Shades of Twilight (Chapter 4)
Lucinda rubbed her eyes. Booley had the feeling she wished her sister and brother-in-law would shut the hell up.
"We can't normally hear anyone driving up," she said.
"The house is very well insulated, and the shrubbery deadens the sound, too." "So he could have returned and you wouldn't necessarily have known it."
Lucinda opened her mouth, then closed it without replying. The answer was obvious. The upstairs balcony that circled the huge, elegant old house was accessible from the outside stairs on Webb and Jessie's side of the house. Moreover, each bedroom had double French doors that opened onto the balcony; it would have been ridiculously easy for anyone to go up those stairs and enter the bedroom without anyone else in the house seeing them. From a security standpoint, Davencourt was a nightmare.
Well, maybe Loyal had heard something. His apartment in the stables probably wasn't as soundproof as this massive old house.
Yvonne left Roanna's side and came to stand right in front of Booley.
"I heard what you've been saying," she said quietly, her tone even despite the way her green eyes were boring a hole in him.
"You're barking up the wrong tree, Booley Watts. My son didn't kill Jessie. No matter how mad he was, he wouldn't have hurt her."
"Under normal circumstances, I'd agree with you," Booley replied.
"But she was threatening to have Lucinda cut him out of her will, and we all know what Davencourt means to-" "Bullshit," Yvonne said firmly, ignoring the way Gloria's mouth tightened like a prune.
"Webb wouldn't believe that for a second. Jessie always exaggerated when she was mad."
Booley looked at Lucinda. She wiped her eyes and said faintly, "No, I would never have disinherited him."
"Even if they divorced?" he pressed.
Her lips trembled.
"No. Davencourt needs him."
Well, that undercut a damn good motive, Booley thought. He wasn't exactly sorry. He would hate like hell to have to arrest Webb Tallant. He'd do it, if he could build a strong enough case, but he'd hate it.
At that moment a flurry of voices came from the front entrance, and they all recognized Webb's deep voice as he said something curt to one of the deputies. Every head in the room, except Roanna's, swiveled to watch as he strode into the room, flanked by two deputies.
"I want to see her," he said sharply.
"I want to see my wife."
Booley got to his feet.
"I'm sorry about this, Webb," he said, his voice as tired as he felt.
"But we need to ask you some questions." Jessie was dead.
They hadn't let him see her, and he desperately needed to, because until he saw it for a fact himself, Webb found it impossible to truly believe it. He felt disoriented, unable to sort out his thoughts or feelings because so many of them were contradictory. When Jessie had yelled at him that she wanted a divorce, he'd felt nothing but relief at the prospect of being rid of her, but … dead? Jessie? Spoiled, vibrant, passionate Jessie? He couldn't remember a day of his life when Jessie hadn't been there. They had grown up together, cousins and childhood playmates, then the fever of puberty and sexual passion had locked them together in an endless game of domination. Marrying her had been a mistake, but the shock of losing her was numbing. Grief and relief warred, tearing him apart inside.
Guilt was there, too, in spades. Guilt, first and foremost, because he could feel relief at all, never mind that for the past two years she had done her best to make his life hell, systematically destroying everything he'd ever felt for her in her relentless quest for the fawning adoration she'd thought she wanted.
And then there was the guilt over Roanna.
He shouldn't have kissed her. She was only seventeen, damn it, and an immature seventeen at that. He shouldn't have held her on his lap. When she had suddenly thrown her arms around his neck and kissed him, he should have gently pushed her away, but he hadn't. Instead he'd felt the soft, shy bloom of her mouth under his, and her very innocence had aroused him. Hell, he'd already been aroused by the feel of her round bottom on his lap. Instead of breaking the kiss, he had deepened it, taking control, thrusting his tongue into her mouth for an explicitly sexual kiss. He'd turned her in his arms, wanting to feel those slight, delicate breasts against him. If Jessie hadn't walked in at that point, he probably would have had his hand on those breasts and his mouth on the sweetly pebbled nipples. Roanna had been aroused, too. He'd thought she was too innocent to know what she was doing, but now he saw it differently. Inexperienced wasn't the same as innocent.
