Under the Skin
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In this haunting tale from the heart of Appalachia, Vicki Lane draws together past and present, good and evil, folklore and secrets, mesmerizing readers with the mysterious bond of true sisterhood—richer than blood, stronger than the passage of time.
Elizabeth Goodweather and her city-girl sister, Gloria, couldn’t be more different. Elizabeth lives on a farm in the Great Smoky Mountains. Gloria lives in Florida off an ex-husband’s fortune. Gloria is a beauty; Elizabeth isn’t. Now, to Elizabeth’s intense displeasure, Gloria parks herself at Full Circle Farm, on the run from her latest man, who, she insists, is trying to kill her. Elizabeth thinks this is just another of her sister’s fantasies. Besides, Elizabeth has her wedding to plan—if only she can overcome her fear that the man who already shares her life may not be what he appears to be. At this precarious crossroads, the sisters must turn to each other—or face a lifetime of consequences.
Release date: October 18, 2011
Print pages: 432
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Under the Skin
A Complicated Person
Tuesday, May 8
I should have known Gloria would come up with something like this right before our wedding. It’s just like her. I swear, she’s …”
… crazy as the proverbial shithouse rat were the words on the tip of my tongue but I bit them back.
Without looking up from the paperback he was reading, Phillip made a questioning sort of sound. “Hmm? … What was that, Lizabeth? Gloria’s what?”
I dropped the phone onto the table and glowered at it as if it were responsible for this new and unwelcome twist in my life. “She’s … complicated,” I hedged, rejecting the coarse country phrase, apt though it might be. “Complicated—which is a polite way of saying I don’t understand her at all. She must be—”
I couldn’t go on. But the voice in my head, never at a loss for words, finished the sentence for me. She must be out of her rabbit-ass mind, as Ben would say.
I stood there glaring at the innocent telephone. It’s not FAIR! I wanted to shout, in a whining echo from my childhood. Glory always messes everything up! I wanted to throw something, to stamp my foot, to fling myself to the floor and have a screaming, kicking tantrum.
Instead, I made a strenuous effort to sound composed and adult as I tried to explain things to the back of Phillip’s head.
“It’s just that with all the farm work right now, not to mention getting things ready for the wedding next month, this isn’t exactly a good time for anyone to come for an open-ended visit, especially Gloria … she’s so bloody high-maintenance.”
All the old feelings were just below the surface: bitterness, guilt, annoyance, a touch of envy, and guilt again—an evil stew of emotion ready to break into a full boil.
Not attractive, Elizabeth, I warned that nasty inner child who was still quivering with righteous indignation. Aren’t you about forty years too old for this kind of adolescent reaction to your only sister … your only sibling?
I took a deep breath, forcing myself into the mind-set of rationality and general benevolence that I like to pretend comes naturally. Usually, it does. But now … oh, why the hell does my sister always bring out the worst in me?
Two more deep breaths and I was able to say, “On the other hand, if things are so bad between Gloria and her husband …”
I was thinking out loud now, trying to make sense of the just-ended conversation and trying also to ignore the tagline from Tennyson that was running through my head—“ ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried the Lady of Shalott.”
“… if it’s so bad that she’s actually contemplating staying here for a month or longer, what can I do? And things must be seriously awful. Glory hates it here at the farm—‘too much Nature,’ she always says, as if Nature was something you wouldn’t want to step in.”
Phillip, comfortable on the sofa with a dog on either side of him, his sock feet propped on the old cedar chest that serves as a coffee table, finally looked up from his after-supper book with that calm, amused expression he’s so good at.
“This guy—he’s what—your sister’s third husband? So problems with married life aren’t entirely new to her. What’s the big deal this time?”
He wouldn’t be so calm and amused if he had any idea of what Glory’s like, I thought, wondering if this could be some elaborate joke of hers. But the thing is—my sister has no sense of humor. None. Never has.
“Well,” I told him, thinking at the same time that, after all his patient courtship, Phillip deserved better than this, “according to Gloria, the problem is that Jerry’s trying to kill her.”
He wants me dead, Lizzy, she had whispered into the phone, her voice hoarse with what might be fear … or might just be Glory’s usual histrionics. The only thing that tempted me to take her seriously was that not once did she put me on hold—though I heard the telltale beep several times during the lengthy conversation.
Phillip lifted a quizzical eyebrow and, after carefully marking his place with an envelope, laid his book on the coffee table. Harlan Coben again, I noticed.
“Why don’t you tell me exactly what she said?”
