Corbin Gage can stand up to anyone . . . But his own divided house will bring him to his knees.
Corbin, a longtime legal champion for the downtrodden, is slowly drinking himself into the grave. His love for “mountain water” has cost him his marriage to the godliest woman he knows, ruined his relationship with his daughter, Roxy, and reduced the business at his small Georgia law firm to a level where he can barely keep the bill collectors at bay. But it isn’t until his son, Ray, threatens to limit Corbin’s time with his grandson that Corbin begins to acknowledge he might have a problem.
Despite the mess that surrounds his personal life and against the advice of everyone he knows, Corbin takes on a high-stakes tort case on behalf of two boys who have contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to an alleged chemical exposure. The defendant, a fertilizer company, is the largest employer in the area. The lawsuit becomes a tornado that sucks Corbin, Ray, and Roxy into an increasingly deadly vortex. Equally intense pressure within the family threatens to destroy, once and for all, the thin threads that connect them.
Corbin must find the strength to stand up to his personal demons. Justice for two dying boys depends on it . . . his family depends on it.
“Fans of John Grisham will find much to like here.”
—Library Journal of The Confession
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Robert Whitlow is the bestselling author of legal novels set in the South and winner of the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction. He received his JD with honors from the University of Georgia School of Law where he served on the staff of the Georgia Law Review. Website: robertwhitlow.com; Twitter: @whitlowwriter; Facebook: robertwhitlowbooks.
Read an Excerpt
A House Divided
By ROBERT WHITLOW
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Robert Whitlow
All rights reserved.
Corbin Gage shifted in the front pew and rubbed the large spot on his neck that his razor had missed. The stubbly gray hairs rose up against his fingers in sharp protest. He furtively cast his eyes toward his daughter, who sat to his right. There was no hiding his external or internal flaws from Roxy. Clutching a wad of tissues, she stared straight ahead as the minister finished his eulogy.
Everyone stood as the pallbearers picked up the casket and carried it slowly down the aisle. Corbin pressed his lips tightly together. His son, Ray, did the same. After the casket passed, Corbin felt a tug on his sleeve and glanced down into the face of his eight-year-old grandson, Billy.
"Pops," Billy said.
"Not now," Ray said to his son, raising his finger to his lips.
"Gran isn't really in there, is she?" Billy persisted, his eyes looking up at Corbin.
If under oath on the witness stand, Corbin would have pleaded the fifth. Instead he simply shook his head.
"I didn't think so," the little boy said.
Corbin patted Billy on the shoulder as the family followed the casket down the aisle. Sometimes innocent ignorance was better than dogged doubt.
The church cemetery was across the street. Two sheriff's deputies wearing white gloves halted traffic in both directions as the mourners crossed. It was a bright fall afternoon, and after the retreat of summer's muggy humidity, the air smelled fresh and clean. The flower beds in front of the cemetery were an explosion of late season color. Corbin saw the flowers, and his mind went back twenty-five years to Kitty and a group of women pulling weeds from the beds. one of the first groups Kitty joined when she returned to church with Ray and Roxy in tow was the garden committee. Bringing beauty to her surroundings was at the core of her being. Yet despite her patient efforts and best intentions, the weeds of Corbin's life had proven infinitely more stubborn than crabgrass or dandelions.
A mound of freshly dug red clay marked their destination. Corbin stood a few feet behind his children. The ten years since his divorce from Kitty disqualified him from closer proximity.
While the minister offered a few final words, Corbin stared at the ground and moved a red clod of dirt from side to side with his foot. Glancing up he saw Ray's wife, Cindy, put her hands around Billy's shoulders to steady him as the boy leaned forward to peer into the hole where the casket would soon be lowered into a steel vault.
The minister finished and people began to slowly move away. Several spoke to Corbin as they passed. Whatever their secret thoughts, today they showed him kindness. He nodded and mumbled a brief response. once the crowd cleared, the workers released the straps holding the casket and lowered it into the ground. Ray and Roxy turned around. Their eyes were red. Billy was holding Cindy's hand.
