The Bourbon Thief
Betrayal, revenge and a family scandal that bore a 150–year–old mystery
When Cooper McQueen wakes up from a night with a beautiful stranger, it’s to discover he’s been robbed. The only item stolen—a million-dollar bottle of bourbon. The thief, a mysterious woman named Paris, claims the bottle is rightfully hers. After all, the label itself says it’s property of the Maddox family who owned and operated the Red Thread Bourbon distillery since the last days of the Civil War, until the company went out of business for reasons no one knows… No one except Paris.
In the small hours of a Louisville morning, Paris unspools the lurid tale of Tamara Maddox, heiress to the distillery that became an empire. Theirs is a legacy of wealth and power, but also of lies, secrets and sins of omission. Why Paris wants the bottle of Red Thread remains a secret until the truth of her identity is at last revealed, and the century-old vengeance Tamara vowed against her family can finally be completed.
The Bourbon Thief Tiffany Reisz
To Kentucky, my home
There wasn’t much in the world Cooper McQueen cared about more than a good bourbon. In his forty-five years, not one single beautiful woman had managed to persuade him to set down his drink and leave it down. But when the woman in the red dress walked into his bar—a gift from the gods tied in a tight red bow—McQueen decided he might have seen the one woman on earth who could turn even him into a teetotaler. Her dress was tight as old Scrooge’s fist, red as Rudolph’s nose, and looking at her, McQueen had only one thought—Christmas had come awfully early this year.
Miss Christmas in July glanced his way, smiled like she knew what he was thinking and was thinking along the same lines herself, and McQueen figured he’d be leaving the bar early tonight and nobody better try to talk him out of it.
Not wanting to appear too eager, he continued to sip his bourbon—neat—as he kept her in his peripheral vision. Christmas in July walked over to the bar and took a seat. He watched her study the menu and he smiled behind his glass. In one minute he’d go over to her, buy her a drink, let it slip he owned the bar, dangle out the bait, see if she was in the mood to nibble. He’d seen his fair share of beautiful women in his bar, usually too young—he had some pride, after all—but Miss Christmas looked a respectable thirty-five. A real woman. A grown woman. The sort he could sleep with without apology. She had dark skin and black hair that lay in heavy coils down her back and tied at the nape of her neck with a red ribbon he fully intended to untie with his teeth given the opportunity.
One minute up, he went to claim the opportunity.
It didn’t break McQueen’s heart to excuse himself from his current conversation with someone who was either an investment banker or a venture capitalist. He had stopped listening the moment Miss Christmas walked in. He went over to her and sat in the empty bar stool to her left without waiting for an invitation. He owned the place. No reason not to act like it.
He didn’t say anything at first. He let the silence linger and grow as heady as the muddy Ohio River on a hot night, the kind that made even the sidewalks sweat. Maybe he could talk the lady into a stroll over to the river while the night was still warm. Maybe he could talk her into something more.
“What can I get you?” Maddie, the pretty blonde bartender, asked the woman.
“How about a shot of Red Thread?” the woman said. “I like to match my drinks to my hair ribbon.”
“Red Thread?” Maddie glanced at McQueen, a silent plea for help. “I don’t think...”
“Red Thread’s been out of business for thirty-five years,” McQueen said to Maddie.
“Oh, good. Thought I was going crazy. Could have sworn I knew every bourbon there was,” Maddie said. “Any bottles left?”
“Not a one,” McQueen said, not a white lie, not a black lie. A little red lie.
“What a shame,” Miss Christmas said, although she sounded neither surprised nor disappointed. Christmas was right. Her voice had a frosty tone to it. She was cool. He liked cool.
“A damn shame. They say it was the best bourbon ever bottled.” McQueen waited for the lady in the red dress to speak again, but she stayed silent, listening, alert, eyes only for Maddie at the moment.
“What happened to it?” Maddie asked him.
“Warehouse fire,” McQueen said, shrugging. “It happens. You distill alcohol and store it in wooden barrels? Fire’s your worst nightmare. Red burned to the ground in 1980 and never reopened. No one knows who owns it anymore.” McQueen had tried to buy the old Red Thread property himself but had no luck. He’d gotten as far as finding the shell company—Moonshine, Ltd.—that owned the acreage and the trademark, but it didn’t seem to have a human being behind its name. “I would know because I’ve looked.”
“Isn’t that interesting...” Miss Christmas said with the hint of a smile on her red lips, and he couldn’t tell if she meant it or if she was being sarcastic. She spoke with a Kentucky accent, faint but recognizable to someone who spent half his time in New York and half his time in Louisville. Kentucky accents sounded like home to him and his ears always perked up when he heard one.
“Can I get you something else?” Maddie asked the woman.
“Four Roses, neat. Double pour.”
“A lady who knows her bourbon and isn’t afraid to drink it straight.” McQueen turned ten degrees on his bar stool toward her. “A woman after my own heart.”
“I’m a Kentucky girl,” she said with a graceful shrug. “And bourbon’s like the truth, you know.”
“The first taste burns, but once you get used to it, it’s the only thing you want in your mouth.”
Miss Christmas brought the shot glass to her lips, took a sip and didn’t flinch as she drank it. The bourbon didn’t burn her.
“Tell me something true, then,” McQueen said. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Mr. McQueen.”
“You know who I am?”
“Everybody knows who you are. You own this bar,” she said, nodding at the words The Rickhouse, Louisville, Kentucky, engraved on the mirror behind the bar, the image of a turn-of-the-century wood warehouse also etched in the glass. “I hear you’re opening another bourbon bar in Brooklyn.”
“You don’t approve?”
“Leave it to white people to turn a beautiful drink like bourbon into a fetish. Find a way to make pumpkin spice bourbon, and you’ll be a billionaire.” She took another sip of her Four Roses, all the while looking at him out of the side of her eyes.
“I’ll tell you a secret.”
“I’m already a billionaire. But I’m always looking for a new way to waste my money. Why not?”
“You need another business? You tired of owning your basketball team already?”
“I only own part of the team.”
“Which part?” she asked. “I know which part I’d like to own.”
McQueen laughed. “Tell me something, Miss Paris—what do you own?”
Now it was her turn to spin on her bar stool, ninety degrees, and she met him face on with full eye contact, fearless and shameless.
“I could own you by morning.”
Her words rendered McQueen momentarily speechless. He couldn’t remember the last time any woman had so thoroughly stupefied him. Bourbon on her lips and curves on her hips. He was halfway in love with her already.
“I would like to see you try,” McQueen said. “And that’s not a challenge. I really would like to see that with my own eyes.”
“Shall we?” she asked, raising her eyebrow a fraction of an inch.
He had to know her. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, we shall.”
They left the bar together but drove separately to his house. As he wove his way through downtown traffic, he saw that somehow he’d lost her behind him. He’d given her his address and she surely didn’t need to follow him to find it. An irrational fear took hold of him between the red light and the green, a fear she’d changed her mind, driven off, considered a better offer somewhere else with someone else. No, surely not. She’d wanted him, he knew it. He’d seen avarice in her eyes at the bar, and whether it was for his face, his money or his reputation as the richest man in Kentucky, he didn’t care. They were all true, all parts of him, anyway. Whatever part of him she wanted, he didn’t care as long as she wanted him. She did want him, didn’t she? Irrational thoughts. Irrational fears.
Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he must see her tonight, be with her. Anything less would be calamitous. A man needed wanting. What was the point of having wealth, power and the body of a man half his age if no one bothered to use him for it?
McQueen pulled into his driveway and saw a black Lexus already there and waiting. Self-respect prevented him from sighing in his relief, but even a self-respecting man was allowed to smile. She’d simply taken a different route. No big surprise. If she lived anywhere around here, she’d know about his house. Everybody in town knew about Lockwood—named not for the forest that surrounded the property he kept locked behind stone walls, but for the man who built it in 1821. Old by American standards, but McQueen’s family was Irish. A two-hundred-year-old house was just getting comfortable by his grandfather’s standards. And McQueen tended to judge everything by his grandfather’s standards.
Lockwood was a redbrick three-story Georgian masterpiece with double-height white porticos protected by a twelve-foot-high wrought-iron gate. He and Paris parked in the circular cobblestone driveway in front of the temple-style porch. She emerged from her car all long legs and slim ankles and red shoes, and she didn’t blink at the house. It seemed to make no impression on her whatsoever. Miss Paris must have her own money. The shoes, the dress, the Birkin bag that was nearly identical to the one his ex-wife carried? All that screamed money to him. No one was that unimpressed by money except people who have it.
Before entering the house, she paused on the front porch and glanced back at the gate.
“What?” he asked.
“Pretty fence,” she said. “Traditional Kentucky rock fence.”
“Glad you like it,” he said, admiring the view from the porch. The perimeter of the Lockwood property was a rock fence built in the nineteenth century. “I had it built just for you.”
“To keep me in or to keep me out?”
“To keep you surrounded by beautiful things. As you should be.”
She raised her eyebrow slightly and without another word turned and walked into the house. If she hadn’t been looking, McQueen might have patted himself on the back. Good line.
“Welcome to Lockwood,” McQueen said, glad it was late enough all the staff but his security guard were gone. “Hope you like it.”
“Very nice,” she said, barely giving the opulent interior a glance. McQueen didn’t mind that much. He’d rather she looked at him than his foyer, and she was definitely looking at him. Women considered him handsome, and even if they didn’t, they considered him rich, which was usually enough to close the deal.
“I’m the fourth generation of McQueens to live here. My great-grandfather bought this house when he came over from Ireland,” McQueen said. It was summer, warm, and she wasn’t wearing a coat for him to offer to take. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands. At his age he should have his seduction skills down by now, but Paris made him nervous for a reason he couldn’t name. “He’d planned to settle his family farther west, but the hills reminded him of home. So he stayed.”
“And here we are. What would your great-grandfather have said about you bringing me to his home?”
“I’d like to think he’d have taken one look at you and said, ‘Good job, lad.’”
“I’ll be the judge of how good the job is done.”
“Maybe we should get to work, then.” He reached for her and kissed her under the crystal chandelier, which before today had looked elegant to him, but tonight seemed ostentatious compared to the elegance of this woman in her red dress. She tasted of apples and bourbon when he kissed her and she was right—it did burn, but once he had his first taste, she was all he wanted in his mouth.
McQueen pressed her back against the banister of the spiral staircase that led upstairs. He hooked her leg around his hip, slid his hand up her long bare thigh. She had panties on, but they weren’t enough to keep his fingers out of her. He stepped back, pulled them down her thighs and left them on the floor, where he hoped they would stay until morning.
“Did you plan to seduce me when you came to the bar?” he asked against her lips.
“Are you after my money?” He sensed such a woman wouldn’t be insulted by such a question.
“Only your bourbon, Mr. McQueen.”
“You want to see my collection?” he asked. “I promise it’s nothing but booze. I don’t own a single etching.”
McQueen and his world-class bourbon and whiskey collection had recently been profiled in Cigar Aficionado magazine, inspiring a few phone calls from collectors trying to buy some of his rarer vintages, but she was his first official bourbon groupie.
“Eventually,” she said, spreading her legs a little wider for him, inviting his fingers a little deeper. “Once you’re done showing me everything else you’ve got.”
McQueen showed her. First he showed her right there against the wall. Then he took her up to the master bedroom, a room baroque with ornamentation and ostentation. Even the bed was gilt. He never actually slept in the room if he could help it. He found other uses for it, however. And that red dress of Paris’s looked about as good on his floor as the priceless gold-and-green Persian rug it lay upon.
When it was all over, Paris reached for her red dress, and it occurred to him that if he let her leave now, he wouldn’t be likely to ever see her again. Something told him he shouldn’t let her go. Something told him if all he did was sleep with her, he would forfeit something, a victory or a prize.
“Don’t leave,” he said as he obliged her by zipping the dress up for her. She had such a lovely back and the light of the bedside Tiffany lamp danced over her dark skin like a tongue of fire. “I haven’t shown you my collection yet.”
“Oh, yes, I’d almost forgotten,” she said, cool as could be. He wasn’t used to women this quiet and unimpressed by being in the bedroom of a billionaire. Too cool.
“I don’t know what to make of you,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her as she wrapped the red ribbon around her hair and pulled the long locks over her shoulder, Venus at her toilette.
“Make of me? Are you putting me in a pie?”
McQueen laughed. “I’d rather keep you in the bedroom than the kitchen. Come on, tell me about yourself.”
“My name is Paris. I was born and raised in Kentucky. I moved to South Carolina for school. I got married a couple years ago, inherited money when my husband died, and now I’m back. I have no children. I am no one special. You only think I’m mysterious because you’ve noticed I’m not terribly interested in spending the rest of my life with you and that is one mystery a man like yourself can’t solve.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
McQueen raised his eyebrow. “A rich widow. That explains a lot.”
“What does it explain?”
“Why I don’t impress you. You have your own money.”
“You tell yourself that’s the reason,” she said with a smile sweet as the pie he should put her in, and goddammit, McQueen wanted her again already. She made him forget he was forty-five. “I won’t contradict you.”
“I’m going to impress you before you leave,” he said. “Watch me.”
He dressed in his suit minus the jacket and tie and led her from the bedroom, down the hall and to a bookcase. On the bookcase were unread leather-bound volumes of all the classics.
“Very nice,” Paris said. “Did your decorator provide the books? Or did you order them from the pretty book wholesale warehouse?”
