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SPEAK NO EVIL
By TANYA ANNE CROSBY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Tanya Anne Crosby
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I bet my share Sadie gets the house."
As bets went, it was crazy, of course, but Caroline knew Augusta's challenge had nothing to do with anxiety over preserving "the house" for Aldridge posterity. Like Rhett Butler, Augusta didn't give a damn—at least not about the house.
"Why would Mother do that?" their youngest sister, Savannah, asked.
Augusta shrugged. "Why would Mother do anything?"
Up to this point, Savannah had spent her entire life defending their mother, and Augusta was bound to spend the rest of hers accusing. Caroline was tired of being in the middle. She tuned them out, peering through the window as the limo passed the torched remains of the house's Georgian predecessor. Destroyed during a kitchen fire the year after the "War of Northern Aggression" ended, the original house had escaped Sherman's wrath and one of the South's most pivotal battles only to meet its fate at the hands of a common grease fire. Construction on the "new big house" began the following year. Oyster Point Plantation was her family's legacy ... along with a lifetime of dysfunction.
Why would Mother do anything?
The answers were buried this morning, along with their mother ... all that remained now was the mythos: To the rest of the world, Florence Willodean Aldridge was a media darling, heir to one of the city's oldest surviving newspapers. To Caroline and her sisters, she was ...
Like the house.
There was the face people saw through the eye of a camera lens—the lovely Southern plantation that graced the covers of magazines like Southern Living and House Beautiful ... where Spanish moss clung to stately trees like hoary curtains ... and then there was the face that existed behind the red door, where the slow decay of the soul seeped into the fiber of the structure ... sank down deep into the soil and surrounding marshlands, festered and stank.
That was how Caroline perceived the smell of the marsh—that unmistakable sulfurous odor that heightened the closer they came to the house ... that smell her mother never acknowledged though she compulsively planted and obsessed over sickly sweet magnolias and azaleas to mask the scent.
It was funny, Caroline thought, how you could look straight at the house, with its storybook gables, and actually smell the decay, and still your brain believed the beautiful lie. Even now, as the car wound its way up the private drive, through the swooning oaks and shawled magnolia trees, old wounds seemed to reopen and fester ... as though in the presence of the house, only the memories that were born here had any real vitality.
Caroline thought she had braced herself, but she wasn't quite prepared for the rush of emotion that assaulted her as the house's steeply pitched gabled roof and perfectly spaced dormers soared into view. Like the body lying inside the coffin they'd just abandoned, the old Victorian seemed to have aged on fast-forward—obvious even through the last thick coat of white paint. And yet there it stood ... defying the years, a Southern matriarch in its own right, a polite hostess, entertaining callers. The two-story piazza, with more than two thousand square feet of wraparound porch—like the cemetery—was standing room only, leaving no doubt their mother was adored. People milled about, standing in the driveway, marveling over Flo's azaleas.
Caroline desperately wanted to feel what they felt, but instead of grief, all she could muster from the depths of her soul was something like regret.
The limo rolled to a crunchy halt over the gravel drive and Savannah reached over to give her hand a gentle squeeze. "Ready?"
The answer was no, but Caroline nodded anyway.
Savannah was the first to slide out of the car, brushing imaginary specs from her simple black dress while she stood waiting for Caroline. Augusta took the path of least resistance and scooted out of Savannah's door, her pink dress standing out like a sore thumb as she bolted up the front stairs and disappeared into a sea of black dresses and suits.
For a moment, Caroline lingered in the limo, envying Augusta's lack of regard for duty. She didn't have the same option. No matter how she'd felt about Flo, today she was the eldest surviving Aldridge and, fortified by centuries of Southern social graces, propriety ruled.
It was May. The azaleas were in full bloom. Red, like the door, the shade reminded Caroline of her mother's lipstick, and for an instant, she almost expected Flo to appear on the doorstep with her Jackie O–inspired hairdo, wearing a perfectly ironed A-line dress that made her look like a charming anachronism.
But that was never going to happen again.
She set her poker face and took a deep breath, opening her car door.
Together she and Savannah made their way inside, as one by one, neighbors Caroline hadn't seen in a decade brought sympathy along with their best casseroles. Thanking each for both, she set the food out in the dining room, noting that there was more than enough to feed an army for a year. Maybe they could donate some? She didn't want it to go to waste and didn't intend to remain in Charleston beyond the reading of the will. She was pretty sure her sisters had the same idea. Any arrangements that would need to be made could be handled over the phone, via e-mail and fax. That was the beauty of technology.
"My dear," someone said sympathetically, tapping Caroline's shoulder as she set a third dish of ambrosia salad on the buffet. Unbelievably, there was no more space on the antique Georgian table, even with its six feet of extensions.
"Well, hello, Miss Rose!" Caroline exclaimed. "How lovely to see you!" There was no pretense in the greeting. Rose Simmons's wrinkled face brought back memories of Caroline's earliest years in this old house, the only good ones she could recall.