"Mama, can I ride over to Gran's house with Pops in his truck?" Billy asked his mother.
"Honey, we're not sure he's—"
"I'm coming," Corbin interrupted. "But I won't stay long."
"Okay," Cindy said slowly. "Don't stop anywhere in between."
Corbin gave his daughter-in-law an icy stare and put a hand on Billy's shoulder. The little boy was thick and muscular, and people who saw pictures of Corbin at the same age as Billy swore grandfather and grandson looked like twins.
"We'll be there before you and Ray," Corbin said.
Ray, Cindy, and Roxy recrossed the street to the large parking lot beside the church.
"I parked behind the cemetery," Corbin said to Billy.
"Are you sad about Gran dying?" Billy asked.
"of course I am."
They walked toward the back edge of the cemetery. Dead leaves crunched beneath their feet.
"Everybody was crying but you and me," the boy said. "Why is that?"
"People are different that way. We're all going to miss your gran. If you feel sad later, it's okay to cry."
"Is that what you'll do?"
They reached Corbin's truck. He'd grown up in rural Georgia, where every male worth his jeans and boots drove a pickup. Thirty-seven years as a lawyer in the northeastern part of the state hadn't changed his opinion about the only true masculine mode of transportation.
A large man with big, powerful hands, Corbin had a full head of gray hair, thick eyebrows, and dark brown eyes. Within seconds of combing his hair, a large shock usually drifted down over his forehead.
"Buckle your seat belt," he said to Billy when they got into the white truck.
"I always buckle my seat belt. I don't want you to go to jail."
"Who told you they'd put me in jail if you didn't fasten your seat belt?"
"Daddy said he persecuted a man who didn't buckle in his son."
"Prosecuted. And the man probably did something else wrong, too, like not being a safe driver and causing a wreck."
"Have you had any wrecks?"
"A few minor things we call fender benders. Nothing serious. Nobody ever got hurt."
The most embarrassing accident happened two years before. Late one Friday afternoon Corbin backed into a light pole outside The office, a local tavern. Startled by the sudden impact, he put the shifter in drive, stepped on the gas, and sideswiped a parked car. Fortunately the deputy called to the scene didn't administer a Breathalyzer test.
"Good thing you didn't pull into the street, Mr. Gage," the deputy said.
Corbin had represented the man's mother years before when she was wrongfully terminated from a job.
"Yeah, I'll get the truck towed to Garrison's," Corbin said as he sucked on a peppermint. "The wrecker driver can take me home."
"Yes, sir. That's a good idea."
As soon as the truck was repaired, Corbin had sold it and bought a new one. Colonel Parker, Corbin's former mentor and law partner, claimed it was bad luck to drive a vehicle that had been wrecked.
It wasn't far to the house where the family would gather. Corbin stopped at one of Alto's twelve traffic lights. He waited almost a minute for the light to turn green. In the meantime two cars passed through the intersection.
Willow oak Lane was a short street that ended in a cul-de-sac. Corbin and Kitty bought the rambling white house three years into their marriage and nine months after Corbin obtained the largest jury verdict in a personal injury case in the history of Rusk County—1.2 million dollars for the estate of a young wife and mother killed when her car was struck from behind by a logging truck. The insurance company's lawyer argued that the woman didn't turn on her blinker and slowed down too quickly before turning off the highway, thus making it impossible for the driver of the truck to avoid hitting her. He also threw in a few barbs about the diminished economic value of the woman's life because she didn't work outside the home. Corbin had called a mechanic for the trucking company as a witness. He testified that the brakes on the truck weren't properly fixed because the owner of the company had more business than his limited fleet could handle. A grim-faced jury shocked the courtroom when they announced the verdict. Corbin collected an attorney fee of $400,000 and used most of his after-tax income as a down payment on the house. He promised Kitty an even fancier house for a future that never came.