His dark eyes were intent on me—one of the things I like so much about this man I’m about to marry is the way he can switch from a comfortable-as-an-old-shoe, easygoing sort of a guy to a seriously focused police detective. And vice versa, thank god.
Already he was worrying at the problem like one of the dogs with a bone. “Your sister thinks her husband wants to kill her—does she have anything concrete to base that supposition on? Or is it just a general feeling? I’m guessing that if he’d laid hands on her, she would have had the sense to get the law involved. Just what did she say?”
Phillip was studying my face with what I took to be professional interest. “Well,” I began, “there were several things …”
Standing there by the sofa, like a schoolgirl called on for recitation, I repeated what Glory had told me, trying to use just the words—leaving out what seemed to me Glory’s typical exaggeration. And leaving out, as well, my skeptical reaction. No eye-rolling—just the facts, Detective Hawkins, sir.
These little things keep happening, Gloria had insisted, her voice breathless and hurried. The slick place at the top of the stairs, the food poisoning; the brakes on the car going out all at once—the trooper said it was a miracle that I wasn’t killed—and that’s only three—there were more and they weren’t all accidents. I’m sure of it now. Jerry wants me dead. I know too much about his so-called businesses.
When I came to the end of my account, Phillip nodded.
“Interesting.” He nudged Molly to dislodge her from her place by him. When her usual ploy of turning reproachful amber eyes on him was to no avail, the red hound gave a resigned sigh, rose, stretched her elegant body, and, with no evidence of hurry, made a graceful descent.
Phillip patted the vacant spot. “Come sit down, Lizabeth, and tell me what you think. Do you believe this story your sister’s telling?”
I sank down at his side, nestling close and savoring the solid reassurance of him.
“Do I believe her? … Well, I guess I believe that she thinks she’s in danger. But Glory’s life is always such a drama—no, not a drama, more of a soap opera.”
Phillip gave my ear a friendly nuzzle then put an arm around me and began to rub my neck. “Yeah, I got that impression from a few things Ben said … his dad was her second husband, right?”
“Umm,” I nodded, closing my eyes. “That feels good. Yep, Ben’s dad was her second marriage. Or maybe it was technically her first since the other one was annulled.”
Was there any need to get into that episode of the Gloria Show? I wondered. Phillip’s hands moved to my shoulders. Since he isn’t asking, I decided, we’ll just fast-forward.
“Ben’s dad was a respectable young lawyer—nice enough but spectacularly boring—at least, that’s what Sam and I thought. And I guess Glory got bored with him herself because she divorced him after only a few years. Ben was really little—maybe two or three—when that happened.” I leaned forward. “Right on down my spine, if you would. Ben and I were transplanting starts for most of the day and my body seems to have decided that fifty-five is the new eighty-five. All my joints have kind of seized up.”
As Phillip’s strong fingers dug into my stiff muscles, I wondered if Ben knew about his mother’s plans to visit. My nephew has worked on the farm since a few years after my husband Sam’s death and I made Ben my business partner a while back. His choosing my lifestyle over his mother’s is only the most recent of Gloria’s many grievances against me. “Taking my only child from me” is how she put it during one particularly nasty phone conversation.
“About Ben’s dad …”
There was real curiosity in Phillip’s voice and I could almost hear the items being added to the file in that orderly cop-slash-detective mind of his: Gloria: Elizabeth’s younger sister, city girl, second husband, Ben’s dad …
“Ben’s dad’s still around, isn’t he?” Phillip’s hands were beginning to stray as so often happened and I swung my feet up on the sofa and stretched out with my head in his lap.
“Oh, he’s around, but Ben doesn’t see much of him. Benjamin Barton Hamilton the Third—and that’s how the dad introduces himself, just to give you some idea of how stuffed his shirt is—anyway, he’s a partner at some big important firm in DC. I think he was kind of disappointed in Ben’s career path—he’d hoped his son would carry on the family tradition of lawyering. But BBH the Third’s remarried now to a woman not a lot older than Ben. They have three young children and he’s just not a big part of Ben’s life anymore.”
“Is he the guy your sister’s money comes from? Ben mentioned something once about his mother being so rich that she was out of touch with the way real people live.”
“No, the big money came from Harold. Harold Holst came after BBH the Third.”
And was, very probably, the real reason Gloria left him. When she met Harold in connection with some charity do she was organizing and found out that not only was he recently widowed, but he had more money than God on a good day, that pretty well did it for old boring Benjamin the Third. Gloria and Holst were married before the ink was dry on her divorce papers.
Oh, mee-yow, Elizabeth! What a catty bitch you are, to be sure!
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