No matter what he'd done, he doubted Roanna would have lifted a hand or spoken a word to stop him. He could have taken her there on the kitchen table, or sitting astride his lap, and she would have let him.
There was nothing Roanna wouldn't do for him. He knew it. And that was the most horrible thought of all.
Had Roanna killed Jessie?
He'd been furious with both of them, and with himself for allowing the situation to happen. Jessie had been screaming her filthy insults, and abruptly he'd been so fed up with her that he knew it was the end of their marriage for him. As for Roanna-he never would have thought she was devious enough to set up the scene in the kitchen, but when he'd looked at her after Jessie's vicious accusation, he hadn't seen shock on Roanna's too-open, too-expressive face; he'd seen guilt. Maybe it was caused by the same dismay he'd been feeling, because they shouldn't have been kissing, but maybe … maybe it was more. For an instant he had seen something else, too: hate. LINDA KOWARD
They all knew that Roanna and Jessie didn't get along, but he'd also known for quite some time that, for Roanna, the animosity had been very bitter. The reason for it had been obvious, too; only a blind fool could have missed seeing how much Roanna adored him. He hadn't done anything to encourage her, romantically speaking, but neither had he discouraged her. He was fond of the little brat, and that unquestioning hero worship of hers had definitely stroked his ego, especially after one of the endless battles with Jess. Hell, he supposed he loved Ro, but not in the way she wanted; he loved her with the amused exasperation of an older brother, he worried about her lack of appetite, and he felt sorry for her when she was humiliated by her own social awkwardness. It hadn't been easy for her, forever being cast as the ugly duckling to Jessie's beautiful swan.
Could she have believed that ridiculous threat Jessie had made, about having him cut out of Aunt Lucinda's will? He'd known it was nonsense, but had Roanna? What would she have done to protect him? Would she have gone to Jessie, tried to reason with her? He knew from experience that reasoning with Jessie was wasted effort. She would have turned on Roanna like a bear on fresh meat, dredging up even more hateful things to say, vicious threats to make. Would Roanna have gone to such extreme lengths to stop Jess? Before that episode in the kitchen, he would have said no way, but then he'd seen the expression on Roanna's face when Jessie burst in on them, and now he wasn't certain.
They said she'd been the one to find Jessie's body. His wife was dead, murdered. Someone had bashed her head in with one of the andirons from the fireplace in their suite. Had Roanna done it? Could she have done it deliberately? Everything he knew about her said no, at least to the second question. Roanna wasn't cold-blooded. But if Jessie had taunted her, made fun of her looks and her feelings for him, made more of those stupid threats, maybe then she could have lost her temper and hit Jessie.
He sat alone in Booley's office, bent over with his head cradled in his hands as he tried to bring some sort of order to the turmoil of his thoughts. Evidently he was the prime suspect. After the fight he and Jess had had, he supposed that was logical. It made him so angry he wanted to punch someone, but it was logical.
He hadn't been arrested, and he wasn't particularly worried, at least not about that. He hadn't killed Jess, so unless some evidence was fabricated against him, there was no way to prove that he had. He was needed at home to take care of things. From the brief glimpse he'd had of her, Aunt Lucinda had been devastated; she wouldn't be up to making the funeral arrangements. And Jess was his wife; he wanted to do this last service for her, mourn her, grieve for the girl she had been, the wife he had hoped for. It hadn't worked out for them, but still she hadn't deserved to die like that.
Tears burned his eyes, dripped through his fingers. Jess. Beautiful, unhappy Jess. He had wanted her to be a partner rather than a parasite that constantly demanded more and more, but it hadn't been in her nature to give. There hadn't been enough love in the world to satisfy her, and eventually he had stopped even trying.
She was gone. He couldn't bring her back, couldn't protect her. But what about Roanna? Had she killed his wife?
What should he do now? Tell Booley his suspicions? Throw Roanna to the wolves?
