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Shades of Twilight (Chapter 3)

"No!"

"Then eat."

She looked at the chicken leg, her expression miserable.

"I try, but I don't like the taste of most food, and p-people are always criticizing how I eat and the food turns into this big wad that I can't swallow."

"You ate toast this morning with me and swallowed just fine."

"You don't yell at me or make fun of me," she muttered. He stroked her hair, pushing the dark chestnut strands away from her face. Poor little Ro. She had always hungered for Aunt Lucinda's approval, but was too rebellious to modify her behavior to get it. Maybe she was right; it wasn't as if she was a juvenile delinquent or anything like that. She was just different, a quirky wildflower growing in the middle of a sedate, well-ordered southern rose garden, and no one knew quite what to make of her. She shouldn't have to beg for her family's love or approval; Aunt Lucinda should just love her for what she was. But for Aunt Lucinda, perfection was her other granddaughter, Jessie, and she had always made it plain that Roanna fell short in every category. Webb's mouth tightened. In his opinion, Jessie was far from perfect, and he was sick and tired of waiting for her to grow out of some of that selfishness.

Jessie's attitude, too, had a lot to do with Roanna's inability to eat. He had let this rock on for years while he devoted himself to the herculean task of learning how to run Davencourt and all the Davenport business concerns, packing four years of college into three and then going after his master's degree in business, but it was obvious now that the situation wasn't going to resolve itself. For Roanna's sake, he was going to have to put his foot down, with Aunt Lucinda as well as Jessie. Roanna needed calm, peaceful surroundings where her nerves could settle down and her stomach relax. If Aunt Lucinda and Jessie-and now Aunt Gloria, too-wouldn't or couldn't let up on the criticism that they constantly leveled at Roanna, then he wouldn't let Roanna eat with them. Aunt Lucinda had always insisted that they be at the table together, that Roanna conform to social standards, but he was going to override her on this. If she would eat better with her meals served on a tray in the peacefulness of her bedroom, or even out in the stables if she preferred, then that was where she'd have them. If being separated from the family made her feel exiled, rather than the relief he thought it would be, then he'd eat out in the stable with her. This simply couldn't go on, because Roanna was starving herself to death.

Impulsively he scooped her onto his lap, the way he'd done when she was a youngster. She was about five-seven now, but not a lot heavier, and fear clutched at him as he encircled her alarmingly frail wrist with his long fingers. This little cousin had always appealed to his protective side, and what he had always loved best about her was her pluckiness, her willingness to fight back without regard for the consequences. She was full of wit and mischief, if only Aunt Lucinda would stop trying to obliterate those very traits.

She had always snuggled up to him like a kitten and did so now automatically, rubbing her cheek against his shirt. A faint twinge of physical awareness surprised him, making his dark eyebrows draw together in a puzzled frown.

He looked down at her. Roanna was woefully immature for her age, without the normal social skills and defenses teenagers developed in the course of interacting with each other. Faced with disapproval and rejection at home as well

as at school, Roanna had responded by withdrawing, so she had never learned how to interact with the kids in her age group. Because of that, subconsciously he had always thought of her as still being a child in need of his protection, and maybe she did still need it. But even if she wasn't quite an adult, physically she was no longer a child either.

He could see the curve of her cheek, her long, dark lashes, the translucence of her temple where the fragile blue veins lay just beneath the surface. The texture of her skin was smooth, silky, and carried the sweet warm scent of womanhood. Her breasts were very small but very firm, and he could feel the nipple, as small and hard as a pencil eraser, of the breast that was nestled against him in her half-turned position. The twinge of awareness intensified into a sudden, definite throb in his loins, and he was abruptly conscious of how round her buttocks were and how they nestled so sweetly on his thighs.

He barely bit back a growl as he shifted her a little, just enough that the side of her hip wasn't rubbing against his hardening penis. Roanna was remarkably innocent for her age, having never dated; he doubted she had ever even been kissed. She had no idea what she was doing to him, and he didn't want to embarrass her. It was his fault for taking her on his lap as if she were still a kid. He'd just have to be more careful from now on, though this was probably a fluke. It had been over four months since he'd had sex with Jessie, because he'd gotten so damn sick and tired of her trying to manipulate him with her body. Their encounters weren't about making love; they were a contest of domination. Hell, he doubted Jessie even understood the concept of making love, of the mutual giving of pleasure. But he was young and healthy, and four months of denial had left him extremely edgy, so much so that even Roanna's skinny body could arouse him.

