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If I can read, I can cook." Jolie Katherine Coltrane said this aloud three times. She needed all the boosting she could get. She was in the formerly pristine O'Banyon mansion kitchen, standing ankle-deep in soapy water.
She'd let the suds run over the rim of the sink, where she'd piled twenty-odd pots and pans that would probably never be clean again. "Except by a joint act of Congress and God," she said, then glared at the dirty dishes as if she could browbeat them into submission.
Meanwhile the turtle soup that was supposed to be creamy and delicious was turning purple in the pot. The garlic roasted potatoes looked like kidney stones, the turkey refused to open its legs to be stuffed, and eating the cake required a spoon.
"I will not be defeated!" Jolie rolled up her sleeves and set to work with the mop. As soon as she found the floor she was going to try her hand at chocolate fudge delight. Everybody loved chocolate fudge. It stood to reason that everybody could cook it.
She was still mopping when the phone rang. Slogging through the water, she banged her leg on the butcher's block table, then lost her footing and slid the rest of the way to the phone.
"Kat? Is that you?"
She made a face at the phone. How like Elizabeth to call in the middle of a disaster. Her older and only sister never had disasters of her own, but if she did she'd handle them without breaking a perfectly polished fingernail, let alone a sweat.
"Yes, it's me, and don't call me Kat. It makes me sound like I eat tuna out of a can on the kitchen floor. Call me Jolie."
"Why? You've never objected before."
"I'm turning over a new leaf."
"What kind of new leaf?"
Jolie wasn't about to reveal her plans. She would triumph or fail on her own, thank you very much. Not that Elizabeth would do or say anything to make her feel bad. On the contrary, her sister was loving and kind. The only trouble was she and everybody else in the family had cast Jolie in the role of cute, funny kid sister, the one who would always stand in the shadow of her smart, successful siblings.
Jolie was tired of shadows and sick to death of being cute and funny. But instead of saying that, she told Elizabeth, "I don't know. I haven't figured out which leaf to turn over yet.."
Jolie sighed. Here she was, stymied by the simple task of cooking while Elizabeth was filming documentaries that changed lives and saved third world countries.
"It's your age, isn't it?"
"What does my age have to do with anything?"
"Twenty-nine is dangerous."
"I didn't see you dodging bullets and evading flying missiles when you were my age."
"Yes, but you and I are different."
"You can say that again."
"Gosh, Kat, you are down, aren't you?"
"No, not really. You forgot to call me Jolie."
"Okay, Jolie. Tell your big sister what's bothering you."
"We're on long distance."
"That's okay. I can afford it."
"That's just it. You and Matt are rich and successful, and look at me. I turned out all wrong."
"No, you didn't. You're a cute, funny, compassionate young woman who has turned her love of animals into a profession."
"Pet grooming is hardly a profession."
"Well, a job then." During the long pause that followed, Jolie pictured Elizabeth tallying up her baby sister's pros and cons. The cons would win by a landslide. "I'll admit you've made a few mistakes along the way."
"See? Even my own sister thinks I'm a failure." Jolie tucked a stray hair into the long braid that swung down her back.
Elizabeth and Matt had made contributions to society, and what had she done? Painted poodle toenails pink until she had amassed enough money to race off and see countries nobody'd ever heard of. Well, she was about to change all that.. starting as soon as she heard whether or not she'd landed the job she'd applied forpublicity staff person with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She wouldn't be saving third world countries, but at least she'd be saving some of the world's animals.
Jolie glared at the dirty dishes as if she expected them to rise up and taunt her.
"What are you doing, Jolie?"
"Christmas dinner. I'm cooking this year Elizabeth, are you still there?"
"I'm coming out of shock. Is Aunt Kitty still at Cousin Josh's?"
"Yes. It'll take them a while to move his stuff into a new parsonage. I don't need Aunt Kitty or anybody to help me. I'm going to do this all by myself."
"If it doesn't work out we can always pick up something at the deli."
"See? That's just what I mean. Nobody ever expects anything of me except giving Bijons a new hairdo. Not only am I going to cook a fabulous feast, I'm going to learn Swahili."
