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Breath of Scandal
By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Low Pressure
Also by Sandra Brown
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New York City, 1990
She was going back to Palmetto.
Standing at her office window, Jade Sperry adjusted the blinds and gazed down twenty stories at the snarled traffic around Lincoln Center. A cold wind whipped around the street corners with the impetus of the city buses that belched noxious fumes into the polluted air. Looking like frantic, yellow beetles, taxi cabs scurried from one congested traffic lane to another. Pedestrians never broke their stride, but continued to move, clutching their belongings.
It had been a struggle for Jade to adjust to such constant motion when she moved to New York. At first intersections proved hazardous. There was nothing quite as terrifying as standing on the curb of a busy avenue in downtown Manhattan, wondering which would mow her down first—a menacing taxi, a lumbering city bus, or the hoards of people pressing her from behind and growing impatient with the out-of-towner whose speech was as slow as her hesitant gait.
As with every challenge, Jade had ducked her head and tackled it. She didn't move as fast, or hear as quickly, or speak as rapidly as the natives, but she wasn't intimidated by them—just different. She hadn't been bred to bustle. Jade Sperry had been raised in an environment where the most industrious individual on a summer day might be a dragonfly skimming a tidal swamp.
By the time she reached New York, she had become accustomed to hard work and self-sacrifice. So she had acclimated and survived, because her South Carolinian stiff-necked pride was just as characteristic as her speech.
Today, it had all paid off. Thousands of hours of planning, plotting, and hard work had finally been rewarded. No one could guess how many years and tears she had invested in her return to her hometown.
She was going back to Palmetto.
There were those there who had much to atone for, and Jade would see to it that they did. The restitution she had dreamed of was within her grasp. She now had the power to make it happen.
She continued to gaze out the window, but little of the street scene below registered with her. Rather, she saw tall grass swaying in coastal marshes. She smelled pungent salt air and heady magnolias. She tasted low-country cooking. The skyscrapers were replaced by tall pines; the broad avenues became sluggishly flowing channels. She remembered how it felt to breathe air so heavy and thick that it didn't even stir the limp, gray Spanish moss that dripped from the branches of ancient live oaks.
She was going back to Palmetto.
And when she got there, all hell was going to break loose.
Palmetto, South Carolina, 1976
"The hell you say!"
"Swear to God."
"You're a liar, Patchett."
"How ’bout it, Lamar? Am I lying, or not? Can't a good whore put a rubber on you using only her mouth?"
Lamar Griffith divided his quizzical look between his best friends, Hutch Jolly and Neal Patchett. "I don't know, Neal. Can she?"
"Why'd I bother asking you," Neal scoffed. "You've never been to a whore."
"And you have?" Hutch guffawed.
"Yeah, I have. Lots of times."
The three high school seniors occupied a booth at the local Dairy Barn. Hutch and Lamar shared one vinyl bench. Neal was sprawled along the other, across the pink Formica table.
"I don't believe a word of it," Hutch said.
"My old man took me to her."
Lamar grimaced at the thought. "Weren't you embarrassed?"
Hutch looked at Lamar scornfully. "He's lying, you fool." Turning back to Neal, he asked, "Where is this whorehouse?"
Neal checked his reflection in the plate glass window at the end of the booth. His handsome face gazed back at him. Just the right amount of dark blond bangs dipped low over the brows above his sexy green eyes. His maroon and white high school letter jacket looked well used and hung jauntily off his shoulders.
"I didn't say he took me to a whorehouse. I said he took me to a whore."
Hutch Jolly wasn't as physically attractive as his friend Neal. He was a big, gawky boy with wide, bony shoulders and bright red hair. His ears poked straight out from the sides of his head. Leaning in closer, he licked his fleshy lips. His voice was soft and conspiratorial. "You mean to tell me there's a whore right here in town? Who is she? What's her name? Where does she live?"
Neal gave his friends a lazy smile. "You think I'm going to share a secret like that with you two? Next thing I'd know, you'd be beating down her door, making damn fools of yourselves. I'd be ashamed to claim I knew you."