He couldn't do it. He didn't, couldn't, believe that Roanna would deliberately have killed Jessie. Hit her, yes. The blow might even have been struck in self-defense, because Jessie was-had been-perfectly capable of physically attacking Roanna. Ro was only seventeen, a juvenile; if she were arrested and tried and found guilty, her sentence would be light, for the crime. But even a light sentence would be a death sentence for her. Webb knew as sure as he was sitting there that Roanna wouldn't survive so much as a year's sentence to a juvenile detention hall. She was too
frail, too vulnerable. She would stop eating altogether. And she would die.
He thought of the scene at the house. He'd been hustled out of the house before he'd been able to speak with anyone, though his mother had tried. But what he'd seen in that brief moment was branded on his mind: Yvonne, fiercely protective, ready to do battle for him, but then he'd expected nothing else from his stalwart mother; Aunt Lucinda, staring at him with numb grief-, Aunt Gloria and Uncle Harlan, horrified, fascinated accusation in their eyes. No doubt about it, they thought he was guilty, damn them. And Roanna, in pale and frozen isolation on the other side of the room, not even lifting her head to look at him.
He'd spent the past ten years protecting her. It had become second nature to him. Even now, as angry as he was at her, he couldn't stop the instinct to shield her, If he thought she'd done it deliberately, that would be different, but he didn't. So here he was, protecting with his silence the girl who had probably killed his wife, and the bitterness of the choice filled his gut.
The office door opened behind him and he straightened, brusquely wiping the remaining dampness from his eyes. Booley walked around the desk and sank heavily into the creaky leather chair, his shrewd eyes on Webb's face, taking note of the evidence of tears.
"I'm sorry about this, Webb. I know it's a shock."
"Yeah." His voice was rough.
"I got a job to do, though. You were heard telling Jessie you'd do anything to get rid of her."
The best way through this minefield, Webb figured, was to tell the truth-up to a point, when it would be best to say nothing at all.
"Yeah, I said it. Right after I told her to get a divorce. I meant I'd agree to any settlement."
"Even giving up Davencourt?"
"Davencourt isn't mine to give, it's Aunt Lucinda's. That decision would be hers."
"Jessie threatened to have Lucinda cut you out of her will." Webb gave an abrupt shake of his head.
"Aunt Lucinda wouldn't do anything like that just because of a divorce." Booley crossed his arms behind his head, linking his fingers to form a cradle for his skull. He studied the young man before him. Webb was big and strong, a natural athlete; he had the strength to crush Jessie's skull with one blow, but had he done so? He abruptly changed the subject.
"Supposedly Jessie caught you and Roanna at some hanky-panky in the kitchen. Want to tell me about it?"
Webb's eyes flashed with a hint of the cold, ferocious fury he was holding bottled up inside.
"I was never unfaithful to Jess," he said shortly.
"Never?" Booley let a little doubt slide into his tone.
"Then just what did Jessie see that set her off?"
"A kiss." Let Booley have the unvarnished truth, as far as it went.
"You kissed Roanna? For God's sake, Webb, don't you think she's a mite young for you?"
"Damn it, of course she's too young!" Webb snapped. "it wasn't like that."
"Wasn't like what? What do you have going with her?"
"I don't have anything going with her." Unable to contain himself any longer, Webb lunged to his feet, causing Booley to tense and automatically lay his big hand on the butt of his pistol, but he relaxed when Webb began pacing the confines of the small office.
"Then why did you kiss her?"
"I didn't. She kissed me." Initially, that is. Booley didn't need to know the rest of it.
"Why'd she do that?"
Webb rubbed the back of his neck.
"Roanna's like a kid sister to me. She was upset-" "Why?"
"Aunt Gloria and Uncle Harlan moved in today. She doesn't get along with Aunt Gloria."
Booley made a grunting sound, as if he could understand that.
"And you were … comforting her?"
"That, and trying to get her to eat. If she's upset or
nervous, she can't eat, and I was worried about what this would do to her." "You think she's-what's the word-aner-something? Starving herself to death, "Anorexic. Maybe. I don't know. I told her that I'd talk to Aunt Lucinda and make the others stay off her back, if she would promise to eat. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me, Jessie walked in, and all hell broke loose."
"is that the first time Roanna's kissed you?"
"Except for pecks on the cheek, yes."
"So there's nothing at all romantic going on between the two of you?"
