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Shades of Twilight (Chapter 11)

forbidden thing she could do with the most forbidden man. Wicked, wicked Jessie. He'd loved her so much.

There wasn't a day that had gone by that he hadn't thought about her, missed her. No other woman could turn him on the way she had.

That goddamn Webb Tallant had killed her, killed both her and the kid. Then he'd waltzed away, free as a jaybird, and left town before he could be made to pay.

But he was back.

And this time, he was going to pay.

He'd have to be careful not to be seen, but he'd sneaked around out at Davencourt enough, back when he was meeting Jessie, that he knew his way around on the property. It was big enough, hundreds of acres, that he could approach the house from any angle he chose. It had been a while since he'd been there; ten years, as a matter of fact. He'd have to make sure the old lady hadn't gotten a guard dog and that no alarm system had been installed. He knew there hadn't been one before, because Jessie had tried more than once to talk him into sneaking into her bedroom while her husband was away on a trip. She'd liked the idea of screwing him under her grandmother's roof and in her husband's bed. He'd had sense enough to refuse, but damn, it had been tempting.

Assuming there was no alarm system, there were a hundred ways to get into that old house. All those doors and windows … It would be child's play. He'd gotten into houses a lot better guarded than Davencourt. The fools probably felt safe, as far out of town as they were. Country folks just never got in the habit of taking the precautions that townspeople did automatically.

Oh, yes. Webb Tallant was going to pay.

I think we'll have a welcome-home party for Webb," Lucinda mused the next day, tapping her teeth with one fingernail.

"No one would dare not accept, because then I'd That way they'd be forced to know exactly who they were d get all those uncomfortable be polite to him, and it would same time."

first meetings over with at the forcibly re There were moments when Roanna was minded that, though Lucinda had married into the Davenport family over sixty years before and had, in her own mind, thoroughly become a Davenport, if you scratched the surface you found a Tallant. The Tallants, were nothing if not strong-willed and audacious. They might not always be right, but it didn't always matter, either. Put them on a path and point them at a target, and they rolled over every obstacle you Put in their way. Lucinda's goal was to reinstate Webb's standing in the county, and she didn't mind twisting arms to achieve that goal.

Belonging to the best circles in the Quad Cities didn't necessarily depend on how much money you had, though it helped. Some families of modest means were acknowledged as belonging to that select social strata, by dint of having an ancestor who had actually fought in The War, and it wasn't either of the World Wars that was meant. Some of the younger set actually referred to it as the Civil War, but the more genteel called it the War of Northern Aggression, and the most genteel of all would delicately refer to the Late Unpleasantness.

Business associates would immediately see how things stood with the Davenports and would treat Webb as if nothing had ever happened. After all, he'd never been arrested, so why should his wife's death be allowed to cut into the bottom line?

Those who ruled the social calendar, however, adhered to a stricter standard. Webb would find himself uninvited to the dinners and parties where so much business was discussed, which would be a disadvantage for the Davenport interests. Lucinda cared about the money, but she cared about Webb even more, and she was determined that he wouldn't be shunned. She would invite everyone to her home, and they would come because they were her friends. She was ill, and it might be the last party she ever gave. Leave it to Lucinda to use her own approaching death as a means of getting her way. Her friends might not like it, but they would come. They would also be polite to Webb under his own roof, though it was technically still Lucinda's roof, everyone would assume that Webb had returned home to claim his inheritance, which he had, so it would soon be his. And having accepted his hospitality, they would then be obliged to extend their own to him.

Once that had happened, they would pretend they'd never had any doubts about him at all, and he would be welcome everywhere. After all, You could hardly vilify someone you had invited into your home. That just wasn't done.

"Are You out of your mind?" Gloria demanded.

"No one will come. We'll be humiliated."

"Don't be silly. Of course people will come, they wouldn't dare not to. It went well yesterday with Mr. Whitten, didn't it, Roanna?"

-Mr. Whitten lives in Huntsville, " Gloria replied, saving Roanna the necessity of a reply.

"What would he know?"

"He knew what happened, that much was obvious from his face. But being an intelligent man, he decided that if we have faith in Webb, then those horrible accusations couldn't be true. Which they weren't," Lucinda said firmly.

611 agree with Mother," Lanette said.

"Think of the embarrassment." "You always agree with her," Lucinda replied, her eyes glittering with the light of battle. She had set her course and wasn't about to be swayed from it.