He signaled the waitress and ordered another round of cherry Cokes. Once their fountain drinks had been delivered, Neal sneaked a silver flask from the inside pocket of his letter jacket and liberally laced his drink before offering it to the others. Hutch helped himself to the bourbon.
Lamar declined. "No, thanks. I've had enough."
"Chickenshit," Hutch said, gouging him in the gut with his elbow.
Neal slipped the flask back into his jacket pocket. "My old man says there are two things a man never gets enough of. Whiskey and women."
"Amen." Hutch agreed with anything Neal said.
"Don't you agree, Lamar?" Neal taunted.
The dark-haired boy shrugged. "Sure."
Frowning with displeasure, Neal flopped back against the booth. "You're getting downright serious on us, Lamar. If you can't keep up, we'll have to start leaving you behind."
Lamar's dark eyes filled with worry. "What do you mean 'keep up'?"
"I mean like raising hell. I mean like getting laid. I mean like getting drunk."
"His mama doesn't like for him to do those bad things." Hutch effeminately folded his large, ruddy hands beneath his chin and batted his eyelashes. Speaking in a falsetto voice, he looked and sounded ridiculous. Lamar took the jibe seriously.
"I puked my guts out the same as y'all last Friday night!" he exclaimed. "Didn't I steal those watermelons this summer like you told me to, Neal? Wasn't I the one who bought the spray paint when we wrote that graffiti on the post office wall?"
Hutch and Neal laughed at his vehemence. Neal reached across the table and slapped Lamar's cheek. "You've done real good, Lamar. Real good." Unable to keep a straight face, he burst into laughter again.
Hutch's bony shoulders were shaking with mirth. "You puked up more than the two of us put together, Lamar. What'd your mama think of your hangover yesterday morning?"
"She didn't know I was feeling bad. I stayed in bed."
They were bored. Sunday nights were always boring. The bad girls were recuperating from Saturday night bacchanals and didn't want to be bothered. The good girls went to church. There were no sporting events scheduled on Sundays. They hadn't felt like crabbing or fishing that evening.
So Neal, always the leader and strategist, had rounded up the other two in his sports car and they had cruised the streets of Palmetto, looking for something to do to amuse themselves. But after cruising the main drag several times, they had failed to find any action in town.
"Want to go out to Walmart and look around?" Lamar had suggested.
The other two chorused, "No."
"I know," Neal said in a burst of inspiration, "let's go to one of the nigger churches. That's always a hoot."
"Un-uh," Hutch said, shaking his fiery head. "My daddy said he'd skin me if we did that again. Last time we went, it nearly started a race riot." Hutch's father, Fritz, was the county sheriff. Fritz Jolly had served as the boys' consciences on numerous occasions.
Their last resort had been to go to the Dairy Barn, hoping that some action would find them. As long as they kept placing orders and behaved themselves, the management wouldn't kick them out. Of course, there would be hell to pay if Neal was caught with the bottle of whiskey in his coat.
His father, Ivan, had told him before leaving the house not to take any beer with him. "How come?" Neal had asked.
"Because Fritz called me yesterday morning. He was good and pissed off. Said Hutch came home stinking drunk Friday night and that you had supplied the beer. He said the sheriff's son can't be driving around town drunk and raising hell. Dora Jolly was fit to be tied, too. I told him I'd look into it."
"Well, I'm looking into it," Ivan had thundered. "Lay off the beer tonight."
"Christ." Neal slammed out of the house. Once he got to his car, he chuckled and patted the inside pocket of his jacket, where he'd hidden the silver flask of expensive bourbon. Ivan would never miss it.
By now, however, the fun of having pulled one over on his old man had fizzled. Hutch was devouring his second hamburger. His table manners disgusted Neal. He ate each meal like it might be his last, taking huge bites, gulping noisily, not bothering to suspend conversation while he was chewing.
Lamar was always a gutless pain in the ass. He was a perennial worrier whose company Neal tolerated because of Lamar's culpability. It was amusing to have a sucker around to be the butt of practical jokes and a target for verbal abuse. Lamar was affable and above average-looking, but the only real purpose he served was to be Neal's punching bag.
