Home > Thick as Thieves(3)

Thick as Thieves(3)
Author: Sandra Brown

Lisa had been almost too tall by then, but she was athletic enough to demonstrate how easy it was. She’d spotted Arden on her first fearful attempts, then had challenged her to do it on her own.

Her palms damp with nervous sweat, she’d braced herself on the crossbar, taken a deep breath, and somersaulted over it. But she fell short of making the full rotation. Her hands slipped off the bar, and she’d landed hard on her butt.

Pride smarting as much as her bottom, she’d fought back tears. But Lisa had insisted that she try again.

“Tomorrow,” Arden had whined.

“No. Right now.”

On the second try, she’d succeeded. Lisa had practically smothered her in a bear hug. She recalled now how special Lisa’s approval and that congratulatory hug had been.

The family had celebrated her feat with dinner out at the restaurant of her choosing: McDonald’s, of course.

That had been a happy day, one among the last happy family times that Arden recalled. Their mother’s fatal accident had occurred within months.

But losing her hadn’t been as sudden and unexpected as their father’s abandonment.

This past March marked twenty years, twice the age she had been when Joe Maxwell left his two daughters, never to be seen again. His desertion remained the pivotal point around which Arden’s life continued to revolve.

It did no good to speculate on how differently Lisa and she would have turned out as individuals, or what kind of futures they would have had, if he hadn’t forsaken them. He had.

Softly, sympathetically, Lisa said, “You’ve been through a terrible ordeal, and I don’t want to pressure you when you’re so vulnerable. But, Arden, this isn’t the place to recover. Believe me, it isn’t. You were younger. You can’t appreciate how bad it was after Mother died. Or maybe you can, but you’ve blocked it from your memory. I haven’t. I remember.

“When Dad disappeared, and I moved us away from this town, I swore it would be forever. People who lived here then will remember us. Why subject yourself to gossip and speculation? To say nothing of the fact that this house is literally falling down around you.” She flipped her finger over a chip in the Formica countertop.

“So many times, I’ve thought about selling it, but I would get sentimental, think of Mother in these rooms, cooking in this kitchen, humming as she folded laundry, and I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. Though God knows we could have used the money, selling it would have made severance with Mother seem so final. Besides that, the house belonged to you, too. Selling it wasn’t a decision I felt comfortable making for both of us.”

She took a deep breath. “But now I wish I had gotten rid of it, so you wouldn’t have made this dreadful mistake of moving back. You’ve deluded yourself into seeing this place as home. It isn’t. It hasn’t been for twenty years, and, without your child, it never will be.

“I’m your only family. I’ll nurture you until you decide what you want to do from this point forward.”

She gave Arden a quick, hard hug and held on for a moment longer before letting go.

Arden turned to face her. She kissed her sister’s cheek, then crooked her pinky finger, and Lisa linked hers with it. After their father’s desertion, they’d begun doing this often. It symbolized that they had only each other, and that their bond was unbreakable.

They kept their fingers linked, smiling wistfully at each other, then Arden pulled her hand free. “Are you finished, Lisa?”


“Finished telling me where I’m going to live and what I’m going to do with my life from this point forward. If you’re done, please leave.” She took a bolstering breath. “If not, leave anyway.”

Arden was still awake when she heard the car approaching on the road.

She glanced at the clock on her nightstand. It read a few minutes past one a.m. The drive-by was a little later than usual tonight.

Immediately after learning she was pregnant, she’d made plans to leave Houston. Within a week, she had resigned from her job, paid out her lease, emptied her condo, and made the move back to her hometown.

Although Penton was a county seat, most of the county was rural, so the “city” itself was small, and it had a thriving grapevine. Anyone familiar with the Maxwell family’s history would naturally be curious about the recent occupant of the house that had remained uninhabited for so long, and it hadn’t taken long for word to get around who the resident was.

She had grown accustomed to motorists slowing down and coasting past the house.

She wasn’t bothered by the daytime gawkers.

But one came at night. Every night. By now she recognized the sound of his car’s engine. She even found herself listening for it. Too often, she didn’t fall asleep until he, or she, had driven past. It wasn’t the kind of close to each day that she wished for. It didn’t feel like a benediction.