"Gracious! I wouldn't have missed it," Miss Rose said. "Your mother was a wonderful woman. Such a lovely funeral!" she added with unreserved approval. "I hope my children will pay their respects so beautifully!" A prick of guilt jabbed Caroline. Everything had been prearranged.
It was the one thing she could thank her mother for: Flo wasn't the sort to leave unfinished business. She skirted the compliment. "Well, I'm glad you could make it," she offered with a smile, and then caught a glimpse of the figure standing in the entrance to the dining room and all thoughts flew out of her head at once.
"Oh, before I forget, I brought the greens!" Miss Rose declared.
Caroline blinked, her gaze fixed on the man she had nearly married ten years before. "Greens?"
His eyes were as vivid a blue as she recalled, with points of light that dimmed or brightened based on the intensity of his smile. Right now, they were practically electric and Caroline could barely focus. "I don't know the Greens, Miss Rose...."
Miss Rose chuckled, gently cuffing Caroline's forearm. "Well, of course you do! You always asked after them and I remembered and brought them!"
Caroline gave the old woman a confused smile, and noticed Jack was smirking, those lights in his eyes dancing impishly. The familiar, playful grin annoyed her far more than it should have.
Miss Rose clasped a hand to her breast. "Poor sweet dear! It must be the shock," she declared. "That's quite understandable." She patted Caroline's arm consolingly. "Flo's death was so unexpected!" She shook her head. "Your mother will be sorely missed, but it should cheer you to know they are talking about planting a garden in Waterfront Park in her honor. I hope they do!
"The Florence Willodean Aldridge Memorial Garden," Rose continued, but Caroline was no longer listening. The old woman peered over her shoulder to see what had captured Caroline's attention and a sudden look of comprehension crossed her features. She smiled knowingly. "Well, goodness! I understand. I shall leave you to your guests, my dear girl. Just make sure you put some of them greens aside for later. I cooked them up just the way you like them, with a nice big ham hock!"
It dawned on Caroline suddenly that the "greens" were not people. Miss Rose had brought mustard greens. And truthfully, she hated them intensely but vaguely recalled being five at Miss Rose's daughter's baptism celebration and feeling incredibly guilty about wanting to spit them out. With a quelling look from her mother, she had reluctantly swallowed them and complimented Miss Rose's greens emphatically—obviously, much too emphatically.
Miss Rose clucked at her, shaking an admonishing finger. "You always were too thin!"
Caroline's cheeks heated as her mother's neighbor ambled away, leaving her completely at Jack's mercy.
The old woman gave Jack a nod on her way out of the dining room and said pleasantly, "Afternoon, Jack."
Jack greeted her with a smile and a nod. "Afternoon, Miss Rose. You look lovely as ever."
Miss Rose ducked her head shyly and giggled like a schoolgirl. The instant she was out of earshot, Jack turned the full impact of his roguish smile on Caroline. "Just make sure you put some of them greens aside for later," he teased, stirring from the doorframe and strolling into the room with a languor that was both infuriating and reassuring in its familiarity.
"I guess your mother never taught you not to eavesdrop," Caroline said, hating herself for giving in to feelings of resentment.
The twinkles in his eyes vanished. "We both know my mother didn't teach me much of anything, Caroline."
He said it calmly, congenially, but Caroline knew she'd hit a nerve. For a long awkward moment, they stood facing one another, neither quite certain what to say. The scent of wilting magnolias drifted between them. Ten years ago, her mother had ordered the flowers as centerpieces for the tables at their wedding. Now, they adorned every corner of the house and Caroline would forever associate the scent with death and sorrow.
Jack had the decency to look uncomfortable. Hands in his pockets, he peered down at the floor. "We still need to talk to Sadie," he offered. "Finalize the report."
"Well, I'm sure you'll find her in the kitchen."
It was Sadie, their mother's housekeeper, who had discovered Flo sprawled at the foot of the stairs. Doped out on clonazepam, Flo had apparently tripped over a loose board at the top of the stairs.
"It's just a formality," he assured. "It can wait."
She'd rather believe he was here because he was doing his duty for work, not because of some misplaced sense of obligation to their past. "So you're working?"
"I came to pay my respects, not upset you. Sorry, Caroline."
At one time, Caroline couldn't have imagined anyone else she'd rather be comforted by. Now she didn't even know how to talk to him. "Thanks for coming, Jack."
He took a step backward. "You're more like her than you realize," he said quietly, removing his hands from his pockets. He hesitated, clearly wanting to say more. Instead, he turned and left.
Ignoring the surreptitious glances from their guests, Caroline turned her back on him. Trying hard to be casual, she stabbed a silver spoon into a dish before following Jack out into the hall to watch his retreat.