Tonight, he was as sullen and nervous as ever. Every time anybody spoke to him, he jumped. Neal supposed Lamar's habitual jitters came from living with his mama. That old bat was enough to make anybody jumpy.
Myrajane Griffith thought she was hot snot because she was a former Cowan. At one time, the Cowans had been the largest producing cotton planters between Savannah and Charleston. But that had been long before folks nowadays could remember. The Cowans had fallen on hard times; most of them had died. The old plantation house near the coast was still standing, but it had long ago been foreclosed upon and condemned.
Still, Myrajane clung to her maiden name like a runt shoat to a hind teat. She was an employee of the Patchett Soybean Plant, like almost everybody else in the three neighboring counties. She rubbed elbows with coloreds and people she wouldn't have spit on in better days. She had browbeaten her husband until he died. When Ivan viewed Lamar's father's body in the casket, he had remarked that the poor bastard was smiling for the first time in years.
Jesus, Neal thought, no wonder Lamar is nervous all the time, living with that harpy.
Neal was glad his mother had died when he was a baby. A series of nannies, mostly colored women from around Palmetto, had reared him until he got too old to spank and started hitting back. His mother, Rebecca Flory Patchett, had been blond and pale and the worst lay Ivan had ever had, or so Ivan had told Neal when the boy had expressed curiosity about his mother's nature.
"Rebecca was a pretty little thing, but screwing her was like sticking it in an icepack. She gave me what I wanted, though." Here Ivan had socked him lightly on the jaw. "A son."
Neal thought that having one parent to answer to was bad enough, although Ivan was lenient and usually looked the other way whenever he got into trouble. Ivan paid for Neal's speeding tickets and covered the cost of the things he destroyed or shoplifted.
"For Chris' sake, do you know who my daddy is!" Neal had shouted to the hardware store clerk who had recently caught him stealing.
Sheriff Fritz Jolly had called Ivan to the scene to smooth things over. Neal had walked out of the store with the hunting knife he had pilfered, wearing a complacent smile that infuriated the frustrated sales clerk. The fellow later found his car with four slashed tires.
Neal wished he had something fun like that to do tonight.
"Church is out." Lamar's observation pulled Neal from his musings.
A group of young people filed into the Diary Barn. Neal immediately dismissed the boys as Jesus freaks and thereby unworthy of his attention. But he gave each girl a smoldering once-over. Just that did wonders for a girl's ego and made her dream good dreams at night.
Besides, it never hurt to prepare a field for future plowing. He might be desperate for company some night and need one of these girls. If and when he called, she would remember the lustful look he'd given her. He had once boasted that he could convert a church-choir soprano into a slut in five minutes flat. It wasn't an empty boast.
"Hi, Neal. Hi, Lamar. Hi, Hutch."
Donna Dee Monroe stopped at the end of their booth. Out of habit, Neal's eyes slid down her body, then back up. "Hi, Donna Dee. Did you get saved tonight?"
"I'm already saved. But I'm sure you're going to burn in hell, Neal Patchett."
He laughed. "Goddamn right. I look forward to every minute of getting there. Hi, Florene."
One of the girls with Donna Dee had been at the country club Valentine's dance a few weeks ago. The pickings had been slim that night, so he'd flirted with her when ordinarily he wouldn't even have noticed her. He'd danced with her until she was melting—literally. When he got her outside and slipped his hand beneath her dress and between her thighs, his fingers had come away damp. Just as it was getting interesting, her daddy had come looking for her.
Now Neal lowered his eyelids and, in a sultry voice, asked, "Did you have any sins to confess tonight, Florene? Been entertaining any impure thoughts lately?"
The girl blushed to the roots of her hair, mumbled something unintelligible, and hurried to catch up with the group of churchgoers she had come in with.
