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Thunder was crashing wildly outside the elegant middle Georgia house, but the poised young woman standing in the parlor was too numb to be frightened of it. The ordeal of the past two days had stripped her nerves of all feeling.
Elizabeth Meriam White was twenty-two and felt fifty. Her mother's lingering illness had been torment enough, but she hadn't expected the loss to be so traumatic. Wishing only the peace of oblivion for her beloved parent, she hadn't realized how empty her own life was going to become. Now she had no one. Her stepsister had left that morning for Paris in a whirl of expensive perfume and chiffon, with her share of their mother's estate firmly in hand. They'd never been close, but Bess had hoped for something more after the ordeal. She should have known better. Crystal had never once offered to help nurse her dying stepmother. After all, she'd told Bess carelessly, there was plenty of money to hire someone to do that.
Plenty of money. Bess could have cried. Yes, there had been, until Bess's father died and her mother remarried to Jonathan Smythe and turned her father's business interests over to him. Carla had never bothered with finance, except to make sure that the Rawhide Man couldn't get his hands on that precious block of shares in the Texas oil corporation his father and Bess's had pioneered together.
Bess shivered at the thought of Jude Langston. She'd always thought of him as rawhide through and through, because he was like thatlean and tough and very nearly invulnerable. He hadn't been at the funeral, but Bess had seen her mother's will and she knew he'd be along. Even in death, Carla's obsession with besting Jude went on.
With a long sigh, Bess walked to the window and watched the rain beating down outside on the bleak, barren trees, whose autumn leaves had only just disappeared as cold December hovered overhead.
She leaned her forehead against the cold window-pane and closed her eyes. Oh, Mama, she thought miserably, I never knew what loneliness was until now. I never knew.
It had been a long year. A long two years. Carla had had a progressive kind of bone cancer that hadn't responded to any kind of treatment, not radiation or chemotherapy. And Carla herself had refused any discussion of bone marrow transplants. So her death had been by inches, while Bess had tried to be brave and nurse her and not go to pieces. It hadn't been easy. Her mother had been demanding and perverse and irritable and impatient. But Bess loved her. And she took care of her, up until the final hospital stay. She did it without any help from Crystal, too, because Crystal was having a mad fling with a French count and couldn't be bothered to come home. Except to grab her share of the pitiful amount of money that was left, of course. Bess had reminded her coldly that hospital and doctor bills had drained the family resources. And then Crystal had asked about the oil stock
Bess rubbed the back of her neck where it felt strained to the limit. She was sick all over with grief and the lack of rest and food. The stock, Crystal had said, might pull Bess out of the hole.
"Even so, you'll have to sell the house, Bess," Crystal had said, oddly sympathetic. "It's mortgaged to the roots of the grass."
"The minute he hears from the attorneys, Jude Langston will come down on my head like judgment," Bess returned, "and you know it."
"That sexy man," Crystal said, nodding dreamily. "My God, what a waste, to look like that and be as hard as he is. He could have women by the barrelful, but all he wants to do is play around with oil and cattle and that baby of his."
"Katy's not a baby anymore," Bess reminded her. "She's almost ten."
"That's right, you go to the ranch every summer, don't you, to those reunions? But you didn't go this summer
" Crystal remarked.
Bess colored delicately and turned away. "I had to take care of Mother," she said shortly.
"Yes, I know it was hard. I'd have helped darling, really I would, but
" Her delicate features twisted. "What will you do about the stock?"
"I wish I didn't have it," Bess said levelly. "I don't relish having to face Jude. I only wish Mother hadn't tied up the stock the way she did."