Dixie Browning.

Lucy And The Stone






Lucy and the Stone
Dixie Browning


www.millsandboon.co.uk

This book is dedicated to two writers groups that provided great ideas and even greater hospitality: First, my daughter Sarah and her fifth-grade class at the University School. And second, Peg McCool and her Friday critique group in TacomaCarol, Micky, Mary, Melinda and Anitaand Charlie, of course. Many thanks!

Contents

Prologue

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Prologue
Boston

He caught the phone on the fifth ring, breathing heavily, swearing silently. Yeah, McCloud here!

John Stone, is that you? Aunt Alice. Alice Hardisson was the only person in the world who called him John Stone.

How are you, Aunt Alice? Its been a long time.

Im right well, thank you. I understand you were in the hospital. I hope youre feelin better now. The quiet, well-bred Southern voice waited politely for him to fill her in on all the pertinent details.

Now, how the hell could she have known that? Other than the occasional family funeral, when he happened to be in the country, and the basket of jams and jellies she ordered sent to his mail drop every year at Christmas, there had been little contact between them for years.

Unless thered been something in the news. Hed been in no condition to know or care at the time. Im fine, Aunt Alice. Or as fine as a man can be after overdosing on hospital food. Hows Liam? Still hunting rabbits on his day off? Liam was the Hardissons butler. He was seventy-five if he was a day, and hed been Stones mainstay in the years he had spent in the old Hardisson mansion after his parents had been killed.

Liams retired now. Mellie died last year, and I thought it best to let him spend his last days with his grandchildren.

Best for whom, Aunt Alice? Stone thought wryly. Despite the code of noblesse oblige that was bred into the bones of women like Alice Hardisson, his aunt seldom put herself out to any great extent for any interest but her own. Unless it was for her only child.

Stone himself was a case in point.

His mother and Alice had been sisters. Stones parents had been killed by a drunk driver when he was six and a half years old, and Alice had taken him in. Noblesse oblige. Her own son, his cousin Billy, had been five then.

But while Alice, accompanied occassionally by Billy and his nanny, had traveled to Scotland for the salmon fishing, to Paris for the fashion hunting or to some spa in Arizona twice a year for whatever benefits she derived there, Stone had invariably been left with Liam and Mellie.

Noblesse oblige. Take in needy kinfolk, put food in their mouths, a roof over their heads and inquire graciously once or twice a year to be sure theres nothing more they need.

And as soon as theyre weaned, pack them off to boarding school.

Are you in town, Aunt Alice? Stone asked, hoping she wasnt.

No, Im still down here in Atlanna.

She always called it Atlanna. With her gentle, unconscious arrogance, she probably spelled it that way.

Hows Billy? Still thinking about making a run for the senate one of these days?

Well now, thats what I called you about, John Stone. I reckon you heard Billy got hisself mixed up with this perfectly awful woman a while back and ended up married to her.

Stone lowered himself carefully onto the sofa and tucked the phone against his neck. I seem to remember seeing an announcement.

I had Ella Louise mail out announcements so it wouldnt look like such a hole-in-the-wall affair, but I knew it wouldnt last. Naturally, I made the best of it for Billys sake, but she just wasnt Our Kind of People.

Stone smiled grimly. Very few people made Alices list of Our Kind of People. He himself had certainly fallen far short, despite their kinship.

I took her in hand for poor Billys sake. The girl had no more sense of how to go on than a stray cat. All that hair, and those cheap clothes! Naturally I did my best to show her how to dress and speak and how to act around decent folk without embarrassing herself.

Without embarrassing Alice Hardisson, Stone interpreted, making a noncommittal murmur. Alice would be the mother-in-law from hell, no matter who Billy married. Stone could almost find it in his heart to be sorry for the poor girl, but then, any female with no more sense than to marry Bill Hardisson probably deserved what she got.

He picked up the monologue still in progress. Been hearin these awful rumors. Nothing in the papers yet, thank goodness, but Im afraid shes out to make mischief. I cant think of anyone else who would do such a thing. She sighed. John Stone, Im worried.

Whyd he marry her? Was she pregnant?

Good heavens, certainly not! Billy has better sense than to get hisself involved with a tramp like Lucy Dooley!

I thought you said he married her. Thats about as involved as you can get.

Hes just too trustin for his own good. Poor Billy. When a flashy tramp like that Dooley woman keeps flauntin herself at the club pool, wearin little more than she came into the world with

Thats where he met her? The club?

