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The tall, silver-haired man stood quietly apart from the rest of the mourners, his eyes, narrowed and contemptuous, on the slender, black-clad figure beside his sister. His cousin Barry was dead, and that woman was responsible. Not only had she tormented her husband of two years into alcoholism, but she'd allowed him to get behind the wheel of a car when he was drunk and he'd gone off a bridge to his death. And there she stood, four million dollars richer, without a single tear in her eyes. She looked completely untouchableand Ted Regan knew that she had been, as far as her husband had been concerned.
His sister noticed his cold stare and left the widow's side to join him.
"Stop glaring at her. How can you be so unfeeling?" Sandy asked angrily. His sister had dark hair. At forty, he was fifteen years older than she, and prematurely gray. They shared the same pale blue eyes, though, and the same temper.
"Am I being unfeeling?" he asked with a careless smile, and raised his smoking cigarette to his mouth.
"You promised you were going to give that up," she reminded him.
He lifted a dark eyebrow. "I did. I only smoke when I'm under a lot of stress, and only outdoors."
"I wasn't worried about secondhand smoke. You're my brother, and I care about you," she said simply.
He smiled, and his hand touched her face briefly. "I'll try to quit. Again," he said wryly. He glanced at the widow with cold eyes. "She's a case, isn't she? I haven't seen a single tear. They were married for two years."
"Nobody knows what goes on inside a marriage, Ted," she reminded him quietly.
"I suppose not," he mused. "I've never wanted to marry anybody, but it seems to work out for a few people."
"Like the Ballengers here in Jacobsville," she agreed with a smile. "They go on forever. I envy them."
Ted wasn't going to touch that line with a pole. He drew on the cigarette, and his harsh gaze went back to the heavily veiled woman by the black limousine.
"Why the veil?" he asked coldly. "Is she afraid Barry's mother may wonder why there aren't any tears in her big blue eyes?"
"You're so cynical and harsh, Ted, it's no wonder to me that you've never married," she said with resignation. "I've heard people say that no woman in south Texas would be brave enough to take you on!"
"There's no woman in south Texas that I'd have," he countered.
"Least of all, Coreen Tarleton," she added for him, because the way he was looking at her best friend spoke volumes.
"She's even younger than you," he said curtly. "Twenty-four to my forty," he added quietly. "Years too young for me, even if I were interested. Which I am not," he added with a speaking glance.
"She isn't what you think," Sandy said.
"I'm glad you're loyal to the people you love, tidbit, but you're never going to convince me that the merry widow over there is grieving."
"You've always been unkind to her," Sandy said.
He stiffened. "She was a pest once."
Sandy didn't reply. She'd often thought that Ted had been in love for the first time in his life with Coreen, but he'd let the age difference stand between them. He was forty, but he had the physique of a man half that age, and the expensive dark suit he was wearing flattered it. He was a working millionaire. He never sat at a desk. He was slender and strong, and as handsome as the late cowboy star Randolph Scott. But he had no use for women now; not since Coreen had married.
"You're coming back to the house with us, aren't you?" Sandy asked after a minute. "They're reading the will after lunch."
"In a hurry, is she?" he asked icily.
"It was Barry's mother's idea, not hers," Sandy shot back angrily.
"No surprises there," he remarked, his blue eyes searching for Barry's small, elegant mother in her black designer suit. "Tina probably would enjoy dumping Coreen on the front lawn in her underwear."
"She does seem a little hostile."
Ted ground out the cigarette under the heel of his highly polished dress boot. "Is that a surprise?" he asked frankly. "Coreen killed her son."
His blue eyes looked hard enough to cut diamond. "She never loved him," he told her. "She married him because her father had died and she had nothing, not even a house to live in. And then she spent two years teasing and taunting him and making him unhappy. He used to cry on my shoulder ."
"How? You never went near their house, except once, to visit for a few hours," she recalled. "You even refused to be best man at his wedding."
He averted his eyes. "He came to Victoria pretty often to see me," he said. "And he wasn't a stranger to a telephone. We had business dealings together. I heard all about Coreen from him," he added darkly. "She drove him to drink."