He jerked his mind back to the issue at hand.

"Let's make a deal," he said.

"I promise that no one else will say anything to you about how you eat, and if anyone does, you tell me and I'll take care of it. And you, sugar, will start eating regular meals. Just for me. Promise."

She looked up at him, and her whiskey brown eyes held that soft, adoring glow she reserved for him.

"All right," she whispered.

"For you." Before he had any inkling what she was going to do, she curved her arm around his neck and pressed her sweet, soft, innocent mouth against his.

From the moment he'd scooped her onto his lap, Roanna had been almost breathless with longing and intense excitement. Her love for him flooded her, making her want to moan with pleasure at his touch, at the way he was holding her so close. She rubbed her cheek against his shirt, and felt the heat and resilience of his flesh beneath the fabric. Her nipples throbbed, and blindly she pressed hard against his chest. The resulting sensation was so acute that it shot straight down between her legs, and she had to clench her thighs against the heat.

Then she felt it, that sudden hardness against her hip, and with a thrill she realized what it was. She had seen a naked man for the first time that afternoon, and the shock of the act she'd witnessed had left her weak and nauseated, but this was different. This was Webb. And this meant he wanted her.

The realization shattered her with delight. She stopped thinking. He moved her so that she couldn't feel him against her hip anymore, and he was talking. She watched him, her gaze fastened on his beautiful mouth, barely absorbing his words. He wanted her to eat, just for him.

"All right," she whispered.

"For you." She would do anything for him. Then the longing grew so intense she couldn't hold it back any longer, and she did what she had wanted to do for so long that it seemed like her entire life had been spent craving this. She put her arm around his neck and kissed him.

His lips were firm and warm, and hinted of a tantalizing taste that made her quiver with need. She felt him jerk, as if

startled, felt his hands move to her waist and tighten as if he would lift her away from him.

"No," she sobbed, suddenly terrified that he would push her away.

"Webb, please. Hold me." And she tightened her hold on him and kissed him even harder, shyly daring to lick his lips the way she'd seen it done in a movie.

He quivered, a long shudder running through his muscled body, and his hands clenched on her.

"Ro-" he began, and her tongue slipped in between his opened lips.

He groaned, his entire body tensing. Then suddenly his mouth opened and moved, and control of the kiss was no longer hers. His arms closed around her, hard, and his tongue moved deep into her mouth. Roanna's neck bent back under the pressure, and her senses dimmed under the onslaught. She had thought about kissing, even practiced it on her pillow at night, but she hadn't realized a kiss could make her feel so hot and weak, or that his taste would be so delicious, or that the feel of him against her would unleash such terrible longing. She twisted on his lap, seeking to get closer, and fiercely he turned her so that her breasts were against his chest.

"You two-timing bastard!"

The shriek battered Roanna's ears. She leaped from Webb's lap, her face white as she pivoted to face her cousin. Jessie's features were twisted with rage as she stood just inside the door, glaring at them, her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.

Webb got to his feet. Dull red stained his cheeks, but his gaze was steady as he too faced his wife.

"Calm down," he said in an even tone.

"I can explain."

"I just bet you can," she sneered.

"This should be good. Damn you, no wonder you haven't been interested in touching me! All this time you've been fucking this stupid little whore!"

A red mist edged Roanna's vision. After what Jessie had been doing this afternoon, how dare she talk to Webb like this over a kiss! Without realizing she even moved, suddenly she found herself in front of Jessie, and she shoved her against the wall so hard that her head slammed against it.

"Roanna, stop it!" Webb said sharply, catching her and roughly setting her aside.

Jessie straightened and shoved her hair out of her eyes. Quick as a cat, she lunged past Webb and slapped Roanna across the face with all the strength in her arm. Webb grabbed her and swung her to one side, holding her with a firm grip on the collar of her blouse while he caught Roanna by the nape of her neck.

"That's enough, God damn it," he said with clenched teeth. Webb didn't normally swear in front of women, and the fact that he did now was a measure of his anger.

"Jessie, there's no sense in letting the whole house in on this. We'll talk about it upstairs." "We'll talk about it upstairs," she mimicked.

