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Virginia Broadwell was angry. And anyone who knew Virginia, knew she was a dangerous woman when riled. Her first husband, the Judge, had learned this lesson long before he died, and her only son, Charles, had experienced the sting of her self-contained fury enough times over his forty-five years to be gun-shy. And her new husband would learn it, too, although Virginia would wait until the last thank-you note had been written and the ring was securely settled on her finger before showing Redmon that side of her nature. She would give him a chance to settle into the traces and take the bit firmly between his teeth before applying the whip the first time.
Downstairs she could hear the wedding guests milling about. She looked around the flowered chintz bedroom she had shared with the Judge for nearly twenty-six years, and then spent the next twenty years enjoying in solitary bliss. It would be sad to leave this house, the one she had insisted the Judge build for her all those years ago, before she would agree to marry him. The scene of so many of her social triumphs, the place where she had plotted and schemed her way to the top of the wobbly Ithaca social ladder, and which now, sadly, must be sold to pay her debts. Redmon, like the wily redneck businessman he was, had insisted she enter the marriage debt-free. He had insisted she sign a prenuptial agreement. Despite herself, Virginia had felt a kind of grudging admiration for him then. She would have done the same thing had their circumstances been reversed.
She had survived an unfortunate childhood, widowhood, scandal, near financial ruin, and now Y2K, and it had seemed only fitting that she set her wedding date for January 20, 2000. Let others worry about computer crashes and social anarchy; Virginia had endured enough turmoil in her life to know that victory belonged to the bold and the cunning.
There was a knock on the door and her son, Charles, stuck his head in. “Mother, are you ready?” He wore the same, whipped-dog expression he had worn since his meek wife of sixteen years walked out of his life a little over a year ago, taking with her his children, his pride, and nearly six hundred thousand dollars of his assets. His defeatism irritated Virginia beyond words.
“Yes, I’m ready,” she said. “I’m ready to do my duty, to do whatever is necessary to hold this family together—”
“Good.” He knew where this was headed and he wanted no part of it. “I’ll give the signal then.” He tried to close the door but Virginia inserted her slim little foot. Charles sighed and swung the door open again. “Yes, Mother?” he said, rolling his eyes skyward like a martyr on his way to the stake.
“Come in and close the door behind you,” she said fiercely. He did as he was told and followed her into the center of the room, where she stood looking at herself in a cheval glass. She lifted a well-manicured hand, indicating a wingback chair by the window.
“Do we really have to do this now?” he said, and when she said nothing, only stared at him steadily in the glass, he sighed and slumped down with his feet stretched in front of him.
“You brought this on yourself,” she said. She sniffed, looking at herself critically in the mirror. There weren’t many women her age who could still wear designer clothes and heels. Hadn’t she caught the bag boy at the Piggly Wiggly staring at her legs yesterday as he loaded her groceries into the car? And hadn’t some ruffians in a pickup truck whistled at her last week as she crossed the street in front of the Courthouse?
Charles slumped in his chair and stared despondently at a spot in the center of the oriental carpet. It was his newest technique, this passive-aggressive slumping, this lumpish inertia, like a sack of grain propped against a table leg. Virginia frowned at him in the glass. “You won’t return my phone calls, you hide behind locked doors when I show up at your condo—don’t think I haven’t seen you peering from behind the blinds—you refuse to see me when I show up at that ratty little place you call an office.”
Good. She had drawn blood. She noted the way his ears flushed, the way he lurched forward with his elbows pinned to the arms of the chair. “That ratty little office is all I can afford,” he said tersely.
“Whose fault is that?”
“Surely, Mother, you’re not blaming me for the breakup of Boone and Broadwell.” He lifted his top lip, looking more like the old Charles, more like the surly, sarcastic boy she had raised and tutored, so much like his father, but so much more like her.
“Who should I blame?” she said, lifting one eyebrow. “Who should I blame for the breakup of your father’s law firm, for the loss of my annual income and partnership assets?”
