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Shades of Twilight (Chapter 12)

When Lucinda died, the debt of gratitude that had been incurred when a terrified, grief-stricken seven-year-old had heard her grandmother say that she could come live with her would be paid. It was a debt of love, too, as strong as that of gratitude. It bad kept her at her grandmother's side, gradually becoming Lucinda's legs and ears and eyes as her health grew fragile with age. But when Lucinda was gone, and Davencourt safely in Webb's capable hands, Roanna would be free.

Free. The word whispered through her, as gossamer as a butterfly's wing when it is newly emerged from the cocoon. She could have her own home, something that was solely hers, and she would never again be dependent on anyone else for the roof over her head. Thanks to Lucinda's training, she now understood investments and finances; she felt confident that she was capable of managing her own money, so that she would always be secure. She would raise her own horses, but that would only be a sideline. She would go into business for herself as a trainer; people would bring their horses to her for schooling. Even Loyal said that he'd never seen anyone better able to gentle a frightened or misused animal, or even one that was just plain cussed.

She could do it. She could make a go of it. And for the first time in her life, she would be living for herself.

The grandfather clock in the foyer gonged softly, the sound barely audible here at the back of the huge house. Startled, she glanced at her own clock and saw that it was supper time, and she still wasn't dressed. The nap she had planned to take was impossible now with adrenaline still humming through her veins, so she might as well eat.

Hurriedly she went to her closet and took out the first outfit that came to hand, silk slacks and a matching sleeveless tunic. The pants would hide the scratches on her legs, and that was all she cared about. She knew how to choose flattering and appropriate clothes now, but had never learned to take pleasure in clothing.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said as she entered the dining room. Everyone was already seated; Brock and Corliss were the only ones absent, but then they seldom ate supper at home. Brock spent what time he could with his fianc�e, and God only knew where Corliss spent her time.

"What time did you get home?" Webb asked.

"I didn't hear you come in." His eyes were narrowed on her just the way he'd looked at her when she was a kid and he'd caught her trying to slip in unnoticed. "About five-thirty, I think." She hadn't noted the exact time, because she had still been so upset.

"I went straight upstairs to take a shower before supper."

"The heat is so sticky, I have to shower twice a day," Lanette agreed.

"Greg's company wanted to transfer him to Tampa. Can you imagine how much worse the humidity is down there? I simply couldn't face it."

Greg glanced briefly at his wife, then returned his attention to his plate. He was a tall, spare man who seldom spoke, wore his graying hair in a crew cut, and to Roanna's

knowledge did nothing for fun or relaxation. Greg went to work, came home with more work in his bulging briefcase, and spent the hours between supper and bedtime hunched over paperwork. So far as she knew, he was one of a horde of pencil pushers in middle management, but suddenly she realized that she didn't really know what he did at work. Greg never talked about his job, never related funny stories about his co-workers. He was simply there, a dinghy dragged along in Lanette's wake.

"A lateral transfer?" Webb asked, his cool green gaze flicking from Greg to Lanette and back again.

"Or a promotion?"

"Promotion," Greg said briefly.

"But it meant moving," Lanette explained.

"And the living expenses would be so much higher that we'd have been losing money on that so-called promotion. He turned it down, of course."

Meaning she had flatly refused to move, Roanna thought as she methodically applied herself to the chore of eating. Living here at Davencourt, they had no housing expenses, and Lanette used the extra money to swan around in the best social circles. If they moved, they would then have to provide their own roof, and Lanette's standard of living would suffer.

Greg should have gone and left Lanette to follow or not, Roanna thought. Like herself, he needed to break away from Davencourt and have a place of his own. Maybe Davencourt was too beautiful; it was more than just a house to the people who lived here, it was almost a being in and of itself. They wanted to possess it, and instead it possessed them, holding them captive with the knowledge that, after Davencourt, no other home could be as grand.

But she would break away, she promised herself. She had never thought she could possess Davencourt, so she wasn't bound here by envy's chains. Fear had held her here, and duty, and love. The fast reason was already gone, and the remaining two would soon follow, and she would be free.

After supper, Webb said to Lucinda, "If you aren't too tired, I want to talk to you about an investment I've been considering." "Of course," she said, and they walked together to the dining room door.

