Authors: Jeanette Baker
Tags: #Novel, #Fiction, #Contemporary Romance, #Adult, #Sex, #Law Enforcement, #Man Made Disaster, #Land Pollution, #Water Pollution, #Radioactivity Pollution, #Detective Mystery, #Rural, #Small Town, #Suburban, #Urban, #Wilderness, #Louisiana, #Maryland, #Christianity-Catholicism, #Science-Marine Biology, #Social Sciences-Geography, #Fishing-Fresh Water, #Fishing-Salt Water, #Boat Transportation, #2000-2010, #1960-1969
Cole turned and spoke to Bailey. “If it doesn't turn out for us, it isn't the end, son. We can always appeal.”
Libby was close to tears. She had no idea how Chloe was managing. Her daughter's eyes were dry and her small hand gripped Bailey's. She walked purposely beside him.
Russ was already inside. Tess sat beside him. Libby and Chloe took their seats in the next row. Again the courtroom was filled to capacity and again Eric was nowhere to be seen. The jury filed in. The bailiff announced the arrival of the judge. Everyone stood and then sat down again.
“Has the jury reached a verdict?” the judge asked.
The foreman rose. “We have, Your Honor.” He passed the verdict to the judge, who read it and passed it back.
“Please proceed,” he ordered.
“We find the defendant, Bailey Jones, not guilty of murder in the first degree.”
Chloe cried out and sagged against her mother. Libby clutched her fiercely and blinked back tears.
“Thank God,” Russ said under his breath. Tess clapped her hands.
Libby watched her father shake Bailey's hand and then pull him into his arms. For the second time in the long, harrowing saga of Lizzie Jones, the boy lost control. The tears broke and he wept against the older man's shoulder.
Cynthia Cameron walked across the aisle and patted Bailey's shoulder. Libby saw that her eyes were very bright. Perhaps the prosecutor was human after all.
“I'm taking Bailey to lunch at the Crab Pot,” Cole said. “You're all invited.”
“There won't be any crab on the menu,” Libby warned him.
“We'll order burgers. Are you coming?”
Libby laughed and looked at Russ.
“You bet,” he said.
erna Lee sat on the couch in the sitting room. Libby sat opposite in the wing chair. Steaming cups of spiced cider sat on the coffee table between them. “When did you know for sure who I was?” Verna Lee asked.
Libby tilted her head and considered the question carefully. “I think I knew from the minute Mama told me she had a daughter with a black man. It all came together for me. You resemble her, you know.”
“So do you.”
“I know, but in a different way, because you and I don't look anything alike.”
Verna Lee acknowledged it was so. “How did it make you feel?”
“Do you really want to know?”
Libby sighed. Why did people do that? she wondered. Why did they ask for truth when they didn't really want it at all? She had no delusions about truth. It was powerful enough to destroy relationships. The problem was, once someone asked for honesty, there was no way around it but dishonesty and that was unacceptable. “I felt betrayed,” she said simply. “I couldn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it.”
Verna Lee nodded. “I can understand that.”
Libby leaned forward in her chair. “It had nothing to do with you. But it was horrifying to learn that my mother had kept such a secret for forty years. It was as if everything I'd known was a lie.”
“I would have reacted that way, too.”
Libby was dying to ask what went on between her mother and Verna Lee when the air was finally cleared between them, but she allowed that the two of them deserved some privacy. After all, she'd had Nola Ruth all her life while Verna Lee had grown up without a mother. “When did you find out about Nola Ruth?” Libby asked.
“Drusilla told me on my twenty-first birthday. She was having problems with her heart and she didn't want to die without telling me the truth.” She smiled. “I was terribly resentful of you. You had everything I wanted. But I got over it. You weren't to blame. I settled for hating Nola Ruth instead. Then I got over that, too. Eventually, I just wanted to know her. I never expected to have a relationship with you. I'm so glad you came home. I mean that.”
There was no doubting her sincerity. “You've been a godsend to Chloe.”
“What will happen now, Libba Jane? Are you taking Chloe back to California?”
Libby chewed her bottom lip. “It looks that way.”
Verna Lee hesitated and then she spoke. “Will you listen to some advice?”
“Chloe wants to go home to check things out, to see if she really belongs here or there. She's like a college student who goes home the first weekend after moving into the dorms to reassure herself that home is the same, and then her parents don't see her again until summer. If you go with her now, she'll have no options, and worst of all, you'll hate it. You came back here because you wanted to be here, not there. Why not send her back to her father to get her bearings? She may very well come back to Marshyhope Creek on her own. if she doesn't and if you can't stand having her gone, you can always go back later.” Her voice softened. “Don't go, Libba Jane. You have a dozen reasons for staying, and I'm not talking about Russ Hennessey, although he's certainly one of the possibilities. Your parents are here and they aren't getting any younger. I'm here and I'd really like to know you better. Marshyhope Creek needs you. This whole water thing would never have been exposed without you. Even Shelby Sloane needs you. She's become a real human being since you came back to town.”