He smirked in a way she found particularly offensive. He said, “Well, you’re managing to survive pretty well, considering you’re marrying one of the wealthiest men in Georgia.”
“I’m doing what I have to do given the circumstances,” she snapped. “And you’d be well advised to do the same.”
His eyes clouded suddenly and he shrugged and went limp again, and in that moment of surrender Virginia knew the breakup of Boone & Broadwell had something to do with Nita. Something had happened between Charles and his soon-to-be-remarried ex-wife. Something secret but underhanded—and Virginia knew a thing or two about secrets, not to mention underhandedness.
“Speaking of marriage,” she said, smoothing her hair with one hand. “I understand Nita is getting remarried next week.”
Charles stared at his feet. A muscle moved along his jaw. “So I heard,” he said evenly.
“You should have put a stop to all that when you had a chance.”
“This isn’t the dark ages, Mother. I couldn’t have stopped her from divorcing me if she wanted to.”
“Yes, but you could have made it more difficult for her. You could have tied the case up in court for years and bled her dry, financially and emotionally. You’re a good attorney, or at least you used to be.”
He laughed bitterly and put his hands on the arm of the chair as if to rise. “Are we about finished here?”
She looked at him suspiciously. Why hadn’t he opposed the divorce? Why hadn’t he stopped Nita from running off with that good-looking young carpenter she hired to fix her pool house, an action that made the Broadwells the laughingstock of Ithaca, Georgia?
Virginia smelled a rat.
And she knew it had something to do with Nita and her two devious friends—Eadie Boone and Lavonne Zibolsky. Some scheme they had cooked up a year ago when Nita and Lavonne left their husbands, and Eadie ran off to New Orleans with her husband, Trevor, to live the life of bohemian artists.
Virginia adjusted the sleeves of her jacket. “Tell them to give me five minutes and then start the wedding march. You can wait for me at the foot of the stairs. And for God’s sake, stand up straight and stop slouching.”
Charles went out without another word, pulling the door closed firmly behind him. No, it had been a bad year for everyone but Nita, Lavonne, and Eadie, who had somehow managed to turn everyone else’s bad luck to their advantage. And Virginia was determined to get to the bottom of what had happened no matter what it took. But first she must put her own affairs in order. She tucked her bobbed hair behind one ear and looked at her smooth skin appreciatively. Keep your face out of the sun. It was the one bit of childhood advice her mother had given her that actually proved useful, besides her admonition to Virginia on her wedding night, to “close your eyes and think of something pleasant.” Virginia had laughed bitterly then, and she laughed bitterly now, remembering.
She stared at herself in the mirror, somewhat disgusted at the predicament she found herself in now—a bride at sixty-five. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, she reminded herself. Desperate times call for desperate measures. She had married beneath herself both times, first, to the Judge, the son of a sharecropper, and now to Redmon, the son of a pine barren hog farmer, but she had done what well-brought-up women of her generation were taught to do: she had married for money. She had her work cut out for her this time, though. Redmon didn’t seem the type likely to submit to the crop and bridle of matrimony, although Virginia was certain she would prevail in the end.
She would prevail in bringing her new husband to heel and then she would turn her attention to Nita and her renegade girlfriends. Virginia had never, in her entire life, let anyone get the best of her, and she wasn’t about to start now. She stared balefully at herself in the mirror, trying to remember that brides should appear virginal and not homicidal. Her tiny hands curled into fists. Her tiny teeth clenched. Twin spots of color appeared on her cheeks. Below her the wedding march began, low and plaintive as a cow stuck in a bog, slow and ponderous as a funeral dirge.
Virginia forced a bright, artificial grin. She checked her teeth for lipstick stains.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but Virginia had never been one to turn her responsibilities over to someone else.
Somewhere deep in the house, a phone was ringing. Eadie awakened from a dream about crickets chirping, and sat up on her elbow to listen. It was her cell phone, but she couldn’t remember where she had dropped it the night before. This house was too big. Too damn big, and too damn lonely. The ringing stopped, and then began again, insistently. It was probably Trevor, calling to tell her he’d been delayed in New York. Again.