Roanna remained at the table, her expression blank. She forked up one last bite of the strawberry shortcake Tansy had served for dessert, forcing herself to eat that one even though she wanted it no more than she had the ones preceding it.

Webb paused at the door and looked around, a slight frown pulling his dark brows together as if he'd just realized she wasn't with them.

"Aren't you coming?"

Silently she got up and followed them, wondering if he'd really expected her to automatically assume she was included, or if she was an afterthought. Probably the latter; Webb had always been accustomed to discussing his business decisions with Lucinda, but for all the things he'd said about wanting Roanna to continue with her present responsibilities, he didn't think of her as having any authority.

He was right, she thought, ruthlessly facing the truth. She had no authority beyond what either he or Lucinda granted her, which wasn't true authority. Either of them could pull her up short at any time, divest her of even the semblance of power.

They entered the study and took their accustomed seats: Webb at the desk that had so recently been hers, Roanna in one of the wing chairs, Lucinda on the sofa. Roanna felt jittery inside, as if everything had been jostled, switched around. The past couple of hours had been filled with a series of insights into her own character, nothing great and dramatic but nevertheless small explosions that left her feeling as if nothing was the same, and hadn't even been as she had always perceived it.

Webb was talking, but for the first time in her life Roanna wasn't hanging on his every word as if it came from the lips of God Almighty himself. She barely even heard him. Today she had faced down a brute, and realized that people liked her for herself. She had made a decision concerning the rest e23

of her life. As a child she had been helpless to control her life, and for the past ten long years she had let life pass her by, withdrawing to a safe place where she couldn't be hurt. But now she could control her life; she didn't have to let things happen as other people dictated, she could set her own course, make her own rules. The feeling of power was both heady and frightening, but the excitement of it was undeniable.

11 -a sizable investment on our part," Webb was saying, "but Mayfield has always been reliable."

Roanna's interest suddenly focused, caught by the name Webb had just mentioned, and she remembered the gossip she had heard just that afternoon.

Lucinda nodded.

"It sounds interesting, though of course-" "No," Roanna said. Silence settled over the room, complete except for the muted ticking of the old mantel clock.

It was difficult to tell who was the most startled, Lucinda, Webb, or Roanna herself. She had sometimes thought Lucinda should rethink a decision, and quietly given her reasoning, but she had never openly, flatly disagreed. The no had just popped out. She hadn't even couched it in let's think-it-over terms, but stated it definitely, firmly.

Lucinda sat back on the sofa, blinking a little in surprise. Webb swiveled his chair a little so he was looking directly at Roanna and merely stared at her for a long moment that strained every nerve in her body. There was a strange glitter in his eyes, bright and hot.

"Why?" he finally asked, his tone soft.

Roanna desperately wished that she'd kept her mouth shut. That impulsive no had been based on gossip she'd heard that afternoon at the music festival organizational meeting. What if Webb listened to her, then gave her the condescending smile of an adult listening to a child's improbable but amusing scenario, and turned back to his discussion with Lucinda? The precious new sense of confidence would wither inside her.

Lucinda had grown accustomed to listening to Roanna's observations, but Roanna had always offered them as simply that, and left the final decision to her grandmother. Never before had she flatly said, "No."

"Come on, Ro," Webb coaxed.

"You watch people, you notice things we don't. What do you know about Mayfield?" She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

"It's just what I heard today. Mayfield desperately needs money. Naomi left him yesterday, and the word is she's asking for a huge settlement, because she caught him in the laundry room with one of Amelia's college friends who's been visiting for a couple of weeks. Moreover, according to gossip, the hanky-panky has been going on since Christmas, and it appears that the college friend, who is all of nineteen, is four months pregnant."

There was an oasis of silence, then Lucinda said, "As I remember, Amelia did have her friend over for the Easter holidays."

Webb snorted, a grin widening his mouth.

"Sounds as if Mayfield had his own personal arising, doesn't it?"

"Webb! Don't be blasphemous!" But for all her genuine shock at the comment, Lucinda's sense of humor had a bawdy streak, and she fought a smile as she cast a quick, concerned glance at Roanna.