"No," Webb said, the word clipped.
"I heard she's got a crush on you. A sweet young girl like that, a lot of men would be tempted."
"She depends on me a lot, has since her folks died. It's no big secret."
"Was Jessie jealous of Roanna "Not to my knowledge. She had no reason to be."
"Even though you get along real good with Roanna? From what I hear, you and Jessie hadn't been getting along at a. Maybe she was jealous about that."
"You hear a lot, Booley," Webb said tiredly.
"Jessie wasn't jealous. She threw temper tantrums whenever she didn't get her way. She was mad at me for going to Nashville this morning, and when she saw Roanna kissing me, that was just an excuse to raise hell."
"The argument turned violent, didn't it?" "I threw a glass and broke it."
"Did you hit Jessie?"
"Have you ever hit her?"
"No." He paused, and shook his head.
"I spanked her ass once when she was sixteen, if that counts."
Booley restrained a grin. Now wasn't the time for amusement, but Jessie getting her rear end tanned was something he'd liked to have seen. A lot of kids nowadays, boys and girls both, would benefit greatly from the same treatment.
Webb would have been just seventeen at the time, but he'd always been older than his years.
"What happened then?"
"Jessie was getting more and more out of control. I left before things could get out of hand." "What time did you leave?"
"Hell, I don't know. Eight, eight-thirty."
"Did you go back?"
"Where did you go?"
"I drove around a while, over to Florence."
"Did anybody you know see you, so they can verify it?"
"I don't know."
"What did you do? Just drive around?"
"For a while, like I said. Then I went to the Waffle Hut on Jackson Highway."
"What time did you get there?"
"Ten o'clock, maybe."
"What time did you leave?"
"After two. I didn't want to come home until I'd cooled down."
"So you were there about four hours? I reckon the waitress would remember that, don't you?"
Webb didn't reply. He thought it likely, because she had tried several times to strike up a conversation, but he hadn't been in the mood for chitchat. Booley would check it out, the waitress would verify his presence, and that would be the end of it. But who would Booley look at as a suspect then? Roanna?
"You can go on home," Booley said after a minute.
"Don't guess I have to tell you to stick close. No going out of town on business trips or anything like that."
Webb's gaze was cold and hard.
"I'd hardly be scheduling a business trip when I have to bury my wife."
"Well, as to that. Considering the nature of her death, there's gotta be an autopsy. Normally that only delays the funeral a day or two, but sometimes it can be longer. I'll have to let you know." Booley leaned forward, his jowly
"Webb, son, I'll tell you plain, I don't know about this. It's a sorry fact that when a woman gets killed, it's usually her husband or boyfriend who did it. Now, you've never struck me as the type, but then neither have a lot of other folks I've wound up arresting. I gotta suspect you, and I gotta check everything out. On the other hand, if you have any suspicions yourself, I'd appreciate hearing about them. Families always have their little twists and secrets. Why, your folks were sure Roanna had killed Jessie, and they were treating her like she was poison or something, until I told them that I didn't think she'd done it."
Booley was a country-plain, unsophisticated good old boy, but he'd been in law enforcement for a long time, and he knew how to read people. In his way, he used the same tactics Columbo had made famous on television, just kind of easing around and carrying on casual conversations and putting the pieces together. Webb resisted the invitation to confide in the sheriff, instead saying, "May I go now?"
Booley waved a meaty hand.
"Sure. But like I said, stick close to home." He heaved his bulk out of the chair.
"I might as well drive you home myself. It's already morning, so I'm not going to get any sleep anyway."
Roanna was hiding, not the way she had when she was little by crawling under furniture or burrowing deep in a closet, but nevertheless she had removed herself from the grim, hushed activity in the house. She had retreated to the bay window where once she had watched Webb and Jessie sit in the garden swing, while behind her the rest of the family had discussed what to do with her. She was still wrapped tight in the blanket the paramedic had put around her, holding the edges together with cold, bloodless fingers. She sat watching the slowly arriving dawn, ignoring the hum of voices behind her, shutting it all out.