"We'll talk about it right here, damn you! You want to keep it quiet? Tough shit! By tomorrow night, everyone in Tuscumbia is going to know you've got a taste for young ass, because I'm going to yell it on every corner!"

"Shut up," Roanna growled, ignoring her burning cheek and glaring her hate at Jessie. She tried to wriggle free of Webb's punishing hold on her neck, but he merely tightened his grip.

Jessie spat at her.

"You've always been after him, you slut," she hissed.

"You set it up for me to find you two together like this, didn't you? You knew I was coming down to the kitchen. You weren't content to fuck him behind my back, you wanted to lord it over me for once."

The scope of the lie stunned Roanna. She darted a glance at Webb and saw the sudden suspicious, condemning glare in his eyes.

"Both of you shut up," he growled, his voice so low and icy that chills ran down her back.

"Jessie. Upstairs. Now." He released Roanna and all but frog-marched Jessie to the door. He paused there to flick Roanna with a glacier gaze that cut like a whip.

"I'll take care of you later."

The door swung shut behind them. Roanna sank weakly against the cabinets and covered her face with her hands.

Oh, God, she'd never meant for anything like this to happen. Now Webb hated her, and she didn't think she could bear it. Pain welled in her, tightening her throat, choking her. She had never been a match for Jessie in slyness and cunning, and Jessie had proved it once again, effortlessly spewing out the lie that would turn Webb against her. Now he thought she'd caused all this deliberately, and he would never, never love her.

Grandmother wouldn't forgive her for this ruckus. She rocked back and forth, overwhelmed with misery, wondering if she'd be sent away. Jessie had been telling Grandmother that Roanna should go away to some girl's college up north, but Roanna hadn't wanted to go and Webb had supported her, but now she doubted Webb would lift a finger if they wanted to send her to the Gobi Desert. She had caused him so much trouble he'd never forgive her, even if she could convince him that Jessie lied, which she doubted. In her experience, they always believed Jessie.

In the space of a few minutes, her entire world had crumbled around her. She had been so happy, those few, sweet moments in his arms, and then it had turned to hell. She would likely have to go away, and she'd lost Webb forever.

It wasn't fair. Jessie was the one who was the whore. But Roanna didn't dare tell, couldn't tell, no matter what happened. She couldn't defend herself against the vicious lies Jessie was even now telling about her. "I hate you," she whispered thinly to her absent cousin She cowered against the cabinets like a frightened little animal, her heart pounding against her ribs with a force that almost made her faint.

"I wish you would die." Roanna lay huddled tensely in her bed. She was cold with misery despite the heat of the summer night, and sleep was as distant now as it had been when she had first escaped upstairs to her room.

The hours since Jessie had caught her kissing Webb had been a nightmare. The uproar had, of course, brought the rest of the household running. There was no need for questions, because Jessie had screamed curses at both Webb and Roanna the entire time he was dragging her upstairs, but both Grandmother and Aunt Gloria had hammered Roanna with endless queries and accusations anyway.

"How dare you do such a thing?" Grandmother had asked, glaring at Roanna with eyes as cold as Webb's had been, but Roanna remained mute. What could she say? She shouldn't have kissed him; she knew it. Loving him was no excuse, at least not one that would matter to the unanimous condemnation she faced.

She couldn't defend herself by pointing to Jessie's behavior. Webb might hate her now, but still she couldn't tell something that would so hurt him and might cause him to do something rash. She would rather take all the blame

herself than risk anything bad happening to him. And in the final analysis, Jessie's actions didn't excuse her own. Webb was a married man; she shouldn't have kissed him. She writhed inside with shame at what her heedless, impulsive act had caused.

The battle raging upstairs had been clearly audible to everyone else. Jessie had always been unreasonable when thwarted and doubly so when her vanity was involved. Her screams had sliced over the deep rumble of Webb's voice. She'd called him every filthy name imaginable, using words that Roanna had never heard spoken aloud before. Grandmother was usually able to overlook anything Jessie did, but even she winced at the language being used. Roanna heard herself called a whore, a horse-faced little slut, and a stupid animal good only for barnyard screwing. Jessie had threatened to have Grandmother cut Webb out of her will hearing this, Roanna had darted a terrified look at Grandmother, because she would die if she'd cost Webb his inheritance, but Grandmother had lifted her elegant brows in surprise at hearing this threat-and to have Webb arrested for statutory rape.