"If you ever disagreed, then your opinion would carry more weight, my dear. Now, if Roanna told me my party was a bad idea, I'd be a lot more likely to listen."

Gloria snorted.

"As if Roanna ever disagrees with you.

"Well, she does, on a regular basis. We seldom see eye to eye on every detail of a business decision. It pains me to admit that she's right more often than not."

That wasn't perhaps a blatant lie, Roanna thought, but it wasn't exactly the truth either. She never argued with Lucinda; she occasionally saw things differently, but she would simply present her case and Lucinda would make the final decision. That was a far cry from open disagreement.

The three of them turned to her, Lucinda with open triumph, Gloria and Lanette disgruntled at having her opinion valued over theirs.

"I think it should be Webb's decision," she said quietly.

"He's the one who'll have to be on display."

Lucinda scowled.

"True. If he isn't willing, there's no point in even talking about it. Why don't you ask him, dear. Maybe you can get his attention off that computer screen for five minutes."

They had taken a break for lunch and had finished eating but were now lingering over their iced tea. Webb had requested a couple of sandwiches and coffee while he continued to work. He'd been in the study until eleven the night before and had gotten up at six to resume his reading. Roanna knew because she had been awake at both times. '203

silently curled in her big chair and counting down the hours It had been a Particularly bad night; she hadn't slept at all' and she was so tired now she was afraid she would fall into deep sleep when she did go to bed. Those were the times when she was most likely to wake up somewhere else in the house and not remember how she'd gotten there.

It was Webb's presence that had unsettled her to the point she couldn't even doze. Both she and Lucinda had worked with him last night, going over reports, until Lucinda had become tired and gone to bed. After that, alone with him in the study, Roanna had become increasingly uneasy. Did he prefer not being alone with her, after what had happened? Did he think she was pushing herself at him, by' staying there without Lucinda's buffering presence?

After less than an hour she had excused herself and gone to her room. She'd taken a bath to calm her frazzled nerves, then settled in her chair to read. The words on the page hadn't made sense, though; she couldn't concentrate on them. Webb was in the house. He'd moved his clothes into the room next to hers. Why had he done that? He'd made it plain, back in Nogales, that he wasn't interested in having an affair with her. There were three other bedrooms he could have used, but he'd chosen that one. The only explanation she could think of was that it simply didn't matter to him if she was next door; her proximity was of no interest, one way or the other.

She would try to stay out Of his way as much as possible, she'd thought. Show him all the current files, answer any questions he had, but otherwise she wouldn't bother him.

At eleven she heard him in the room next door, saw the spill Of light onto the veranda. She had reached up and turned off her lamp so he wouldn't see her own light and know she was still awake after pleading fatigue an hour and a half before. In the darkness she had leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and listened to him moving around, picturing in her mind what he was doing.

She heard the shower, and knew he was naked. Her heart thumped at the thought of his tall, steely muscled body, and her breasts tightened. She could scarcely believe that she'd actually made love with him, that she'd lost her virginity in a cheap motel room on the Mexican border, and that it was the closest to heaven she was ever likely to get. She thought of the crisp hair on his chest and the tightness of his buttocks. She remembered how his hard, hair-roughened thighs had held her own thighs spread wide, how she had dug her fingers into the deep valley of muscle down the middle of his back. For one wonderful night she'd lain in his arms and known both desire and fulfillment.

The shower cut off, and about ten minutes later the splash of light on the veranda was extinguished. Through her own open veranda doors she had heard the click as he opened his doors to let in the fresh night air. Was he still naked? Did he sleep raw, or in his underwear? Maybe he wore pajama bottoms. It struck her as odd that she had lived in the same house with him from age seven to seventeen, and didn't know if he wore anything to bed.

Then there was silence. Was he in bed, or was he standing there looking out at the peaceful night? Had he stepped out onto the veranda? He would be barefoot; she wouldn't be able to hear him. Was he standing there even now? Had he glanced to the right and noticed that her doors were open?

Finally, her nerves raw, Roanna had crept to the window and peeked out. No one, naked or otherwise, stood on the veranda enjoying the night. As quietly as possible she had closed her doors and gone back to her chair. Sleep had escaped her, though, and once again she had endured the slow passage of time.

"Roanna?" Lucinda prodded, and Roanna realized she'd been sitting there daydreaming.

