Feisty Family ValuesAward winning Novel by B.D. Tharp

When Annabelle Hubbard appears on her cousin Regina’s doorstep covered in bruises, the chaos begins. Within an idyllic neighborhood of stolid, family values and century-old houses, the cousins come to grips with family secrets, the ghosts of painful memories, unruly grandchildren, a life-threatening illness, and sexual temptation. Riding through the storm in their lives, the two cousins find that faith, family, and friends are all that really matters.

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“Finalist 2010 USA News Best Books in Women’s Fiction”

“Voted one of Kansas 150 Best Books” kansas150_logo_sm

 

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The grinding of the brakes jolted her back to the present and the smell of dirty socks and stale cigarette smoke.

“Is this the place, ma’am?” the driver asked.

She looked at the three-story house; pristine white paint glowed in the sun. “Yes,” she said.

“That’ll be five seventy-five,” he said and hung his open palm over his shoulder into the back seat. His knuckles bulged, and his fingers were crooked, and the skin cracked.

“I’m sorry, how much?” She held her breath for a moment, hoping she had enough for the fare.

“Five seventy-five,” he flipped the meter handle down and put the car in park. Turning, he looked over the seat with his grizzled chin and rheumy eyes. “You okay?”

“Yes, fine . . . sorry . . .” Annabelle stuffed her handkerchief back up the sleeve of her cardigan and opened her cracked vinyl pocketbook. She pulled out four crumpled ones, two quarters, and an assortment of dimes and pennies from her coin purse. She dropped the wadded bills in his palm and proceeded to count the coins. “Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two . . .”

“It’s five seventy-five, lady,” he said. The radio squawked, but he didn’t answer.

“That makes five, forty-two,” she said. “Just a minute, I always have coins in the bottom of my bag. They fall out sometimes . . .” She found another thirty cents in change and dropped it in his palm. The money she’d placed there had already disappeared into his pocket.

“You’re three cents short,” he said, and she jumped at the growl in his voice. “Why’d you call a cab if you didn’t have the money? Geez, short and no tip besides . . .”

“I’m sorry, I’ll go up to the house and see if my cousin has some change.” Her eyes filled with tears and her throat constricted.

He snorted, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. The microphone squawked, so he picked it up and spoke. “I got that one. I’m in Riverside now.”

He had no idea how hard it had been to come here. She didn’t mean to cheat him, but it was all she had. A lone tear escaped down her wrinkled cheek. Annabelle lowered her head and pulled the threadbare hankie from her sleeve.

As she dabbed her eye she noticed two pennies on the floorboard. Reaching down she picked up the coins. “Here you go,” she said, a stiff smile on her face. “I found two more.”

“Good enough, I got to go, lady,” he said. “Got another fare a couple blocks from here.”

“Oh, okay. Well, thank you. If you’ll give me your name, I’ll send you the tip and the penny.” She opened the door. The sidewalk appeared a mile long to the porch.

“Forget it,” he said and revved the engine. “I suppose you want help with your bag now, too,” he spoke to the rear view mirror.

“No, I can . . . manage,” she said. She scooted the battered Pullman across the seat and stepped onto the walk. Bracing her hand on the rim of the door she pulled it onto the curb with a thud, then dragged it upright.

He leaned over the back of the seat, eager to close the door, but she beat him to it.

“Thanks,” she said, coughing from the exhaust fumes. She watched him zip around the corner, feeling her courage go with him.

Straightening her shoulders she faced the house and an uncertain welcome. It didn’t appear to have changed a bit since she’d last seen it. But she had. Oh, how Annabelle Hubbard had changed.

Chapter 1

A dusting mitt lay abandoned on the coffee table. The luscious scent of baking bread wafted through the house, causing Regina’s stomach to rumble. She listened to the sounds of her housemate, Tillie, crooning an old Motown tune from the kitchen.

Tillie sauntered into the parlor, still wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Hey girl, I’m off. I’ll see you later.”

“Have a nice dinner,” Regina said to the air, hearing the back door bang against the frame.

Quiet, at last, she thought and settled onto the window cushion to catch the ebbing light.

A car door slammed, sending a mass of barn swallows into the dusky sky heading northwest of the river, drawing Regina’s attention from the tawdry romance that had only just captured her attention. From her seat, she had to look twice before she realized it was her cousin Annabelle who stumbled from the cab dragging a huge tattered suitcase toward the house.