Libby laughed. “Shelby's harmless.”
“Will you think about it, Libba Jane?”
“I suppose so.” Libby was confused. Verna Lee's arguments made sense, but Chloe was sixteen years old. How would she feel about her mother sending her home alone?
Verna Lee stretched and stood. “It's been nice, but it's late. I've got an early day tomorrow. Don't bother walking me to the door and try not to agonize too much.”
“There's something else I've been meaning to ask you.”
“It's about Cliff,” Libby said. “We didn't part on the best of terms. I was disappointed in him.” She hesitated. “I don't think he's a bad person, Verna Lee, but he's not in your league.”
Verna Lee shrugged. “I'm used to involvements with men who aren't in my league. That's why I'm single.”
“Seriously. Is it over between you two?”
Verna Lee hesitated. “I wouldn't say it's over, exactly. But it has gone as far as it's going to go. Cliff knows that. We're fine the way we are.”
Libby sighed with relief. “I was hoping he wouldn't be my brother-in-law.”
Verna Lee laughed. “No chance of that. Good night, Libba Jane.”
“Good night, Verna Lee.”
Libby walked into the kitchen to rinse her cup. The porch light was on, the door was slightly ajar and she heard voices outside. Peering through the window, she saw Bailey and her daughter sitting on the top step. Chloe was talking.
“Aren't you scared to be completely on your own?”
Bailey's laugh was without humor. “Nothin'll ever scare me again.”
“You know what I mean?”
“I won't be alone. Your granddad helped me find a room. It's near the art institute. If only I get accepted,” he added.
“You'll get accepted,” she assured him “You'll be a famous artist and I'll say I knew you before you were discovered.”
Bailey cleared his throat. “I won't forget you, Chloe. Meeting you has been the best thing that's ever happened to me. I don't know what I would have done without you and your family.”
“Thank you,” the girl said simply.
Libby smiled. She could learn something from her daughter about accepting compliments.
“Have you decided what you're doing?” Bailey asked.
Chloe nodded. “I'm going back to California.”
“What about your mom?”
“I don't know,” Chloe said slowly. “She'll probably come with me.”
“You sound like you don't want her to?”
“I'd feel better if I thought she wanted to go, but I know she doesn't. It's hard wanting something so badly and knowing that if you get it, someone else will be miserable.”
“I will, but it won't matter. She won't let me go back by myself.”
“What about Tess? I thought she was a good friend of yours.”
“She is a good friend.” Chloe sighed. “Everything is so complicated.”
Libby tiptoed out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her room. She'd heard enough and she had a great deal to think about.
Russ threw the football in a perfect arc toward his daughter. Tess assumed the stance he'd taught her and caught it easily. Instead of throwing it back, she cradled it under her arm and walked across the lawn to meet her father.
“What's going on, honey?” he asked.
“Your heart's not in throwing a football, Daddy,” she said. “You tell me what's going on.”
Russ looked at the sky and then at the ground. “Want to go for a walk?”
She nodded and fell into step beside him.
They walked in silence for several minutes. Tess spoke first. “Does it have anything to do with Ms. Delacourte?”
Russ looked surprised.
“Does it show?”
“You've been so happy lately,” Tess said. “For a long time you weren't and now you are. It wasn't hard to figure out why. She's a nice lady. I like her.”
“It doesn't matter,” Russ said. “She's leaving with Chloe.”
“Did you ask her to stay?”
Russ laid his hand on his daughter's head and ruffled her hair. She'd grown so tall. “I did, but Chloe wants to go home.”
“Did you tell her you'd go with her?”
Russ looked surprised. “I hadn't considered it.”
Tess stopped. “Why not?”
Russ kept walking. “I can't just pick up and move all the time, Tess. For one thing, you're here and my job is here. I'm tired of missing out on your life and I have to make a living.” He refrained from explaining that a good part of his living he paid to her mother.
“What if I came to stay with you every summer?”
This time Russ stopped and turned back to look at Tess. “Would you do that, every summer and all long vacations?”
“I think I'd have to split the holidays, Daddy. It wouldn't be fair otherwise, but I know I could come for Christmas or Easter and definitely all summer.”
Russ's mood was light. “That puts a whole new spin on things,” he said. “But there's the fleet, and what if your mother won't agree? She hasn't exactly been accommodating.”
Tess shrugged. “I don't see a whole lot of fishing going on right now, and Mom will agree if I tell her I want it that way. I didn't know you before, so it wasn't as important to me.” Tess laughed. “I don't think she's wild about having me around all the time.”