Murmuring a vague apology, Roanna pushed back her chair. She had a meeting at two with the organizers of this year's W. C. Handy Festival in August, so she would just stick her head in the study door, ask Webb his opinion of Lucinda's plan, then escape upstairs to change clothes. Perhaps, by the time she returned, he would have tired of paperwork and she wouldn't have to endure another evening of exquisite torture, sitting at his elbow, listening to his deep voice, marveling at the speed with which he assimilated information-in short, reveling in his presence while at the same time wondering if he thought she was sitting too close, or making too much of every opportunity to bend over him. Even worse, had he wished she would simply go away and get out of his hair?

When she opened the door, he looked up inquiringly from the papers in his hand. He was leaned back in his chair, the master of his space, his booted feet propped comfortably on the desk.

"I'm sorry," she blurted.

"I should have knocked."

He stared at her in silence for a long moment, his dark brows drawing together over his nose.

"Why?" he finally asked.

"This is yours now." Her reply was simply made, without inflection.

He took his feet off the desk.

"Come in and close the door."

She did but remained standing there by the door. Webb stood and came around the desk, then leaned against the edge of it with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs stretched out. It was a negligent position, but if his body was relaxed, his gaze was sharp as it raked over her.

"You don't ever have to knock on that door," he finally said.

"And let's get one thing straight right now: I'm not taking your place, I'm taking Lucinda's. You've done a good job, Ro. I told you yesterday that I'd be a fool if I shut you out of the decision-making process. Maybe you thought you'd get to spend your days with the horses now that I'm back, and you will have more time for yourself, I promise, but you're still needed here, too," Roanna blinked, dazed by this turn of events. Despite what he'd said to her after the commissioner's meeting, she hadn't thought he had really meant it. A part of her had automatically dismissed it as the type of thing Webb had done when she was little, reassuring her to keep her from being upset, pretending that she was important to anything or anyone. She had stopped letting herself believe in fairy tales on the night she had stumbled into a pool of blood. Very likely, she had thought, she would bring Webb up to speed, and then her usefulness would be at an end. He'd handled everything by himself before Her mind stopped, startled. No, that wasn't true. He had taken most of the work on his shoulders, but Lucinda had still been involved. And that was before he'd had his property in Arizona to oversee as well. Silent joy spread through her, warming the corners of her heart that had already begun to chill as she prepared herself for being replaced. He really did need her.

He'd said she had done a good job. And he'd called her Ro.

He was watching her with a sharply intent gaze.

"If you don't smile," he said softly, "then I can't tell if you're pleased or not." she stared at him, perplexed, searching his face for a clue to what he really meant. Smile? why would he want her to smile?

"Smile," he prompted.

"You remember what a smile is, don't you? The corners of your mouth turn up, like this." He pushed the corners of his mouth up with his fingers, demonstrating. It what people do when they're happy. Do you hate paperwork, is that it? Don't you want to help me?"

Tentatively she stretched the corners of her mouth, curling them upward. It was a hesitant, fleeting little smile, barely forming before it was gone and she was regarding him solemnly once more.

But evidently that was what he'd wanted, "Good," he said, straightening from his relaxed perch on the desk.

"Are you ready to get back to work?"

"I have a meeting at two. I'm sorry."

"What kind of meeting?" "With the organizers of the Handy Festival."

He shrugged, losing interest. Webb wasn't a jazz fan. Roanna remembered why she was there.

"Lucinda sent me to ask what you think of having a welcome-home party."

He gave a short laugh, immediately realizing the implications.

"She's going on the attack, huh? Are Gloria and Lanette trying to talk her out of it?"

He didn't seem to need an answer, either that or her silence was answer enough. He thought it over for all of five seconds.

"Sure, why the hell not? I don't give a damn if it makes everyone uncomfortable. I stopped caring ten years ago what people think of me. If anyone thinks I'm not good enough to deal with them, then I'll take Davencourt's business elsewhere; it's up to them."

She nodded and reached for the door handle, slipping out before he could make any more strange demands that she smile.

Webb returned to his chair, but he didn't immediately pick up the file he'd been studying before Roanna's entrance. He stared at where she'd been standing, poised like a doe on the verge of fleeing. His chest still hurt as he remembered that pathetic excuse for a smile, and the look almost of fright that had been in her eyes. It was difficult to read her now, she kept so much hidden and gave so little response to the world around her. It grated at him, because the Roanna he remembered had been as open as anyone he'd ever known. If he wanted to know how she felt about anything now, he had to pay intensely close attention to every nuance of her expression and body language, before she managed to stifle them.