“This isn’t it,” he said. “I’m going to show you my prized possession.” He pulled on the middle shelf of the bookcase, revealing that it wasn’t simply a bookcase, but a door. He switched on a floor lamp inside the door and waved Paris inside. As she gazed around the hidden room, he watched her face. She revealed nothing—no shock, no surprise, no disappointment.
“Cozy,” Paris said, but from her tone she might have meant “airless.” He watched her take note of the old stone fireplace, the antique sofa with the worn jade fabric and the carved ebony arms. She walked to the wall and pulled back the curtain to reveal...nothing.
“You covered your window with a wooden board?” Paris asked, tapping the board.
“That’s a mirror,” he said. “I don’t want anyone looking in here. And really, what’s more terrifying than peeking in the window of a house and seeing yourself?”
McQueen retrieved the key he’d hidden in a small silver vase on top of the fireplace mantel and opened a satin bronze cabinet with the Twelve Apostles embossed on the side.
“Is that a tabernacle?” Paris asked.
“You store your alcohol in a cabinet designed to hold communion wafers?”
“My grandfather had a dark sense of humor where the Catholic Church was concerned.”
“I assume he was Catholic?”
“Until he fell in love with a girl who left him for the Carmelites. Never stepped foot in a church again after that. Said no man with any pride would enter the house of the man who stole his wife.”
“Pride indeed. Sounds like his lady picked the right man. You exist, so I assume he got over his lover’s defection?”
“Got married, yes, but he never got over it. All the McQueens are heathens now, but I do consider this room my little sanctuary. Every man needs one.” He took a bottle out of the cabinet and handed it to her.
“This is it?” she asked, cradling the bottle carefully in her hands.
“That’s it. You ordered Red Thread at the bar tonight. That, my dear, is the first bottle of Red Thread ever distilled, ever bottled, ever-ever.”
“How did you come by this bottle?”
“Private sale. One million dollars. The provenance is perfect. Virginia Maddox herself sold it shortly before she died to pay her medical bills. One of a kind.”
“No wonder you won’t sell it,” she said.
“Not for all the money in the world. This is the holy grail of bourbon. You don’t sell the holy grail.”
“Unholy grail,” she said under her breath, but not so far under he didn’t hear it.
Her eyes softened as she touched the red ribbon tied around the bottle’s neck. It was a tattered old thing.
“It’s a miracle that thing has stayed on there,” McQueen said. “Piece of ribbon from the 1860s.”
“Slave cloth,” Paris said.
“The ribbon was cut from slave cloth. Thick wool. Slave cloth was made to last a long time. Slaves didn’t get new clothes very often. What they had had to last, had to hold up to hard work and many years. The girl who wore this ribbon? This was probably the only nice thing she had, the only thing she thought of as hers.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know that ribbon... I didn’t know that part of the story, that the ribbon came from a Maddox slave.”
“Now you know.”
“You ordered Red Thread at The Rickhouse. But you would have been a baby when Red Thread burned down. What exactly is your interest in it?”
“It interests me for many reasons. But here, you can’t trust me with that bottle. I might drop it. Wouldn’t that be a shame?”
She passed the bottle back to McQueen. He put it carefully back into the cabinet. When he turned around, Paris was halfway to the door.
“You aren’t leaving, are you?” he asked.
“Leaving for the bedroom,” she said.
“So I did impress you?”
“You have a fine collection,” she said. “I only wish it were mine.”
McQueen followed her to the concealed door and started to open it for her. With his hand on the knob he looked her up and down and into her eyes.
“Who are you really?” he asked.
“You don’t want to know.”
“I told you why. The truth is like bourbon—it’ll burn going down.”
“I want to burn.”
She kissed him, hard enough McQueen forgot about finding out anything else about her except how to make her come again. And after he’d solved that mystery, he fell fast asleep, one arm over her naked stomach, one leg over her leg, his favorite way to fall asleep.
* * *
When McQueen woke up, he was alone, and Paris had left nothing behind but the scent of her skin on his sheets and her red hair ribbon on his pillow.
Hell on earth, he was a first-rate fool.
McQueen pulled on his pants and shirt and ran to the room behind the bookcase.
Too late. She was gone.
So was his million-dollar bottle of Red Thread.
McQueen slammed his hand down onto the intercom button and ordered his night shift security guard to lock the gates.
“Already done,” James answered. “Someone tried to get out without the gate code. She’s in my office. I was about to come wake you up, boss.”
He should have been relieved, but he seethed instead, his shoulders tense with his fury, and he nearly wrenched the door off the hinges when he entered the security guard’s small shed. Paris sat primly on a small folding chair, her legs crossed at the ankles, her black Birkin bag in her lap.
“Give us a minute,” McQueen said to the guard.
“Do I need to call the cops?”
“Not yet. I want to hear her story first. Then we’ll call them.”
James left him alone in the shed with Paris. She looked up at him placidly.
“Are all your servants black?” she asked, nodding at the door that James had closed behind him.
“They’re not servants. They’re employees. And no. My housekeeper is white. The security guard who works the day shift is from Mexico.”
“The United Colors of Yes-Men.”
“And yes-women,” McQueen said. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the door. “You’re good. You wore me out, and when I slept...”
“I’m not good. You’re easy.”
“Interview in the June 2014 Architectural Digest with billionaire investor Cooper McQueen. ‘What do you like to read, Mr. McQueen?’ the fawning interviewer asked you. ‘What keeps Cooper McQueen up all night?’ And you replied—”
“Because, as you said in the interview, ‘I’m a sucker for a femme fatale. Give me a girl with a black heart in a red dress and I’m a goner.’”
“You thought you could seduce me because I read Chandler?”
“And your last girlfriend was a dark-skinned Knicks City Dancer from Puerto Rico, so I knew I had a very good shot at you. I’m your type, aren’t I?”
“I don’t have a fetish for dark-skinned women, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“I wasn’t implying anything, but you immediately seemed to think it was what I was implying. Methinks the billionaire doth protest too much.”
“Of all the bars in all the world...you walked into mine to steal my bourbon. You know, stealing something worth a million dollars is a felony.”
“I know. But I won’t call the police on you if you don’t call the police on me.”
“I didn’t steal it.”
“You bought stolen goods. Also a felony.”
“That bottle wasn’t stolen.”
“I know it was.”
“I told you, Virginia Maddox sold it—”
“It didn’t belong to Virginia Maddox. You can’t sell what you don’t own. And I was happy to buy it from you and avoid an unpleasant legal battle, but as you refused to sell it, I had no choice but to repossess it,” she said with the slightest sinister hiss.
“How do you know all this? How do you know everything you think you know about Red Thread?”
“I am Red Thread,” Paris said with the slightest sigh like she was admitting to a bad habit.
“Red Thread is dead.”
“A nice rhyme. You should have been a poet.” She raised her chin toward the filing cabinet. On top of it sat the bottle. “Look at it. Read the label. Tell me what it says.”
McQueen knew what the label said, but he took the bottle anyway and held it label side up toward the light.
The label was faded and yellowed, close to peeling. It was a hundred and fifty years old, after all. The font was an elegant script that said “Red Thread—Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.” Beneath those words it read “Distilled and bottled—Frankfort, Kentucky.” And underneath that in tiny script he read, “‘Owned and operated by the Maddox family, 1866.’”
“There we go,” Paris said.
“Where do we go?”
“Owned by the Maddox family.”
“You aren’t the Maddox family.”
“Are you saying that because they were white and I’m not?”
“I’m saying that because I’ve looked for the Maddox family for years, and I haven’t found a single one of them, by blood or by marriage, who had anything to do with Red Thread. The whole Kentucky line died or disappeared after the distillery burned.”
“Why did you look for us?”
“First of all, I don’t believe you are a Maddox. You’re going to have to show me some proof.”
“You’re holding the proof in your hands. One hundred proof.”
“Oh, yes,” she said with an exaggerated Southern drawl. “I’m a card. Why were you looking for us?” she asked again.
“I wanted to buy Red Thread. What’s left of it. I’ve been wanting to open my own distillery for years. Red Thread is part of Kentucky history. I’d like to be part of Kentucky’s present.”
“Some things are better off history.”
“Bourbon isn’t one of them.”
“It’s too late anyway, Mr. McQueen. Someone else beat you to it.”
“Beat me to what? Buying Red Thread?”
“Reopening the distillery. Under a new name, of course. And under new management.”
McQueen understood at once.
“You,” he said. “You’re Moonshine, Ltd.? I tried to contact you.”
“That’s my company, yes.”
“You own the old Red Thread property?”
“Owner, operator and master distiller.”
“You don’t think a woman can be a master distiller? I have my PhD in chemistry. You can call me Dr. Paris if that sort of thing turns you on.”
“I get it,” McQueen said, nodding. “I do. This is the first ever bottle of Red Thread, the original bottle. Part of the company’s history and you want it because you own Red Thread now. Makes sense. I’m even sympathetic. I might even have loaned it to you to put on display when the company reopens for business. But now you’ve pissed me off. And if you don’t tell me one very good reason why I shouldn’t call the police, I’m picking up the phone in three seconds. Three...two...”
“I can tell you what happened to Red Thread,” she said. “I can tell you the whole story. The whole truth.”
That got his attention.
“You know why it burned down?”
“I know everything. But if I were you, I wouldn’t ask. By the time I’m done telling you the story, you’ll hand over that bottle with your compliments and an apology.”
“Must be one hell of a story, then.”
“It’s what brought me here, the story.”
“My story. I inherited it.”
“I think I’d rather inherit money than a story.”
“I have that, too, not entirely by my choice.”
“You don’t want to be rich?”
“God favors the poor. But don’t tell rich people that. It’ll hurt their little feelings.”
McQueen sighed and sat back. He buttoned the middle buttons of his shirt, crossed his leg over his knee. He should call the cops. Why hadn’t he called the cops? Embarrassed he’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book? Beautiful woman in red goes home with him, fucks him and robs him while he sleeps. He could laugh at himself, but he wouldn’t let anyone else laugh at him. Yes, he could call the cops.
“They call bourbon the honest spirit,” he said. “You know why?”
“You aren’t legally allowed to flavor it with anything. Water, corn, barley, rye and that’s it. You see what you get. You get what you see. No artificial colors. No artificial sweeteners. No artificial nothing.”
“Right. So let’s drink a little honesty, shall we?”
“If you’re buying,” she said.
“I’m always buying.”
He picked up the bottle and slipped it into his pants pocket. He opened the door of the security shed and Paris stepped out into the warm night air. Almost 2:00 a.m., he should be in bed now. He’d hoped to be in bed with her. One of these days he’d learn. Not today apparently.
“Boss?” James asked, dropping his cigarette on the ground and crushing it under his boot.
“A misunderstanding.” McQueen had his hand on the small of Paris’s back. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Got it. Sleep well, Mr. McQueen.”
As they walked back into the house and up to his drinking closet, McQueen considered the possibility that he might be making the worst mistake of his life.
“Sit.” McQueen pointed at the jade sofa and Paris sat without a word of protest.
McQueen took the key from the silver bowl and put the bottle of Red Thread back into the cabinet.
“I shouldn’t have trusted you.” McQueen locked the cabinet and slipped the key into his pocket.
“You’re a rich white man. Not your fault for assuming the entire world is on your side. It must seem like it most days. Usually you’d be right, but times, Mr. McQueen, are a-changing.”
“That sounds like a threat.”
“Sounds like Bob Dylan to me.”
He needed a drink, a stiff one, so he poured each of them a shot. The entire time he kept an eye on her as he unscrewed the cap and measured out the bourbon. Now she seemed calm, but it wasn’t the calm of surrender. This was a cat’s version of calm. A calm that could turn into an attack or a run in an instant.
When she had her shot in hand and he had his, he lifted it in a toast, a toast she didn’t return. Instead, she merely sipped her bourbon.
“Pappy’s?” she asked.
“It is. You have a good palate.”
“You can taste the leather in it.”
He couldn’t, but it impressed him she could.
“You weren’t exaggerating. You do know your bourbon,” he said.
“They used to say that about the Maddoxes,” she said. “Ever since Jacob Maddox started the distillery and made himself a wealthy man in five years...they said it about all of us—the Maddoxes have bourbon in their blood.”
“I’ve seen the Maddox family tree. There is no Paris on it.”
“Perhaps you were looking at the wrong branches,” she said coldly.
His words had hit a sensitive spot and her eyes flashed in a familiar way. It was not his first encounter with her sensitive places, after all.
“Now that we both have an honest spirit in our hands,” McQueen said, “tell me something.”
“Anything,” she said, although he doubted the sincerity of that declaration. She was proving to be altogether miserly with her explanations and answers.
“Did you sleep with me just to steal my bottle?”
“Does that sting? I bet it stings.” She winced in feigned sympathy, shaking her head and clucking her tongue like a mother tending to the skinned knee of her child. Right then and there he made a realization—he didn’t like this woman, not at all.
“I think I could fuck you a thousand nights and never actually touch you.”
“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “You’re not the only one with rock fences around you. Built by the same people, too, as a matter of fact.”
“Irish immigrant stonemasons hired by my great-grandfather?”
Paris’s eyes widened slightly. Then she laughed. Finally. He knew he’d scored a point on her. True, most of the rock fences in Kentucky were built by slave labor. His was not, however, and somewhere he had the paperwork to prove it. While he didn’t know the game he and Paris were playing, he knew that while he wouldn’t win it, if he played it well enough, he might not lose it.