Donna Dee lingered. She was a cheeky girl with dark, flashing eyes and a quick, sometimes ribald wit. Unfortunately, she wasn't too much in the looks department. Her hair was straight and thin. She wore it parted down the middle, not from choice but because that's all she could coax it to do. Her profile came to a point where her nostrils met her upper lip. Together with her uncorrected overbite and darting eyes, she resembled a friendly rat. She had a thing for Hutch, but, as usual, he ignored her.
"Look who's here," he said, drawing Neal's attention to the parking lot beyond the window. "Mr. Student Body President."
They watched Gary Parker pull his car into one of the spaces. His steady, Jade Sperry, was sitting in the front seat, close beside him.
"And he's got the best student body with him."
Neal shot Lamar a poisonous look, unable to tell whether Lamar was mocking him with that crack. Surely not. He had kept his interest in Jade Sperry a secret from everyone.
"That car of his is a piece of shit," Hutch commented to no one in particular.
Lamar said, "Doesn't seem to bother Jade."
"Of course not, you creep," Donna Dee said. "She's in love with him. It doesn't matter to her that he's as poor as Job's turkey. I'm gonna go say hi to them. See y'all later."
Neal glowered darkly through the window as he watched Gary and Jade. Gary must have said something amusing because Jade laughed and leaned into him, rubbing her temple against his chin.
"Damn, she's hot," Hutch groaned. "He's a frigging farmer. What attracts her?"
"His brain," Lamar said.
"Or maybe she's impressed by his big plow," Hutch joked.
Lamar laughed. Neal remained stonily silent. Motionless, his eyes unwavering, he watched Gary softly kiss Jade's lips before opening the car door and stepping out. It had been a chaste, tepid kiss. Neal wondered, not for the first time, if she had ever been kissed by somebody who meant business—somebody like him.
Jade was indisputably the best-looking girl in Palmetto High School. The best-looking girl was supposed to belong to Neal Patchett, just like the best clothes and the best car. His old man was the richest, most powerful man in the area. That alone entitled him to whatever he wanted. Apparently no one had informed Miss Jade Sperry of that.
No matter how high Gary's IQ was, Neal would never understand how she could prefer a piss-poor farmer like Gary over him. Not only did she show a marked lack of interest, but Neal got the impression that she felt disgusted by him. With an inexplicable reverse snobbery, she regarded him as a lowlife. Oh, she was always polite—Jade was courteous to everybody—but beneath her polite veneer, Neal detected a scornful attitude that ate at him.
Maybe she didn't know what she was missing. Maybe she hadn't realized that she was settling for less than the best. Maybe it was time she found out.
"Come on," he said suddenly, sliding out of the booth. He tossed down enough money to cover the cost of their drinks and Hutch's burgers, then sauntered to the door.
Outside, he headed for the window where customers placed carry-out orders. He didn't have to ask Hutch and Lamar if they cared to follow. They fell into step behind him, as he had known they would.
* * *
Donna Dee opened the passenger-side door of Gary Parker's car and slid in beside Jade. "I didn't know you were coming here," Jade said. "You could have ridden from church with us."
"And been a fifth wheel? No, thanks."
There was no rancor in Donna Dee's voice. The two girls had been inseparable since the first day of kindergarten. While it was obvious to anyone who saw them together that Jade outshone the other girl, Donna Dee harbored no malice toward her more attractive, more accomplished friend.
"What'd you think of the sermon tonight?" Donna Dee asked. "Did you feel God's breath on the back of your neck every time the preacher said the word fornication?"
Jade had been uncomfortable with the subject of the sermon, but she replied evenly, "I've got nothing to be guilty about."
"Yet," Donna Dee said.
Jade sighed in consternation. "I knew I never should have confided in you that Gary and I had talked about it."
"Oh, for crying out loud," Donna Dee exclaimed. "Y'all have been going together for three years. Everybody thinks you've already done it a million times."
Jade bit her lower lip. "My mother included. We had an argument before Gary picked me up tonight."
"So?" Donna Dee borrowed a lipstick from Jade's purse and spread it on. "You're always having arguments with your mom. I hate to say it, Jade, but your mom's a real bitch."