Thats what I said, didnt I? Oh, Ill admit the girl has a common type of looks that men seem to likeshe certainly took my poor boy in, but before theyd even been married six months, she showed her true colors. Poor Billy, he pleaded with her to behave herself. But when she started carryin on in front of all their friendswhy, he had to ask her to leave.

Theyre divorced now, I take it. So whats the problem?

Well, naturally he divorced her. At least she had the decency to leave town, but were afraid now that hes runnin for the state senate, shell come back and cause trouble.

Why?

Well, for goodness sake, John Stone, for money! What else would her kind want?

You mean that flock of tame lawyers you keep on a leash didnt sew her fingers together before they let Billy marry her?

I was out of the country at the time, and that girl had poor Billy so besotted he just up and married her without makin her sign doodlysquat! Lord knows what she threatened to do, but he ended up paying her two hundred thousand dollars a year for three years just to stay out of Georgia. Poor Billy, hes always been too softhearted for his own good.

Or too softheaded. Six hundred thousand was a lot of loot!

Now that the payments have ended, were afraid shes goin to try and get more by threatenin to go to the papers with her vicious lies. She knows good and well hes lookin to go to Washinton after one or two terms in Atlanna. Thats just the sort of thing her kind would do. Like all those hussies who end up on the television by threatenin decent men in high places. You know who I mean, John Stone?

I seem to recall a few such incidents, but why would you

I just told youthere are already rumors circulatin around town. They cant have come from any other source, because everybody here loves Billy. Hes always been a good boy.

Stone grimaced. Billy loved Billy. Aunt Alice loved Billy. The rest of the world probably knew him for what he wasthe spoiled, immature product of privilege and neglect. Not for the first time, Stone was glad hed broken with the family at the age of fourteen, when hed been shipped off to military school, and that it had never been convenient for him to spend much time with his aunt after that.

Exactly what is it you think I can do? he asked.

She didnt beat around the bush. I understand youve been hurt right bad, and youre goin to be laid up for a while. I thought you might like to

You thought I might like to go down to Atlanta and take her out for you?

What? Dont be foolish, John Stone. If you want to take her out, thats your concern, but I warn you, shes not Our Kind of People.

I didnt mean That is, take her out means He gave up. He spoke three languages fluently and got by in a couple more. He had never spoken his aunts language, and probably never would.

It just so happens that Ive arranged for this woman to spend the summer at a place called Coronokeits a little speck of an island off the North Carolina coast. I understand there arent any telephones there, and certainly no reporters, so I thought if you could go along and kind of keep an eye on her, just make sure she doesnt get up to any more mischief

Whoa! Aunt Alice, I dont even know this woman, and you want me to be her jailer?

Dont raise your voice to me, John Stone. I didnt say that. All I ask is that you go down there and take advantage of the cottage Ive leased in your name. You dont have to let her know who you arein fact, its probably better if you dontbut you can keep her entertained so shell forget about causin trouble for Billy, at least until after his weddin.

His wedding?

Oh. Did I forget to mention that Billys gettin married again in August? This lovely girlshes the granddaughter of old Senator Houghton

In other words, you want me to pen this woman up on a deserted island What did you call it?

Coronoke, and its certainly not deserted.

Right. Pen her up, dont let her near a phone, and if she makes any suspicious moves, sic the federales on her, right?

By the time he finished, Alice had very politely hung up on him. Feeling worse than he had when hed come out of the hospital five days earlier, Stone called her back and, after apologizing, found himself reluctantly agreeing to finish up his recuperation on the island of Coronoke.

And, incidentally, to do his best to distract the greedy little hustler who was out to ruin Billys chances for marital happiness and political success.

Actually, hed sort of had other plans, but...

Howd you find out Id been in the hospital, Aunt Alice?

Carrie Lee Hunsuckers great nephew works for the Constitution. Carrie Lee belongs to the Wednesday Morning Music Club.

And hed thought he had contacts.

Im doing this partly for your sake, John Stone, because I understand you dont even have a decent place to live. This way, you can just lie around until youre feelin well enough to go back to work doin whatever it is you do these days.

Whatever it was he did. As if she didnt know. Why else had she tracked him down and sicced him on some bimbo who was out to ruin her sons political career before it even got off the ground? Which just might, incidentally, be the best thing that could happen to the state of Georgia.