“You’re funny. And you’re handsome.” She tossed the compliment at him like a dollar bill at a stripper’s feet. “If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t have to fake anything with you. If I hadn’t wanted to sleep with you, I wouldn’t have. It was convenient that you were attractive. Otherwise, I might have simply hired someone to break into the house while you were away. Does that help?”
“I feel so much better now,” he said. “While we’re being honest...is it true? You’re widowed?”
“I am. Widowed at thirty-four.”
“Awfully young to lose a husband.”
“Not my husband, although he died too young for my liking. He was twenty-eight years older than I am.”
McQueen nearly choked on his Pappy’s. The youngest woman he ever slept with was eighteen years his junior and that relationship had lasted about as long as a bad movie.
“Twenty-eight. I guess that’s what they call a May/December romance.”
She smiled and it was a debt collector’s smile, and something told him she had come to make him pay up. “Twenty-eight years? That’s a January/December romance in a leap year.”
McQueen chuckled and raised his glass to her.
“What?” she asked.
“You get enough bourbon in you and you sound like a real Kentucky girl.”
“I am a real Kentucky girl. Born in Frankfort a stone’s throw from the Kentucky River. That’s not an exaggeration. With a good arm, you could hit the river from our porch.”
“That’s not a good neighborhood.”
“It was the only neighborhood we had. If you have a roof over your head and food in the fridge and nobody breaking down your door, it’s a good neighborhood.”
McQueen tried to take another drink of his bourbon and found his shot glass empty. He set it down again on his knee.
“So you slept with me and stole a million-dollar bottle of bourbon. You must really want that bottle.”
“I don’t want it, no. But I need it.” For the second time that night he saw a glimpse of the real woman behind the mask of the femme fatale, the woman in red. A determined woman.
“To finish something someone else started.” She glanced down at the bourbon in the glass she’d balanced on her knee. “You know what a bourbon thief is, Mr. McQueen?”
“It’s a sampling tube,” McQueen said. “You stick it in the bunghole of a bourbon barrel and extract the contents for tasting.”
“Isn’t that one hell of a visual metaphor?” Paris asked.
McQueen laughed big and long and loud.
“What’s your point?”
“Do I look like a bourbon thief to you?”
“You look like a woman who’s never stolen anything in her life.”
“I haven’t. That bottle belongs to my family. You will return it one way or another.”
“Apparently I’m going to give it to you by morning in exchange for a story. That’s quite a feat.”
“It’s quite a story.”
“Go on, then.”
McQueen looked at her as she crossed her long legs, pulled her hair over her shoulder and met his eyes without a hint of fear even though she was on the hook for a million-dollar heist. It made him nervous, what she was about to tell him, but he wanted to know. Knowledge was power and power was money, and no man ever got rich buying stock in ignorance.
“On December 10, 1978, two very important events in the history of Red Thread occurred—the Kentucky River broke its banks and crested at a record forty-eight feet, and the granddaughter of George J. Maddox, the owner of Red Thread Bourbon Distillery, turned sixteen years old. That was the beginning of the end of Red Thread.”
“What was? The river flooding?”
Paris gave him a smile, a smile that made him momentarily rethink his decision to not call the police.
Tamara Maddox wanted to ride her horse the morning of her sixteenth birthday.
And whatever Tamara Maddox wanted to do, Tamara Maddox did.
In all fairness to the girl, spoiled as she was and she knew it, anyone would have wanted to get out of that house and any excuse would do. They’d been fighting again, Granddaddy and Momma. If only they yelled, that would have been one thing, something Tamara could roll her eyes at, laugh at, ignore by turning the volume up on her radio. But no, they whispered their fights behind closed doors, hissing at each other like snakes. Neither of them had the courtesy to tell her what they were fighting about, so Tamara assumed they were fighting about her.
Fine. If they wanted to fight on her birthday, she’d leave them to it. She had better things to do. And the urge to go riding only grew when she saw a blue Ford pickup truck with a white cab wheezing its way down the drive to the stables. What was Levi doing here on a Sunday? She hoped it was because he knew it was her birthday, but even Tamara Maddox wasn’t spoiled enough to think that was the case. Still, one more reason to go riding when one reason—she wanted to—was more than enough for her.
Tamara changed out of her pajamas and into her riding clothes—tan jodhpurs, black boots, a white blouse and a heavy coat—braided her long red hair and raced out to the barn. It was cold today—only forty-five by the thermometer in the barn—but she’d ridden in worse weather. Plus, the rain had stopped finally, and she’d been going stir-crazy inside the house. All she needed was an hour outside in the air with Kermit, her pale black Hanoverian pony, and everything would be all right again.
And if it wasn’t, at least she’d see Levi today, and if that didn’t make a girl feel better, nothing on God’s wet green earth would.
Levi barely acknowledged her when she ran into the barn. Nothing new there. She had to work for his attention and she worked for it very hard. In the summer she’d often catch him shirtless as he mucked out stalls and threw hay bales around. In winter she had to content herself with the memories of his lean strong body that she knew was hidden under his brown coat with the leather collar and a chocolate-colored cowboy hat. Mud crusted his boots. He had dirt on his cheek. And if he got any more handsome, she would die before she hit seventeen. She would simply die of it.
Tamara walked up to him as he was carrying a bale of straw and knocked on his shoulder like she was knocking on a door.
“Nobody’s home,” Levi called out before she could say a word.
“I would like to ride my horse right now, please and thank you.”
“Nope? What do you mean nope?”
“I mean, nope, no, no way. You can’t ride your horse right now, please and thank you.” Levi walked away from her, straw bale in hand, as if that were the end of it.
Tamara chased after him and determinedly knocked on his shoulder again. He dropped the bale.
“Why can’t I ride today?”
“It’s been raining for days. It’s too wet.”
“It’s not raining now.” She tapped on the glass of the window. “Look—it’s dry. Dry, dry, dry.”
“What part of no do you not understand, Rotten? The N or the O?”
“You shouldn’t call me Rotten,” she said, hands on her hips in the hopes he’d notice she had them. “It’s not nice.”
“I’m not nice. And I wouldn’t call you Rotten if you weren’t so damn spoiled rotten, so whose fault is it really? And again—the answer is no—N and O, no. Even you can spell that.”
He might have been right about her being spoiled rotten, not that Tamara wanted to admit that. Most days he was the only person in the county—other than her mother—who had it in him to say no to her.
“Oh, I can spell. I can spell frontward and backward, and no spelled backward is on, as in I’m on the back of my horse and on the trail for a ride.”
“And on my last nerve,” Levi said. He took his hat off and brushed his sleeve over his forehead. She wondered sometimes if he did this sort of stuff just to torment her because he knew she had a crush on him—not that she did much to hide it. He was a first-class gold-medal tormentor, that Levi. He was twenty-eight and she was only sixteen as of midnight last night, which meant there was no way in hell Momma or Granddaddy would let her date him even if he was more handsome than the men on TV. He had curly black hair and a crinkle-eyed devilish smile he aimed at her often enough to get her hopes and her temperature up. He had a good tan, too, all the time, even in winter, making her wonder how he kept his tan so good even in February...and whether all of him was that tan. These were important questions to one Miss Tamara Belle Maddox.
And when he called her Rotten, it made her want to jump on top of him every time he did it.
“You know, today’s my birthday,” she said. “You have to be nice to me on my birthday.”
“I don’t have to do anything but die and pay taxes. Unless you’re the grim reaper or the IRS, you don’t get any of my attention today. Today is my day off. I’m only here because this is the only time the farrier could come and see to Danny Boy’s shoes.”
She stared at him, eye-to-eye. Or as close to eye-to-eye as she could get. She’d come in at five foot six this year and he had to be at least half a foot taller than her. Still, she did her level best to stare him down.
“I am the grim reaper. Now let me go riding or I’m going to tell Momma I caught you engaged in unnatural acts with Miss Piggy.”
“You mean your momma’s horse or the pig on The Muppets?”
“Does it matter?”
“It matters a helluva lot to me if I’m engaging in unnatural acts with one of them. I need to know who I’m sending flowers to after.”
“You are the meanest man ever born,” she said, shaking her head. “Where’s the pitchfork?”
“You finally going to clean out Kermit’s stall without me having to tell you twenty thousand times?”
“No. I’m going to stab you with it so many times we can use you to drain noodles.”
“It’s on the wall where it always is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to do anything that involves not talking to you anymore.”
Levi stepped away, but she stepped in front of him.
“Levi...” she said, her voice cracking in her desperation. “Please let me go riding today. It’s my birthday and I’ll clean the stalls and it’s my birthday and I’ll do whatever you tell me to do and it’s my birthday and—”
He sighed—heavily—and lowered his chin to his chest.
“What crime did I commit in a past life that brought me to this point in my current incarnation?” he said with a heavy sigh.
“You’re talking weird again,” she said.
“Karma,” he said. “I’m talking about karma. Which you would know nothing about as you are obviously so young and so dumb and so naive that the only way to explain it is that this is your very first incarnation. You are a baby soul in this universe. Only cause for your soul to be so wet behind the ears.”
“You know you love me,” she said. “You know I’m your favorite.”
“I don’t even like you, Rotten. Not one bit.”
“Oh, you like me. You like me many bits.”
“Love you or hate you, you can’t go riding. I have spoken.”
“You have to let me go. You work for us. You have to do what I say.”
He stared her down and that stare felt like a rolling pin or worse—a steamroller. She gave him a steamroller back.
“You don’t sign my paychecks, Rotten. I work for your granddaddy, not you.”
“I wish you worked for me. I’d pay you to kiss me and fire you if you didn’t.”
“I realize I’m the last man who needs to be stereotyping anyone, but apparently everything I ever heard about redheads is true.”
“They’re fighting again.”
Levi gave her a tight-lipped look like he wanted to be nice to her but it went against his grain.
“What is it this time?” Levi asked.
“I don’t know. They won’t tell me. But I know Momma wants to move out and Granddaddy doesn’t want us to.”
“Didn’t y’all use to live in your own house?”
She nodded. “We did until Daddy died.”
“You want to move out?”
“I’d rather live in here in the stable than in any house when they’re fighting like this.”
“Yeah,” she said, then she grinned at him. “Plus, you’re out here. I’d trade Granddaddy and Momma both for you.”
“Good God, go. Go away. Shoo. Ride your damn horse and leave me alone. But if Kermit gets a leg stuck in a mudhole and throws you and breaks your neck, don’t come crawling to me to fix it. Your head’ll have to hang there on your shoulders all lopsided.”
“Merci, mon capitan.” She grabbed him by the arms, kissed both his cheeks and saluted him like she was a junior officer and he her French captain.
“You are out of your damn mind,” he muttered as she raced to Kermit’s stall.
“Can’t hear you,” she sang out. “I’m riding in the wind with joy at my feet and freedom in my hair.”
Levi unlocked the door where he kept their saddles. They were too expensive, she knew, too tempting for thieves. Also, Levi knew if he didn’t lock them up, she’d steal them to go riding whenever she wanted, which wasn’t what she wanted, though she would protest otherwise if asked. Half the fun of going riding was bugging Levi until he let her go.
Once she’d saddled Kermit, she led him out to the riding trail that began at the end of the paddock. She hadn’t been too keen on the idea of moving in with her granddaddy after her father died. She’d loved their old house, a rambling brick Victorian in Old Louisville, but there wasn’t much horseback riding in the city. No horses meant no stables. No stables meant no grooms. No grooms meant no Levi. Oh, yes, she’d gotten used to living out here in the Maddox estate, Arden, with her granddaddy pretty quick after laying eyes on her grandfather’s groom. But more and more her mother and grandfather had been fighting their ugly whispering fights, and Tamara hadn’t been kidding when she’d said she’d rather live in the stables than the big house.
Once out in the cold air, Tamara decided maybe a shorter ride was a better ride. Muddy trails meant a slow pace and a nervous pony. Her ears burned with the cold and her nose dripped. She swiped at it with her sleeve and was glad Levi wasn’t around to see that unladylike maneuver. She and Kermit picked their way down the main path that led through a couple hundred acres of trees. Fall had stripped the leaves off the trees, but there was still something beautiful about the barren forest. Not barren at all despite appearances. Not barren, but only sleeping. She sensed the sap under the bark, and the wood drinking up all the water in the ground from the days and days of December rain they’d had. Even bare the trees seemed brutally alive to her. They were bursting to wake up and release the green in them, counting the seconds until spring when they could stretch and bloom and eat warm wet air like candy.
Tamara found her favorite rock, a big chuck of limestone she liked to lie on in better weather, and used it to dismount. After tying Kermit to a tree trunk, she squished her way through ankle-deep mud and muck to the edge of the river. It was high today, higher than she remembered ever seeing it, and darker, too. Faster. It smelled different, a thick, pungent odor like dead fish and dirty metal. It made her nose wrinkle. As the water tripped over the rocks, it turned white like ocean waves. She’d inherited ocean fever from her father, not that he’d ever admitted that was where he went on his business trips. He’d never had to tell her, though. She’d found the sand in his shoes. When she told him to take her with him next time, he’d winked at her like that had been his plan all along.
Instead, he’d shot himself in the head somewhere in South Carolina three years ago while on one of those business trips, and she still didn’t know which beach that sand had come from.
“Come back, Daddy,” she said to the river. This river met up with the Ohio, which met up with the Mississippi, which met up with the ocean. And water could turn to vapor and rise up into the sky. There was nowhere water couldn’t go. If she gave the water her message, maybe it could find her father. “I miss you. You were supposed to take me to the beach, remember? You were supposed to take me with you.”