Of course she hadn’t breathed a word of this to Lisa, who had predicted that Arden’s taking up residence would resurrect the suspicion, rumor, and speculation about their father and the crimes he was alleged to have committed before disappearing.

As usual, Lisa was right, but Arden sensed that this particular passerby wasn’t motivated strictly by curiosity and the hope of catching a glimpse of the infamous Joe Maxwell’s youngest daughter. These nightly rounds had a predatory quality that made her uneasy.

But just today hadn’t she determined she would no longer yield to intimidation?

She threw off the covers, got out of bed, and went to the window, keeping well behind the wall so she wouldn’t be seen. It seemed sensible and cautious not to let the person in that car know that she was aware of him.

The house was set too far back off the road for her to make out more of the vehicle than its headlights. As it came even with the house, it slowed to a crawl, as it did every night, and didn’t resume its speed until having driven past.

As she watched the taillights go around a bend and out of sight, she told herself that maybe she was letting her imagination turn something innocent into something ominous. That purring motor could belong to a night worker who was making his way home after his shift.

But she didn’t know of any businesses out this way, and what kind of job would require a seven-day workweek? He came past the house on weekends, too. He hadn’t missed a night in months.

The regularity of it felt compulsive and sinister.

Trying to shake off her uneasiness, telling herself that she was being silly, she returned to bed. But turbulent thoughts kept her awake.

Lisa hadn’t gone quietly.

For half an hour after Arden had made her declaration of independence, Lisa had argued with her. “If Wallace were still alive, he would side with me.”

Arden had no doubt of that. She’d liked her brother-in-law, who had been a good surrogate father—more like a grandfather, actually—after he and Lisa married. A successful commercial real estate developer, the even-tempered Wallace Bishop had routinely negotiated deals that left both sides feeling they had come out favorably. Numerous times he had mediated disagreements between the sisters, but, in order to maintain marital harmony, he had leaned toward Lisa’s side.

But even though Lisa had invoked his name, Arden had remained steadfast in her decision to stay, giving Lisa no choice except to ultimately relent. As she left, she’d said, “I only want you to be happy, Arden.”

“I want me to be happy, too.”

Now, as she lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling, she conceded her sister one point: For most of her adult years, she’d been moving at a frenetic pace but getting nowhere. She hadn’t discovered her path. She’d been directionless and without purpose.

Reflexively, she ran her hand over her abdomen, missing the small mound that had been so wonderfully new, yet had soon become endearingly familiar.

The baby had given her purpose.

“As it is…” she whispered.

Grief suffused her, but she refused to give it a foothold. She couldn’t let her mind, her heart, center on the loss of the baby. If she did, bereavement would immobilize her.

She had to get on with her original plan. Just like learning to skin-the-cat, she must do it, on her own, and now.

Exhausted as her body was, her mind continued to churn, busily mapping out a plan of attack on a house that had stood neglected for twenty years.

Until her own dying day, she would mourn the daughter she had lost, but she felt a sense of urgency to act, to move, to live before it was too late.

That last thought gave her pause.

Too late for what?

Chapter 2

The name “L. Burnet” was stenciled on the metal mailbox mounted on a post at the entrance to a gravel driveway. Although the road to get here had been bumpy, narrow, and roundabout, Arden had arrived at her destination.

Up to this point, the two months since the loss of the baby had been busy, but discouragingly unproductive. She hoped this call on L. Burnet would change that.

She turned into the driveway, pulled up behind a dually pickup truck, and let her motor idle as she assessed the house. The architecture was Acadian, which was unsurprising since the state line with Louisiana bisected Caddo Lake, and the lake was within shouting distance.

The white-frame, one-story structure had dark green shutters and a matching tin roof. It was scrupulously tidy and aesthetically pleasing. A porch with a low overhang ran its width. The only thing on the porch was a varnished wood rocking chair with a tall slat-back and wide armrests. Landscaping was limited to dwarf evergreen shrubs that bordered the edge of the porch on either side of a set of recycled redbrick steps.

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