“What the . . . ?”

She stared at what she hoped was an apparition wearing a pink flowered cardigan draped over a faded gunnysack dress, two shades lighter than the blue hair. A white vinyl belt cinched the ample waist of her older cousin.

“Good Lord,” Regina muttered. The paperback slipped to the floor, unnoticed. She smoothed her skirt before gliding into the foyer, where she took a deep breath and flung open the massive oak doors before the bell.

“Why, Annabelle, what brings you here?” Her eyes bore a hole into the older woman’s brown eyes.

For a moment Regina detected defiance, but it soon disappeared as Annabelle’s shoulders rounded. She sniffed back fresh tears, her nose red and chins quivering with the effort. “Hello, Regina. May I come in?”

Regina narrowed her eyes, then scanned Annabelle from head to foot, noting the swollen purple smudge barely concealed by make-up beneath her right eye. “What’s wrong with your face?”

A shaking hand quickly covered the swollen bottom lip nearly split in half. “I fell.”

With a raise of her eyebrows, Regina made no comment.

“Can I come in?” Annabelle righted her posture, her breasts leading.

Rolling her eyes heavenward, Regina said, “Well, come in off the stoop. I’ll get us some refreshments, and then we’ll sort out your troubles.” She turned to lead her cousin into the cozy parlor.

“It’s just . . .” Catching the toe of her shoe on the rug, Annabelle stumbled over the threshold.

Klutz, Regina thought. “Tell me inside, over a cup of tea.”

This better be good or I swear to god she’s out of here.

Annabelle sank down onto the rich brocade of the carved settee, pulled a crumpled handkerchief from her sleeve, dabbed her lip, then wiped her drippy nose.

“Wait here.” Regina said. “And don’t break anything.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Annabelle tugged at the laddered stockings, sniffled, and replaced her nail-bitten fingers in her lap.

From the darkened doorway, Regina paused to watch her cousin scan the room, no doubt taking inventory of the antique furniture, shelves of leather bound books, and crystal vases perched on the fireplace mantel.

With shock, Regina heard her dead mother’s voice.

“Poor relatives and baggage is not a good sign.”

Swallowing bile, Regina straightened her own shoulders.

I’ll handle it, Mother. Good Lord, where did that come from? She shook her head and continued to the kitchen.

The smell of warm pastries accompanied Regina’s return to the sitting room. With grace born of privilege, she placed on the coffee table a china tray supporting a matching teapot, plate of scones, and two gold-rimmed cups.

“Always use the best china for guests, even the unwelcome kind,” her mother drilled into her head.

Her cousin’s face creased with a crooked frown that matched the uneven part in her tinted hair. “How lovely, but why so formal?”

“I don’t suppose you know this, but . . . tea tastes better when served from fine china.”

She saw Annabelle’s mouth tighten as she watched Regina arrange the folds of her silky skirt, then pat her long black and silver braid.

“Where’s Matilda? Does she still live here with you?”

“Almost ten years now. She’s just left to go shopping and then to dinner with friends.”

“Oh, well, I guess I’ll see her when she gets back.” Annabelle bent down and retrieved the novel from the floor. “Since when did you read heaving bosom books? I thought it was high brow all the way for you.”

Regina snatched the book from her. “At least I read,” she said, then gave Annabelle a poke on the arm. “Get on with your story. I’m sure it’s gripping.”

Were the woman’s brains stuck in neutral?

With a flinch, Annabelle cradled her arm under the protection of her bosom. “I’ve been staying with my daughter Liddy, and she’s had a hard time since her husband left. She just can’t afford another mouth to feed.”

“I remember Lydia. Overbearing, judgmental, and self-centered . . . a veritable clone of her late father. So unlike . . .” Regina’s foot began to tap.

Puzzled by her cousin’s nastiness, Annabelle continued, “I tried not to be a burden. She’s got three kids, you know, but I’m always in the way, although I tried to be helpful . . .”

Here we go.

“For instance?” Regina fidgeted, dreading the unavoidable details of yet another of her cousin’s woeful sagas.

“Well, I always forgot to thaw out supper. Never got the fabric softener in. I tended to drop things. You know, that sort of thing.” Annabelle wiped her nose.

“Somewhat inconvenient, definitely annoying, but hardly catastrophic,” Regina said.

“Sometimes I forget my doctor appointments, and I’m a mess in the kitchen.” She stared at her shoes.