Of course, Grandmother and Aunt Gloria had instantly believed that Roanna had been sleeping with Webb, and this brought their hard glares and recriminations down on her again, though Uncle Harlan had merely lifted his thick gray brows and looked amused. Embarrassed, miserable, Roanna had shaken her head dumbly, not knowing any way to defend herself that they would believe.

Webb wasn't a man to take threats lying down. Until then, he'd been furious but kept his temper under control. Now there was a crash, and the sound of glass breaking, and he roared: "Get a goddamn divorce! I'll do whatever it takes to get rid of you!"

He'd come down the stairs then, his face hard and set, his eyes burning cold and green. His furious gaze touched on Roanna, and his eyes narrowed, making her shudder with dread, but he didn't stop.

"Webb, wait," Grandmother said,

reaching out a staying hand. He ignored her, slamming out of the house. A moment later they saw the headlights of his car slice across the lawn.

Roanna didn't know if he'd returned yet, because only loud vehicles could be heard from inside the house. Her eyes burned as she stared up at the ceiling, darkness weighing down on her like a blanket, suffocating her.

What hurt most of all was that Webb hadn't trusted in her; even knowing Jessie, he'd believed her lies. How could he think for one moment that she would deliberately do anything that would cause him any trouble? Webb was the center of her existence, her one champion; if he turned away from her, then she had no foundation, no security in this world.

But fury and disgust had been in his eyes when he'd looked at her, as if he couldn't stand the sight of her now. Roanna curled in a ball, whimpering with the pain that seemed so overwhelming she thought she could never recover from it. She loved him; she wouldn't have turned away from him, no matter what he did. But he had turned away from her, and she shrank in on herself as she realized what the difference was: he didn't love her. She hurt all over, as if she'd bruised herself in this headlong crash into the brick wall of reality. He'd liked her, been amused by her, maybe felt some sort of family tie with her, but he hadn't loved her the way she wanted him to love her. With sudden, shattering clarity, she saw that he'd felt sorry for her, and the humiliation of it scoured her raw inside. Pity was never what she'd wanted from Webb or from anyone else.

She'd lost him. Even if he gave her the chance to defend herself and if he then believed her, it would still never be the same again. He thought she had betrayed him, and his lack of trust was a betrayal of her. That knowledge would always be there in her heart, an icy, burning knot to mark her loss.

She had always clung fiercely to Davencourt and to Webb, resisting any effort to pry her loose. Now, for the first time, she thought about going away. There was nothing left here,

"Godawmighty," and for once the too-smooth, too-hearty tone was absent from his voice.

Her hands stuffed into her mouth as if to keep another scream from escaping, Roanna slowly backed away from Jessie's body. Her brown eyes were wide and unblinking, the expression in them curiously blind.

Aunt Gloria rushed into the room despite Uncle Harlan's belated attempt to stop her, with Lucinda close behind. Both women stumbled to a halt, horror and disbelief stunning them to immobility as they took in the gory scene. Lucinda stared at the tableau presented by her two granddaughters, and every vestige of color washed out of her face. She began to tremble.

Aunt Gloria put her arms around her sister, all the while staring wildly at Roanna. "My God, you've killed her," she blurted, each word rising with hysteria.

"Harlan, call the sheriff!"

The driveway and courtyard were a snarl of vehicles parked at random angles, bar lights flashing eerie blue strobes through the night. Every window in Davencourt blazed with light, and the house was crowded with people, most of them wearing brown uniforms, some of them wearing white.

All of the family, except for Webb, sat in the spacious living room. Grandmother was weeping softly, her hands ceaselessly twisting a delicately embroidered handkerchief as she sat with slumped shoulders. Her face was ravaged with grief. Aunt Gloria sat beside her, patting her, murmuring soothing but meaningless words. Uncle Harlan stood just behind them, rocking back and forth on his toes, importantly answering questions and offering his own opinions on every theory or detail, soaking in the limelight currently shining on him because of his luck in being the first one on the scene-discounting Roanna, of course.

Roanna sat alone on the opposite side of the room from everyone else. A deputy stood nearby. She was dully aware that he was a guard, but she couldn't bring herself to care.