She sent the same message once a week at least. So far no answer, but today maybe...maybe the river heard her. Maybe today the river would find Daddy.
Tamara returned to Kermit, rubbed his chilled flanks, kissed his velvet nose before mounting up to finish her ride. Without Kermit and Levi, she might very well go haywire in her grandfather’s house. Girls at school envied her the brick palace she lived in, but they didn’t know about the fights. They didn’t know about Momma’s rules. They didn’t know about Daddy and the cloud his death had lowered around Arden House, shrouding it so that screams became whispers and whispers became silence. Her mother and grandfather were keeping secrets from her, secrets that set them to fighting nearly every day, even on her birthday.
Even on her birthday.
The rain had returned by the time she made it back to the stables, her hands cramped in her gloves and her cheeks chapped raw from the cold wind. She unsaddled Kermit and brushed him down, showering him with all the pets and scratches any horse in the world would want. She left to fetch a fresh bale of straw for bedding and found Levi waiting for her in Kermit’s stall when she returned. He’d turned the heater on in the stables and had taken his coat off. In his long-sleeved flannel shirt and jeans he looked more handsome than he had even an hour earlier. An hour from now he’d look even more handsome than he did right this minute. She wasn’t sure how he accomplished this feat, but she was quite happy to observe it in action.
“Here.” Levi held out a small red box no bigger than a deck of cards.
“What’s this?” she asked, taking the box from him.
“Your birthday present.”
Tamara’s eyes widened.
“How did you know it was my birthday?”
“You said so about ten million times today.”
“You got this for me today? While I was riding?”
“Then you already knew it was my birthday. So you must have gotten it earlier. Unless you keep presents for me hidden around here all the time. You do, don’t you?”
“George told me he bought you a Triumph Spitfire for your sweet sixteen. I don’t give a damn it’s your birthday. I just wanted to borrow your car.”
“I’ll trade you the car for a kiss.”
“Forget it. I’m keeping your present.”
He reached for the box and Tamara yanked it away, nearly biting off her fingertips in her urgency to pull her gloves off her hands. They were shaking by the time she got the box lid open. One of the girls at school—Crissy, God help her with a name like that—said girls should always play it cool with guys, not act too eager. Well, Crissy had never been given a birthday present by the most handsome man in the entire world, and Tamara couldn’t play it cool if she were sitting in an igloo.
From a bed of yesterday’s newspaper, Tamara pulled out a little gold horse on a little gold chain.
“You like horses,” he said before she could say anything about it.
“I like you,” she said.
“An hour ago you were threatening to turn me into a spaghetti strainer.”
“I only threaten to turn people into strainers if I like them. Is this a bracelet?” The chain was only a few inches long.
“Necklace,” he said.
“If you put this short chain around my neck, I’ll choke to death.”
She glared at him.
“It’s an ankle bracelet, Rotten,” he said. “Unless you have really fat wrists, then it’s a regular old bracelet.”
“I don’t have fat wrists.”
“All I’m saying is if you did happen to have unusually fat wrists, it could be a bracelet.”
“I weigh one hundred pounds, Levi.” She draped the ankle bracelet around her wrist to show how loose it fit on her.
“One hundred pounds of wrist. I’m not saying it’s a normal place to carry extra weight, but it happens. Maybe you could do some wrist exercises or something...”
Tamara kissed him.
It wasn’t a cheek kiss this time. She wasn’t playing junior officer to his mon capitan. She kissed him like she meant it. Because she meant it. God Almighty, did she mean it.
Levi gripped her by the upper arms and pushed her back gently, but still, it was a definite move to put distance between them.
“Sorry,” she said, flushing slightly. “Got a little twitterpated there. You know, because I like horses.”
“You know you can’t go around kissing guys like that.”
“Like me. You can’t go around kissing guys like me.”
“You’re sixteen, Tamara.”
“I was fifteen yesterday.”
“That’s the opposite thing of what you should say.”
“What should I say?”
“Maybe that you won’t kiss me on the mouth again. Or anywhere else. I think that would be a good start.”
He crossed his arms over his chest.
“But it’s my birthday.”
“You don’t get to do everything you want to do just because it’s your birthday.” He sounded wildly exasperated with her, and wildly exasperated Levi was her favorite version of Levi. “Try telling a police officer you’re allowed to kill anybody and everybody you want just because it’s your birthday. That duck won’t fly.”
“I didn’t kill anyone. I kissed. Two S’s, not two L’s. Makes all the difference.”
“Rotten, I’m way too old for you. I work for your granddaddy. He’d have my hide if he caught me messing around with you.”
“I want a kiss, Levi, not a marriage proposal. I’ve never been kissed before. Not really. And that didn’t count because you didn’t know it was happening.”
“I think I knew. Parts of me sure did.”
She bounced up and down in her boots.
“Just one? Please? A real kiss?”
“What do you consider a real kiss?” he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, shook her head. “I don’t know. Like the way they kiss on The Young and the Restless?”
“Which one am I? The young or the restless?”
“You’re the restless, obviously,” she said. “Because you’re so so so old, and I’m so so so young.”
“Will it shut you up if I kiss you?”
“Can’t talk with a tongue in my mouth, right?”
He took the box from her hand and tossed it on the pile of hay. He took her hand and pulled her flush against his body.
“Finally,” he said, smiling down at her. “Now we have a persuasive argument.”
Tamara hadn’t expected him to go through with it. She’d only expected she would tease him and beg him to do it until he kicked her giggling and pouting spoiled rotten self out of the barn. Making him mad was the next best thing to making him laugh. When he actually took her in his arms, she froze in surprise. He didn’t kiss her—he did something better and worse at the same time.
Levi pushed her up against the rough wood of Kermit’s stall wall and held her there with his entire body.
“Your grandfather pays me to take care of his horses,” Levi said. “I am not paid to indulge you.”
“Then do it for free.”
Levi gave her a flat hard stare that scared her. Everything scared her right now. Being in such close quarters revealed the disparity in their sizes. Her shoulders spanned half his width. He stood a head taller. She could push against him with everything she had in her and she wouldn’t be able to budge the solid pillar of his body that held her pinned in place.
Oh, but she didn’t want to push against him. That was, in fact, the very last thing she wanted to do right now.
A teardrop of rainwater slid from Tamara’s temple down her face. Levi pressed his lips to that drop. They warmed her cold skin, and she’d never felt anything like that in her life, never felt something so sensual and threatening all at once. She closed her eyes and prayed for more rain, so much rain it would trap them in the stable. So much rain it would form a moat to keep the world out. So much rain everyone on earth would drown in it but her and Levi.
“Levi.” She pushed her hips against his. He had something she needed and her body had to tell him that.
“You are playing with fire, little girl,” Levi said into her ear.
“I’m not a little girl anymore,” she said, looking up at him. It was a brash thing to say, but it had to be said. Her voice quavered as she spoke the words. Tamara studied his face. She’d never seen him this close-up, inches away, close enough to smell him, close enough to see the freckle on his bottom lip. She could have counted his eyelashes.
Levi pushed his hips back into hers, and she felt something hard against her, something that demanded her attention.
Oh, dear. She had made a terrible miscalculation. Levi wasn’t a boy. Levi was a man. An adult man twelve years older than her. Older, wiser and so much bigger than she was. She really ought to stop him. She really ought to. Yes, she should do that.
“I love you,” Tamara said instead.
“Do you?” Levi asked, barely batting an eyelash at her declaration, which made her madder than being pinned to the wall. How dare he not take her seriously when she told him she was in love with him.
“I do. I swear I do.”
“You don’t even know who I am. You don’t know who you think you love.”
“I don’t care. I know I love you. You’re perfect and handsome and I think about you all the time and I want you all the time and I love you.”
“All the time?”
She nodded. “All the time.”
She pressed her mouth hard against his, kissing him like she had a loaded gun pointed at her head and only kissing could save her life. It felt so good she sighed, and when the sigh parted her lips, Levi’s tongue slipped between her teeth. She’d been kidding about the tongue in her mouth, but Levi wasn’t laughing. Not anymore and not about anything. Levi dug a hand into the back of her braid and pushed her mouth harder against his. His tongue tasted so good she wanted to suck on it. When she did, he made a noise in the back of his throat, a dirty noise that made her want to make him do it again.
Levi pulled back from the kiss like he was ripping off a Band-Aid. And yet she remained pinned in place. He had her pushed so hard against the wall she could lift her boots off the ground and not fall.
“Do you have any idea how many girls I’ve fucked in my life?” he asked her. “Or do you think my entire life is brushing your grandfather’s horses and putting up with you?”
She didn’t know how to answer that. She panted and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“You want to know?” he asked. His voice was menacing now, not seductive, and yet she felt utterly seduced. She didn’t want to be anywhere but here against this wall. “You want to know how many girls I’ve fucked?”
“Yes,” she said because she thought that was what he wanted to hear.
“Every girl I’ve ever wanted to fuck, that’s how many,” he said, and she believed him. Maybe yesterday she wouldn’t have believed that. Yesterday he’d have been just the horse groom with the pretty eyes and sexy smile. Today he was a man with muscles and a body and hands big enough to span her waist like they were doing now. “Every girl I’ve ever wanted to fuck...minus one.”
Tamara inhaled sharply.
His hands slid from her waist to her thighs. He lifted her off the straw-covered ground and wrapped her legs around him. She clung to him as if for life, hands grasping his shoulders, her boots wound together at his lower back and locked tight. The seam along the crotch of her jodhpurs rubbed against a soft and swollen part of her, and every time Levi pushed closer, she flinched with pleasure. Her head fell back when he did it again. When she raised her head, she saw him looking into her shirt. She had larger breasts than any other girl her age at her school, not huge, but full. She couldn’t hide them and neither could her bra. Tamara took her hand off his shoulder long enough to unbutton her shirt to the center of her chest. He wanted to look at her and she wanted him to see her. He lowered his head and kissed the top of her breast where it spilled out over the lace-trim edge of her white bra. Against her neck she felt his hair and loved, loved, loved the soft tickle of it on her skin.
“You like this?” he asked, grinding against her again, flint against tinder.
“Yes.” She could scarcely catch a breath with his chest pressed so hard against hers.
“You’re not scared?”
She shook her head no.
“You a virgin?” he asked.
“I told you, I’ve never even had a real kiss.”
“You can fuck without kissing.”
“That had never occurred to me.”
“I don’t recommend it,” he said. “I like to do both at the same time.”
“Quite what?” he asked.
“That’s quite a thought,” she said. “I like that thought.”
“I like your thoughts. I’d like to give you more of them.” Again Levi pushed against that raw sensitive place between her legs and she let out a little cry that he silenced with a kiss. At first she froze in fear, but she thawed almost instantly. Then it went beyond thawing and into an immediate burn.
His mouth moved over hers and she sighed with unfathomable pleasure.
With her eyes closed she could do nothing but taste him and smell him and feel him against her, and it was even better than seeing him. He tasted like he’d taken a nip or two of her granddaddy’s Red Thread bourbon. A good taste like apples and licorice, but hot, not on the rocks. His lips were soft, too, but insistent, like he was trying to win an argument by kissing her. She happily conceded defeat. Oh, and he smelled perfect to her. Sweat and aftershave and the leather and oil of horse tack. He smelled like a man who worked hard, even on Sundays. Sundays should be a day of rest, a day to spend in bed kissing. Kissing, and more than kissing...
It was the strangest thing, being kissed. His mouth was on her mouth. His tongue was between her teeth and nowhere else. His hands were on her hips holding her up. And yet she felt the kiss in all sorts of places she didn’t expect. She felt it in her stomach, down deep. She felt it inside her pelvis and all along her thighs. She felt it in her breasts, which were pressed against his chest. A layer of shirt and bra separated her body from his and yet her nipples were hard and wanted touching and sucking. She was almost out of her mind enough to ask him to do it.
Tamara reached up and ran her hand through his hair. He might not like that, but she wanted to touch his hair, had wanted to touch it since she first saw it two years ago when she and her mother moved into the big house at Arden. Now that his mouth was occupied kissing her, she had the chance to do anything she wanted to do without hearing a protest song about it. She ran her fingers through his hair, loving its soft, thick texture. There was so much more of him she wanted to touch, too. She stroked his cheek, his strong neck, his shoulders. She’d give anything to get his clothes off and touch every part of him that touched her.
Tamara knew about sex from school, about things she’d heard from girls who’d gone all the way and had lived to tell the tale. But no one had ever told her what to do in this situation, when she felt an erection outside her clothes and wanted it inside her body. She didn’t want to be a virgin anymore, and she wanted him to be the one to have it for what it was worth. To have her.
“Please do it, Levi...” she said into his ear.
“Only because it’s your birthday.” Levi cupped her breast and squeezed it and that was it—it was happening. Not even a stampede of the four horsemen could stop them now. He pushed the bra cup down, baring her nipple. He pinched it and she died. He lowered his mouth and licked it and she died again. Then he covered her breast with his hot mouth and sucked it and she died and was born again.
“What in God’s name do you two think you’re doing?”
Levi let Tamara down to the floor so fast her knees nearly gave out under her. The horse anklet she’d draped over her wrist fell to the ground and into the hay. She yanked her coat tight around her chest and looked at Levi, but he wasn’t looking back at her. He stared straight ahead.