“I have no problem believing that,” Regina said.

Annabelle appeared to be unable to face her. “Everybody burns things sometimes.”

“Only inattentive, incompetent . . . oh, never mind, that’s still no reason to get the boot. I assume she kicked you out.”

The older woman turned toward Regina, twisting her hankie. “Not exactly. A couple of weeks ago the bacon grease caught fire and smoked up the kitchen.”

“Tillie does the cooking around here, thank God,” Regina said.

“I had to paint and have the curtains cleaned.”

“Naturally.”

“It took a huge bite out of my Social Security, so I was short on food money. She really can’t afford . . .” Annabelle folded her hands over what used to be her waist. “Heavens, it probably wouldn’t hurt me to lose a few pounds.”

Regina didn’t attempt to stifle a yawn, caught in her cousin’s web. Why do I feel like we’re kids again?

I know I’ll live to regret it, but she does look pitiful, sagging on mother’s settee. Father did say to be kind to those less fortunate, but he never said it again after Mother threw a snit.

Maybe it won’t be so bad. Tillie and I can clean her up and find her a new home. Lord help us, we’re definitely going to need it.

“The fact is, Annabelle, you could be a Rubens model. He liked to paint fleshy women.”

Rising from the chair Regina shivered.

Whoever’s keeping track, angel or minion, do me a favor and don’t tell my mother.

“For now you may stay. I’ll show you to the guest room. It overlooks the garden.” She gestured toward the stairs.

“Is there something I can do to help out around the house?” Annabelle asked. “I don’t want to be an inconvenience.”

Looking away, Regina mumbled, “It’s a bit late for that.”

“Pardon?” Annabelle said.

“Never mind,” Regina said, turning slowly on the toe of her leather slipper to face her cousin. She scanned Annabelle’s disheveled outfit from uneven hem to frayed collar.

“As I recall, you used to be pretty good with a needle and thread.”

“Oh, yes.” Annabelle smiled. “I’ve taken in sewing for years.”

“Good. I don’t care to learn, not after all these years, and Tillie has ten thumbs outside of the kitchen. You can help with the mending.” Regina tossed her salt-and-pepper braid over her shoulder. “Come along.”

Hesitating, Annabelle scanned the parlor again. “I can’t believe this place. It’s like I stepped back in time. Even though the house is nearly a hundred years old, it’s still in beautiful shape. Your mother would be proud.”

“I’m sure she is, and I manage very well, thank you.”

Standing with the slowness of a Centurion, rather than the sixty-five-year-old she was, Annabelle straightened.

“With Tillie’s help, of course.”

“Quite.” Regina turned on her heel and headed for the staircase in the entryway.

Lifting her bag with effort, Annabelle followed, pausing at the bottom of the stairs to touch the satiny walls. “Do you paint walls as well as landscapes? Oh, no, that would be much too messy. I recall you were never allowed to get dirty when we were kids. You missed out on some great fun.”

With a practiced smile, Regina turned to watch her intrusive cousin.

“I’ve learned to do all kinds of things since we were children. There’s no point in paying someone to do simple things, Annabelle, and I’ve never been afraid of hard work—or soap and water.”

“Surely you had plenty to pay contractors after inheriting from your parents and Grandma Morgan?” Annabelle stopped short.

“That’s none of your business, and you mean Grandmere, don’t you?” Regina said.

Ignoring the comment, Annabelle followed Regina to the stairs. “With the animals and garden to tend to, I never seemed to get anything done inside my home.”

“It showed.”

Her knuckles were white where Annabelle gripped the railing.

Regina’s smile thinned. “I just adore Mother’s diamonds and the Cadillac. Oh, and of course, the house.”

On the way up the stairs, Regina waved her manicured hand, conducting her cousin’s attention toward an oil painting of an ancient farmhouse. A wooden fence led to a weathered barn nestled amongst a stand of sycamore trees.

Annabelle gasped. “I remember that painting. It hung in the dining room when Grandma Morgan was alive. You painted it, didn’t you? It’s always been my favorite.”

Regina winced. “Grandmere. And you’re correct, that painting is one of my earlier works.”

“I always dreamed of living in a place like that.”

Annabelle followed Regina to the back of the house.

With perverse satisfaction, Regina smiled. “Dreams have a way of turning into nightmares, don’t they, Cousin?” With a flourish, she flipped on the light.

