Left nothing but a ramshackle farm house when her business titan husband dies, Lillian changes her identity to escape the press and wonders at the mysterious note left to her by her late husband that asks her to find out what happened.
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Jude Deveraux is the author of twenty-seven New York Times bestsellers, including The Summerhouse, Temptation, High Tide, and A Knight in Shining Armor. To date there are more than thirty million copies of her books in print. Ms. Deveraux lives with her four-year-old son, Sam, in North Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
He needed me.
Whenever anyone -- usually a reporter -- asked me how I coped with a man like Jimmie, I smiled and said nothing. I'd learned that whatever I said would be misquoted, so I simply kept quiet. Once, I made the mistake of telling the truth to a female reporter. She'd looked so young and so in need herself that for a moment I let my guard down. I said, "He needs me." That's all. Just those three words.
Who would have thought that a second of unguarded honesty could cause so much turmoil? The girl -- she had certainly not attained the maturity of womanhood -- parlayed my small sentence into international turmoil.
I was right in thinking she herself was needy. Oh, yes, very needy. She needed a story, so she fabricated one. Never mind that she had nothing on which to base her fable.
I must say that she was good at research. She couldn't have slept during the two weeks between my remark and the publication of her story. She consulted psychiatrists, self-help gurus, and clergy. She interviewed hordes of rampant feminists. Every famous woman who had ever hinted that she hated men was interviewed and quoted.
In the end Jimmie and I were portrayed as one sick couple. He was the domineering tyrant in public, but a whimpering child at home. And I was shown to be a cross between steel and an ever-flowing breast.
When the article came out and caused a sensation, I wanted to hide from the world. I wanted to retreat to the most remote of Jimmie's twelve houses and never leave. But Jimmie was afraid of nothing -- which was the true secret of his success -- and he met the questions, the derisive laughter, and worse, the pseudo-therapists who felt it was our "duty" to expose every private thought and feeling to the world, head-on.
Jimmie just put his arm around me, smiled into the cameras, and laughed in answer to all of their questions. Whatever they asked, he had a joke for a reply.
"Is it true, Mr. Manville, that your wife is the power behind the throne?" The reporter asking this was smiling at me in a nasty way. Jimmie was six foot two and built like the bull some people said he was, and I am five foot two and round. I've never looked like the power behind anyone.
"She makes all the decisions. I'm just her front man," Jimmie said, his smile showing his famous teeth. But those of us who knew him saw the coldness in his eyes. Jimmie didn't like any disparagement of what he considered his. "I couldn't have done it without her," he said in that teasing way of his. Few people knew him well enough to know whether or not he was joking.
Three weeks later, by chance, I saw the cameraman who'd been with the reporter that day. He was a favorite of mine because he didn't delight in sending his editor the pictures of me that showed off my double chin at its most unflattering angle. "What happened to your friend who was so interested in my marriage?" I asked, trying to sound friendly. "Fired," the photographer said. "I beg your pardon?" He was pushing new batteries into his camera and didn't look up. "Fired," he said again, then looked up, not at me, but at Jimmie.
Wisely, the photographer said no more. And just as wisely, I didn't ask any more questions.
Jimmie and I had an unwritten, unspoken law: I didn't interfere in whatever Jimmie was doing.
"Like a Mafia wife," my sister said to me about a year after Jimmie and I were married.
"Jimmie doesn't murder people," I replied in anger.
That night I told Jimmie of the exchange with my sister, and for a moment his eyes glittered in a way that, back then, I hadn't yet learned to be wary of.
A month later, my sister's husband received a fabulous job offer: double his salary; free housing; free cars. A full-time nanny for their daughter, three maids, and a country club membership were included. It was a job they couldn't refuse. It was in Morocco.
After Jimmie's plane crashed and left me a widow at thirty-two, all the media around the world wrote of only one thing: that Jimmie had willed me "nothing." None of his billions -- two or twenty of them, I never could remember how many -- none of it was left to me.
"Are we broke or rich today?" I'd often ask him, because his net worth fluctuated from day to day, depending on what Jimmie was trying at the moment.
"Today we're broke," he'd say, and he would laugh in the same way as when he'd tell me he'd made so many millions that day.
The money never mattered to Jimmie. No one understood that. To him, it was just a by-product of the game. "It's like all those peels you throw away after you've made jam," he'd say. "Only in this case the world values the peel and not the jam." "Poor world," I said, then Jimmie laughed hard and carried me upstairs, where he made sweet love to me.