"She doesn't understand that I love Gary."
"Sure she does. That's the problem. She doesn't want you to love him. She thinks you can do better than him."
"There is no one better."
"You know what I mean," Donna Dee said, still searching through Jade's purse. "She'd like to see you wind up with somebody rich and influential, you know—somebody like Neal."
Jade shuddered with disgust. "Fat chance."
"Do you think he really felt up Florene at the country club Valentine's dance? Or was she just bragging? She can be all mouth."
"I don't think being felt up by Neal Patchett is anything to brag about."
"Well, you're the exception."
"Neal's good-looking," Donna Dee observed.
"I can't stand him. Look at him now. He thinks he's so cool."
The two girls watched Neal and his friends encircle Gary where he was waiting in line to place his take-out order. Neal punched Gary in the shoulder a couple of times, and when Gary told him to cut it out, he assumed a boxer's stance.
"He's so obnoxious," Jade said with distaste.
"Yeah. I wish Hutch didn't hang around with him so much."
It was no secret that Donna Dee was madly in love with Hutch Jolly. She wore her heart on her sleeve. Secretly, Jade thought Hutch looked and acted like a bumpkin, but, at the risk of hurting Donna Dee's feelings, she never voiced her opinion.
Nor had she ever told Donna Dee about all the times Hutch had called her asking for dates. She had declined his invitations because of Gary. But even if she hadn't had a steady boyfriend, she would never have dated Hutch because of Donna Dee.
"You don't like Hutch, do you, Jade?" Donna Dee asked her now.
"I like him fine." Truthfully, Hutch made her uncomfortable. They had trigonometry class together, and she often caught him staring at her. Whenever she did, he would blush beneath his freckles, then assume an arrogant air to cover his embarrassment.
"What's wrong with him?" There was a defensive edge to Donna Dee's voice.
"Nothing. Honestly. Nothing except the company he keeps."
"Do you think he'll invite me to the prom, Jade? I'll die if he doesn't."
"You won't die," Jade said wearily. Donna Dee looked so crestfallen at Jade's lack of empathy that she changed her tone. "I'm sorry, Donna Dee. I hope Hutch asks you. Really, I do."
Their senior prom, coming up in May, already seemed trivial and juvenile. To Jade it represented just one more delay in Gary and her getting on with their lives. She certainly didn't think it was anything to get in a big stew over, although maybe that was because she was guaranteed a date with Gary. Unlike Donna Dee, she didn't have to worry about the disgrace of not having an escort on that momentous night.
"I can't think of anybody else Hutch would ask, can you?" Donna Dee asked worriedly.
"No." Jade glanced at her wristwatch. "What's taking so long? I've got to be home by ten or my mother will start in again."
"And you've got to leave time to park, huh?" Donna Dee gazed at her friend and whispered, "When you and Gary make out, do you just want to die from being so turned on?"
"Yes," Jade admitted, shivering slightly. "And because we have to stop."
"You don't have to."
Jade's sleek, dark brows pulled together into a frown. "If Gary and I love each other, how can it be wrong, Donna Dee?"
"I never said it was."
"But the preacher does. And the Bible does. My mother does. Everybody does."
"Everybody says that fornication—"
"Don't use that word for it. It's such an ugly word."
"What would you call it then?"
Donna Dee shrugged. "Same difference. Anyway, everybody says that lovemaking outside of marriage is a sin, but does anybody really believe that?" Donna Dee shook her head of dark, straight hair. "I don't think so. I think everybody except us is sinning like crazy and having a damn good time. If I had a chance, I would."
"Would you?" Jade asked, wanting her friend's endorsement.
"If Hutch asked me, you bet your sweet ass I would."
Jade looked at Gary through the windshield and felt a warm rush of pleasure, coupled with anxiety. "Maybe it's not a sin. Maybe it's time Gary and I stopped listening to the preacher and followed our instincts. Oh, I just don't know," she moaned. "We've talked the subject to death and we only end up more frustrated than before."
"Oh, for pity's sake," Donna Dee grumbled. "I'm going back inside. See ya."