There were three people in the universe and all its dimensions whom Tamara Maddox was afraid of. God and the Devil were two of the three and even God and the Devil ranked a distant second behind the one woman who could scare even Tamara Belle Maddox—she who got what she wanted when she wanted it because she wanted it—and that was the woman standing in the stables staring black ice at both her and Levi.
“Nothing? That was not nothing.”
Her mother’s voice hit her like a bucket of cold water. Levi let her go and turned and stood in front of her, giving her a chance to straighten her clothes.
“We were just kissing, Momma,” Tamara said, moving to Levi’s side. “It’s my birthday.”
“Mrs. Maddox, I swear it was a quick little birthday kiss,” Levi said. “Nothing more.”
“You are dead, boy,” her mother said. Her mother had never been fond of Granddaddy’s stable hand, but right now she wished him dead and buried, and she looked perfectly willing to do it herself.
Levi’s chin rose and his jaw set.
“What did you call me?” he asked.
“You heard me, boy. And if you ever lay a hand on my daughter again, what I call you will be the least of your problems.” She grabbed Tamara by the arm and dragged her from the stables.
“Not a word,” she said. “You wait until I tell your granddaddy about this.”
“What’s he gonna care?”
Her mother had hellfire in her eyes and her face was set in granite. She looked as scared as she did angry.
Her mother marched her from the stables, up the path and through the back door of the big house. She was so angry her hair vibrated like jelly, and considering the amount of White Rain she put in that blond aura every morning, any movement was a bad sign.
Well, this was perfect, wasn’t it? Couldn’t Tamara have one single day without her mother blowing up at her about something pointless? Yesterday she’d blown her top over Tamara saying “shit” at the dinner table. And Friday when she’d come home from her school in Louisville for Christmas break, Tamara had gotten screamed at for hauling nothing but dirty clothes back with her. Why her mother cared, Tamara didn’t know. Not like Momma did any of the laundry. Cora, the housekeeper, did all the work. Her mother didn’t work. Her mother never worked. Her mother might not know how to spell work if they were playing Scrabble and the only tiles she had were a W, an O, an R and a K. She’d probably say crow started with a K.
Inside the kitchen Tamara kicked off her muddy boots while her mother watched her. Tamara did her level best to ignore her, a feat she’d nearly perfected in the past three years since Daddy died and “angry” had become her mother’s default expression, her go-to response to anything. In the beginning Tamara had taken each little slight, each cold reply, each insult, like a brick to her face. But after a few months Tamara had put those bricks to good use and built a wall—high, deep and wide—between her and her mother until she had a fortress of her own and her mother seemed like nothing so much as a villager throwing pebbles at the queen’s castle. Of course, even when her father had been alive, her mother hadn’t been much of a treat to live with. She and Daddy had whispered jokes to each other about her mother when she got in those moods. Daddy liked to say the Devil owed him a debt and Momma was how Satan paid him back.
Once Tamara’s boots were off, her mother grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down the hallway. Arden was a massive home, a hundred-year-old Georgian-revival brick box. Every room a different color like the White House. Following her mother, Tamara passed her pink princess bedroom and the blue billiard room and the green dining room all the way to the red room on the right—her granddaddy’s study. Upstairs her granddaddy had his office and for the life of her she couldn’t figure out the difference between an office and a study except one had a desk and the other one didn’t.
Inside his study her grandfather sat on a red-and-gold armchair, holding a tumbler of bourbon—probably a bourbon sour from the looks of it—in one hand and a newspaper in the other.
“I need to discuss something with you,” her mother said.
“You always do, Virginia,” Granddaddy said, turning a page in the newspaper without looking up.
“Granddaddy, Momma—” Tamara began, but her mother cut her off.
“You get to your room right now, and don’t you dare step foot out of it until I tell you.”
“What’s going on here?” Now Granddaddy was paying attention. He laid the newspaper on his lap in a neat heap of pages. In the overcast afternoon light he didn’t look much more than fifty years old, although he was well over sixty. He had a full head of hair and a face that reminded people of Lee Majors. Women called him the Six-Million-Dollar Man behind his back because they said that was probably how much money he kept in his wallet. Even sitting in his chair he looked big and strong and in control—the opposite of her twig-thin angry little mother.
“I caught your stable boy kissing my daughter,” her mother said.
“Levi? Kissing Tamara?”
“I asked him to, since it’s my birthday,” Tamara said quickly. “That’s all. Nothing else happened.”
“And this is worth my time?” Her grandfather addressed the question to her mother, not her.
“It was more than a kiss. That boy was all over her.”
“It was just a kiss,” Tamara said, yelling the words, overenunciating them like her mother was both slow and partially deaf.
“It was Levi Shelby, are you hearing me?” Her mother outyelled her. “Levi Shelby. I told you and told you not to have that boy around here. I told you and you didn’t listen and you still aren’t listening and you’re gonna pay a big price for not listening to me someday.”
Her granddaddy took a big old inhale and let out a big old exhale.
“I’m listening to you, Virginia.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing,” Tamara said. “There’s nothing either of you have to do about it. It’s my birthday. I asked Levi to kiss me. That’s all that happened.”
“Go to your room right this second,” her mother ordered.
“Go on, baby,” Granddaddy said, waving his newspaper like he was shooing a dog from the room.
“Go.” Her mother pointed a long white finger tipped in a long red fingernail at the door. Tamara left. She shut the door behind her and trudged down the hall, but slowly, slow enough she could hear them still talking. Her mother said, “This is all your fault,” which was a classic Momma thing to say. How was Levi kissing her or her kissing Levi her grandfather’s fault?
Tamara went into her bedroom and sat on the bed, waiting and trying not to cry. She’d been given the only downstairs bedroom when they’d moved in and as a “treat” to her they’d had it painted pink, since that was a color sure to please a girl. It didn’t please her. It was Pepto-Bismol pink and it caused her more stomachaches than it cured.
Finally her bedroom door swung open and slammed shut. Her mother stood before her, hands on hips. Tamara stared at the floor.
“So...how long has this been going on?” she asked.
“What’s going on?”
“Answer me,” her mother said.
“Nothing’s going on. I told you, I asked Levi to kiss me because it’s my birthday. He did. That’s all.”
“Did he touch you?”
“Well, his lips touched me.”
“Did he touch you under your clothes?”
“No, Momma.” Tamara groaned and rolled her eyes. “We kissed. That’s all. I’m sixteen. Am I not allowed to kiss boys?”
“You aren’t allowed to do anything. Nothing. Nothing without my permission or your granddaddy’s.”
“Fine. Get Granddaddy in here. We’ll ask him if I’m allowed to kiss a boy on my birthday.”
“You can ask him about Levi Shelby, but you’re not gonna like his answer.”
Her mother stood with her arms crossed, her high-heeled brown leather boot tapping on the hardwood floor. Once, Virginia Maddox had been a real beauty. Tamara had seen the pictures. But she wore too much makeup and dyed her Farrah Fawcett hair until it was dry and cracking. Most days she looked well-put-together, but on days like this Tamara could see the seams showing.
“Tamara, I’m going to tell you something you’re not going to like to hear, but you better hear it.”
“You have one role to play in this family,” she said. “Only one. Your uncle Eric is dead. And your daddy, Nash, is dead. You are the only Maddox left after your grandfather’s gone. I know you think this makes you special. And I know you think this means you can get away with murder if you feel like it. But it doesn’t. It means the opposite. It means you don’t get to do anything and everything you want to do. It means you have to fill your role because there’s no one else to do the job you need to do. And you better believe if you don’t shape up and grow up and do what your grandfather tells you to do, you will end up with nothing. I will not let you screw this up, not after all I’ve put up with.”
“I’m only sixteen. What am I supposed to do?”
“You know. You’ve always known.”
Tamara sighed. “I know. I have to get married. I have to have babies.” She knew this. She had known this for years now. Two years ago she wanted to get a Dorothy Hamill haircut and her mother had told her no way—girls who wanted husbands did not have short hair. “I have to keep Red Thread alive, blah blah blah.”
“Yes, you do. And you have no choice in the matter.”
“I don’t have a choice in any matter. You don’t give me a choice. Granddaddy doesn’t give me a choice. I might as well be in prison for all the choices I have.”
“You want a choice?”
“I’d love a choice,” Tamara said.
“Fine. Here’s your choice. You can pick between Kermit or Levi. How’s that for a choice?”
“What do you mean pick between them?”
“I mean, I’m going to fire Levi or I’m going to sell Kermit to the glue factory. So what’s it going to be?”
“You can’t do that. You can’t make me fire Levi or kill my horse. You can’t...” Tamara’s voice broke on the words.
“Oh, I can. I can and I will and not even your granddaddy will try to stop me. And you know what? It’s for your own good and you don’t even know it.”
“It’s not for my own good. It’s for your own good.”
“Pick, princess. You wanted a choice. I’m giving you a choice.”
“I’m not going to choose between Levi and Kermit. I will not.” Tamara stood up and crossed her arms over her chest. “I absolutely will not do that.”
“Both, then. Levi gets fired and I sell Kermit. Hell, maybe I’ll take your granddaddy’s revolver out of his desk and put that damn horse down right now.”
“Momma—” Tamara choked on her tears. She took a step forward, arms out, beseeching her mother to relent.
“Oh, don’t even try that baby-girl routine on me,” her mother said, shaking her head so hard her dangling gold-and-diamond earrings clinked like tiny bells. “You won’t talk me out of this. You don’t even know what you’re getting into with Levi. So decide and decide right now. You got three seconds to tell me—Kermit or Levi. One...”
“But Daddy gave me Kermit.”
“Your daddy gave himself a bullet in the brain, so your daddy don’t get a say in this. Two...”
“Momma, no. Please don’t make me.”
“Kermit or Levi. Tell me now.”
“You,” Tamara said. “You go take Granddaddy’s revolver and you put yourself down, and me and Kermit and Levi will ride off into the sunset, you nasty old bitch.”
Her mother slapped her. Hard. So hard Tamara gasped and nearly fell on her side.
“Momma...” Tamara choked out a sob. She pressed her hand to her cheek and felt the heat of pain and shame.
“One of these days, Tamara, I swear...you’re going to get what you want and it’ll be the last thing you want.”
Her mother turned and left, slamming the door behind her hard enough the pictures rattled in the frames. Tamara panted on the bed, her cheek stinging, her whole body burning with rage. And where was her mother going?
Tamara ripped her bedroom door open and tore down the hall after her mother. She knew her mother was going to shoot her horse. She knew it. The carpet scalded her naked feet as she raced toward the front door. It was too late; her mother was already out of the house. But she wasn’t heading to the stables, but to her Cadillac parked in the U-bend of the driveway. The car door slammed. The headlights flickered on and Tamara watched as the car—seemingly driverless behind the steamed-up windows—wended its way toward the main road.
Kermit wasn’t who Momma was after. Levi. Momma was going after Levi. What would she do? Go to the police and report him for molesting Tamara? Go to his home and fire him to his face? What was happening? Where was she going?
“Momma...come back,” Tamara whispered under her breath. If Tamara apologized, she could talk her mother out of it. If she swore to be good, if she swore she’d never go out to the stables again alone with Levi there...
“You’re letting the heat out, baby girl.”
Tamara turned around and saw her grandfather standing in the doorway of his study looking at her.
“Momma left. Do you know where she went?”
“I asked her to give us some time alone to talk. I think you two have had enough of each other for the day.”
“She said I had to pick between Levi keeping his job and Kermit. She said she’d shoot my horse. She can’t do that, can she?”
“You try to stop her.”
“She can’t fire Levi. Not for kissing me. Kissing isn’t a crime.” Burning tears, hot as steaming tea, ran down her face.
He walked over to her, so big and so strong, and wrapped her in his arms, his warm Granddaddy arms. He held her as she cried against his chest, not holding back, letting the tears flow and flow. Maybe her tears could touch his heart. Maybe her despair would convince him of just how evil her mother was acting. If her grandfather put his foot down with her mother, he could save Kermit and Levi. If... On and on she cried, on and on until she was half-sick from it and coughed.
“Enough of that now. Enough.” He stroked her back and her hair.
“Don’t be sorry. You go and take a long hot bath and put on your nightgown. I’ll bring you something to help you calm down and we can talk this out.” He put his fingertips under her chin and lifted her face.
“What’s gonna help me calm down? A hammer to my head?”
“I’ll find us something real good. No hammers.” He winked. “Go on now. I’ll come to your room when you’re done. You and I need to have a long talk.”
“Your mother and I made a decision about you today. We both decided it was high time you started earning some of what you’ve been given. Your mother’s idea, not mine. But if she says I gotta, I gotta. You know how your mother is.”
“What am I supposed to earn?” Tamara asked. She was only sixteen. Not like she could get a job or anything. What did they want from her?
“It’s high time you earn your place in this family. Your mother thinks you’re getting a bit too big for your britches. She told me to take you down a peg or two.”
“I’m down all the pegs I can go down.”
“Now, you and I both know that’s not true. Lot of girls would kill to wear your boots, Tamara. You’re a lucky girl and you take a lot of what we give you for granted. Your mother wants you to step up a little, start doing more around this house, doing more in this family, doing more for me.”
“I’ll do whatever she wants, I promise. Long as she doesn’t fire Levi or kill Kermit.”
He cupped her face in his big warm hand.
“That’s my girl.”