"Coreen is my friend," she responded. "Even if I believed that about her, it wouldn't matter. Friends accept the bad with the good."
He shrugged. "I wouldn't know. I don't have friends."
How well Sandy knew it, too. Ted didn't trust anyone that close, man or woman.
"You could make the gesture of giving her your condolences," she said finally.
He lifted an eyebrow. "Why should I give her sympathy when she doesn't care that her husband is dead?
Besides, I don't do a damned thing for the sake of appearances."
She made a sound in her throat and went back to Coreen.
The ride back to the redbrick mansion was short. Coreen was quiet. They were almost to the front door before she looked at Sandy and spoke.
"Ted was saying something about me, wasn't he?" she asked, her voice strained. Her face was very pale in its frame of short, straight black hair and her deep blue eyes were tragic.
Sandy grimaced. "Yes."
"You don't have to soft-pedal Ted's attitude to me," came the wistful reply. "I've known Ted ever since you and I became friends in college, remember?"
"Yes, I remember," Sandy agreed.
"Ted never liked me, even before I married his cousin." She didn't mention how she knew it, or that Ted had been the catalyst who caused her to rush headlong into a marriage that she hadn't even wanted.
"Ted doesn't want commitment. He plays the field," Sandy said evasively.
"His mother really affected him, didn't she?" Coreen knew about their childhood, because Sandy had told her.
"Yes, she did. He's been a rounder most of his life because of it," she added on a sigh. "I used to think he had a case on you, before you married," she added with a swift glance. "He was violent about you. He still is. Odd, wouldn't you say?"
Coreen didn't betray her thoughts by a single expression. She'd learned to hide her feelings very well. Barry had homed in on any sign of weakness or vulnerability.
She'd made the mistake once, only once, of talking about Ted, during the first weeks of her marriage to Barry. She hadn't realized until later that she'd given away her feelings for him. Barry had gotten drunk that night and hurt her badly. It had taught her to keep her deepest feelings carefully concealed.
"It will all be over soon," Sandy remarked.
"Will it?" Coreen asked quietly. Her long, elegant fingers were contracting on her black clutch bag.
"Why did Tina want the will read so quickly?" Sandy asked suddenly.
"Because she's sure that Barry left everything to her, including the house," she said quietly. "You know how opposed she was to our marriage. She'll have me out the front door by nightfall if the will did make her sole beneficiary. And I'll bet it did. It would be like Barry. Even when we were married, I had to live on a household allowance of a hundred dollars a week, and bills and groceries had to come out of that."
Her best friend stared at her. It had suddenly dawned on her that the dress Coreen was wearing wasn't a new one. In fact, it was several years out of style.
"I only have the clothes I bought before I married," Coreen said with ragged pride, avoiding her friend's eyes. "I've made do. It didn't matter."
All Sandy could think about was that Tina was wearing a new designer dress and driving a new Lincoln. "But, why? Why did he treat you that way?"
Coreen smiled sadly. "He had his reasons," she said evasively. "I don't care about the money," she added quietly. "I can type and I have the equivalent of an associate degree in sociology. I'll find a way to make a living."
"But Barry would have left you something, surely!"
She shook her head at Sandy's expression. "He hated me, didn't you know? He was used to women fawning all over him. He couldn't stand being anyone's second choice," she said enigmatically. "At least there won't be any more fear," she added with nightmarish memories in her eyes. "I'm so ashamed."
"The relief I feel," she whispered, as if the car had ears. "It's over! It's finally over! I don't even care if people think I killed him." She shivered.
Sandy was curious, but she didn't pry. Coreen would tell her one day. Barry had done everything in his power to keep her from seeing Coreen. He didn't like anyone near his wife, not even another woman. At first, Sandy had thought it was obsessive love for Coreen that caused him to behave that way. But slowly it dawned on her that it was something much darker. Whatever it was, Coreen had kept to herself, despite Sandy's careful probing.
"It will be nice not to have to sneak around to have lunch with you once in a while," Sandy said.
Worried blue eyes met hers through the delicate lace veil. "You didn't tell Ted that we had to meet like that?"