It's my opinion that Jimmie knew he wasn't going to live to be an old man. "I've got to do what I can as fast as I can. You with me, Frecks?" he'd ask.
"Always," I'd answer, and I meant it. "Always."
But I didn't follow him to the grave. I was left behind, just as Jimmie said I would be.
"I'll take care of you, Frecks," he said more than once. When he talked of such things, he always called me by the name he'd given me the first time we met: Frecks for the freckles across my nose.
When he said, "I'll take care of you," I didn't give the words much thought. Jimmie had always "taken care" of me. Whatever I wanted, he gave me long before I knew I wanted it. Jimmie said, "I know you better than you know yourself."
And he did. But then, to be fair, I never had time to get to know much about myself. Following Jimmie all over the world didn't leave a person much time to sit and contemplate.
Jimmie knew me, and he did take care of me. Not in the way the world thought was right, but in the way he knew I needed. He didn't leave me a rich widow with half the world's bachelors clamoring to profess love for me. No, he left the money and all twelve of the expensive houses to the only two people in the world he truly hated: his older sister and brother.
To me, Jimmie left a run-down, overgrown farm in the backwoods of Virginia, a place I didn't even know he owned, and a note. It said:
Find out the truth about what happened, will you, Frecks? Do it for me. And remember that I love you. Wherever you are, whatever you do, remember that I love you.
When I saw the farmhouse, I burst into tears. What had enabled me to survive the past six weeks was the image of that farmhouse. I'd imagined something charming, made of logs, with a stone chimney at one end. I'd imagined a deep porch with hand-hewn rocking chairs on it, and a lawn in front, with pink roses spilling petals in the breeze.
I'd envisioned acres of gently rolling land covered with fruit trees and raspberry bushes -- all of them pruned and healthy and dripping ripe fruit.
But what I saw was 1960s hideous. It was a two-story house covered in some sort of green siding -- the kind that never changes over the years. Storms, sun, snow, time, none of it had any effect on that kind of siding. It had been a pale, sickly green when it was installed, and now, many years later, it was the same color.
There were vines growing up one side of the house, but not the kind of vines that make a place look quaint and cozy. These were vines that looked as though they were going to engulf the house, eat it raw, digest it, then regurgitate it in the same ghastly green.
"It can be fixed," Phillip said softly from beside me.
In the weeks since Jimmie's death, "hell" could not begin to describe what I had been through.
It was Phillip who woke me in the middle of the night when Jimmie's plane went down. I must say that I was shocked to see him. As Jimmie's wife, I was sacrosanct. The men he surrounded himself with knew what would happen if they made any advances toward me. I don't mean just sexually, but in any other way. No man or woman in Jimmie's employ ever asked me to intercede for him or her with my husband. If he had been fired, he knew that to approach me and ask that I try to "reason" with Jimmie would likely earn him something far worse than a mere dismissal.
So when I awoke to Jimmie's top lawyer's hand on my shoulder, telling me that I had to get up, I immediately knew what had happened. Only if Jimmie were dead would anyone dare enter my bedroom and think that he'd live to see the dawn.
"How?" I asked, immediately wide awake and trying to be mature. Inside, I was shaking. Of course it couldn't be true, I told myself. Jimmie was too big, too alive, to be...to be...I couldn't form the word in my mind.
"You have to get dressed now," Phillip was saying. "We have to keep this secret for as long as we can."
"Is Jimmie hurt?" I asked, my voice full of hope. Maybe he was in a hospital bed and calling for me. But even as I thought it, I knew it wasn't true. Jimmie knew how I worried about him. "I'd rather have my foot cut off than have to deal with your fretting," he'd said more than once. He hated my nagging about his smoking, about his drinking, about his days without sleep.
"No," Phillip said, his voice cold and hard. His eyes looked into mine. "James is not alive."
I wanted to collapse. I wanted to dive back under the warm bedcovers and go back to sleep. And when I awoke again, I wanted Jimmie to be there, slipping his big hand under my nightgown and making those little growling sounds that made me giggle.
"You don't have time for grief right now," Phillip said. "We have to go shopping."
That brought me out of my shock. "Are you mad?" I asked him. "It's four o'clock in the morning."
"I've arranged for a store to open. Now get dressed!" he ordered. "We have no time to lose."