"Sorry," Webb promptly apologized, though his eyes continued to sparkle. He had caught the look Lucinda gave Roanna, as if she were alarmed that Roanna should hear something off-color. It was an old-fashioned attitude, that a virgin, no matter what her age, should be shielded from sexual innuendo. That Lucinda still considered Roanna a virgin meant that there hadn't been any romantic interests at all in Roanna's life, even in college. Lucinda had been absolutely correct, Webb thought, his heart beating fast as an image of that night in Nogales flashed through his mind. Roanna had been a virgin, until roughly one hour after she had walked up to him in that bar. It had taken him about that long to have her stripped, spread, and penetrated.

The memory shimmered through him like soft lightning, heating every nerve ending, making him ache. The feel of her soft, slender body beneath him had been … perfect. Her breasts, round and delicious and so delicately formed … perfect. The hot, tight sheathing of his cock … perfect. And the way her arms had wound so trustingly around his neck, the way her back had arched, the blind, exalted expression on her face as she came.. . God, it had been so perfect it left him breathless.

His dick was hard as a spike. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair, glad that he was sitting behind the desk. That's what he got for letting himself think of that night, of the utter ecstasy of coming inside her. Which he had, he realized. Several times, in fact. And not once had he used a rubber.

He'd never before in his life been so careless, no matter how much he'd had to drink. The fine hairs stood up on his body as an almost electrical thrill ran through him. The thought of birth control hadn't once entered his mind that night; with primal male instinct he had taken her time and again, imprinting himself on her flesh, and in the most primitive claiming he had spurted his semen into her. During those long hours, his body had taken control from his mind, not that his mind had been in top form anyway. The flesh had no conscience; with instincts formed over thousands of years, he had claimed her as his own and sought to forge an unbreakable bond by making her pregnant, so that their two selves would mingle into one.

It was an effort to keep his face impassive, not to leap up and grab her, demand to know if she carried his child. Hell, it hadn't even been two weeks yet; how could she know?

"Webb?"

Lucinda's voice intruded on his consciousness, and he wrested his thoughts from the shattering direction they had taken. Both Lucinda and Roanna were watching him. Roanna's expression was as calm and remote as usual, but at that moment he was so acutely attuned to her that he thought he could see a hint of anxiety in her eyes. Did she expect him to dismiss what she'd said as mere gossip? Was she waiting so impassively for one more blow to her self-esteem?

He rubbed his chin as he regarded her.

"What you're saying is that Mayfield's personal life is a mess, and you think he's so desperate for money that he isn't using good judgment."

She held his gaze.

"That's right."

"And you heard all this at your meeting today?" Solemnly she nodded.

He grinned. "Then thank God for gossip. You've probably saved us from a big loss-Mayfield, too, come to that, because he needs our backing to swing the deal."

Lucinda sniffed.

"I doubt Burt Mayfield will feel very grateful, but his personal mess is his own fault."

Roanna sat back, a little dizzy at the ease with which they had both accepted her analysis. Her emotions were so unsteady that she didn't know how to act, what to do, so she sat quietly and did nothing. Occasionally she could feel Webb look at her, but she didn't let herself meet his gaze. Her feelings were too close to the surface right now, her control too tenuous; she didn't want to harass him and embarrass herself by staring at him with doglike devotion. The stress of the past few hours was taking its toll on her anyway; the adrenaline high had faded, and she was dreadfully tired. She didn't know if she could sleep; in fact she was so tired that she was afraid she would sleep, because it was when she was most exhausted and finally fell into a deep sleep that the sleepwalking episodes occurred. But sleep or not, she very much wanted to lie down, just for a while.

Then suddenly Webb was beside her, his hand on her arm as he lifted her to her feet.

"You're so tired you're wobbling in your chair," he said in an abrupt tone.

"Go on up to bed. Mayfield's proposal was all we needed to discuss."

Just that small touch was enough to make Roanna want to lean into him, rest against his strength, feel the heat and hardness of his body against her one more time. To keep

T_

from giving in to the impulse, she made herself move away from him.

"I am tired," she admitted quietly.

"If you're sure that's all, I'll go upstairs now."