Bonnie Tyler’s voice crooned on the radio and Tamara sang along. “It’s a Heartache” was her new favorite song. She was long overdue for one, having worn out her 45 of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac weeks ago. Tamara sang along softly as she dried off with a plush pink towel. Granddaddy was a smart man. Taking a long hot bath had definitely made her feel better. When Momma came back, Tamara would tell her how sorry she was. Then she’d offer to be grounded from riding Kermit for as long as her mother said. That should take care of that. Kermit could stay and Levi could stay. Tamara would avoid the stables for a month, two months, six months...whatever term her mother deemed sufficient. It would all blow over once Tamara took all the blame.
She heard the door to her bedroom open and shut and she reached out her hand fast as she could to lock the bathroom door. She didn’t even have any clothes on yet.
“You finished, baby?” Granddaddy called out.
Tamara pulled on her panties and her nightshirt. The shirt didn’t go two inches past her bottom, so she had to put on the stupid ugly old-lady housecoat she’d gotten for Christmas last year that her mother insisted she wear over her nightclothes. Tamara usually ignored that order. The thing was ugly as sin and it would be a sin to wear it. With a mandarin collar that buttoned at the throat and a hem that landed all the way down around her ankles, it looked like a nun’s habit in pink. But it was either this or go traipsing around the room in her underwear in front of her grandfather. Neither one of them wanted that.
She quickly braided her wet hair and with towel in hand emerged into her bedroom. Granddaddy sat on the window seat with a bottle in front of him and two glasses.
“Is Momma back yet?” Tamara asked as she walked over to the window. The soft rain had turned to a hard rain. It had rained all week and Tamara wasn’t sure if she’d ever see the sun again.
“She’s not coming home tonight.”
“What? Why not?”
Was her mother that angry with her? That wasn’t a good sign.
“She knows you and I need to have a long talk.” Granddaddy uncapped the bottle of Red Thread he’d brought in with him. “She’s going to stay at the little inn in town. Just you and me tonight.”
“Are we safe here? The news said the river’s overflowing.”
He shook his head as he poured a finger of bourbon into one glass and two fingers of bourbon into the other. He set the two fingers in front of her.
“Don’t you worry about that. This house has stood for over a hundred years with the river right behind us. We’ll make it another hundred.”
“If you say so,” she said, not sure she trusted his judgment as implicitly as he did. Granddaddy was the richest man in the state and everyone knew it. People bent to his will all day long—she’d seen it with her own eyes. He’d get pulled over for speeding and the cop would look at his license, laugh and let him off with a warning. Restaurant owners would bring him drinks on the house. One hotel he stayed at in Louisville assigned him his own personal concierge to fetch and carry for him. People were one thing, but something told her the river wouldn’t bend to his will quite so readily. The river had been here before Granddaddy and it would be here after.
“You’ve had quite a day, haven’t you, little lady?” He took up twice as much room as she did on the window seat.
“Happy Birthday to me, right?”
“Want to tell me what’s going with you and ole Levi?”
“Nothing’s going on with me and ole Levi.”
Granddaddy raised his eyebrows and his glass. He took a sip and so did she, wincing. She’d had a taste of bourbon here and there—the house was full of the stuff—but she hadn’t had nearly enough to get used to it yet. She hadn’t even figured out coffee yet.
“Your mother claims she caught you two rolling in the hay.”
She flushed crimson. Bad enough talking about Levi with her mother. If she had a shovel, she would dig her own grave with it right now.
“There was hay, but no rolling,” she said. “I asked him to kiss me on my birthday, and he kissed me on my birthday. Tomorrow’s not my birthday, so he won’t kiss me tomorrow.”
“You sound a little disappointed about that.”
She shrugged and sat back, her arms clutching her pillow. When she exhaled through her nose, the window turned into a cloud.
“You like him?” her granddaddy asked her. He reached out and pinched her toe. How drunk was he? Very, she guessed. Very very. “Tamara, answer me?”
She laughed at the toe pinch. “Yes, I like him.”
“How much do you like him?”
“I don’t know. A lot?” She finally met her grandfather’s eyes. He was smiling, but the smile didn’t make her feel any better. This was the last conversation in the history of conversations she wanted to be having with her grandfather.
“A lot, huh?” Granddaddy sat back and kicked his boots off. They landed on the little pink rug by her rocking chair and left a boot polish stain. She didn’t care. She was so sick of pink she was ready to burn the house down to get rid of it all.
“A lot. More than a lot, whatever that is.”
“I’ve noticed you and him talking before.”
“He dotes on you.”
“He does not. He’s mean to me. He tells me I’m lazy and he makes me muck the stalls and he says I’m spoiled rotten. He even calls me Rotten. I don’t think he’s ever called me by my name.”
“I used to call your grandmother Ornery because she was the orneriest woman I ever met. Drove me crazy when she was younger. I couldn’t keep my hands off her.”
“Granddaddy, really. I don’t want to hear any of that at all, now or ever.”
“You’re old enough now to hear about things you don’t want to hear about.”
“I still don’t want to hear about them.”
He sighed and nodded.
“Such a pretty girl you’ve turned into,” he said. “I’m surprised Levi’s the only boy we’ve had trouble with over you.”
“Y’all send me to an all-girls school, remember?”
“It’s a good school.”
“It’s an all-girls school,” she said again.
“I went to an all-boys school, Millersburg Military. Best school in the state.”
“Great. Can I go there instead?”
“And you wonder why we try to keep a close eye on you,” he said, giving her a smile. “Maybe we should have kept a closer eye.”
“Momma’s only mad because she hates Levi for no good reason.”
“She has good reason.”
“I know he’s older than me, but he’s not that much older. And he’s good with the horses. And Momma said either I had to let her fire Levi or she’d give Kermit to the glue factory. I can’t live without Levi. I can’t live without Kermit. Is she trying to kill me?”
“You won’t die without Levi.”
“Maybe I will,” she said. She might. Stranger things had happened. “I don’t get why Momma hates him anyway, other than I think she hates everybody.”
Granddaddy sighed another one of his Granddaddy sighs. She smelled cigar and bourbon in that sigh. She wanted to open the window.
“There’s something you don’t know about Levi you need to know. Long time ago, Levi’s mother used to work for me. She cleaned the Red Thread offices.”
“She was a janitor?”
Tamara felt a stab of pity for Levi. Growing up the son of a cleaning lady must not have been easy. She knew his mother was already dead, but he’d never mentioned that she used to clean for Granddaddy. “Momma hates him because his mother used to be a cleaning lady?”
“Tamara, honey, his mother was black. You didn’t know that?”
Tamara narrowed her eyes at her grandfather.
“He’s light skinned. But he’s not white.”
There wasn’t a word to express Tamara’s shock.
“His daddy was white,” Granddaddy said with a shrug. “Happens sometimes. And you never know which way the baby will go—light or dark or a mix of both.”
“But he’s got blue eyes. That’s a recessive trait. We learned about it in biology. I had to do a Mendel chart on eye color. He’d have to be white on both sides to have blue eyes.”
Granddaddy chuckled again and she didn’t know what he found so funny. She didn’t find this a bit funny at all. Her mother hated Levi because his mother was black? That was the worst thing she’d ever heard in her life.
The worst thing.
In her life.
“Most of them have a little white way back. Our doing, of course. That doesn’t make him white, though. My parents were both right-handed and here I am, a lefty. You think my momma was stepping out with the milkman?”
Tamara ignored the question. Her mother had called Levi “boy” and Levi had seemed to take more offense at that than Tamara thought made sense. She got called “girl” all the time, but even she knew there was a big difference between calling a white boy “boy” and a black boy “boy.”
“That’s why Momma hates Levi?”
“She is not very happy about his parentage, we’ll say that.”
“I don’t care if he’s part black or part red or part green. I don’t care who his mother was, or his father. If his father was Hitler and his mother was Diana Ross, I wouldn’t care at all.”
She might care, but only because she really liked Diana Ross.
“But I care who your mother is. And who your father is.”
“You do and you know you do. You’re a Maddox and that means something. You’re special, Tamara.”
“I don’t see why. Not like I had any choice in it.”
“Doesn’t matter. The Queen of England was born the Queen of England. She can’t change being queen, but she can decide what kind of queen she’s going to be—a good queen or a bad queen. And you have the same choice.”
“Okay, I’ll be the Queen of England, then.”
“You’ll be something better than that. You’ll be my queen. And you will run the whole kingdom of Red Thread. You and me, Tamara, we’re special. We’re the only two people on this earth with Jacob Maddox’s blood in our veins. Did you know that?”
“I know,” she said, but she still didn’t see that it made them very special. She’d never met Jacob Maddox, the man who’d founded the Red Thread Bourbon Distillery. He’d been dead forever. And apart from starting the family business, she didn’t know anything about him.
“I wish there were more of us. But your grandmother was fragile up here,” he said, tapping his forehead. “And her health wasn’t too good, either. After two sons, we had to stop. Then she had her stroke and I can’t remarry, not that I’d want to,” he said, although she sensed he did want to, wanted to very much. She would if she were him anyway, and God knew half the single ladies in the county were counting the seconds until Granddaddy was back on the market. “Your uncle Eric died over in Vietnam before he could get married and start his family. And your daddy, of course...”
“Right. Daddy.” Daddy was dead and had been dead for three years, five months and sixteen days. But who was counting?
“We’d hoped he and your mother would have a big family, but that wasn’t to be, either.”
“I don’t think they liked each other too much,” Tamara said, which was both true and wasn’t. Granddaddy had liked to tease her mother sometimes about the babies she hadn’t contributed to the Maddox family tree and Daddy would tell him to back off and leave her alone, which Granddaddy would counter with “If you didn’t leave her alone, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation.” She’d never figured her mother and father out. They were friendly and yet they seemed like the last two people on earth who should have been married to each other. “He must not have liked me much, either, since he killed himself.”
“He loved you,” he said, although Tamara wondered. Did men who really loved their daughters shoot themselves in the head and leave them to fend for themselves with a crazy mother?
“I loved him, too. I miss him.” She clutched her pink pillow even tighter to her chest.
“I know you do. We all do. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thought about how good it was to hold him in my arms after he was born. And Eric, too. My boys. My beautiful boys. I’d give anything to have that again—a new son of my own. Anything at all. Do you feel like that about something? That you’d give anything to have it?”
“I’d give anything to have Daddy back.”
That answer seemed to surprise him.
“Well, yes. You and me both, sweetheart.”
She wasn’t sure she believed him and she felt bad about that. Granddaddy talked about her uncle Eric all the time—handsome, strong, smart, the son of any man’s dreams. But Nash? Her father? Granddaddy almost never talked about him unless someone else brought him up.
“I wish Momma would come back, too,” she said. But from the looks of the dark and the wet and the new rain coming down, it didn’t appear her mother was coming back anytime soon. She found her grandfather looking at her, studying her. He’d been doing that more lately, watching her. Sometimes it didn’t feel like his gaze was on her so much as his hands. She liked it when Levi looked at her. But not even he looked at her like this.
“Angel, I know it’s not easy being a Maddox. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. Your grandmother wanted to go to college instead of getting married. But her family had money trouble, so she got married. You do what you have to do for your family. Like Jacob Maddox.”
“What about him?”
“My grandfather Jacob Maddox got married for money, too. Married a lady named Henrietta Arden. That’s why this house is called Arden, because we wouldn’t have it but for her.”
“Did we get all our money from his wife?”
“No, ma’am. She got ole Jacob out of debt, but the real money? He made that all by himself. Back before Red Thread existed, Jacob had a hemp and tobacco plantation. That was the original Arden. Jacob, as it sometimes happened in those days, fell in with one of the slave girls. Her name was Veritas, but they called her Vera for short. They did love to give out fancy names to their slaves, and she was a fancy girl. Her mother had worked in the kitchens before she died and Vera had taken over her work. The house girls had to dress nice and look nice and act nice. Vera always wore a red ribbon in her hair. One morning Jacob decided he’d rather have Vera for breakfast than steak and eggs.”
Her grandfather chuckled again over the rim of his glass before taking another sip. Tamara was getting real tired of that chuckle.
“But Henrietta was not especially pleased when Vera’s belly started getting real big and it wasn’t because they were overfeeding the girl. One day Jacob went out of town on business, and while he was gone, what did Henrietta do? She sold little Vera. Sold her for a good price. The man who bought her got a good deal—two for the price of one.”
Tamara only stared at the bourbon in her glass. She didn’t want to drink it anymore.
“You can’t sell people,” Tamara said quietly.
“Oh, but you could back then. They say Jacob saw every shade of red when he came home to find nothing left of his favorite girl and his baby but the red ribbon she always wore in her hair and a thousand dollars he hadn’t had before. But he didn’t cry long. You know what he did with that money?”
“Started Red Thread?”
“That’s right. He started Red Thread. He bought a still, bought some corn and got to work making this family the wealthiest family in the state. But you know what? He must have loved that girl Vera, because when he started the bourbon distillery, he put a red ribbon around the neck of every bottle in her memory. Put her red ribbon on the very first bottle. We still have that bottle locked up in my office.”
“Can I see it?”
“Maybe later,” he said. She wasn’t allowed in Granddaddy’s office upstairs. No one was. “It’s been handed down from one Maddox son to the next. It’ll be your son’s someday.”
“We still have the ribbon?” Tamara asked, wanting to see it for some reason, wanting to have it. She should have it, and her granddaddy shouldn’t.
“We do. That red ribbon is what made us our money. Wives would tell their husbands, ‘Honey, go and buy some of that Red Thread bourbon because I want that pretty ribbon.’ Jacob Maddox was a smart man. Must have been a romantic, too. Red ribbon on every bottle? He must have loved that girl.”