He edged his way through the crowd, somehow avoiding human contact despite the breadth of his shoulders. He never once looked back. Without a word, he opened the front door, stepped out into the afternoon light and closed it quietly behind him.
Caroline choked on a wave of emotion. "Shit," she said softly.
Savannah appeared behind her. "That bad?"
Caroline blinked away tears. "He said he was looking for Sadie."
Savannah lifted a brow. "Well, I doubt that's why he came by here today."
"The past doesn't change just because he wants it to!" Caroline said emphatically and Savannah nodded, wisely recognizing the end of her patience on the subject of Jack Shaw.
Chapter TwoThe Dive Inn was the last refuge before the solitude of home.
During the peak of summer, it was as much a tourist trap as the rest of Folly's Center Street establishments, but today there were plenty of parking spaces around more obvious watering holes and those sitting before the nondescript building were vacant. Jack made a last-minute veer into the unpaved parking lot and went inside, finding the place uninhabited, except for the owner-bartender and an older couple at one of the tables in the back.
"Yo, Jack! Where ya been?"
"Work," Jack offered as an explanation, but the truth was that he came here mostly when he was avoiding Kelly—which he supposed he was doing right now.
"Keeping you busy?"
"Busy enough," Jack replied. "How about a Guinness, Kyle."
"Sure," the bartender said, and reached into a freezer, grabbed a cold mug and proceeded to pour Jack's pint from a shiny silver tap that had been lovingly polished. The wooden counter might have years of character dents and scratches but the draft lines were pristine. Kyle slid the glass over the bar to him. "You hear about the Hutto girl?" he asked, making conversation.
Jack shook his head, taking a chug of his Guinness, glad he hadn't brought up Charleston's biggest news story—the death of Florence W. Aldridge.
Despite that he hated the habit, he reached for a cigarette, but the image of Caroline's face stopped him cold. She used to hate it when he smoked, but these days he only did it when he drank. Tapping his pocket, as though to keep the cancer sticks in check, he wondered why he felt compelled to do anything just because Caroline did or didn't like it. Clearly, she didn't want anything to do with him.
Apparently, forgiveness wasn't an Aldridge virtue.
"Thought maybe you had," Kyle persisted. "They live just a few doors down from you."
"What about her?"
"Apparently she disappeared off the beach a few weeks ago. Hasn't been much in the news on account of that newspaper lady dying, but someone came in earlier and posted that—" He hitched his chin toward a homemade poster with the grainy color image of a pretty little blond girl on it.
"Do they think she drowned?"
Kyle shrugged. "Who knows? Seems someone's always doing something stupid in that ocean out there. Thing is, they aren't tourists. You'd think they'd know better."
Jack tried to recall who the Huttos were, but couldn't place them. Folly Beach was a small, intimate community, but he mostly kept to himself. Things worked out better that way. In fact, it was part of the reason he'd moved to Folly to begin with. He hated lawn work and didn't enjoy chatting over hedges with neighbors. In fact, he hadn't worked on his bike for more than a month because he was sick of the old woman across the street coming over to ask if he was still single. He took another swig of his Guinness and reached into his pocket to grab his cell phone. Three missed calls from Kelly. Zero from Caroline.
Then, again, he hadn't expected Caroline to call. She was as prideful as her mother—damn her! Even ten years later, she wasn't about to forget a stupid mistake. He set the phone down on the counter and drained his glass, eyeing the cell with some malice.
The bartender eyed him curiously. "Bad day?"
Jack shrugged. "Buried a friend," he said.
And fought with the woman who somehow still managed to consume his thoughts even after all these years, but he didn't offer up that part. It was nobody's business.
Caroline was the sole reason he couldn't settle down with Kelly, he realized. Every time he'd considered it, Caroline's face popped into his head—like one of those annoying carnival games. He didn't think that was the way it was supposed to be—married to one girl, obsessed with another.
There was nothing wrong with Kelly.
She just wasn't Caroline.
"I'll take another."
Kyle nodded and complied.
Okay, so maybe as a description of the past several years, "obsessed" was a bit of an overstatement, because he had pretty much managed to put Caroline out of his head—except whenever life-changing decisions were about to be made. This minute, however, it was a full-on obsession, complete with phantom touches that were hijacking his body. Just seeing her had done that to him. It left him with a sense of longing that was acutely disagreeable, and he couldn't shake it.
Eyeing the phone again, he considered calling her—just so he could stop thinking about her—and it dawned on him that she was probably the reason he had never changed his number. That thought had never even entered his brain before this moment, but he was pretty sure it was true. He wasn't over her. Worse, he was afraid he was never going to be over her, and the thought of living his life in limbo made him feel like chain-smoking half a dozen packs of cigarettes right in front of her.
Excerpted from SPEAK NO EVIL by TANYA ANNE CROSBY Copyright © 2013 by Tanya Anne Crosby. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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