"That's all," Webb said, a frown pulling his eyebrows together.

Roanna murmured a good-night to Lucinda and left the room. Webb watched her go with narrowed eyes. She had pulled away from him. For the first time in his memory, Roanna had avoided his touch.

"Will she sleep?" he asked aloud, not looking at Lucinda, "Probably not." She sighed.

"Not much, anyway. She seems … oh, I don't know, a bit edgy. That's the most she's put herself forward in years. I'm glad you listened to her instead of just shrugging it off. I had to teach myself to pay attention to what she says. It's just that she notices so much about people, because they do all the talking and she just listens. Roanna picks up on the little things."

They chatted for a few minutes longer, then Lucinda carefully rose from the couch, proudly refusing to reveal the difficulty of the movement.

"I'm a bit tired, too," she said.

"My days of dancing 'til dawn are over."

"I never had any," Webb replied wryly.

"There was always work to be done."

She paused, watching him with a troubled look.

"Was it too much?" she asked suddenly.

"You were so young when I gave Davencourt to you. You didn't have time to just be a boy. 11 "It was hard work," he said, shrugging.

"But it was what I wanted. I don't regret it." He had never regretted the work. He'd regretted a lot of other things but never the sheer exhilaration of pushing himself, learning, accomplishing. He hadn't done it just for Davencourt, he'd done it for himself, because he'd gotten off on the power and excitement of it. He'd been the golden boy, the crown prince, and he'd reveled in the role. He'd even married the princess, and what a disaster that had turned out to be. He couldn't blame Lucinda for that even though she had happily promoted his

and Jessie's marriage. It was his own blind ambition that had led him willingly to the altar.

Lucinda patted his arm as she passed, and he watched her, too, as she left the room, noting the care with which she took each step. She was either in pain or far weaker than she wanted anyone to guess. Because she wouldn't want anyone to fuss over her, he let her go without comment.

He sighed, the sound soft in the quiet of the room. Once this room had been his own domain, and bore the uncompromising signs of purely masculine use. Not much had been changed other than the addition of the computers and fax, because Davencourt wasn't a house given to swift or dramatic changes. It aged subtly, with small and gradual differences. This room, however, now seemed softer, more feminine. The curtains were different, lighter in color, but it was more than that. The very scent of the room had changed, as if it had absorbed the inherent sweetness of female flesh, the perfumes and lotions Lucinda and Roanna had used. He could detect very plainly Lucinda's Chanel; it was all she had worn in his entire memory. Roanna's scent was lighter, sweeter, and was strongest when he was sitting at the desk.

The faint perfume lured him. He resumed his seat at the desk and shuffled through some papers but after a few minutes gave up the pretense and instead leaned back, frowning as his thoughts settled on Roanna.

She had never pulled away from him before. He couldn't get that out of his mind. It disturbed him deep inside, as if he'd lost something precious. He'd sworn he wouldn't take advantage of her; hell, he'd even felt a bit noble about it, because he'd been denying himself something he really wanted: her. But she was so damn remote, as if that night in Nogales had never happened, as if she hadn't spent her childhood years tagging along at his heels and beaming worshipfully up at him.

She was so self-contained, so closed in on herself. He kept looking at her with a grin, expecting her to grin back in one

of those moments of humor they had always shared, but her smooth, still face remained as solemn as always, as if she had no more laughter in her.

His thoughts moved back to their lovemaking. He wanted to see Roanna smile again, but even more than that, he wanted to know if his baby was inside her. As soon as he could manage it, he was going to have a private conversation with her-something that might prove to be more difficult than he'd ever imagined, given the way she'd begun avoiding him.

The next afternoon, Roanna sighed as she leaned back in the big leather chair, massaging her neck to relieve the stiffness. A neat stack of addressed invitations was on one corner of the desk, but a glance at the guest list told her that there was at least a third of the envelopes still to be addressed.

Once Lucinda had gotten Webb's okay for the party, she had begun making her battle plans. Everyone who was anyone had to be invited, which put the guest list at a staggering five hundred people. A crowd that size simply wouldn't fit into the house, not even a house as large as Davencourt, unless they wanted to open up the bedrooms. Lucinda had been unfazed; they would simply throw open the French doors onto the patio, string lights in the trees and shrubbery, and let people wander in and out as they chose. The patio was better for dancing anyway.