She had been stunned when he'd told her that he still needed her help. He silently thanked Lucinda for giving him the key to handling Roanna. The idea of anyone needing her got to her faster than anything else, and she couldn't help responding to it. For a Split second he'd seen the wonder, the pure joy, that had lit the depths of her eyes, and then it had been so quickly hidden that if he hadn't been deliberately watching her he wouldn't have seen it at all.

He'd lied. He could handle everything without her help, If even with the added burden of his properties in Arizona. He thrived on pressure, his energy level seeming to increase with the demands made on his time. But she needed to feel needed, and he needed her to be close by.

He wanted her.

The phrase beat like a refrain through his mind, his veins, every cell of his body. Want. He hadn't taken her in Nogales out of revenge or because of that damned bargain he'd made with her, or even to keep from hurting her feelings by pulling back after going that far. The simple fact was he'd taken her because he wanted her and was ruthless enough to use whatever means necessary to get her. The tequila was no excuse, though it had relaxed his control over his more uncivilized instincts.

He'd lain awake in his bed last night, thinking of her in the next room, wondering if she was awake, his damned imagination driving him crazy.

Knowing that he could have Roanna any time he wanted was more powerful than any chemical aphrodisiac ever discovered or invented. All he had to do was get out of bed and walk out onto the veranda, then slip through the French doors into her room. She had insomnia; she would be awake, watching him come toward her. He could simply get into bed with her and she would take him into her arms, her body, without question or hesitation.

Erotic dreams of that one kiss they'd shared so long ago had haunted his sleep for years. That had been bad enough, but the dreams had been only imagination. Now that he knew exactly how it felt to make love to her, now that reality had taken the place of imagination, the temptation was a constant, gnawing hunger that threatened to shred his self-control.

God, she'd been so sweet, so shy, and so damn tight he broke out in a sweat remembering how it had felt when he'd entered her. He had looked down at her as he made love to her and watched the expression on her face, watched the delicate pink of her nipples darken with arousal. Even though he'd hurt her, she had clung to him, arching her hips up to take him even deeper. It had been so easy to bring her to climax that he'd been enchanted, wanting to do it time and again so he could watch her face as she convulsed, feel her body flexing and throbbing around him.

The night had been exquisite torture, and he knew he would be fighting the same battle every night, with his frustration growing by the minute. He didn't know how long he could endure it before his self-control broke, but for Roanna's sake he had to try.

He'd been back at Davencourt a little over twenty-four hours, and he'd had a hard-on for what seemed like most of that time, certainly for the hours he'd spent in her company. If she'd seemed even the least inclined to flirt with him, in any way signal that she wanted him, too, he probably couldn't have withstood the temptation. But Roanna Seemed totally unaware of him as a man, despite the hours they had spent in bed together. The idea was infuriating, but it seemed likely that she had indeed slept with him just to get him to come back to Davencourt.

Even that thought, instead of dampening his ardor, only intensified it. He wanted to toss her over his shoulder and carry her away for some hot, lazy sex on a sun-drenched bed, prove to her that she wanted him, that Davencourt and Lucinda had nothing to do with it. The fact was, where Roanna was concerned, his sexual instincts were so damn primitive he expected to start grunting and swinging clubs any minute now, And that was after only one day.

The grudge he'd held against her all those years was gone. Maybe it had been destroyed during the night they'd spent together, and he just hadn't noticed it at the time. Habit was a powerful thing; You got so used to something that you expected it to be there even when it wasn't. If any vestige had been left, she had demolished it the next morning with her quiet dignity and the utter defenselessness with which she had said, "All you had to do was snap your fingers, and I'd have come running," Not many women would have laid themselves on the line like that; none that he knew, in fact,

except for Roanna. He'd been staggered by the courage it had taken for her to say that, knowing what a weapon she had put in his hands if he'd been inclined to use it.

He wasn't. He lifted his hand and snapped his fingers, watching the motion. Like that. He could have her just like that. He wanted her, God knows he wanted her so much he ached. But what he wanted more than anything, even more than he wanted to make love to her, was to see her smile again.

By the time she drove home late that afternoon, Roanna was aching with fatigue. She usually found organizational meetings deadly dull anyway, and this one had dragged on with hours of debate on insignificant details. As usual, she had sat quietly, though this time she had been concentrating more on holding her head upright and her eyes open than she had been on what people were saying.