“Or maybe loved waving that red ribbon in his wife’s face,” Tamara said.
“Well...maybe he loved doing that, too.”
“What happened to Veritas?” Tamara asked.
“Oh, hell, I don’t know.” Granddaddy waved his hand dismissively. “They sold her, and she wasn’t too happy about it. They say she swore at Mrs. Maddox, vowing she would come back someday and cut us off at our roots. She would end our line if it was the last thing she did. As you can see,” Granddaddy said, pointing at himself with his thumb, “that prophecy didn’t quite come to pass. Although we haven’t had the luck with babies as I’d hoped we’d have.”
“I guess not,” she said, feeling sick at her stomach. Was it the bourbon? She’d barely sipped it. Or was it Veritas screaming curses at Tamara’s great-great-grandmother all those years ago? Poor Veritas. They hadn’t even let her keep her red ribbon when they sold her.
“The Maddoxes are blessed and cursed all at once,” he said, pouring himself another shot of the Red Thread. “God gives us wealth and prosperity with one hand and takes away the children we need to carry on the line with the other.”
“It’s too bad,” she said. She felt for her grandfather. He’d had a brother and sister, but his sister had polio and didn’t make it past thirty and his brother hadn’t lived past age ten—scarlet fever.
“A man shouldn’t have to bury his own sons.”
And a girl shouldn’t have to bury her father. That wasn’t right, either. Nothing seemed right tonight.
Her grandfather lifted the glass to his lips. He lowered it before he took a drink.
“Are you going to let Momma fire Levi?” she asked.
“Your mother seemed quite intent on it.”
“Because we kissed?”
“If you don’t fire him, I promise I won’t ever kiss him again.”
He smiled and laughed. “You know you don’t mean that. I think you want to kiss him again. And I don’t think you want to be good, either.”
“Does anybody want to be good?”
“You oughta want to be good.”
“But I’m not good. I asked Levi to kiss me. He wouldn’t have done it otherwise.”
“I don’t know about that. I think he would have done it eventually.”
“Please, Granddaddy, don’t let her fire him for something I asked him to do.”
“I’m probably gonna have to let him go to shut your mother up. She is not a happy camper today.”
“She’s never a happy camper. She should quit camping.” Tamara giggled, but it was a miserable sound even to her own ears. A few tears hit her cheeks and she couldn’t swipe them off fast enough.
“What, angel? What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t want Levi to get fired. That’s all. And I don’t want Momma to send away Kermit to punish me.” And she didn’t want her father to be dead and her mother to be so angry all the time. She should have asked for those things for her birthday instead of the stupid car. “I’ll move to Arizona. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go live with Grandma and Grandpa Darling and then Levi can keep his job and Kermit can stay here with Levi.”
It was a good idea. No, it was a great idea. Soon as she said it, she knew that was what she’d do. Soon as her mother came home, she’d tell her the idea. She’d go away for a semester, live with her other grandparents, and her mother would miss her so much that she’d give up this crazy awful idea of firing Levi and selling Kermit.
“Come here, sweetheart. Come over here.” He held out his arms to her and reluctantly Tamara crawled into them and rested her head against her grandfather’s chest. He felt warm and solid and harmless. She could smell the bourbon on his breath and the cigar he liked to smoke in the evenings. Grandfather-type smells. “I’m not letting you move to Arizona. No, ma’am.”
“Because you’re a Maddox and you’re my girl. Listen...do you have any idea how lucky you are?” he asked, rubbing her back. “You almost weren’t a Maddox, you know.”
She raised her head and looked up at Granddaddy in shock.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you were born six months after your momma and daddy got married. You know that much, right?”
“Well...yeah. I can do math.”
“Now don’t get me wrong, Nash loved you. But he did not want to marry your mother. It was the last thing he wanted to do. I had to twist his arm a little.”
“How?” She hadn’t ever heard this part of the story.
“When talking to the boy didn’t get his head on straight, I threatened to disown him. Your mother was carrying the next Maddox and there he was, being stubborn as a mule. He finally gave in after we made a little trade. There’s an island off the coast of South Carolina where we grow our trees. All the trees that make up the barrels we use for aging Red Thread. He said he wanted the island, so I gave it to him as a wedding gift. Then he married your mother. And so you were a Maddox the day you were born. You could have been a Darling, no Daddy, no Granddaddy, no nothing. That’s why I say you’re a lucky girl. Things could have gone very different for you, angel.”
Tamara couldn’t say a word. Her father had been so against marrying her mother he had to be bought off with an entire island? And if he hadn’t given in, she wouldn’t have had a father? Her grandparents on her mother’s side did okay for themselves. Grandpa Darling had been a bank president here in Frankfort until he retired and moved out to Arizona for the weather. As religious as they were, they probably would have kicked Momma out for having a child out of wedlock. Was that why her mother put up with Granddaddy? Because she knew he’d been the only thing standing between her and poverty?
“Daddy didn’t want to be my father?” she finally asked.
“Oh, he did. But not until you were born. The second you were born, everything changed. Love at first sight. You were his girl from day one.”
That made Tamara smile. She’d always known her mother and grandfather had been disappointed she’d been a girl. At least one person in this family had been happy she’d been born a girl. Other than her, that is.
“Aren’t you glad you’re a Maddox?” Granddaddy asked. She knew what she was supposed to answer.
“Yes, I am.”
“Being a Maddox means something in this state. Something important. We are the first family of Kentucky in a lot of ways. We’ve been here since before the state was a state. We’ve had governors in the family, senators. Since before the Civil War we’ve had the distillery. Only four distilleries were allowed to stay open during Prohibition and we were one of them. Even the federal government wouldn’t dare shut us down. And we make bourbon and bourbon is a perfect drink. Nothing like it. The problem with perfection is that’s not something we little human beings were born for. Perfection comes from heaven and we’re here on earth. So when you have something perfect like our family and our legacy and our bourbon, we have to pay a toll on it.”
“That’s what the angels’ share is. We put fifty-three gallons of bourbon into each barrel to age. And the angels come drink their fill of it. Like paying taxes. So by the time we open that barrel up to sell the bourbon, nearly half is gone. That’s why we lose so many Maddox boys in this family. Things aren’t supposed to be perfect this side of heaven. And now that there’s only two of us left in the world—you and me—we better stick together before the angels come and get us. Right?”
“Right,” she said, nodding against the warm flannel of his chest.
“You know, your mother only wants what’s best for you. You worry her and that worry keeps her up at night.”
“Why’s she worried?”
“Because you’re the only Maddox grandchild. She wants you to do right by the family, and she’s worried you won’t.”
“I’ll do whatever I’m supposed to do. She doesn’t have to worry.”
“She wants me to leave everything to you in my will. She thinks I won’t do it because you’re a girl, and we’ve always left the company to the oldest boy in the family.” He picked up her braid and tickled her nose with the end of it.
“Is that why you two fight all the time?” Tamara looked up at him.
“You know about the fighting?”
“You two don’t hide it very well. You’re fighting because Momma thinks you’re going to disown me for being a girl?”
“We fight for a lot of reasons, but none that need to worry you. And you don’t need to worry about anything. As things stand today, when I die, you’ll inherit everything. The company, the house, the land, all of it. Now, I’m hoping by the time I kick the bucket, you’ll have had a baby boy or two, but you make no mistake, Granddaddy’s going to take care of you.”
“You’re not going to die anytime soon,” Tamara said. “You’re going to live for twenty or thirty years, and I’ll get married someday and have kids. Then we’ll have a boy in the family again, since that’s what everyone wants.”
“I’m not getting any younger. But even at my age a man has needs, things he wants to accomplish, things he wants to achieve. Now I’ve got money enough for a hundred men, you know what I really want?”
Tamara didn’t know.
Suddenly Tamara didn’t want to know.
“What I want is another son and to see him grow up.”
“It must be hard for you with Grandma in the nursing home.”
“I’m sure it’s harder for her than it is for me. If there’s anything left of her in there anymore. Not sure that there is.”
Tamara knew better than to suggest he get divorced. If there was anything that would tarnish the family name, it would be her grandfather divorcing his invalid wife so he could get remarried to any one of the fluttering young things who multiplied like fruit flies around him whenever he went out on the town.
“I wish there was something we could do,” she said. “I wish there was a way we could fix everything.”
If she had a magic wand, she’d wave it and her father would be alive again, and her uncle Eric, whom she’d never met. Her mother would be kind and loving instead of bitter and angry. Her grandmother would be healed and could walk and talk again instead of sitting all day in a wheelchair in a fancy nursing home that smelled like a morgue. And she’d wave it one last time and she and Levi would magically be together and that kiss they’d kissed today would be the beginning of a very good story.
“Actually, there is something we could do,” her grandfather said. “Something you and I can do. And even better, it’s something your mother wants us to do. And if you’re game for it, we’ll make sure Levi keeps his job here and you don’t have to go to Arizona and you can keep Kermit and your momma will be very, very happy for once in her damn life. How does that sound?”
“Sounds good to me,” she said. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
“I know you will, angel,” he said.
Then Granddaddy kissed her.
Tamara’s entire body, her entire being, recoiled as her grandfather’s bourbon-laced mouth came down onto hers. She tried to wrench herself from him, but he grasped her upper arms and wouldn’t let her budge. A sound came out the back of her throat, a sound like squealing tires, and a scream that couldn’t escape.
His lips felt huge on hers, as if they could and would devour her in a bite if he tried. His stubble scraped her face painfully and it itched like poison ivy. Panic set in. Tamara thrashed and writhed in his arms like a cat in a trap, but he had her and wasn’t letting her go.
She became aware of her feet then, sliding across the hardwood floor and then the rug under the bed. They were moving not of her own accord. With a tug and a pull, her grandfather dragged her bodily to the bed.
“Calm down, girl,” he said, soothing her like a wild pony. “Calm down. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
But he’d already hurt her. Nothing he could do or say would unhurt her.
She tried yanking her arms free of his hands, but he merely tightened his grip. It felt like he was cutting the circulation off to her lower arms he held her so firm and fast. She went limp as a corpse. If he dropped her, she could maybe get away. But despite his age, he was still strong as a stallion.
“Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t...” She chanted the words like a magic spell, but they had no effect on him. He hoisted her off her feet with all the ceremony and gentleness he used when throwing bags of horse feed into the back of his truck and pushed her onto the bed. With one hand he held her arms over her head onto the pillows; with his free hand he loosened his belt buckle.
“Tamara, you have got to calm down.” He used his most grandfatherly tone on her—chiding and slightly exasperated. She’d gotten stung by a bee when she’d been little and had screamed so hard everyone thought she was dying. Those were his words back then when trying to get her to surrender her hysterics. “You’ll hurt yourself if you keep fighting. Calm down and, I promise, it’ll be over fast.”
“Please don’t do this. I don’t want to do this.”
“Yes, you do, baby.” He nodded his head, but still he straddled her hips and sat on her thighs to still the frantic kicking of her legs. “You said you did.”
“I don’t want to anymore.” She wept the words and choked on them. She could hear her own voice and it sounded alien to her, foreign. She’d never heard herself scream like this, never heard herself cry like this, never heard herself pray to every god and goddess anyone had ever put their faith in to save her from what was about to happen to her. “Please...” She thrashed and squirmed. Tears scored her face, sticky and hot.
“We only got to do it a few times.” He ran his hand through her hair, gently, ignoring her thrashing, ignoring her pain.
“I can marry somebody. I can find somebody. I’ll have his baby right away. I swear to God I will.” Maybe she could bargain her way out of this. She’d marry any man on earth right now to get away from this moment, from this man.
“It’s gotta be me, angel. It has to be me. But once you’re pregnant, we’ll get you married and get you set up in a nice house. And you can have anything and everything you want. That sounds all right, doesn’t it? You won’t have to live with your momma anymore. I know you’ll like that. You can even marry Levi, and won’t that make your momma mad.” He chuckled then like he’d made a joke. A joke.
Somewhere inside Tamara, somewhere deep inside, something clicked. Or maybe it didn’t click. Maybe it snapped. A switch flipped. A light went on. A match was struck. A fuse lit. Something burned, something smoldered.
...you better believe if you don’t shape up and grow up and do what your grandfather tells you to do, you will end up with nothing. I will not let you screw this up, not after all I’ve put up with.
It’s high time you earn your place in this family. Your mother thinks you’re getting a bit too big for your britches. She told me to take you down a peg or two.
This was why Momma left and didn’t come back. This was why. Because her mother had sold her, sold her out to her own grandfather. Sold her body to him in exchange for Red Thread. Her mother...that coward, that bitch, had driven away, leaving her alone with him so she didn’t have to hear her daughter’s screams. And her grandfather, this vile piece of shit, was going to rape her until she was knocked up and he could marry her off. He wanted a baby boy so bad he was going to make her have it for him. He would fuck her until she gave him one. If the first baby was a girl, he’d fuck her again and again and again. All for his dirty kingdom. If she could, she’d burn to the ground, right here and right now. She wanted fire, fire everywhere. She wanted her grandfather burning in hell and her mother burning right next to him and the house burning down, taking all of Red Thread with it.
Tamara pushed against her grandfather’s chest as hard as she could. Then she saw something.
A brown pool of water crept in under the door. She noticed it first. Her grandfather was too preoccupied undoing his pants to notice anything. But when he turned his head, he saw it, too.