""P701.4

she might as well go away to college the way everyone wanted her to and start fresh, where people didn't know her and have preconceived ideas about how she should look and act. Before, the very thought of leaving Davencourt had brought panic, but now she felt only relief Yes, she wanted to get away from everyone and everything.

But first, she would fix things for Webb. One last gesture of love, and then she would put all this behind her and move on.

She glanced at the clock as she got out of bed. It was after two; the house was silent. Jessie was probably asleep, but Roanna frankly didn't give a damn. She could just wake up and listen, for once, to what Roanna had to say.

She didn't know what she would do if Webb were there, but she didn't really expect him to be. He'd been in such a temper when he'd left that he probably hadn't returned yet, and even if he had, he wouldn't crawl into bed with Jessie. He'd either be downstairs in the study or asleep in one of the other bedrooms.

She didn't need a light; she had wandered Davencourt so much at night that she knew all of its shadows. Silently she drifted down the hallway, her long white nightgown making her look like a ghost. She felt like a ghost, she thought, as if no one ever really saw her.

She paused in front of the door to Webb and Jessie's suite. A light was still on inside; a thin bright ribbon was visible at the base of the door. Deciding not to knock, Roanna turned the knob.

"Jessie, are you awake?" she asked softly.

"I want to talk to you." The shrill scream tore through the soft fabric of the night, a long, raw sound that seemed to go on and on, straining, until it broke on a hoarse note. Lights flared in various bedrooms, even down in the stables where Loyal had his Own apartment. There was a gabble of sleepy, confused voices crying out, asking questions, and the thud of running feet.

Uncle Harlan was first to reach the suite. He said,

She was motionless, her eyes dark pools in a colorless face, her gaze both unseeing and yet encompassing as she stared unblinkingly across the room at her family.

Sheriff Samuel "Booley" Watts paused just inside the doorway and watched her, wondering uncomfortably what she was thinking, how she felt about this silent but implacable rejection. He assessed the thin frailty of her bare arms, noted how insubstantial she looked in that white nightgown, which wasn't much whiter than her face. The pulse at the base of her throat beat visibly, the rhythm too fast and weak. With the experience of thirty years in law enforcement behind him, he turned to one of his deputies and said quietly, "Get one of the paramedics in here to see about the girl. She looks shocky." He needed her lucid and responsive.

The sheriff had known Lucinda for most of his life. The Davenports had always been hefty contributors to his campaign funds when election time rolled around. Politics being what they were, he'd done a lot of favors for the family over the years, but at the base of their longtime relationship was genuine liking. Marshall Davenport had been a tough, shrewd son of a bitch but a decent one. Booley had nothing but respect for Lucinda, for her inner toughness, her refusal to relax her standards in the face of modern decline, her business acumen. In the long years after David's death, until Webb had become old enough to begin taking over some of the burden, she had run an empire, overseen a huge estate, and raised her two orphaned granddaughters. Granted, she'd had the benefit of immense wealth to smooth the way for her, but the emotional burden had been the same on her as it would have been on anyone else.

Lucinda had lost too many loved ones, he thought. Both the Davenport and Tallant families had suffered untimely deaths, people taken too young. Lucinda's beloved brother, the first Webb, had died in his forties after being kicked in the head by a bull. His son, Hunter, had died at the age of thirty-one when his small plane crashed in a violent thunderstorm in Tennessee. Marshall Davenport had been only sixty when he died from a burst appendix that he ignored, thinking it was just an intestinal upset, until the infection had become so massive his system couldn't fight it off. Then both David and Janet, as well as David's wife, had been killed in that car wreck ten years ago. That had nearly broken Lucinda, but she'd stiffened her spine and soldiered on.

Now this; he didn't know if she could bear up under this latest bereavement. She'd always adored Jessie, and the girl had been mighty popular in the elite society of Colbert County, though Booley himself had had his own reservations about her. Sometimes her expression had seemed cold, emotionless, like that of some of the killers he'd seen through the years. Not that he'd ever had any trouble with her, never been called on to cover up any minor scandals; whatever Jessie was really like, under the flirtatiousness and party manners, she'd kept her nose clean. Jessie and Webb had been the sparks in Lucinda's eyes, and the old girl had been nearly bursting a seam with pride when the two kids had gotten married a couple of years ago. Booley hated what he had to do; it was bad enough that she'd lost Jessie, without involving Webb, but it was his job. Politics or not, this couldn't be swept under the carpet.