By the time she turned south onto Highway 43, the sun and heat were almost more than she could fight. She blinked drowsily, glad that she was so close to home. It was almost time for supper, but she planned to lie down for a nap instead. She could eat whenever she chose, but sleep was a lot harder to achieve and far more precious.

She made a right turn off the highway onto a secondary road, and a mile or so after that she turned left onto Davencourt's private road. If she hadn't been so sleepy, she would have been driving faster, and she might have missed the blur of motion in her peripheral vision. She slowed even more, turning her head to see what had caught her attention.

At first she saw only the horse, plunging and rearing, and her first thought was that it had lost its rider and bolted, and now the trailing reins were caught on some underbrush. She forgot her tiredness as urgency flooded her muscles. She slammed on the brakes, shoved the gear shift into park, and jumped out of the car, leaving the motor running and the door open. She could hear the horse's squeals of fear and pain as it reared again.

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Roanna didn't think about her expensive shoes or her silk dress. She didn't think of anything except reaching the horse before it hurt itself. She leaped the shallow ditch on the opposite side of the road, then ran awkwardly across the small field toward the trees, her high heels sinking into the earth with each step. She plunged through knee-high weeds that stung her legs, snagged her hosiery on some green briers, turned her ankle when she stepped in a hole. She ignored all of that as she ran as fast as she could, intent only on getting to the horse.

Then the horse sidled sideways, and she saw the man. She hadn't noticed him before because he'd been on the other side of the horse, and the undergrowth had partially blocked her view.

The horse's reins weren't caught on anything. The man was holding them in one fist, and in the other fist he held a small tree limb that he was using to beat the horse.

Fury roared through her, pumping strength into her muscles. She heard herself yell, saw the man took in her direction with a startled expression on his face, then she surged through the undergrowth and threw her weight against him, knocking him to the side. She couldn't have done it if he'd been expecting it and braced himself, but she caught him by surprise.

"Stop it!" she stormed, placing herself between him and the frightened horse.

"Don't you dare hit this animal again!"

He regained his balance and swung toward her, gripping the limb as if he would use it on her. Roanna registered the danger in his face, the venomous anger in his eyes, but she stood her ground. Her detachment didn't include standing by and watching any animal in general, but horses in particular, being abused. She braced herself, waiting for him to swing at her. If she charged him, she could get inside the blow and maybe knock him off balance again. If she could, she wouldn't waste any more time but get on the horse and get away from him as fast as she could.

His eyes were a hot electric blue as he advanced a step toward her, his arm drawn back ready to strike. His face was

dark red, his lips drawn back over his teeth in a snarl.

"You damn little bitch-" "Who are you?" Roanna demanded, taking a half step toward him herself to show that she wasn't afraid. It was a bluff-she was suddenly very much afraid-but the anger inside her was still so strong she stood her ground.

"What are you doing on our land?"

Maybe he thought better of hitting her. For whatever reason, he halted, though he was slow to let his arm drop. He stood a few feet away, breathing hard and glaring at her. "Who are you?" she demanded again. Something about him was eerily familiar, as if she'd seen that expression before. But she knew she'd never seen him before, and she thought she would remember if she had, because those vivid blue eyes and thick shock of gray hair were very distinctive. He was a thickly built man, probably in his fifties, whose wide shoulders and barrel chest gave the impression of an almost brutish strength. What disturbed her the most, though, was the sense almost of evil that emanated from him. No, not evil. It was more impersonal than that, a simple and total lack of conscience or morals. That was it. His eyes, for all their hot color, were cold and flat.

"Who I am ain't none of your business," he sneered.

"And neither is what I'm doing."

"When you do it on Davenport land, it is. Don't you dare hit this horse again, do you hear?"

"It's my horse, and I'll do whatever I damn well please to it. The bastard threw me."

"Then maybe you should learn how to ride better," she retorted hotly. She turned to catch the dangling reins and murmur soothingly to the horse, then patted its neck. It snorted nervously but calmed down as she continued to gently stroke it. The horse wasn't a valuable purebred like Lucinda's babied darlings; it was of an indeterminate breed with indifferent formation, but Roanna couldn't see any reason why it should be mistreated.

"Why don't you just go about your own business, missy, and I'll forget about teaching you some manners."