Roanna had begun work immediately. There was no way Tansy could handle preparing food for that many people, so she had set herself to locating a caterer who could handle that size party on such short notice, because the date Lucinda had selected was less than two weeks away. She had chosen that date intentionally, not wanting to give people time to deliberate too much, but time enough to buy new dresses and schedule appointments with hairdressers. The few caterers in the Shoals area were already booked for that date, so Roanna had been forced to hire a firm from

Huntsville that she'd never dealt with before. She only hoped everything worked out okay.

There was a ton of decorations stored in the attic and hundreds of strands of lights, but Lucinda had decided that only peach-colored lights would do because it would be such a mellow, flattering color for everyone. There were no peach lights in the attic. After a dozen phone calls, Roanna had tracked some down at a specialty store in Birmingham, and they were shipping the lights overnight.

There weren't enough chairs, even allowing for the people who would be dancing or milling around rather than sitting. More chairs had to be brought in, a band had to be hired, flowers had to be ordered, and a printer had to be found who could print the invitations immediately. That last accomplished, Roanna was now occupied with addressing the envelopes. She had been doing it for the past three hours, and she was exhausted. She could remember Lucinda doing this chore years ago. Once she had asked why Lucinda didn't hire someone to do it, because it had seemed so horribly boring, having to sit for hours and address hundreds of envelopes. Lucinda had replied haughtily that a lady took the trouble to personally invite her guests, which Roanna had taken to mean it was one of those old southern customs that would continue no matter how illogical. She had promised herself at the time that she would never do something so boring.

Now she patiently worked through the guest list. The job was still boring, but she understood now why customs continued; it gave one a sense of continuity, of kinship with those who had gone before. Her grandmother had done this, as had her great-grandmother, her great-great-grandmother, going back an unknown number of generations. Those women were a part of her, their genes still living in her, though it looked as if she would be the end of the line. There had only ever been one man for her, and he wasn't interested. End of story, end of family.

Roanna resolutely pushed all thoughts of Webb out of her

mind so she could concentrate on the job at hand. She was accustomed to doing any paperwork at the desk, but Webb had been working there that morning. She still felt a tiny shock whenever she saw him sitting in the chair she had come to regard as hers, a shock that had nothing to do with the surge of joy she always felt at the very sight of him.

She had retreated to the small, sunny sitting room at the back of the house, because it was the most private, and began writing at the escritoire there. The chair had proven to be an instrument of torture to one sitting in it for longer than fifteen minutes, so she had gotten a lap desk and moved to the sofa. Her legs had gone to sleep. When Webb had left after lunch to visit Yvonne, with relief Roanna had taken advantage of his absence to work in the study. She settled into the chair, and everything felt just right. The desk was the right height, the chair was comfortable and familiar.

She had belonged in this chair, she thought. She refused to let herself feel resentment, however. She had felt needed here for the first time in her life, but soon she would have something that belonged solely to her. Lucinda's death would be the end of one part of her life and the beginning of another. Why fret over this symbol of power when she would soon be moving on anyway? Only to Webb could she have given it up without heartbreak, she thought, because all of this had been promised to him long before she assumed, by default, the stewardship of Davencourt.

There was a great deal of difference between handling financial paperwork and addressing envelopes, at least in the significance of it, but the physical requirements were the same. Working at last in relative comfort, she let her mind slip into neutral as she worked through the invitations.

At first she was scarcely aware of the fatigue creeping through her body, she was so accustomed to it. She forced herself to ignore it and carefully wrote out a few more addresses, but suddenly her eyelids were so heavy she could barely hold them open. Her fears for the past two nights that she would fall deeply asleep and sleepwalk had been

groundless; despite the fatigue that dragged at her, she had merely dozed in fits and starts, managing to get perhaps a total of two hours' steep each night. Last night, again, she had been almost painfully aware of Webb's presence next door, and she had awakened herself several times listening for his movements.