“How could you possibly know?” Annabelle said, and then gasped at the sight before her.

Climbing Peace roses blossomed on the walls. Billowing ecru lace hung over an elegant queen-sized four-poster with carved vines that twisted their way up to the finial. Lace runners adorned the vanity and chest that flanked the bed. An imposing wardrobe with fiddle-back inlays stood alone on the opposite wall.

“Oh, my.” Annabelle said, sniffing the air. “I can almost smell them.” Tears filled her eyes. “For once I’ll get to live amongst the roses. But not without the thorns, eh Cousin?” She chuckled. “Thank you, anyway. I do appreciate your helping me out like this.”

“I know you’ll be comfortable for the short time you’ll be staying.” Regina took the suitcase and placed it on the bottom of the bed. “Here, let me help you put away your things. It’s easier to keep the room clean if it’s uncluttered.”

Perched on the edge of the bed, Annabelle closed her eyes. “Thank you, no, I can manage unpacking by myself. I am a grown up, Regina.”

“Well . . .” Regina studied the wretched blue hair surrounding her cousin’s wrinkled face. For a moment it cast a forlorn aspect on her skin. Taking a deep breath, Regina swished out of the room, just catching her cousin’s comment.

“I’m a Morgan, too.”

“I warned you,” her mother’s grave voice whispered in her ear.

Too often to count, Regina thought, knowing her mother would hear in whatever level of hell the woman dwelled.

Once downstairs, Regina strode to the kitchen and yanked open the junk drawer. Finding a crinkled pack of cigarettes, she tapped out one, smoothed it between her fingers and lit up. Her thoughts followed the smoke patterns to the ceiling.

“Nasty habit.” That pesky voice had followed.

“Convulsing in your grave, Mother? I can’t believe I’m talking to myself.”

The diaphanous spirit of her mother seemed to appear in the smoke. “I thought you’d quit.”

“I only smoke when I’m upset.” Feeling an army of invisible bugs crawl up her arms, she rubbed them.

“The house will stink for a week.”

Resigned to the fact that she was going insane she sighed. “Yes, Your Majesty, I know.”

“Cigarettes and poor relations were never tolerated in my house.”

Regina walked through the smoke of her mother’s ethereal form, whispering, “Sometimes you’re a royal bitch, Victoria Morgan. Oh, how I wish I could’ve said that when you were alive.”

Her hands shook as Regina stubbed out the offensive butt. She tried to muffle the reflexive cough that would mar her controlled demeanor.

Her mother was right about one thing. Annabelle was still whining after all these years.

Sinking into the kitchen chair, Regina resumed the rigid posture drummed into her from earliest childhood. She concentrated on the scarred birch tabletop and waited for the oppressive weight in her chest to recede and her hands to steady.

The grocery bills would definitely increase. Maybe Annabelle could coax something edible out of the garden. When she was eight or nine, she loved to follow her older cousin around in the vegetables, enjoying the aroma of growing things and sunshine, afraid her mother would catch her and switch her back for getting her Mary Jane’s dirty. But that was before.

Pushing away from the table, Regina hurried to the door as a chill tickled her spine. Escaping into the parlor, she perched on the window seat to watch the autumn wind blow through the rust and orange leaves. The bird chatter usually lifted her spirits, but not today.

* * * * *

The next morning, the brightness of the sun belied the distinct nip in the air. While the Howard Miller clock struck seven, the new guest slept.

Pursing her lips, Regina blew on the scalding liquid and scanned the newspaper headlines—tension on the Wichita school board and continuing road construction in Central Riverside Park. Nothing new.

Sipping her coffee, childhood memories drifted through her mind. As far back as Regina could remember, Annabelle had whined and cajoled to get her way, especially with Annabelle’s father. He’d scared Regina to her bones.

His huge paws would fist at his sides when Frank and Victoria Morgan weren’t looking. Anger vibrated off his body in waves, but only Regina and his wife, her beloved Aunt Rose, seemed to notice. She wasn’t afraid of him, not like Regina.

When nine-year-old Regina refused to share her fragile china dolls, Bossy Belle would stomp and cry. “My papa says you’re a spoiled brat and don’t appreciate what you’ve got because you don’t have to work for it. I’m older, I should be allowed to play with anything I want to.”

Regina relished one particularly scathing retort she’d given to the then twelve-year-old Annabelle. “I appreciate my things. That’s what keeps me from sharing them with someone as dirty as you,” Regina said, mimicking her stringent mother.