“What the hell?” he said, his brow furrowed in frustration and confusion. For one second he looked the other way. For one second his mind wasn’t on her and what he was doing. For one second the water rapidly rushing into the room was more important than anything, even this.
That one second was all Tamara needed.
With her free hand she grabbed the lamp off the nightstand and smashed it against his head. He screamed and blood burst from his temple. In a daze he slumped onto his side, his hand over the bleeding wound, swearing and blinking, and Tamara wriggled her way out from under his bulk. Frantically she looked around for a weapon—anything would do—and saw a heavy silver candlestick on top of the dresser. Two inches of water surrounded her ankles as she stood up off the bed. Two inches and rising fast. The candlestick was heavy and square—art deco, a gift from her grandmother—and when she slammed it down onto her granddaddy’s head, it made a soft and awful thudding sound. He keeled over, not moving, not a muscle.
A gust of wind brushed across her body, lifting her hair. Ice-cold wind like someone had left the door open to winter and called it inside.
Tamara stood there and giggled a little. She’d gone to a slumber party two weeks ago and they’d played Clue. Miss Scarlet in the bedroom with the candlestick...
Noises came from the side of the house, jarring her from her delirium—something falling over, something else cracking and wood splintering like a door coming off the hinges. The water in the house was a foot high now, muddy and stinking and ice-cold. The shattered remains of the lamp covered the bed like glitter. In the window seat sat the bottle of Red Thread. Tamara picked it up and smashed it against the wall. The red ribbon around its neck fell into the water. She fished it out and grabbed her grandfather’s hand, twisting the ribbon around his index finger. He moaned and Tamara gasped. The water reached her knees.
Tamara grasped her grandfather by the ankles and dragged him off the bed. She couldn’t get any traction at first, but terror gave her strength. She tugged and lugged and pulled. His penis hung out of his unzipped pants like a fat earthworm. If she had garden shears handy, she would cut it off his body.
With one final yank on his belt loops, Tamara heaved him off the bed into the cold dirty water. And then, because she knew she had no other choice if she wanted to survive this night, she grabbed two fistfuls of his Lee Majors hair and shoved his head under the water.
Some part of his brain must have registered what was happening to him. He thrashed hard after the first inhale of muck, but she had the advantage now and wasn’t going to lose it. She held him down until he stopped moving and, to be on the safe side, long after he stopped moving.
When it was done, she stood there looking at him there in the water, floating, seaworthy as a garbage bag. He didn’t look like a person anymore.
From the other room came a screeching sound—the river rearranging the furniture. Tamara ripped the silky pink cover off her bed and shook the broken glass out of it. Wrapping it around herself like a shawl, she waded through the now knee-deep water to the door. The house had gone mad. Chairs floated. Papers and books bobbed on the surface like toy boats. The smell of sewage permeated the air. Somewhere a light flickered and Tamara had a new fear then—electrocution. She heard a squeak and saw movement in the water—a gray rat swimming down the hall to save itself. Panicking, Tamara forced her way past a china cabinet now turned on its side and floating and made it to the stairs. She rushed upstairs to the bathroom and hit her knees in front of the toilet. For what felt like an hour she wretched and vomited. She threw up so hard her throat tore and she urinated on herself. She could taste blood in her mouth.
Then the lights went out.
Tamara blinked, letting her eyes adjust to the dark. With the pink blanket around her again, she dragged herself to her feet and felt her way down the hall to her grandfather’s office. It faced the highway instead of the river. If the water kept rising, it would be the last room to flood. The door wasn’t locked, and if it had been, she would have busted the door down for the pleasure of breaking something. Inside the office she saw a black box on the desk. In the dark the telephone looked like a cat curled up and sleeping. Should she call for help? She didn’t know. She’d been warned once not to touch the telephone in a storm, but it wasn’t lightning. Carefully she picked up the receiver. The line was dead. She was all alone in the house with her grandfather’s dead body.
Tamara went to the window. The lawn was gone. The manicured horse pastures crisscrossed with white board fences—gone. Cobblestone driveway—gone. The stone fence built long before the Civil War by slave labor—gone. Now there was only water. Water water everywhere. Only the stable up on a high knoll had been spared. If the water kept rising, it would be the next to go. And so would she.
When she was a little girl in Sunday school, she had learned the story of Noah and his ark. From what she remembered from her lessons, God had promised He would never destroy the world with a flood again and He’d given the rainbow as a sign of His promise.
It seemed as if God had changed His mind.
Tamara turned from the window and found her grandfather’s pack of cigarettes on his desk and the matches in the top drawer where he kept his fancy pens and stationary. She didn’t light a cigarette, but she did light the candles she’d found in the top drawer. The sight of the candles on the desk gave her an idea. She started digging through the drawers. If God destroyed by water, she would destroy by fire. Tonight she wanted to destroy everything. Business papers. Letters. Her grandfather’s Last Will and Testament if she could find it so she wouldn’t inherit anything because she didn’t want it. She didn’t want a brick of this place. She didn’t want a dime. In a drawer she found a handgun and bullets. Granddaddy’s revolver her mother had threatened to use to shoot Kermit. Tamara opened the window and held the gun out over the water. Except...no. What if she needed that later? She closed the window, kept the gun. The police might come for her. She wouldn’t let them put her in jail for what she did. She’d rather die first than take the blame. Her mother had set her up, left her alone so her grandfather could have his way with her. Her mother would burn for this, too.
Tamara dug every sheet of paper out of the drawers. She tossed his ledger books into the wire wastebasket, an appointment book, anything she could get her hands on. Anything she could burn, she would burn.
Papers weren’t enough. Accounts weren’t enough. She wanted to burn the very heart of Red Thread. The bottle. The first bottle and Veritas’s red ribbon. Where was the bottle?
She picked up a candle and walked around the room, looking along the walls, across the tables. In the corner of the room she saw a girl holding a candle. Her. Her reflection in the glass front of Granddaddy’s liquor cabinet. She raised the candle to the cabinet and peered inside, spying row upon row of amber-colored bottles tied at the neck with a red ribbon. The glass bottles danced with the light of her candle flame, and for a moment it appeared they all held fire inside them. Tamara set her candle down, wrapped the pink blanket around her arm and with her elbow smashed in the glass.
Tamara dropped the blanket on the floor and stood on it out of the way of the broken glass. She’d been hurt enough tonight. Red Thread wasn’t ever going to hurt her again. She dug through the cabinet looking at every bottle by candlelight. One bottle was from this year. Another from 1970. Another bottle was old enough its ribbon had faded to a dull pink, but it wasn’t old enough to be the bottle she sought.
Then she saw it.
In the very back of the cabinet on the bottom shelf in a glass box all its own was the bottle. The first bottle. She pulled out the box and slid the glass lid off the top. From a nest of red velvet, she lifted the bottle out. Around the neck hung a limp and ratty ribbon, rust-colored with age. She set it on the counter, smiling. She didn’t know what she should do with it. Drink it? Pour it into the river water? So many choices, each one better than the last. She had to think of something good, something that would hurt Granddaddy and Jacob Maddox even in their graves.
Tamara would wait, think it over. In the meantime, she should hide the bottle again. She went to put it back in its velvet bed and noticed something else in the box with the bottle—an envelope. An envelope her grandfather had hidden.
She pulled it out and examined the front. The handwriting...she knew this handwriting.
Her father... Daddy.
He’d written this letter. It was addressed to her grandfather. She kissed the words on the paper because she missed him so much. Tamara took the letter, took her candle and walked to the desk chair, where she sat to read it, the bottle long forgotten.
By the time you receive this letter, I’ll be dead. I can’t stay on this earth another day. Every single day of my life has been a lie. I do not love my wife. I have never loved my wife. I have never loved any woman and never will. It is my greatest regret that I chose your money over my soul and allowed Virginia to be trapped in this prison of a marriage with me.
You can have your money. If you’ve seen my soul anywhere, I’d like to have it back.
I am not taking my life to punish you so much as to free Virginia from this farce of a marriage and from the Maddox family. I fear she will make the same choice I did, taking your money and selling her soul, but I will die with a clear conscience knowing I have at least tried to free her. I’m tired of pretending that Tamara is my daughter. Even Virginia is tired of pretending. Did you know she told me that Tamara was Daniel Headley’s daughter, conceived at Eric’s going-away party? I laughed when she told me. Virginia is more a Maddox than I am. You’ve taught her well.
You should know... I love Tamara as if she is my daughter, and my last wish for her is that my death will free her and Virginia both. Let them go, Dad.
It is not easy for me to die knowing what I know about Levi Shelby. I know you’ve had your affairs, but I never dreamed you’d stoop so low to seduce a cleaning lady who couldn’t tell you no any more than the rest of us could. Levi seems like a good young man. I assume he’s turned out so well because he was raised outside this family and without the taint of the Maddox name and the poison that is in every bottle of Red Thread. I hope he never knows who he really is, for his sake. But considering he is the only son you have left, I know his days as a man free and happy are numbered. But better him than my Tamara as your heir. Our family is cursed, they say. I will testify to that. I will be at peace only when I am no longer a part of it. Virginia recently said to me that over her dead body will she allow you to leave a single cent of our family’s money to Levi. Feel free to leave every cent of it to him over my dead body instead.
Do not consider my death as you losing another son.
Consider it you losing everything.
I go to join my beloved Eric now, my brother and my friend. He knew what I was and who I was and loved me in spite of it all. I have missed him. It will be good to see my brother again.
Tamara folded up the letter and slipped it back in the envelope.
One by one she pulled the papers out of the trash can, the books and the ledgers. She didn’t burn a single thing.
Instead, she went into her mother’s bedroom and took off her clothes, all of them. She opened the window and saw the river under the bottom sill. The cold air wrapped around her naked body and she felt clean again. She threw her soiled pajamas into the black night water along with the hateful pink housecoat. They floated away—good riddance. When she looked down into the water, she saw her reflection twisting and stretching. The face wasn’t her face anymore, but another girl’s face. And that girl was in the dark water with a red ribbon tied around her hair. It couldn’t be her... Tamara wasn’t wearing a red ribbon in her hair. Where had it come from?
She raised her hand to her hair. No ribbon. She looked at her fingers and saw they’d turned red. Blood. She was bleeding from a cut on her head. That was all. She must have cut herself with the glass from the lamp while fighting with Granddaddy. She laughed at herself for thinking she was someone she wasn’t. Silly girl. She closed the window and dressed in her mother’s clothes and wrapped herself in her mother’s blanket, which smelled of bourbon and cigar smoke.
She went back to Granddaddy’s office and pulled a chair to the window. In the distance through the trees she could see flickering lights—flashlights or headlights or both. Someone was alive out there. Someone would find her eventually.
But it didn’t matter anymore that someone find her. She’d found herself in her daddy’s letter. But not her daddy at all.
“I am not a Maddox,” she whispered. The ecstasy of the knowledge smoldered inside her, glowed, burned. She’d never spoken five more beautiful words in her life. She didn’t have Maddox blood in her veins, that vile blood that had raped Veritas, that had sold her and her baby. She wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t cursed. And that was why she’d lived and Granddaddy had died. The curse had struck him and spared her. Because she wasn’t a Maddox. She wasn’t a Maddox at all.
But Levi was. And yet he hadn’t been good enough for her grandfather. He’d wanted a white son, all white, and she’d been the chosen vessel for the chosen boy. A ripe teenage girl under his own roof. No wonder he had made her and Momma move in with him. No wonder.
Tamara smiled. She had an idea. Her mother had said she would let Granddaddy give a penny of Red Thread to Levi over her dead body.
Her mother hadn’t said anything about her live body.
More tired than she’d ever been in her life, Tamara closed her eyes and snuggled deep into the blanket to rest. She’d need all her strength to make it through the next few weeks. The water had stopped rising. She would survive this night. When the police came, she would tell them this story—that her grandfather had been drinking and she’d gone upstairs to sleep. Why upstairs? She’d need an answer for that. She’d gone upstairs to sleep because she wanted to sleep in her mother’s room so she’d know when Momma came home. There. They’d fought and Tamara wanted to apologize, so she waited upstairs on her mother’s bed. She’d fallen asleep and then woke up when the lights went out. She’d gone downstairs to check things out and found the house full of water and Granddaddy floating there facedown. It was too late. He’d drunk so much he’d passed out, and he’d drowned in the flood. What could she do except go back upstairs and wait to be rescued? She’d broken the glass of the liquor cabinet because she tripped in the dark. She had an answer for every question they’d ask. For now, for tonight, she was safe and she was free. And tomorrow she’d start figuring out how to shoot Granddaddy’s gun.
Although she’d had only a sip or two of Red Thread, Tamara felt drunk and happy. Happy because she was alive, yes. Happy because she wasn’t a Maddox, indeed. But happiest most of all for one very good reason.
Tamara Maddox had a plan.
“You were right,” McQueen said. “Maybe I don’t want to hear this story, after all.”
“Too late. The train has left the station. No stopping it until the end of the line.” Paris crossed her legs, long beautiful legs. He didn’t even want to look at them anymore. Nor her face, either. But she looked at him, stared at him. Her face was a sealed bottle, corked and capped and covered in foil. He could get nothing out of it.
“Tamara tied the red ribbon around her grandfather’s finger,” he finally said. “Smart.”
“You’re familiar with the tradition?” she asked, seeming pleased with him.
“I don’t know where it started,” he admitted. “But they said Red Thread drinkers would take the ribbon off the neck of the bottle and twist it around their fingers if they managed the manly feat of drinking an entire bottle in one night. A badge of honor.”
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.