Shoot Don't Shoot
"You never should have gone out with him in the first place," Lael Weaver Gastone told her thirty-year-old daughter, Rhonda. "You should have figured out from the very beginning that a guy like that would be trouble, and you certainly shouldn't have married him."
Holding her hands in her lap, Rhonda Norton examined her tender fingertips. She was so on edge that she had chewed the nails off all the way down to the quick. "How was I supposed to know that?" she asked, trying her best not to cry.
Lael looked up from the thumbnail sketch she was working on. The bar of pastel stopped scratching on the rough surface of the Sabertooth paper.
"Oh, for God's sake, Rhonda. How dumb can you be?" Lael demanded. "If a married professor starts dating an unmarried undergraduate, you can pretty well figure the man's a jackass. And so's the girl for that matter."
Rhonda Weaver Norton's cheeks reddened with anger. The tears retreated. "Thanks, Mom," she said. "I always know I can count on you for sympathy."
"You can always count on me for a straight answer," Lael corrected. "Now tell me, why exactly are you here?"
Rhonda looked around the spacious, well-lit studio her stepfather, Jean Paul Gastone, had built as a place for his lovely new wife to pursue her artistic endeavors. Rhonda interpreted that cluttered but isolated work space as an act of self-serving generosity on Jean Paul's part. Lael had always been messy. If nothing else, the physical separation of the studio from the main house would help keep most of that mess localized. That way the main -house-a breathtakingly canti-levered mountaintopmansion-could continue to look picture-perfect, as if the photographers from House Beautiful or Architectural Digest were due at any moment.
The place where Lael and Jean Paul lived now was a far cry from the way Rhonda and her mother had lived when Rhonda was a child. She and the free-spirited, starving artist Lael Weaver had lived a nomadic existence that took them from place to place, from drafty furnished rooms to countless roach-infested apartments. This million-dollar-plus architectural wonder was perched on a steep hillside overlooking one of Sedona, Arizona's, most photographed red-rocked cliffs. The fourteen-foot floor-to-ceiling windows offered a clear and unobstructed view.
All the furnishings in both the -house and studio had been tastefully chosen by someone with an eye for beauty. Rhonda didn't have to look at any of the labels to know that all the assembled pieces -were name brand, as -were the clothes on her mother's back. That was far different from the past as well. Rhonda had spent her school years living with the daily humiliation of wearing the secondhand clothing her mother had bought at thrift stores and rummage sales. She had endured the steady taunts from other children who somehow knew she ate the free lunches offered at school. And she recalled all too well how embarrassed she had been every time her mother sent her to the grocery store with a fistful of food stamps instead of money.
Lael's life had taken a definite turn for the better. In the last few years, her oddball pastels had finally started to sell. She had met Jean Paul Gastone at a gallery opening when he had stopped by to say how much he admired her work. Now they -were married-seemingly happily-and living a gracious and beautiful life together. Rhonda -couldn't help envying the idea of her mother living happily ever after. Too bad things hadn't worked out nearly that well for Lael's daughter.
In the course of a long, lingering silence, Lael returned to her sketch. With nothing more to say, Rhonda once more examined the room. She realized with a start that her mother's studio-that one room, not counting either the private bath or the con-ve-nient kitchenette that had been built off to one side-was larger than her entire studio apartment.
She had moved into that god-awful, low-life complex only two days earlier. Already she hated it. But she had come face-to-face with stark economic reality. Rhonda Norton was a newly separated, unemployed woman, with no recent work history and only marginally salable skills. Her university work was sixteen credits shy of a bachelor's degree with a major in American history, a curriculum that didn't have much going for it in the world of business. As a consequence, that tiny upstairs apartment facing directly into the afternoon sun was all she could afford. In fact, it was more than she could afford.
Confronted with the obvious dichotomy between her mother's newfound wealth and her own newfound poverty, Rhonda Norton felt doubly impoverished. And defeated. It would have been easy to give up, to make like Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Percé, and say to all the world, "I will fight no more forever."
"Well?" Lael prompted impatiently, dragging Rhonda back to the present and to the real issue at hand.
She dropped her eyes once more. "I'm afraid," she said softly.
"Afraid of what?"
Rhonda dreaded saying the words aloud, especially since she didn't think her mother had ever been afraid of anything in her -whole life. As far as Rhonda was concerned, Lael had always seemed as brave and daring as the brilliant greens, blues, and reds she was swiftly daubing onto the paper.
"Afraid of what?" Lael asked again.
"Of him," Rhonda answered. "Of Dean. He threatened me. He told me that if I went through with the divorce, he'd see me in hell before he'd pay me a single dime of alimony or give me a property settlement."
"Oh, hell," Lael said. "The man's just pissed because he got passed over for department head and then they shipped him off to that other campus, wherever that is."
"The ASU West campus is on Thunderbird, Mom," Rhonda returned quietly. "But he's not bluffing. He means it. He won't give me a dime."
Lael Weaver Gastone was incensed. "If it's the money, don't worry about it. He's bluffing. Jean Paul and I could always help out if it came to that, but it won't. You'll see. The courts will make him pay."
But Rhonda was no longer looking at her mother. She had dropped her gaze once more. "It's not just the money, Mom. I don't care about that." She took a deep breath. "I'm afraid he'll kill me, Mom." She paused and bit her lip. "He hits me sometimes," she added almost in a whisper.
"He what?" Lael asked. "I -can't hear you if you don't speak up."
"He hits me," Rhonda repeated raggedly. "Hard." A single tear leaked from her eye and slipped down her cheek. "And he told me the other day when I was packing that he'd kill me if I go through with it-with getting a divorce."
Slowly, without looking directly at her mother's face, Rhonda Weaver Norton unbuttoned the top three buttons of her cardigan sweater; then she slipped the soft knit material down over her shoulder. Under the sweater her bare shoulder and back were discolored by a mass of green-and-purple bruises. Lael gasped when she saw them.Shoot Don't Shoot
. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.