There were several cars parked in the driveway. Women were carrying dishes of food across the yard. Corbin pulled alongside the curb and stopped in front of a For Sale sign placed by the real estate company that was selling the house to pay Kitty's massive medical bills.
"There will be a lot to eat inside," he said to Billy. "That's what people do when someone dies. They bring food so the family won't have to cook."
"Will I have to try stuff I don't like?"
"Nobody except your mama will be paying attention to what you eat. If you want to try something new and don't like it, just find me and put it on my plate."
The broad flower beds across the front of the house were weedy, which made Corbin sad. Congestive heart failure had taken Kitty's life and, before it killed her, sapped her strength like a constant drain on an already weak battery.
"Your gran loved flowers," he said as much to himself as Billy.
Corbin smiled. Billy was right. Before she got sick Kitty had become interested in heirloom tomatoes and cultivated multiple varieties in a fertile spot behind the house. The high acidic content in the local soil grew great tomatoes, and when a vine started producing fruit, she'd leave a message for Corbin at his office. He'd stop by after work and, without disturbing her, go around back and pick a few for a simple supper.
The cordiality toward Corbin that had marked the funeral continued inside the house. He received greetings and condolences as he moved from room to room. Women from the church and neighborhood were arranging food in the kitchen. Someone had brought in a long plastic table for desserts. Corbin didn't like sweets, but he saw Billy making a beeline toward a massive, multi-layer chocolate cake.
"Not yet," Corbin said, grabbing the boy by the shoulder. "You know better than that. Get a plate of regular food and show it to your mama when she gets here. She'll let you know when you can get dessert. I'll be in the green bedroom."
Corbin piled a plate high with more than he wanted and walked down an unused hallway that had a slightly musty smell. He pushed open the door to the master bedroom with his foot and went inside.
Instantly he knew he'd made a mistake.CHAPTER 2
After the crowd at the grave site cleared, Ray and Cindy left the cemetery and got into their six-year-old Honda. They'd bought it shortly after Ray passed the bar exam on his second try and landed a job at the district attorney's office.
Cindy flipped down the visor and fluffed her short blond hair.
"Is Dad going to drop Billy at the house and leave?" Ray asked.
"He said he would stay awhile, but I wouldn't be surprised if he cuts out immediately." She returned the visor to its place. "Do you think he listened to anything the minister said?"
"He heard it, but who knows if it got beneath the surface. He had to know the part where Reverend Adams talked about Mom praying daily for those she loved had Dad's name written across it in billboard-size letters."
"And our names."
"Yeah." Ray nodded. "She's left a huge hole."
Cindy reached over and patted Ray's arm. "You're her son. Everyone knows your father isn't going to lead this family. It's up to you now."
Ray glanced in the rearview mirror and saw his sister's new BMW behind them. "Roxy's following us at the moment, but I don't see that continuing."
"You know what I mean."
Ray wasn't sure he did.
"Did you talk to Roxy about the estate?" Cindy continued.
"For a few minutes after everyone left the funeral home last night. There's not much to discuss. Mom had been drawing down a ton on the reverse mortgage before she got sick, and the hospital lien will eat up the rest of the equity she had left."
"Did Roxy say anything about all the money your mother gave her to go to college and law school debt free?"
Cindy shook her head. "If your father had been paying a decent amount of alimony all these years—"
Ray held up his hand. "Please don't go there right now."
"Sorry. I shouldn't have said that."
"Even though there isn't anything to divide between us except the stuff in the house, Roxy will be a stickler about every detail. She'll drive me crazy trying to control everything. I bet she changed the floral arrangement on the casket six times before she was satisfied. I thought Mrs. Langford was going to cry."
"She can't help it," Cindy said. "That's how she's wired."
Ray glanced sideways. "Be sure you remember that when she starts demanding all the pieces you want from the house, including the hand-painted serving bowl."
"Your mom knew I loved that bowl," Cindy protested. "She told me in front of everyone last Christmas that she wanted me to have it."