She tried not to think about Jessie, but no amount of effort could erase that bloody scene from her mind. She didn't have to actively think about it, it was just there, like the window. Death had so altered Jessie that at first Roanna had simply stood there, gaping at the body without quite realizing that it was real, or even recognizing her cousin. Her head had been oddly misshapen, flattened around a huge open wound where her skull had literally been cracked open. She had been awkwardly sprawled with her neck bent as her head rested against the raised rock hearth.
Roanna had turned on the light when she'd entered the suite, blinking her eyes as she tried to adjust her vision, and walked around the sofa on her way to the bedroom to wake Jessie and talk to her. She had literally stumbled on Jessie's sprawled legs, and stared down in silent stupefaction for a long moment before she realized what she was seeing and began to scream.
It wasn't until later that she realized she'd been standing on blood-soaked carpet and that her bare feet were stained red. She didn't remember how they had gotten clean, if she had washed them or someone else had.
The window reflected the scene behind her, the swarm of people coming and going. The rest of the family had arrived, singly and in pairs, adding their questions and tears to the confusion.
There was Aunt Sandra, Webb's aunt on his father's side, which made her Grandmother's niece. Aunt Sandra was a tall, dark-haired woman with the Tallant good looks. She had never married, instead pursuing an advanced education in physics, and now worked for NASA in Huntsville.
Aunt Gloria's daughter and her husband, Lanette and Greg Spence, had arrived with their two teenagers, Brock and Corliss. Corliss was Roanna's age, but they had never gotten along. No sooner had they arrived than Corliss had slipped up to Roanna and whispered, "Were you really standing in her blood? What did she look like? I heard Mama tell Daddy that her head was cracked open like a watermelon."
Roanna had ignored the avid, insistent voice, keeping her face turned toward the window.
"Tell me!" Corliss insisted.
A vicious pinch on the back of her arm made Roanna's eyes sting with tears, but she stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge her cousin in any way. Eventually Corliss had given up and left to badger someone else for the gory details she craved.
Aunt Gloria's son, Baron, lived in Charlotte; he and his wife and three kids were expected to arrive later in the day. Even without them, that meant ten family members were grouped in the living room or around a comforting pot of coffee in the kitchen, with the makeup of the groups changing as people shifted back and forth.
No one was allowed to go upstairs yet, though Jessie had long since been taken away, because the investigators were still taking pictures and gathering evidence. With the deputies and all the others there in various official capacities, the big house was teeming with people, but still Roanna managed to shut them all out. She felt very cold inside, a strange chill that had spread to every cell of her body and formed a protective shell, keeping her inside and everyone else outside.
The sheriff had taken Webb away, and she had nearly choked on her guilt. This was all her fault. If only she hadn't kissed him! She hadn't done it on purpose, but then none of the messes she caused were on purpose.
He hadn't killed Jessie. She knew it. She'd wanted to scream at them for even thinking something so ugly about him. Now that was all Aunt Gloria and Uncle Harlan were talking about, how shocking it was, as if he'd already been tried and convicted. Only a few hours before, they had been equally convinced that Roanna was the killer.
Webb couldn't do something like that. He could kill; somehow Roanna knew that Webb would do whatever was necessary to protect those he loved, but killing under those circumstances wasn't the same as murder. No matter how nasty Jessie had been, no matter what she'd said or even if she'd attacked him with a poker or something, he wouldn't have harmed her. Roanna had seen him tenderly helping a foal into the world, sitting up all night with a sick animal,
taking turns with Loyal walking a colicky horse for hours on end. Webb took care of his own.
It wasn't her fault Jessie was dead, but because Roanna loved Webb and hadn't been able to control her stupid impulses, it had set in motion a chain of circumstances that caused Webb to be blamed for Jessie's death. She had no idea who had killed Jessie, her thoughts hadn't gone that far; she only knew that it wasn't Webb. With every cell in her body, she knew he couldn't have done it, just as she knew this was all her fault and he'd never forgive her.
When Sheriff Watts had taken Webb away for questioning, Roanna had been paralyzed with shame. She hadn't even been able to lift her head and look at him, sure that she would see nothing but hatred and contempt in his eyes if he happened to look at her, and she knew that she couldn't have borne it.