"No. I haven't told Ted," was the reply. Sandy hesitated. "If you must know, Ted wouldn't let me talk about you at all."
The thin shoulders moved restlessly and the blue eyes went back to the window. "I see."
"I don't," Sandy muttered. "I don't understand him at all. And today I'm actually ashamed of the way he's acting."
"He loved Barry."
"Maybe he did, in his way, but he never tried to see your side of it. Barry wasn't the same with another man as he was with you. Barry bullied you, but most people don't try to bully Ted, if they've got any sense at all."
"Yes, I know."
The limousine stopped and the driver got out to open the door for them.
"Thanks, Henry," Coreen said gratefully.
Henry was in his fifties, an ex-military man with close-cropped gray hair and muscle. He'd been her salvation since he came to work for Barry six months ago. There had been gossip about that, and some people thought that Coreen was cuckolding her husband. Actually Henry had served a purpose that she couldn't tell anyone about.
"You're welcome, Mrs. Tarleton," Henry said gently.
Sandy went into the house with Coreen, noticing with curiosity that there seemed to be no maid, no butler, no household staff at all. In a house with eight bedrooms and bathrooms, that seemed odd.
Coreen saw the puzzled look on her friend's face. She took off her veiled hat and laid it on the hall table. "Barry fired all the staff except Henry. He tried to fire Henry, too, but I convinced him that he needed a chauffeur."
There was no reply.
Coreen turned and stared at Sandy levelly. "Do you think I'm sleeping with Henry?"
Sandy pursed her lips. "Not now that I've seen him," she replied with a twinkle in her eyes.
Coreen laughed, for the first time in days. She turned and led the way into the living room. "Sit down and I'll make a pot of coffee."
"You will not. I'll make it. You're the one who needs to rest. Have you slept at all?"
The shorter woman's shoulders lifted and fell. She was just five foot five in her stocking feet, for all her slenderness. Sandy, three inches taller, towered over her. "The nightmares won't stop," she confessed with a small twist of her lips.
"Did the doctor give you anything to make you sleep?"
"I don't take drugs."
"A sleeping pill when someone has died violently is hardly considered a drug."
"I don't care. I don't want to be out of control." She sat down. "Are you sure you don't want me to ?"
The front door opened and closed. There hadn't been a knock, and only one person considered himself privileged enough to just walk in. Coreen refused to look up as Ted entered the living room, loosening his tie as he came. He wasn't wearing his Stetson, or even the dress boots he usually favored. He looked elegant and strange in his expensive suit.
"I was just about to make coffee," Sandy said, giving him a warning look. "Want some?"
"Sure. A couple of leftover biscuits would be nice, too. I didn't stop for breakfast."
"I'll see what I can find to fix." Sandy didn't mention that it was odd no one had offered to bring food. It was an accepted tradition in most rural areas, and this was Jacobsville, Texas. It was a very close-knit community.
Ted didn't have any inhibitions about asking embarrassing questions. He sat down in the big armchair across from the burgundy velvet-covered sofa where Coreen was sitting.
"Why didn't anybody bring food?" he asked her bluntly. He smiled coldly. "Do your neighbors think you killed him, too?"
Coreen felt the nausea in the pit of her stomach. She swallowed it down and lifted cool blue eyes to his. She ignored the blatant insult. "We had no close neighbors, nor did we have any close friends. Barry didn't like people around us."
His expression tautened as he glared at her. "And you didn't like Barry around you," he said with soft venom. "He told me all about you, Coreen. Everything."
She could imagine the sort of things Barry had confided. He liked having people think she was frigid. She closed her eyes and rubbed at her forehead, where the beginnings of a headache were forming. "Don't you have a business to run?" she asked heavily. "Several businesses, in fact?"
He crossed one long leg over the other. "My favorite cousin is dead," he reminded her. "I'm here for the funeral."
"The funeral is over," she said pointedly.
"And you're four million dollars to the good. At least, until the will is read. Tina's on the way back from the cemetery."
"Urged on by you, no doubt," she said.
His eyebrows arched. "I didn't need to urge her."
The pain and torment of the past two years ate at her like acid. Her eyes were haunted. "No, of course you didn't."