. You just keep right on writing and I'll wander around on my own. I have a couple of people I want to look up while I'm here."
"More or less," she answered without lying.
But her true plans were just beginning to take shape. One of the very first things she was going to do was meet this Slade Blackwell and find out what his game was. She was determined to accomplish her plan without her aunt present.
If there was one thing she had learned producing the local affairs show, it was how to handle people. And more importantly, how to ask the questions that would reveal a person's true stand, either by doing it herself, or having a reporter do it for her. Slade Blackwell was going to have quite a few questions to answer.
Mitzi glanced at her wristwatch. "Goodness, it's past seven!" She frowned and looked toward the dining room with its small teardrop chandelier suspended above a gleaming white-clothed table. "Mildred usually serves promptly at seven. I wonder what's wrong."
As if on cue, the housekeeper-cook and general dogsbody appeared. There was an exasperated thinness to the line of her mouth, a grimness to her features that said she had put up with more than her share of troubles.
"As near as I can tell, dinner is going to be about thirty minutes late tonight. The oven is on the blink again," she announced, her tone saying it was just about the last straw.
Excerpted from Low Country Liar by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1978 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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