"Wait, Donna Dee," Jade said, catching her sleeve. "Are you mad?"
"You sound mad."
"Well gee, Jade, I wish I had your problems. I wish I had your naturally wavy black hair and flawless skin. I wish I had big blue eyes and eyelashes a mile long. I wish I had a boyfriend who panted after my body but also respected me. I wish I had a computer brain and a full scholarship to college."
"I haven't got the scholarship yet," Jade said, minimizing Donna Dee's backhanded compliments.
"Oh, but you will. It's only a matter of time. Everything always turns out right for you, Jade. That's why it's annoying as hell to listen to you whine. What have you got to complain about?
"You're gorgeous without even trying. You're smart. You're popular. You'll probably be valedictorian of our class, and if not you, then the boy who worships the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. If you want to screw yourselves into delirium, do it. If you don't, don't. But shut up about it, okay?"
After her outburst, Donna Dee swore beneath her breath. In a softer tone, she said, "You ought to pay me to be your best friend, Jade. It isn't an easy job, you know."
She snatched up her purse and stepped onto the pavement, closing the car door behind her.
* * *
"Hi, Gary." Neal's tone was deceptively friendly. Matching it, Lamar and Hutch repeated him.
"Hi, y'all." Gary's smile was open and guileless. "What's going on?"
"Nothing much," Neal replied. "You heard anything about your scholarship yet?"
"Not yet. Neither has Jade. Could be any day now, though."
"Do you want nuts on those sundaes, Gary?" the waitress in the window asked.
"Sure," Neal drawled. He looked toward the car where Jade was sitting. "Jade loves nuts. Big ones."
Hutch sputtered with laughter. Lamar snickered.
Gary's smile vanished. "Cut it out, Neal," he said crossly. He glanced over his shoulder toward the car.
Innocently, Neal raised his hands. "It was a joke. Can't you take a joke?" Playfully, he punched Gary's shoulder.
Gary flinched angrily. "Not where Jade's concerned."
"Here you go, Gary," the waitress said, sliding the two desserts through the window. "One butterscotch sundae and one chocolate. That'll be a dollar fifty."
"Thanks." Gary paid her, then pulled two paper napkins from the dispenser and took a sundae in each hand. He turned away from the window, but Neal blocked his path, flanked by Hutch and Lamar.
"Which one's Jade's?"
Missing the point of Neal's seemingly innocuous question, Gary shrugged. "The butterscotch."
Each sundae was crowned with a bright red cherry. Neal took the cherry by its stalk and plucked it off the mound of whipped cream. He sucked it into his mouth, then, with a dramatic gesture, pulled the stem out. He rolled the cherry in his mouth before catching it between his front teeth where it was visible. Looking directly at Jade, he suggestively sank his teeth into it, then chewed it with lascivious pleasure before swallowing it.
Facing Gary, he smirked. "Tell your girl friend I enjoyed eating her cherry."
"You sorry son of a bitch. Eat this."
Gary shoved one of the sundaes into Neal's smug face. Neal, taken completely off guard, staggered backward, choking on the goo that covered his face. Gary seized the advantage. Hooking his heel around Neal's, he yanked hard, pulling Neal off his feet. He went down backward onto the pavement.
Gary stood above him. "Keep your filthy mouth shut about Jade." He dumped the second sundae into Neal's lap, then strode to his car.
Neal leaped to his feet, sputtering threats. "I'll kill you for that, Parker. Nobody fucks with me like that and gets away with it." He became aware of the comic spectacle he was making of himself and diverted his fury. "Jesus Christ!" he shouted to his two friends, who were immobilized with shock over seeing Neal outdone. "Are you gonna just stand there with your thumbs up your asses? Help me out here."
Hutch and Lamar sprang forward, offering handkerchiefs and paper napkins. As he wiped his face clean, Neal glared at Gary's retreating car. The farmer might think he had gotten the best of him, but he had another think coming.
- On Sale
- Feb 26, 2013
- Page Count
- 592 pages
- Grand Central Publishing