A stocky paramedic, Turkey MacInnis, entered the room and crossed to where Roanna was sitting, hunkering down in front of her. Turkey, so called because of his ability to imitate a turkey call without benefit of any gizmos, was both competent and soothing, one of the better paramedics in the county. Booley listened to the casual matter-of-fact voice as he asked the girl a few questions, assessing her responsiveness as he flicked a tiny penlight in her eyes, then took her blood pressure and counted her pulse. Roanna answered the questions in a flat, almost inaudible tone, her voice sounding strained and raw. She regarded the paramedic at her feet with a total lack of interest.

A blanket was fetched and wrapped around her, and the paramedic urged her to lie down on the sofa. Then he

brought her a cup of coffee, which Booley guessed to be heavily sweetened, and cajoled her into drinking it. Booley sighed. Satisfied that Roanna was being taken care of, he couldn't put off his onerous duty any longer. He rubbed the back of his head as he walked over to the small group on the other side of the room. For at least the tenth time, Harlan Ames was recounting the event as he interpreted it, and Booley was getting heartily sick of that greasy, too-loud voice.

He sat down beside Lucinda.

"Have you found Webb yet?" she asked in a strangled tone, as more tears slipped down her cheeks. For the first time, he thought, Lucinda looked her age of seventy-three. She had always given the impression of being lean and strong, like the finest stainless steel, but now she looked shrunken in her nightgown and robe.

"Not yet," he said uncomfortably.

"We're looking for him," That was an understatement if he'd ever made one. There was a slight disturbance at the door, and Booley looked around, frowning, but relaxed when Yvonne Tallant, Webb's mother, strode into the living room. Technically no one was supposed to be allowed in, but Yvonne was family, even though she had 4istanced herself several years back by moving out of Davencourt into her own little house across the river in Florence. Yvonne had always been a woman with an independent streak. Just now, though, Booley wished she hadn't shown up, and he wondered how she'd found out about the trouble here tonight. Ah, hell, no use worrying about it. That was the trouble with small towns. Someone in dispatch, maybe, had called home and said something to a family member, who'd called a friend, who'd called a cousin who knew Yvonne personally and had taken it upon herself to let her know. That was always how it worked.

Yvonne's green eyes swept the room. She was a tall, slim woman with streaks of gray in her dark hair, the type described more as handsome than pretty. Even at this hour, she was impeccably clad in tailored slacks and a crisp white blouse. Her gaze lit on Booley.

"Is it true?" she asked, her voice cracking a little. "About Jessie?" Despite Booley's own reservations about Jessie, she had always seemed to get along with her mother-in-law. Besides, the Davenport and Tallant families were so close that Yvonne had known Jessie from the cradle.

Beside him, Lucinda gulped on a sob, her entire body trembling. Booley nodded an answer at Yvonne, who closed her eyes against welling tears.

"Roanna did it," Gloria hissed, glaring across the room at the small, blanket-wrapped figure lying on the sofa. Yvonne's eyes flew open, and she gave Gloria an incredulous look.

"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped, and purposefully strode over to Roanna, crouching down beside her and stroking the tumbled hair back from the colorless face, murmuring softly to her as she did. Booley's opinion of Yvonne jumped up several notches, though he doubted, from the look on her face, that Gloria shared it.

Lucinda bowed her head, as if unable to look across the room at her other granddaughter.

"Are you going to arrest her?" she whispered.

Booley took one of her hands in his, feeling like a meaty, clumsy ox as his thick fingers folded around her cold, slender ones.

"No, I'm not," he said.

Lucinda shuddered slightly, some of the tension leaving her body.

"Thank God," she whispered, her eyes squeezing shut.

"I'd like to know why not!" Gloria shrilled from Lucinda's other side, rearing up like a wet hen. Booley had never liked Gloria nearly as much as he did Lucinda. She'd always been prettier, but Lucinda had been the one who'd caught Marshall Davenport's eye, Lucinda who had married the richest man in northwest Alabama, and envy had nearly eaten Gloria alive.

"Because I don't think she did it," he said flatly.

"We saw her standing right over the body! Why, her feet were in the blood!"

Irritably, Booley wondered why that was supposed to

L_TNDA HOWARD

have any significance. He reached for patience.