Eadie sighed, and rolled over in bed.
Outside the long windows, a soft New Orleans rain was falling. Beyond the wrought-iron balcony the garden glistened, a jungle of greenery, banana plants, ferns, bougainvillea, and thick clusters of trailing vines. Through the lush foliage the old bricked wall rose protectively above the courtyard, built in 1737 when the house had been a convent erected on the outskirts of Nouvelle Orleans, and the city itself was nothing but a backwoods settlement laid out in French military outpost style along the swampy banks of the Mississippi. Later, it had been a boys’ orphanage. Trevor had wanted the house from the moment he first saw it. He had been entranced with the mystery and tragic history of the place, with its fourteen-foot ceilings and chandeliers that dangled like golden fruit. They had attended a cocktail party here soon after arriving in New Orleans, and standing on the balcony overlooking the moonlit garden, Trevor had taken Eadie in his arms and kissed her. “I can write here,” he said fiercely. These words had proved prophetic.
Eadie plumped the pillows behind her and reached for the TV remote. She scrolled through the stations several times but nothing caught her eye. Thunder rumbled in the distance. She picked up an opened box of Mondo Log Candies and rummaged through the empty wrapper looking for any sticky chocolate pieces she might have missed during last night’s binge. Nothing. The box was empty. Eadie tossed it over the side of the bed.
She switched off the TV and then lay back on the bed. A water stain spread slowly across the ceiling like a giant inkblot. Eadie saw a profile of Elvis Presley, the slim Elvis, not the fat one, and then she saw two girls fighting. Finally, weary and exhausted, she did what she always did when she was bored these days and out of Mondo Logs. She picked up the phone beside the bed and called Lavonne.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m working. Or at least I’m getting ready to work. I’m sitting in the back room drinking a cup of coffee and reading the morning newspaper.”
“I’ve been thinking about the way Myra Redmon kicked the bucket,” Eadie said.
“Look, Eadie, if you’re going to call me every day we need to get on one of those shared-minute plans. You’re eating up my minutes.”
“I mean, considering Myra was such a pain in the ass, how ironic was the way she died? And can you believe Virginia actually married Redmon?”
“Yeah, I know. How desperate did she have to be.”
“Pretty damn desperate. Myra must be spinning in her grave.”
“Now there’s a happy thought.” Lavonne took a sip, opened the paper, and snorted suddenly, spewing coffee.
“What’s so funny?”
“Speak of the devil. I’m sitting here looking at a photo of Virginia in the wedding section of the newspaper. Just so you know, it was the Social Event of the Season.”
“Did the bride wear chain mail and carry a battleax?”
“No, interestingly enough, she appears to be unarmed. She’s described as being ‘graceful as a swan’ and ‘slender as a willow.’ ”
“I’ll bet Virginia wrote that herself.”
“Actually, they’ve got Lumineria writing the wedding and engagement section these days, in addition to the ‘Town Tattler.’ ”
“Oh shit,” Eadie said.
“Town Tattler” was the gossip column of the Ithaca Daily News written by Lumineria Crabb. Lumineria had taught Sunday school for thirty years and she could never bring herself to say anything ugly about anyone, so most of the gossip was pretty tame. Guess which former Cotillion Queen is celebrating another birthday? And she doesn’t look a day over twenty! I heard it from a little bird one husband, J.T., bought his lovely wife, L.T., an anniversary ring and a trip to Paris. Isn’t he the sweetest? That kind of thing. When Eadie announced she and Trevor were moving to New Orleans, a photo of her taken the day after her Let’s Get the Hell Out of Ithaca Party appeared in the “Town Tattler” with the caption, “Guess which little love birds are flying the coop?” The photo, showing a very disheveled and obviously intoxicated Eadie, was probably the only bad picture she had ever taken. Lavonne referred to it as Eadie’s Meth Bust Photo and gave her shit every chance she got.
“Well, at least it’s not as bad as your Meth Bust Photo.”
“Very funny,” Eadie said.