Now she became aware of how quiet the house was. Webb was gone, and Lucinda was napping. Greg and Brock were both at work. Gloria and Lanette might be against having the party, but they had both gone shopping for new dresses, and Harlan had gone with them. Corliss had left right after breakfast, with a careless "I'll be back later," and no indication where she was going.

Despite the efforts of the air-conditioning, the study was warm from the fierce summer sunlight pouring through the windows. Roanna's eyelids drooped even more and closed completely. She always tried not to nap during the day because that only made it more difficult for her to sleep at night, but sometimes the fatigue was overpowering. Sitting there in the warm, quiet room, she lost the battle to stay awake.

Webb noticed when he pulled into the garage that Roanna's car was in its bay, and Corliss had returned as well, but Gloria and Lanette were still out shopping. It was the presence of Roanna's car, however, that caused a hot little thrill of anticipation to shoot through him. She'd had afternoon meetings both days since he'd come home, and he had half-expected her to be gone this afternoon, too, even though she hadn't said anything about an appointment. In the tightly knit structure of small towns, business and social obligations often overlapped, with the former being conducted at the latter. Until he was fully integrated into county society again, Roanna would have to fulfill those obligations by herself.

Somehow he hadn't expected that he would see so little of her. In the past, Roanna had always been right on his heels no matter what he was doing. When she'd been seven or

eight, he'd actually had to keep her from following him into the bathroom, and even then she had huddled in the hallway waiting for him. Back then, of course, she had just lost her parents and he had been her only security; the frantic clinging had gradually ceased as she adjusted. But even when she'd been a teenager, she'd always been right there, her homely little face turned up to him like a sunflower to the sun.

But she wasn't homely now; she had grown into a striking woman with the sort of strong, chiseled bone structure that wouldn't yield much to age. He'd braced himself to resist constant temptation; he couldn't take advantage of her heartbreaking vulnerability just to satisfy his lust. Damn it all to hell, though, instead of being vulnerable she was downright remote with him, and most of the time she wasn't even around. It was as if she actively avoided him, and the realization jolted him deep inside. Was she embarrassed because she'd slept with him? He remembered how closed her expression had been the next morning. Or did she resent it because he was going to inherit Davencourt instead of her?

Lucinda said Roanna had no interest in running Davencourt, but what if she was wrong? Roanna hid so much behind that calm, remote face. Once he'd been able to read her like a book, and now he found himself watching her whenever he could, trying to decipher any flicker of expression that might hint at her feelings. For the most part, though, all he saw was the fatigue that drained her, and the mute patience with which she endured it.

If he'd realized how much trouble this damn party would be for her, he never would have agreed to it. If she was still working on it when he got inside, he was going to put his foot down. Her face had been drawn and wan, and dark circles lay under her eyes, evidence that she hadn't been sleeping. Insomnia was one thing; staying awake at night and working incessantly during the day was something else. She needed to do something she enjoyed, and he thought a long, leisurely ride was just the ticket. Not only did she love riding, but the physical exercise might force her body into sleep that night. He was getting antsy himself-, he'd gotten accustomed to spending long hours in the saddle almost every day, and he missed the exercise as well as the soothing company of the horses.

He entered the kitchen and smiled at Tansy, who was humming happily as she meandered around the kitchen, never getting in a hurry or seeming to have any design in her movements, but nevertheless putting together huge, scrumptious meals. Tansy hadn't changed much in all the years he'd known her, he thought. She had to be in her sixties, but her hair was still the same salt and pepper it had been since he'd come to live at Davencourt. She was short and plump, and her kindhearted nature shone out of her blue eyes.

"Lemon icebox pie for dessert tonight," she said, grinning, knowing that it was his favorite.

"Be sure you save enough room for it."

"I'll make a point of it." Tansy's icebox pie was so good he could make a meal of it by itself.

"Do you know where Roanna is?"

"Sure do. Bessie was just here, and she said Miss Roanna's asleep in the study. I'm not surprised, I'll say that. You could tell just by looking at the poor child that the last few nights have been bad, even worse than usual."

She was asleep. Relief warred with disappointment, because he'd been looking forward to that ride with her.

"I won't disturb her," he promised.

"Is Lucinda awake from her nap yet?"