"From what we can tell, Jessie had already been dead for several hours before Roanna found her." He didn't go into the technical details about the progression rate of rigor mortis, figuring Lucinda didn't need to hear it. It wasn't possible to pin down the exact time of a death unless it was witnessed, but it was still a sure thing that Jessie had died at least a couple of hours before midnight. He didn't know why Roanna had paid her cousin a visit at two in the morning-and he'd definitely find out-but Jessie had already been dead. The little family group was frozen, staring at him-as if they couldn't comprehend this latest twist. He took out his little notebook. One of the county detectives normally would have done the interviewing, but this was the Davenport family, and he was going to give the case his personal attention.

"Mr. Ames said that Webb and Jessie had a lulu of a fight tonight," he began, and saw the sharp look that Lucinda gave her brother-in-law.

Then she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders as she mopped a, her face with the mangled handkerchief.

"They argued, yes."

"What about?"

Lucinda hesitated, and Gloria stepped into the breach.

"Jessie caught Webb and Roanna carrying on in the kitchen."

Booley's gray eyebrows rose. Not much surprised him anymore, but he felt mildly astonished at this. Dubiously, he glanced at the frail, huddled little form across the room. Roanna seemed, if not childish, still oddly childlike, and he wouldn't have figured Webb for being a man who was turned on by that.

"Carrying on, how?"

"Carrying on, that's how," Gloria said, her voice rising.

"My God, Booley, do you want me to draw you a picture?" The idea of Webb having sex with Roanna in the kitchen struck him as even more unlikely. He was never surprised at the depth of stupidity supposedly smart people could exhibit, but this didn't ring true. Odd, that he could see Webb committing murder, but not fooling around with his little cousin.

Well, he'd get the true story about the kitchen episode from Roanna. He wanted something else from these three.

"So they were arguing. Did the argument turn violent?"

"Sure did," Harlan replied, only too eager to take the spotlight again.

"They were upstairs, but Jessie was screaming so loud we could hear every word. Then Webb yelled at her to get a divorce, that he'd do anything to get rid of her, and there was the sound of glass breaking. Then Webb came storming downstairs and left."

"Did any of you see Jessie after that, or maybe hear her in the bathroom?"

"Nope, not a sound," Harlan said, and Gloria shook her head. No one had tried to talk to Jessie, knowing from experience that it was better to let her cool down first or her fury would erupt on the erstwhile mediator. Lucinda's expression was one of growing disbelief and horror as she realized where Booley's questioning was headed. "No," she said violently, shaking her head in denial.

"Booley, no! You can't suspect Webb!"

"I have to," he replied, trying to keep his voice gentle.

"They were arguing, violently. Now, we all know Webb has quite a temper when he's stirred up. No one saw or heard a peep out of Jessie after he left. It's a sad fact, but any time a woman's killed, it's usually her husband or a boyfriend who does it. This hurts me bad, Lucinda, but the truth is Webb is the most likely suspect."

She was still shaking her head, and tears were dribbling down her wrinkled cheeks again.

"He couldn't. Not Webb." Her voice was pleading.

"I hope not, but I have to check it out. Now, what time was it when Webb left, as near as you can remember?" Lucinda was silent. Harlan and Gloria looked at each other.

"Eight?" Gloria finally offered, uncertainty in her voice.

"About that," Harlan said, nodding.

"That movie I wanted to watch just had come on."

Eight o'clock. Booley considered that, chewing on his lower lip as he did so. e1yde O'Dell, the coroner, had been doing his job for just about as long as Booley had been doing his, and was damn good at guessing the time of death. He had both the experience and the knack for adding the degree of rigor with the temperature factor and coming up with pretty close to the right answer. Clyde had put the time of Jessie's death at "Oh, ten o'clock or thereabouts," with a rocking motion of his hand to indicate the actual time could slip either way. Eight o'clock was a mite early, and though it was still within the realm of possibility, that did throw a bit of doubt into the mix. He had to make damn sure of his case before he presented it to the county prosecutor, because old Simmons was too slick a politician to take on a case involving the Davenports and Tallants unless he was sure he could make it stick.

"Did anyone hear a car or anything later on? Did Webb maybe come back?"

"I didn't hear anything," Harlan said.

"I didn't either," Gloria confirmed.

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