"Do you want me to remind Roxy of that if it comes up?"
Cindy faced forward and pursed her lips. "I'm not going to be petty, but part of your being a leader will be keeping your father and sister from running over you."
Cars stretched along the entire cul-de-sac and down both sides of the street. Kitty had been a bright light in the community, and the outpouring of support at her death was living proof.
"There's Dad's truck," Ray said. "But I bet he's slipped off by himself somewhere."
Ray pulled into the driveway and onto the grass beneath a large pin oak tree whose leaves were turning yellow. "Facing a houseful of well-meaning people is going to be hard," he sighed as he turned off the motor. "I'd rather be alone too."
"People deal with loss differently. And I want to support you."
Ray glanced at his wife, then reached out and squeezed her hand. They knew about loss. Cindy had suffered the late-term miscarriage of a little girl before Billy was born and another since his birth.
"We'll go through this together," he said, "just like everything else since you maneuvered your way in front of my lab table in ninth-grade biology."
Cindy smiled. "You've told that story so many times you believe it's true."
"Yeah, I'm like the guys at the jail who convince themselves they weren't really present when the crime occurred."
"Well, you did get in trouble with Mr. Jenkins for staring at the back of my head instead of doing your work."
"Your neck looked way better than the frog we were dissecting."
Ray leaned over and gave Cindy a quick kiss on the lips. She touched the side of his face with her hand.
"I loved your mom, and I love her son," she said.
"And she loved me," Cindy said. "That's the greatest gift she could ever give. And no one can take that away from me."
It had been almost a decade since Corbin entered the master bedroom. So long that he'd forgotten about the picture hanging on the wall opposite the bed—a large, framed wedding photo made to look like an oil painting. He started to back out of the room, but he was already trapped by the memory of the afternoon in May that everyone in attendance thought was pregnant with promise.
Kitty's eyes shone with bridal joy. Corbin's sheepish look was a by-product of the hangover from a last-minute bachelor party held the previous night—the one at which moonshine whiskey of an unknown but potent proof rendered him unconscious and suffering from amnesia from 11:00 p.m. until he woke up the following morning with a splitting headache, still wearing his rehearsal clothes.
Today Corbin didn't think about the long-ago headache. He took in every detail of the picture, especially the intertwining of his fingers with Kitty's. He shut his eyes for a moment and tried to remember what that casual, yet intimate, closeness felt like. With his thumb he rubbed the ring finger on his left hand and touched again the empty place that had been home to his wedding band for twenty-nine years.
He opened his eyes and sighed. No longer hungry, he put the plate of food on a dresser, sat on the end of the bed, and put his head in his hands. There was a knock on the door.
"Come in," he said, wondering who'd tracked him down the deserted hallway.
It was Branson Kilpatrick, a lifelong resident of Alto who owned a small lawn care business. Corbin had incorporated Branson's business and represented his son, Tommy, when the young man injured his leg in a motorcycle wreck.
"Hey, Branson," Corbin said, getting to his feet.
Branson glanced at the photo, then quickly turned his gaze to Corbin. "Sorry, Corbin. I didn't mean to disturb you, but I didn't get a chance to come by the funeral home last night, and I wanted to give you my condolences before leaving. Like everyone else, I'll miss Kitty."
Corbin reached out and shook Branson's hand. "I appreciate that. She thought the world of you. And thanks for taking care of the yard after the—" Corbin stopped. He didn't want to mention the word divorce in the presence of the picture.
"It's what I do," Branson said awkwardly then stared at the floor. "I wish I'd been able to keep up the flower beds."
The two men stood in silence for a moment.
"Well, I'd better get going," Branson said. "I guess you heard about my little grandson getting cancer. He's seeing some kind of specialist later this afternoon, and his mother wants my wife and me to be there too."
Excerpted from A House Divided by ROBERT WHITLOW. Copyright © 2015 Robert Whitlow. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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