"I imagine so, but she hasn't come downstairs." Tansy sadly shook her head.

"Time's weighing heavy on Miss Lucinda. You can always tell when old folks start going, because they stop eating food they used to love. It's nature's way of winding down, I guess. My mama, rest her soul, loved kraut and wienies better'n anything, but a few months before she passed on she said they just didn't taste good no more, and she wouldn't eat 'em."

Lucinda's all-time favorite food was okra. She loved it fried, boiled, pickled, any way it could be prepared. "Is Lucinda still eating her okra?" he asked quietly.

Tansy shook her head, her eyes sad.

"Said it don't have much taste this year."

Webb left the kitchen and walked silently down the hall. He turned the corner and stopped when he saw Corliss with her back to him, opening the study door and peeking inside. He knew immediately what she was about to do; the little bitch was going to slam the door and awaken Roanna. Fury shot through him, and he was already moving as she stepped back and opened the door wide, as wide as her arm would allow. He saw the muscles in her forearm tighten as she prepared to slam the door with all her strength, and then he was on her, his steely fingers biting into the nape of her neck. She gave a stifled little squeak and froze.

Webb eased the door shut, then dragged her away from the study, still holding her neck in a tight grip. He hauled her head around so that she was looking at him. He'd seldom in his life been more angry, and he wanted to shake her as if she were a rag. On the scale of things, waking Roanna from a nap was nothing more than petty and spiteful, no matter how desperately she needed the sleep. But he didn't give a damn about the scale of things, because Roanna did need that nap, and the spitefulness angered him all the more because it was so senseless. Corliss wouldn't accomplish or gain a damn thing by disturbing Roanna; she was simply a bitch, and he wasn't going to put up with it.

Her face was a picture of alarm as she stared up at him, still with her neck arched back in an uncomfortable position. Her blue eyes were rounded with startlement at being caught when she had thought herself alone, but already a sly look was creeping into them as she began trying to figure out a way to slither out of this predicament.

"Don't bother with the excuses," he said bluntly, keeping his voice low so Roanna wouldn't be disturbed.

"Maybe I'd better spell things out, so you'll know exactly where you stand. You'd better pray that the wind never catches a door and slams it while Roanna's asleep, or that a stray cat never knocks anything over, and God forbid you should actually forget to be quiet. Because no matter what happens, if you're anywhere on the property, I'm going to blame it on you. And do you know what will happen then?"

Her face twisted as she realized he wasn't going to listen to any of her excuses.

"What?" she taunted.

"You'll get out your trusty andiron?"

His hand tightened on her neck, making her wince.

"Worse than that," he said in a silky tone.

"At least from your point of view. I'll throw you out of this house so fast your ass will leave skid marks on the stairs. Is that clear? I have a real low tolerance for parasites, and you're so close to the limit that I'm already reaching for the flea powder." She flushed a dark, ugly color and tried to jerk away from him. Webb held her, lifting his eyebrows at her as he waited for a response.

"You bastard," she spat.

"Aunt Lucinda thinks she can force people to accept you, but they won't ever. They'll be nice to you for her sake, but as soon as she's dead, you'll find out what they think of you. You only came back because you know she's dying, and you want Davencourt and all the money."

"I'll have it, too," he said, and smiled. It wasn't a nice smile, but he didn't feel nice. Contemptuously he released her.

"Lucinda said she would change her will if I'd come back. Davencourt will belong to me, and you'll be out on your ass. But you're not only a bitch, you're a stupid one. As it stood before, Roanna was going to inherit instead of me, but you've acted like a malicious spoiled brat to her. Do you think she'd have let you go on living here, either?"

Corliss tossed her head.

"Roanna's a wimp. I can handle her."

"Like I said: stupid. She doesn't say anything now because Lucinda's important to her, and she doesn't want her upset. But one way or the other, you'd better be looking for somewhere else to live." 237

"Grandmother won't let you throw me out."

Webb snorted.

"Davencourt doesn't belong to Gloria. It isn't her decision."

"It doesn't belong to you yet, either! There's a lot that can happen between now and when Aunt Lucinda dies." She made the words sound like a threat, and he wondered what mischief she was considering.

He was tired of dealing with the little bitch.

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