She had never felt so alone, as if there was an invisible bubble around her, preventing anyone from getting close. She could hear Grandmother behind her, softly weeping again, and hear Aunt Gloria's murmured attempts at consolation, but it didn't quite touch her. She didn't know where Uncle Harlan was; she didn't care. She would never forget the way they had accused her of killing Jessie, the way they had pulled back from her as if she had the plague. Even when Sheriff Watts had said he didn't think she'd done it, none of them had approached or apologized. Not even Grandmother, though Roanna had heard the soft "Thank God" she'd uttered when the sheriff had said he thought she was innocent.
All her life she'd tried so hard to earn these people's love, to be good enough, but she had never succeeded. Nothing about her had ever equaled the standards of the Davenports and Tallants. She wasn't pretty, she wasn't even presentable. She was clumsy, untidy, and had the unfortunate habit of saying the most appalling things at the most inappropriate time.
Deep inside her, something had given up. These people had never loved her, never would. Only Webb had cared,
and now she had messed that up, too. She was alone in a fundamental way that left a huge, aching void inside. There was something devastating in knowing that if she simply walked out of this house and never came back, no one would care. The despair that she had faced earlier, when she realized that Webb didn't love her or trust her, had settled into mute acceptance.
All right, so they didn't love her; that didn't mean she had no love to give. She loved Webb with every fiber in her body, something that wasn't going to change no matter how he felt about her. There was also love for Grandmother, despite her obvious preference for Jessie, because after all it had been Grandmother who had firmly said, "Roanna will live here, of course," easing the terror of a seven-year-old who had abruptly lost everything. Even though she had more often found disapproval than approval from Grandmother, she still felt enormous respect and affection for the indomitable old woman. She hoped that someday she could be as strong as Grandmother, rather than the bumbling, unwanted fool she was now.
Both of the people Roanna loved had lost someone dear to them. All right, so she herself had despised Jessie; Grandmother and Webb hadn't. It wasn't her fault that Jessie was dead, but if Webb were blamed for it, that definitely would be her fault because of that kiss. Who really had killed Jessie? The only person who readily sprang to mind was the man she had seen with Jess the day before, but she had no idea who he was and wasn't certain she could either describe him now or even identify him if he walked in the door. Her shock had been so great that she hadn't paid a great deal of attention to his face, If she had decided before to keep quiet about what she'd seen, her reasons now were even more crucial. If Sheriff Watts found out that Jessie had been having an affair, he would see that as a motive for Webb to kill her. No, Roanna decided dazedly, she would only hurt Webb by disclosing what Jessie had been doing.
A murderer would go free. Roanna thought about that,
but her reasoning was simple: telling the sheriff about it wouldn't guarantee that the murderer was caught, because she couldn't give him any more information than that, and Webb would be harmed. For Roanna, there was no question of justice or truth, and she was too young and unsophisticated for subtleties of philosophy. The only thing that mattered was protecting Webb. Right or wrong, she would keep her mouth shut.
She watched as a county car silently rolled up the long driveway and stopped. Webb and Sheriff Watts got out and walked toward the house. Roanna watched Webb; her gaze stuck to him like a magnet to steel. He was still dressed in the clothes he'd worn yesterday, and he looked exhausted, his hard face shadowed with both fatigue and a day's growth of beard. At least he was home, she thought, her heart leaping, and he wasn't in handcuffs. That must mean the sheriff wasn't going to arrest him.
As the two men walked up the semicircle of brick-paved sidewalk, Webb glanced up to where she sat in the big bay window, outlined by the lights behind her. Though it still wasn't full daylight, Roanna saw the way his face hardened, then he looked away from her.
She listened to the confused, awkward flurry of family members behind her when Webb entered the house. Most of them didn't speak to him, but instead made an effort to make their own conversations seem casual. Under the circumstances, the effort was ridiculous, and they merely sounded stilted. Only Yvonne and Sandra rushed to him, and were gathered into his strong arms. In her reflective window, Roanna watched him bend his dark head down to them.
He released them and turned to Sheriff Watts.
"I need to shower and shave," he said.