Russ laughed. “You do have a mind of your own, Tess Hennessey. I like it. But I imagine your mama doesn't know what's come over you.”
“Well, will you?”
“Will I what?”
“Tell Ms. Delacourte you'll go with her.”
Russ's smile faded. “There's more to it, Tess. Libba and I have known each other for a long time. She left me once before. It's possible she doesn't feel about me the way I do about her.”
“Have you asked her?”
“No,” he said, exasperated. “I don't think I should be discussing my love life with my fifteen-year-old daughter.”
Tess shook back her hair, handed the football back to her dad and stuck her hands in her pockets. “It's your funeral, Daddy. You can do what you want, but I'd tell her.” She blew him a kiss. “I see Mom's car out in front. I have to go home.” She ran toward the road. “Call me,” she shouted over her shoulder.
Chloe leaned on her elbow and picked at the threads of her comforter. Her silvery hair, longer now but still silky fine, fell across one shoulder. She looked up at Libby through her eyelashes. “What are you saying, Mom?”
Libby caught her lower lip between her teeth.
Get a grip on yourself, Libba Jane.
She smiled bracingly. “I'm not going back to California with you.”
Chloe frowned. “Why not?”
“I don't want to,” Libby said. It felt good to say it. “I've spent seventeen years in California. That's long enough to know I prefer it here. I like small-town life. I like living close by my family. I like my job. I'm doing what I went to school for.”
“And you like Russ Hennessey,” Chloe finished for her.
Libby didn't miss the bitterness in her daughter's voice.
“I thought you liked Russ,” she said.
“I do.” Chloe's chin quivered. “But I like Dad more.”
“Oh, honey.” Libby gathered her child in her arms, marveling at the slim, delicate bones and the long length of her. Where was the chubby-cheeked baby she remembered? “I'm so sorry it turned out this way for you. But your dad and I are finished. You're the only good thing that ever came out of that marriage and there won't be any going back.”
“Are you going to marry Russ?”
“I haven't even come close to thinking about that. But if it happens, you'll be the first to know.”
“If you aren't, why are you staying?”
“I told you why.” There was more, but Libby wasn't talking. She knew Eric Richards better than her child did. She had given the matter a good deal of thought. Verna Lee had hit the nail dead center. If she took up residence in California, Eric would rely on her more and more until he assumed the same role he always had. Chloe's reason for going back would no longer exist and Libby would be stuck in the same place she'd been before she'd left six months before. “I'll be here whenever you want to visit. How about summers and vacations?”
“I like summers in California. This place is too hot.”
Libby gently eased the golden head back on the pillow. “We'll work something out,” she promised.
The living room was dark except for the glow of the fire and the lamp Nola Ruth used for reading. Libby watched her mother mark her place in the book with her finger before she looked up. “Is the child in bed?” she asked.
“Did you tell her you were staying?”
Libby rubbed her arms against the chill. “I told her.”
“It's hard to lose a child,” her mother remarked, “no matter what the circumstances.”
Libby faced the fire. The heat was soothing. “I'm not losing Chloe, Mama. She's going to be with her father. I can see her whenever I want.”
“There is that,” her mother agreed. “Still, it'll be harder for you than for her.”
“She won't be gone long.”
Nola Ruth was quiet for a long time. Finally, she spoke. “Is there something you wanted, Libba Jane?”
“There is one thing.”
“What is it?”
“When did giving up Verna Lee start to bother you? When did it become so unbearable that you had to make it right?”
Nola Ruth put her book aside. “Those are two questions, really. The first one is easy. It bothered me my whole life. I swore I'd make it up somehow, but it wouldn't be enough. I didn't know it then, but nothing would ever be enough to make up for what I did. As for your second question, I think it was after the stroke, when I first woke up. I knew I had to tell everyone who mattered what happened. I couldn't leave without righting a terrible wrong.” She looked at her daughter. “I love Verna Lee. She's my child, just as you are, but I don't know her. I'll never know her the way I know you.”
Libby rubbed her arms. “You didn't call me when I was in California, not once. Daddy did all the calling. Why is that, Mama? Didn't you miss me?”
Nola Ruth's good eye widened. “Good Lord, what have I done? You have no idea how hard it was for me not to reach for that phone time after time and
that you come home. I didn't want to be like my father. I wanted you to come when you were ready. Nowâ” She lifted her hands and let them drop. “Now it's nearly too late and it no longer matters why you're here, just that you are. I won't be here for too much longer, Libba Jane. The doctor says I'm in a holding pattern, but that strokes repeat themselves fairly quickly. I'm so delighted and so grateful to spend the last of my life with you and with Chloe. Never doubt that, honey. Never doubt that I missed you terribly.”