But Annabelle’s childish taunts still hurt. “Papa says you’re ugly, like the old dead hickory in the north pasture, and just as tough as its nut.”

Annabelle’s father had been a jackass while alive, and no doubt continued to be one even after his death. Why her delicate Aunt Rose married such a man remained a mystery. Whereas Victoria, Regina’s mother, had been like a flawless, beautiful statue, her sister Rose had been as elemental and interesting as her flowering namesake. Clearly, Victoria had once said, Rose had married beneath her.

Regina could picture Annabelle back then, her limp hair, the color of depleted soil, and too thin for barrettes to grip. She was thin back then, made in her father’s physical image, complete with dirty nails bitten to the quick.

While a younger Regina, who was always clean and starched, could still hear the echo of her mother’s words: “You have an obligation to conduct yourself well, Regina, especially with the lesser branch of our family. Class will tell. Annabelle is poisoned by her family’s misfortunes. She cannot appreciate your finery, thus covets everything you are and own.”

Closing her eyes, Regina willed herself back to the present. “Mother and her speeches. Annabelle will drive me into the rafters with her incessant mewling. And why has Mother chosen now to haunt me?”

The sound of slippers slapped the stairs, mingling with the creaks from the floorboards, creating a disgruntled symphony.

“I think I’m allergic to mornings,” Tillie said, shuffling to the coffee pot.

Regina eyed the embroidered slogan “Under Pressure” issuing from the open-mouthed face on the front of her housemate’s enormous purple sleep shirt. Her gaze moved up to Tillie’s curly white hair lying flat on one side and sticking out on the other. The woman resembled a sea urchin with slits for eyes.

Slopping coffee into a mug Tillie flopped into the chair. “I thought you were in the bath.”

“Excuse me?” Regina kept her face composed. “Where are your eyes?”

“Hopefully, in this coffee cup.” She squinted at the dark liquid.

“How are you feeling this morning?” Regina struggled to keep from grinning.

“Not worth a shit.” Tillie said and sneezed.

“Bless you. And did we party a little too hearty last night?” Regina didn’t bother to hide her smile.

“No, we didn’t party at all. Just dinner with the bistro bunch.” Tillie sipped from the steaming cup and sighed.

“Well, perhaps you realize now that you aren’t as young as you used to be.”

Tillie’s nose hovered above the rim of the cup. “Never. I’m just a little tired, that’s all. Working with a great bunch of college kids keeps me young.”

They sipped in silence.

Regina watched Tillie’s face for a reaction to her next words. “Annabelle’s visiting.”

“Really? So that’s who’s in the bath. I was too fogged to give it much thought. We could use some new blood around here. We’ve become positively stale.” Tillie spoke over the rim of her steaming cup.

Regina’s earlier humor evaporated. “Since when does a relic over the age of sixty-five qualify as new?”

“As I recall, she’s always been a healthy woman,” Tillie said.

“That wasn’t how she appeared yesterday with her suitcase and rumpled hankie. She looked a lot like you do now, disheveled and ancient.”

“These bones may feel like they’ve been around more than fifty years, but my mind’s a youngster. You might try not acting your age and see if it doesn’t spice up your personality.” Tillie closed her eyes and sipped.

“You’re younger than I am,” Regina said.

“Less than a year doesn’t count,” Tillie said. “We’ll both be sliding into sixty before we know it.”

“Humph.”

Three cups later, Tillie headed for the shower. She tapped on the bathroom door, but heard no response, so she stepped into the room and found Annabelle’s still form lolling in the water. A snore issued from parted lips. Her cheeks were ruddy and her hair fuzzy from the humidity in the tiny room. The sight of her black eye and pink fleshy arms covered with yellow, green, and purple smudges made Tillie gasp.

“Annabelle?”

Blushing, Belle lurched, sloshing water on the wall and the floor.

“Oh, my, I must’ve dozed off.” She grabbed the face cloth. It was too small to hide behind, so she began a frantic lathering. “Sorry. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Grabbing a folded towel out of the cabinet Tillie tossed it under the tub as more water slopped over the slide.

“What the hell happened?”

“It’s just a little water, I’ll clean it up,” Annabelle said.

Tillie could feel her teeth clench. She put her hands on her hips with feet braced apart. “Who did that to you?”