On the other hand, he did need a vacation. Gazing around at the hotel room he had taken when hed left the hospital, Stone compared it to a cottage on a small island somewhere down South. The room was about average for a residential hotel. Hed bunked in far worse, under far worse conditions, but now that he thought about it, soaking up the sun on a private beach didnt sound half bad, either.

I guess I can do that, hed said finally, adding a halfhearted thanks.

You dont have to thank me, John Stone. Its the least I can do for my own sisters boy.

Stone hung up the phone with the uncomfortable feeling that hed just been hooked, gaffed and landed.

Noblesse oblige.

One

The first day belonged to Stone, and he was determined not to waste a single salt-cured, sun-soaked minute of it. By tomorrow the Dooley woman would probably be here. Which meant his baby-sitting duties would begin. But for now there was nothing to keep him from lying on an inflated inner tube, his naked feet dangling in the cool waters of Pamlico Sound, while a half-empty beer bottle rested on the bright pink scar on his belly.

Coronoke. Translated, it had to mean paradise. Stone had never heard of the place. It wasnt even on the map! But now that hed discovered it, he fully intended to spend some serious downtime here. Inhaling, exhalingquietly growing moss on his north side.

Not to mention keeping the Dooley woman from embarrassing his aunt and bleeding her dry. As far as Stone was concerned, Billy could clean up his own messes, but Billy wasnt the only one who stood to get hurt this time. Women of his aunts generation were poorly equipped to deal with the tabloid press and sleaze TV. It would kill her to have the Hardisson name dragged through that kind of mire. If it was in his power to prevent it, he would.

Saltwater dried on his shoulders, and he flexed them, liking the contrast between the suns heat and the waters coolness. Liking the feeling of utter and complete relaxation that had begun seeping into his bones even before hed checked into his cottage, stashed his gear and stepped out of his shoes.

Stone was an accredited journalist. Affiliated for the past nine years with IPA, he had covered most of the major conflicts and natural disasters around the globe. Although he tried to avoid political campaignsmost of which were natural disasters of major proportions. A guy had to draw the line somewhere.

Hed been covering a humanitarian aid convoy in East Africa when a stray bullet from a snipers gun had struck the gas tank of the vehicle he was riding in. His photographer had been killed outright in the explosion. His driver, whod been thrown clear, had broken his little finger. Stone ended up with a severe concussion, several broken ribs, a torn lung and an assortment of scrap steel embedded in various parts of his anatomy.

Hed been incredibly lucky. He could have ended up spread over several acres of desert. Instead, here he was a few months later, armed with nothing more lethal than a pair of binoculars and a birding guide, floating around on an inner tube, soaking up Carolina sunshine and watching a squadron of pelicans flap past.

At least, he thought they were pelicans. He was going to have to bone up on his Audubon if he didnt want to blow his cover. Hed considered bringing along his laptop to work on the series of articles hed been doing on spec. One of the major syndicates had put out a few feelers after his series on archaeological piracy, and hed been flattered...and interested.

At the last minute hed decided against it. He wasnt ready to go back to work. His brain was still lagging about two beats behind his body, possibly because he hadnt had a real vacation in more years than he could remember.

Or possibly because hed come so damned close to checking out permanently, hed been forced to face up to what his life had become.

Which was empty. No ties, no commitments, nothing to show for his thirty-seven years other than a few yellowed scrapbooks and a few awards packed away in storage with his old tennis racquet.

In that frame of mind, he had impulsively put a call through to a guy he hadnt heard from in over a year. Reece was the brother of the woman Stone had almost married once upon a time. A woman whod finally had the good sense to marry some decent nine-to-fiver who had offered her the home and kids she wanted. Stone had lost touch with Shirley Stocks, but from time to time he still heard from her brother. The kid had thought Stone was some kind of hero, always flying off to the worlds hot spots at a moments notice.

Reece was currently studying journalism at UNC. As it appeared that Stone would soon be headed south to the Old North State, it had seemed like a good opportunity to get together.

Bird-watching! Thank God Reece didnt know the depths to which his hero had sunk. It had been his aunts idea, the bird-watching cover. Evidently shed mentioned it when shed reserved the cottage for the summer, and the real estate agent had mailed him a bundle of birding data along with directions for finding the place. Rather than bother to explain that he didnt know a hummingbird from a hammerlock, and couldnt care less, hed let it stand. But this whole drill was beginning to strike him as slightly bizarre. Not to mention slightly distasteful.

Reluctantly, Stone began paddling himself back to shore. His shoulders, his thighs and his belly were starting to tingle. Sun had never been a particular problem before, but a few months of holding down a hospital bed had a way of thinning a guys skin right down to the nerve endings.

