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She imagined her aunt wanted to hear everything, but she wasn’t pushing. Sally was immensely grateful for that.
“I’ve often wondered what kind of woman you’d become,” Amabel said. “Looks to me like you’ve become a fine one. This mess—and that’s what it is—it will pass. Everything will be resolved, you’ll see.” She was silent a moment, remembering the affection she’d felt for the little girl, that bone-deep desire to keep her close, to hug her until she squeaked. It surprised her that it was still there. She didn’t like it, nor did she want it.
“Careful of leaning on that end of the table, Sally. Purn Davies wanted to fix it for me, but I wouldn’t let him.” She knew Sally wasn’t hearing her, but it didn’t matter, Amabel was just making noise until Sally got some of that brandy in her belly.
“This tea’s something else, Amabel. Strange, but good.” She took another drink, then another. She felt warmth pooling in her stomach. She realized she hadn’t felt this warm in more than five days.
“You might as well tell me now, Sally. You came here so you could protect your mama, didn’t you, baby?”
Sally took another big drink of the tea. What could she say? She said nothing.
“Did your mama kill your papa?”
Sally set down her cup and stared into it, wishing she knew the truth of things, but that night was as murky in her mind as the tea in the bottom of her cup. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “I just don’t know, but they think I do. They think I’m either protecting Noelle or running because I did it. They’re trying to find me. I didn’t want to take a chance, so that’s why I’m here.”
Was she lying? Amabel didn’t say anything. She merely smiled at her niece, who looked exhausted, her face white and pinched, her lovely blue eyes as faded and worn as an old dress. She was too thin; her sweater and slacks hung on her. In that moment her niece looked very old, as if she had seen too much of the wicked side of life. Well, it was too bad, but there was more wickedness in the world than anyone cared to admit.
She said quietly as she stared down into her teacup, “If your mama did kill her husband, I’ll bet the bastard deserved it.”
SALLY NEARLY DROPPED her cup. She set it carefully down. “You knew?”
“Sure. All of us did. The first time I ever got to see you was when she brought you home. I was passing through. That’s all our folks ever wanted me to do—pass through and not say much or show my face much, particularly to all their friends. Anyway, your mama showed up. She was running away from him, she said. She also said she’d never go back. She was bruised. She cried all the time.
“But her resolve didn’t last long. He called her two nights later and she flew back home the next day, with you all wrapped in a blanket. You weren’t even a year old then. She wouldn’t talk about it to me. I never could understand why a woman would let herself be beaten whenever a man decided he wanted to do it.”
“I couldn’t either. I tried, Aunt Amabel. I really tried, but she wouldn’t listen. What did my grandparents say?”
Amabel shrugged, thinking of her horrified father, staring at beautiful Noelle, wondering what the devil he would do if the press got wind of the juicy story that his son-in-law, Amory St. John, was a wife beater. And their mother, shrinking away from her daughter as if she had some sort of vile disease. She hadn’t cared either. She just didn’t want the press to find out because it would hurt the family’s reputation.
“They aren’t what you’d call real warm parents, Sally. They pretended not to believe that your papa had beat your mama. They looked at Noelle, saw all those bruises, and denied all of it. They told her she shouldn’t tell lies like that. Your mama was a real mess, arguing with them, pleading with them to help her.
“But then he called, and your mama acted like nothing had ever happened. You know what, Sally? My parents were mighty relieved when she left. She would have been a loser, a failure, a millstone around their necks if she’d left your father. She was special, a daughter to be proud of, when she was with him. Do you ever see your grandparents?”