“What are you talking about?” Slouching forward, Annabelle’s face and ears turned cherry red. She attempted to cover the limbs in question with the pitifully small rag. “Oh. I’m very clumsy. The slightest bump bruises me.”

Leaning forward for a closer examination Tillie snorted. “Those look like hand-prints, and who hit you in the eye?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I fell into a door knob. They’re nothing. Really.” Annabelle cupped her hands with water to rinse the soap from her bare form. “I’ll only be a minute. Now, Tillie, please leave.”

“I’ll give you five minutes, then we talk,” Tillie said, slamming the door closed behind her.

Storming back into the kitchen, Tillie clobbered the countertop with her mug and slopped coffee over the rim. Grabbing for a paper towel, she unrolled five before they tore free. “Dammit.”

“What are you growling about now, Matilda Jean? Didn’t get enough caffeine?”

“Don’t use that schoolmarm tone with me, Regina Louise. Someone’s been beating the hell out of Annabelle.” She sopped at the mess then tossed the towels in the trash bin.

“Really?” Regina sipped her coffee. “I’ve felt like throttling her a time or two myself.”

“I’m serious, and I don’t care if she is a pain in your backside. She doesn’t deserve to be beaten.”

Regina shrugged. “She’s not exactly graceful.”

With a sputter, Tillie stared at her friend. “Graceful? What planet are you on?”

“You don’t know that she has been beaten. Besides, what can I do about it?” Regina followed the rim of her cup with her finger.

“We can report it. We can protect her.” Tillie’s black eyes blazed.

“To whom? How? We don’t even know what happened. Unless you want to pad her already padded body with pillows, my guess is she’s going to stumble into the furniture and bruise herself more.”

“I’m not buying it. No one is that clumsy.” Tillie crossed her arms over her chest.

“You don’t know my cousin. Settle down. You act like she needs rescuing.” Regina pushed Tillie’s coffee cup closer. “What are you going to do, don tights and a cape? Be Wonder Woman, perhaps? Halloween will be here in a couple of weeks.”

Her arms dropped as Tillie clenched her fists. “It isn’t funny. She’s your family.”

“Unfortunately, you’re correct, but I don’t want her here. She’ll drive me insane.” Regina pushed back from the table and rummaged in the drawer for a cigarette, muttering, “I’m halfway there already.”

Annabelle hesitated in the doorway, wrapped from neck to ankle in frayed pink chenille. “Excuse me. Could I have some coffee?”

“Of course.” Regina forced a smile.

Whispering her thanks, Annabelle pulled up a chair.

Returning to her seat, Tillie spoke to Annabelle’s bowed head. “Now, what about the bruises?”

Annabelle sputtered, dribbling coffee down her chin. “What about them?”

Handing her a napkin, Regina said, “Tillie wants to know who’s been smacking you around.”

“No one. I fall down a lot. You know that. And I bruise easily.”

“There you are, Matilda Jean,” Regina said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Bullshit,” Tillie said.

“It’s just my old skin. When you get to be my age, you’ll understand.” Annabelle clasped her hands on top of the table. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Whatever you say, Annabelle,” Tillie said, narrowing her eyes.

“Don’t glare at me,” Regina said. “I told her she could stay. For a while, anyway.” She leaned over and slipped the sleeve up on Annabelle’s left arm. Dark stains marred the pale skin from wrist to elbow.

With a lift of her nose, Tillie said, “It’s criminal. If it ever happens again, I’m calling the cops.”

“It’s no one’s fault—but my own,” Annabelle said.

Finding it hard to swallow, Regina cleared her throat. There were times growing up that she’d felt sorry for Annabelle. She’d hated Annabelle’s father and husband, both torn from the same damaged cloth. They had no right to do what she suspected they had done to their women. But both were dead. Was Annabelle hurting herself on purpose? For attention?

“To be honest, no one has the right to injure anyone.”

“Gee, Regina, I’ll bet that hurt,” Tillie said.

“Do what?” Annabelle said, keeping her eyes averted. “You can’t protect me from myself, ladies. Face it, I’m a menace.”

Regina stared at the discolorations. “Yes, it would appear that you are. Just stay out of the kitchen. There are sharp objects in there.”

The sunlight caressed the space between them, and the quiet room became safe, comfortable.

“I always hated purple,” Annabelle said, breaking the strained silence.

Regina nodded. “It never was your color.”

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