The cottage wasnt luxurious, but it was comfortable. Better yet, it was quiet. Best of all, it was his alone for the next two monthsbooks on the shelf, cigarette burn on the pine table, rust-stained bathtub and all.

All it lacked was a Home Sweet Home sampler nailed to the wall. Hed already taken the liberty of rearranging some of the furniture and was considering dragging a cedar chaise longue into the living room from the deck, just because he liked the way it smelled.

Home sweet home. Maybe it was time he thought about getting himself something more permanent than a mail drop, a storage shed and a series of hotel rooms. The last real home he could rememberand the memory was fading like a cheap postcardwas a white frame house with a wraparound porch and three pecan trees in the backyard that were home to several platoons of squirrels.

Decatur, Georgia. They had moved there when his father had gotten a promotion, just in time for Stone to enter the first grade. Before the year was out, that portion of his life had come to an abrupt end.

As for the Hardissons Buckhead mansion, the only time he had felt at home there had been when his aunt was off on one of her jaunts and Mellie had let him eat in the kitchen with the help. He could still remember sitting on an overturned dishpan in a chair and stuffing himself with her Brunswick stew and blackberry dumplings.

Jeez! When was the last time hed thought of all that? This was what happened when a guy had too much time on his hands, Stone told himself. Ancient history had never been his bag.

After making himself a couple of sardine sandwiches and forking his fingers around a cold beer, he wandered out onto the screened deck. Still wearing his trunks, he took a hefty bite of sandwich and turned his thoughts to his unlikely assignment. Hed been in the hospital when Billy had won the primary last month, else he might have heard something. Not that Georgia politicians were of any great interest at IPA. At least, not since the Carter days.

Senator Billy?

God, the mind boggled. Stone hadnt seen his cousin since their great-uncle Chauncey Stones funeral in Calhoun, several years ago. Billy had been flushed and smelling of bourbon at eleven in the morning. He had escorted his mother into the church, but Stone had seen the bimbo waiting in his red Corvette farther down the street.

Family. Funny how it could influence you in ways you never even suspected. He didnt particularly like his cousin. He didnt know if he loved his aunt or not, but hed always recognized her strength, and strength was something Stone had been taught to admire. Strength of character. Strength of purpose. His aunt had both. And when he thought about her at all, he admired her for what she was, and didnt dwell too long on what she wasnt.

Sipping his beer, Stone let his mind wander unfettered across the tapestry of the past thirty-seven years. After a while the empty bottle slipped to the floor and he began to snore softly in counterpoint to the cheerful sound of screeching gulls, scolding crows and gently lapping water.

* * *

Lucy watched the odometer roll over a major milestone. She flexed her arms one at a time, then flexed her tired back and wondered how far it was to the next rest area. Shed been driving for eight solid hours, stopping only for gas and junk food, and to wolf down a bacon cheeseburger and a large diet drink for lunch. By the time shed gotten as far as Kernersville, she was already having second thoughts, but it was too late to turn back, even if shed wanted to. Her gas was turned off, her mail and paper deliveries stopped.

Alice Hardisson didnt owe her a thing. Lucy knew she should have had more pride than to accept the offer, but one didnt argue with a Hardisson. Not argue and win, at any rate. Fortunately, she had learned early on to be a gracious loser. Or, at the very least, to know when the game was lost.

And the game was lost. Alice had won. Surrendering to the inevitable, Lucy vowed to enjoy every minute of her unexpected free vacation, and if that made her a parasite, shed just have to grin and bear it. She couldnt even remember the last vacation she had taken. Her honeymoon trip with Billy didnt count. That had been a revelation, not a vacation.

Guiltily, she knew she was looking forward to it, too. A whole summer of swimming, sleeping late, staying up all night to read all those juicy escapist books she never had time to read during the school year.

And no more frozen dinners. No more school cafeteria! She was going to eat fried corned-beef hash with catsup and onions for breakfast and fried banana sandwiches for supper, and work off all the calories by walking and swimming.

Who said you cant have it all?

Whats more, she was going to play her guitar until she built up a set of calluses that would shatter bricks. And shed sing along, even if she couldnt carry a tune. Which she couldnt.

The night Alice had called, Lucy had been feeling mildewy. Rain always depressed her, and it had been raining for over a week. Studying the help-wanted ads for a summer job hadnt improved her mood, either.





: 1 2 3 4