"Why would you want to learn a language that won't do you a bit of good? Why don't you learn Spanish? We border Mexico, and Florida and the Southwest are filled with Spanish-speaking people."
Jolie decided then and there she'd learn French. Not because she fancied it over Spanish, but because Elizabeth hadn't suggested it. It irked her that her older sister was always right. Jolie planned to change that, too. Before she was finished with the reinvention of Jolie Katherine Coltrane, perfect strangers would be stopping her on the street for advice.
About what, she didn't know. She'd figure it out later. After she whipped the kitchen back into shape and got a good fudge recipe under her belt.
"I'm going to do this my way, Elizabeth," she said evasively, before asking, "When will you be coming home?"
"It's going to take at least another week to wrap up this film, but a friend of mine will arrive soon, probably tomorrow. I thought he might already be there. I was calling to make sure he's comfortable."
"A nice guy. Make him welcome. Take care, kid."
"I've got to run, Kat. They need me on the set."
The phone went dead. Elizabeth had hung up without giving a single particular about her friend. Well, why not? Nobody in her family ever treated Jolie as if she had a lick of sense. They patted her head and talked over her or around her, but never to her. Not really. They all acted as if she were still a toddler with drool on her chin.
She'd show them. After she'd mastered cooking and foreign languages, and got her new Job With Potential, she was going back to night school to earn a degree in Oh, she didn't know what. Something important. Medicine or forestry or engineering. That was it. She'd design rockets and her name would be engraved on a brass plaque and placed in a space center somewhere. Maybe even in Washington, D.C.
"First the fudge."
She turned on the radio. Maybe that was the reason for her earlier failure. She'd needed music. Everything was better with some good rock 'n' roll.
Sure enough, she made quick work of the floor, then decided to leave the dirty pots soaking till tomorrow.
Using the last clean pot in the kitchen, she set about making fudge. She sang along with Elvis and rockabillied with Jerry Lee Lewis, and before she knew it she had a batch of hot chocolate that looked as if it just might congeal into candy.
She moved the skillet off the range and headed toward the library to get a book to read while the fudge cooled. She plucked one of her mother's romance novels off the shelves, Silk and Shadows, a favorite of Jolie's and one she'd already read twice. The novel was a vivid reminder that everybody in Jolie's family had succeeded except her. Her mother was a famous novelist, her sister was an award-winning filmmaker and her brother a renowned lawyer.
As she headed back to the kitchen, she froze. What was that sound?
It came again, and she saw the shadowy branches of the overgrown camellia rubbing against the win-dowpane.
Relieved, Jolie danced her way to the kitchen until what she saw through the window panel in the kitchen door stopped her in her tracks. Silhouetted there was a man with long hair. Good grief, an intruder! And she couldn't even dial 9ll. No way could she stand there in plain view and chat with the police. Where was her cell phone when she needed it?
She ducked behind the cooking island, then crept into the utility room to look for a weapon.
Lance hadn't meant to break and enter. Elizabeth had given him a key and assured him the house would be empty. "Mom and Ben are in L.A. visiting Aunt Dolly," she'd said. Dolly Wilder, the movie star. Not really Elizabeth's aunt, but a sorority sister of her mother's and such a frequent guest to O'Banyon Manor that the children called her "aunt."
"Aunt Kitty is visiting her son." That was Kitty O'Banyon, the eccentric widowed aunt who lived with Elizabeth's mom. "Matt and his wife are in Jackson on a case he can't leave." The brother, apparently like his sister, driven and successful. "And God knows where Kat is. Probably off chasing another wild hare." The ditzy sister. Not Elizabeth's words, but his own, judging by everything she had told him.
All in all, borrowing somebody else's family for the holidays promised to make it an interesting Christmas.
That's what he'd been thinking when he parked his motorcycle under the magnolia tree and mounted the front steps of the most impressive home in Shady Grove, the only impressive place in this small, backwater Mississippi town.
A penlight flashed briefly in the darkness inside the house, and footsteps only a man trained for stealth could have heard whispered along the floor.