His tone didn't scare me in the least. I sat down on the bed, my big nightgown billowing out around me, and I pulled my braid out from under me. Jimmie liked for me to wear old-fashioned clothes, and he liked for my hair to be long. After sixteen years of marriage, I could sit on my braid. "I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."
"I don't have time now -- " Phillip began, but then he stopped, took a deep breath, and looked at me. "I could be disbarred for this, but I made out James's will, and I know what's coming to you. I can hold off the vultures for a few days but no more. Until the will is read, you're still James's wife."
"I will always be Jimmie's wife," I said proudly, holding all my chins aloft in the bravest stance I could muster. Jimmie! my heart was crying. Not Jimmie. Anyone on earth could die, but not Jimmie.
"Lillian," Phillip said softly, his eyes full of pity, "there was only one man like James Manville ever made on this earth. He played by his own rules and no one else's."
I waited for him to tell me something that I didn't already know. What was he leading up to?
Phillip ran his hand over his eyes and glanced at the clock on the bed. "By the law of ethics, I can't tell you -- " he began, then he let out his breath and sat down heavily on the bed beside me. If I'd needed any further proof that Jimmie was no longer alive, that would have been it. If there was a chance that Jimmie would walk through the door and see another man sitting on the bed beside his wife, Phillip would never have dared such a familiarity.
"Who can understand what James did or why? I worked with him for over twenty years, but I never knew him. Lillian, he -- " Phillip had to take a few breaths, then he picked up my hand and held it in his. "He left you nothing. He willed everything to his brother and sister."
I couldn't understand what he meant. "But he hates them," I said, pulling my hand from his grasp. Atlanta and Ray were Jimmie's only living relatives, and Jimmie despised them. He took care of them financially, always bailing one or the other of them out of some mess, but he detested them. No, worse, he had contempt for them. One time Jimmie was looking at me strangely, and I asked what was going on in his mind. "They'll eat you alive," he said. "That sounds interesting," I replied, smiling at him. But Jimmie didn't smile back. "When I die, Atlanta and Ray will go after you with everything they have. And they'll find lawyers to work on a contingency basis."
I didn't like what had become Jimmie's frequent references to his demise. "Contingent upon what?" I asked, still smiling. "How much money they get when they sue you to hell and back," Jimmie said, frowning. I didn't want to hear any more, so I waved my hand in dismissal and said, "Phillip will take care of them." "Phillip is no match for greed of that scale." I had no reply for that, because I agreed with him. No matter how much Jimmie gave Atlanta and Ray, they wanted more. One time when Jimmie was called away unexpectedly, I found Atlanta in my closet, counting my shoes. She wasn't the least embarrassed when I found her there. She looked up at me and said, "You have three more pairs than I do." The look on her face frightened me so much that I turned and ran from my own bedroom.
"What do you mean that he's left it all to them? All what?" I asked Phillip. I wanted to think about anything other than what my life was going to be like without Jimmie.
"I mean that James willed all his stocks, his houses, real estate around the world, the airlines, all of it to your brother and sister-in-law."
Since I hated each and every one of the houses that Jimmie had purchased, I couldn't comprehend what was so bad about this. "Too much glass and steel for my taste," I said, giving Phillip a bit of a smile.
Phillip glared at me. "Lillian, this is serious, and James is no longer here to protect you -- and I don't have the power to do anything. I don't know why he did it, Lord knows I tried to talk him out of it, but he said that he was giving you what you needed. That's all I could get out of him."
Phillip stood up, then took a moment to regain his calm. Jimmie said that what he liked about Phillip was that nothing on earth could upset him. But this had.
I tried to get the picture of my future out of my head, tried to stop thinking about a life without Jimmie's laughter and his big shoulders to protect me, and looked up at Phillip expectantly. "Are you saying that I'm destitute?" I tried not to smile. The jewelry that Jimmie had given me over the years was worth millions.
Phillip took a deep breath. "More or less. He's left you a farm in Virginia."
"There, then, that's something," I said, then I took the humor out of my voice and waited for him to continue.
"It was a breach of ethics, but after I wrote the will for him, I sent someone down to Virginia to look at the place. It's...not much. It's -- " He turned away for a moment, and I thought I heard him mutter, "Bastard," but I didn't want to hear that, so I ignored him. When he turned back to me, his face was businesslike. He looked at his watch, a watch that I knew Jimmie had given him; it cost over twenty thousand dollars. I owned a smaller version of it.
"Did you do anything to him?" Phillip asked sof...
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