The menacing voice made her whirl. He was closer, and there was a feral look in his expression now. Swiftly Roanna stepped back, maneuvering so that the horse was between her and the man.

"Get off our land," she said coldly.

"Or I'll have you arrested."

His heavily sensual mouth twisted in another sneer.

"I guess you would. The sheriff's an ass-ticker, especially when it comes to a Davenport ass. It wouldn't make any difference to you that I didn't know I was on your precious property, would it?"

"Not when you're beating your horse," Roanna replied, her tone still cold.

"Now leave."

He smirked.

"I can't. You're holding my horse." Roanna dropped the reins and took another cautious step back.

"There. Now get off our property, and if I ever see you mistreating an animal again, I'll have you brought up on charges of cruelty. Maybe I don't know your name, but I can describe you, and probably not too many people look the way you do." None that she knew of-, his eyes were very distinctive.

He turned dark with temper again, and violence moved in those eyes, but he evidently thought better once more of what he had been about to do and merely reached for the reins. He swung himself into the saddle with the minimum of effort that revealed him to be an experienced rider.

"I'll see you again some day," he mocked, and dug his heels into the horse's sides. The startled animal leaped forward, brushing by her so closely that its massive shoulder would have knocked her down if she hadn't jumped aside.

He rode in the direction of the highway, leaning down to avoid low-hanging branches. He was out of sight in only a moment, though it took longer than that for the thud of the horse's hooves to fade from her hearing.

Roanna made her way over to a sturdy oak and leaned against it, closing her eyes and shaking.

That had been one of the most foolish, foolhardy things she'd ever done. She had been extremely lucky and she knew it. That man could have seriously hurt her, raped her, maybe even killed her-anything. She had charged headlong into a dangerous situation without stopping to think. Such impulsiveness had been the main cause of trouble in her childhood and had been the trigger for the tragedy of Jessie's death and Webb's leaving.

She had thought that the reckless streak had been destroyed forever, but now she found, to her distress, that it still lurked deep inside, ready to leap to the fore. She probably would have found it before, if anything had made her angry. But horses weren't abused at Davencourt, and it had been a long time since she had allowed herself to care about much of anything at all. Webb had been gone, and the endless procession of days had all been flat and dreary.

She was still shaking in the aftermath of fear and rage, and her legs wobbled beneath her. She drew in deep breaths, trying to will herself to calmness. She couldn't go home like this, with her self-control so paper-thin. Anyone who saw her would know that something had happened, and she didn't want to rehash the whole thing and listen to the recriminations. She knew she'd been stupid, and lucky.

But more than that, she didn't want anyone to see the break in her composure. She was embarrassed and terrified by this unexpected vulnerability. She had to protect herself better than that. She couldn't do anything about her permanent weakness where Webb was concerned, but neither could her internal wall withstand any additional weaknesses.

When her legs felt steady enough, she left the woods and waded back across the field of weeds, this time taking care to avoid the briers. Her right ankle twinged with pain, reminding her that she had twisted it.

When she reached her car, she sat down sideways in the driver's seat, with her legs outside. Bending down, she took off her shoes and shook the dirt out of them. After a quick look around assured her that there were no cars on the road, she swiftly reached under her skirt and peeled off her shredded panty hose. She used the ruined garment to wipe

off her shoes as best she could, then slipped them back on her bare feet.

There were tissues in her purse. She got one, wet it with her tongue, and rubbed at the scratches on her legs until the tiny beads of blood were gone. That, and a passage of a brush through her hair, was the best she could do. To be on the safe side, however, she would use her old childhood trick of going up the outside stairs to the second floor and circling around to her room.

She didn't know who that man was, but she hoped she never saw him again.

It was just like old times, trying to slip into her room without anyone seeing her. Back then, though, she had usually been trying to hide after committing some mischief or social faux pas. The confrontation with that unknown brute was far more serious. There was also the difference that now she was mature enough to admit her foolishness rather than tell whoppers to try to hide it. She wouldn't lie if asked, but still she had no intention of blurting out what had happened.

Roanna made it into her room without incident. Quickly she stripped and stepped into the shower, wincing as the water stung the scratches on her legs. After thoroughly washing, the best protection against any possible encounter with poison ivy that might have been lurking in the weeds and among the trees, she dabbed the scratches with an antiseptic, then followed that with a soothing application of pure aloe gel. The stinging stopped almost immediately, and without that constant reminder of the unsettling encounter, her nerves began to calm.

A few flips of the brush restored her hair to order, and three minutes spent applying an array of cosmetics hid any lingering sign of upset. Roanna stared in the mirror at the

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sophisticated reflection; sometimes she was surprised by the image that looked back, as if it wasn't really her. Thank God for her sorority sisters, she thought. Most of the passages of her life had been marked by loss: the death of her parents, Jessie's murder, Webb's departure. College had been one passage, however, that had been good, and the credit for that belonged solely to those drawling, sharp-eyed, and saber-tongued young women who had taken the misfit under their protection and used their expertise in things social and cosmetic to turn her into an acceptable debutante. Funny how the competent application of mascara had translated itself into a smidgen of self-confidence, how the mastering of a graceful dance step had somehow untied her tongue and allowed her to carry on a social conversation.

She slipped the wires of plain gold hoops into her pierced ears, turning her head to check her appearance. She liked the way they looked, the way the ends of her slightly, purposely tousled hair curled through the hoops, as if her hair had been specifically cut to do so. That was another thing the sorority sisters had taught her, how to appreciate certain things about her own appearance. The greatest gift they had given her was constructed out of the small accomplishments of learning to dance, to apply makeup, to dress well, to function socially. The foundation had taken shape so slowly that she hadn't noticed it, a brick going into place every so often, but now it was suddenly large enough for her to see it, and she was puzzled by it.

Self-confidence. How she had always envied people who had it! Webb and Lucinda both had dynamic, aggressive self-confidence, the type that founded nations and built empires. Gloria was frequently blind to anything but herself, but certain in any case that she knew better than anyone else. Jessie s self confidence had been monumental. Loyal was confident in his dealings with the animals in his care, and Tansy ruled the kitchen. Even the mechanics at the dealership where she'd bought her car were certain of their ability to fix any mechanical problem.

That slow-forming structure was her own self-confidence. The realization made her eyes widen with mild surprise. She was sure of herself when it came to horses; that had always been true. She'd had the self-confidence, or pure foolhardiness, to confront that awful man in the woods today and force him to stop mistreating that horse.

The sheer force of shock and anger had propelled her into action, a spirit she hadn't realized still lived inside her. The horse had been the catalyst, of course; she loved the animals so much, and it had always sent her into pure rage to see any one of them mistreated. Even so, her own actions shocked her, bringing her face-to-face with a part of herself she had thought long dead, or at least safely dormant. She no longer threw temper tantrums or insisted on having her way about things, but she did make her opinions known when it suited her. She kept a great deal of herself private, but that was her own decision, her own way of dealing with heartbreak and keeping pain at bay. She protected herself by not letting herself care, or at least not letting anyone know that she cared, and most of the time the appearance of indifference was enough.

She continued staring into the mirror at the face she knew so well, and yet the things she saw beyond it were new, as if she had just opened a door to a different outlook.

People in town treated her with respect, listening when she spoke, however seldom that was. There was even a group of young businesswomen in the Shoals area who regularly invited her for Saturday lunches at Callahan's, not to talk business, but to laugh and joke and … be friends. Friends. They didn't ask her to go with them because she was Lucinda's stand-in, or because they wanted to pitch ideas or ask favors of her. They asked her simply because they liked her.

She hadn't realized. Roanna's lips parted in surprise. She was so accustomed to thinking of herself as Lucinda's proxy that she hadn't considered she could be invited somewhere on her own account.

When had this happened? She thought, but couldn't

pinpoint a time. The process had been so gradual that there was no single outstanding incident to mark the occasion. A sense of peace began to glow deep inside. Webb was going to have Davencourt, just as Lucinda had always planned, but the deep-seated fear Roanna had felt at having to leave its sheltering confines began to fade. She would still leave; she loved him so much that she wasn't sure of her own control where he was concerned. If she stayed, she would likely end up creeping into his bed some night and begging him to take her again. She didn't want that. She didn't want to embarrass him, or herself. This newfound sense of worth was too new, too fragile, to survive another devastating rejection.

She began to think of where she would go, what she would do. She wanted to stay in the Shoals area, of course; her roots were generations deep, centuries strong. She had money of her own, inherited from her parents, and she would still inherit part of Lucinda's estate even though the bulk of it would go to Webb. She could do anything she wanted. The thought was liberating.

She wanted to raise and train horses.

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