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By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Friction
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The infant's mouth sucked at his mother's breast.
"He seems like a real happy baby," the nurse observed. "Somehow you can just tell whether or not a baby's contented. I'd say that one is."
Kendall managed only a weak smile. She could barely form a coherent thought, much less engage in conversation. Her mind was still trying to absorb the fact that she and her child had survived the accident.
In the examination room of the hospital's emergency wing, a sheer yellow curtain provided patients with a minimum of privacy from the corridor. Next to the white metal cabinets that stored bandages, syringes, and splints was a stainless steel sink. Kendall sat on a padded table in the center of the cubicle cradling her baby son in her arms.
"How old is he?" the nurse asked.
"Only three months? He's a big one!"
"He's very healthy."
"What'd you say his name is?"
The nurse smiled down at them, then shook her head in wonder and awe. "It's a miracle that you two walked away from that wreck. Must've been awful for you, honey. Weren't you scared half out of your wits?"
The accident had happened too quickly for fear to register. The car was practically on top of the felled tree before it became visible through the downpour. The passenger in the front seat had shouted a warning, and the driver had sharply cut the steering wheel and stomped on the brake, but it had been too late.
Once the tires lost traction on the wet pavement, the car went into a 180-degree spin that propelled it off the road and across the soft, narrow shoulder. It leveled the inadequate barricade. From there, it was a matter of physics and gravity.
Kendall recalled the sounds as the car plunged down the heavily vegetated ravine. Tree limbs scraped off paint, peeled away the rubber nick guards, and knocked off hubcaps. Windows shattered. The car's chassis was brutalized by boulders and tree stumps. Oddly, no one inside the car uttered a sound. She supposed resignation had rendered them silent.
Although she'd anticipated the inevitable final crash, the impact of the car hitting the massive pine tree that blocked its path was incredible.
Inertia forced the rear wheels off the ground. When the car crashed down again, it landed with the graceless, solid thud of a mortally wounded buffalo, then seemed to emit a wheezing death rattle.
In the backseat, strapped in by seat belt and shoulder harness, Kendall had survived. And even though the car was precariously perched on the steep slope, she had managed to get out of the wreckage with Kevin in her arms.
"That's rugged country out there," the nurse observed. "How in the world did you climb out of that ravine?"
It hadn't been easy.
She'd known that the climb back up to the road would be difficult, but she'd underestimated the physical effort it required. Protecting Kevin in the process had made it doubly tough.
The terrain wasn't sympathetic; the weather was downright hostile. The ground was a mush of humus and mud. Covering it was a tangled blanket of undergrowth interspersed with jutting rocks. The wind-driven rain was falling almost horizontally, and in minutes she was soaked to the skin.
The muscles of her arms, legs, and back began to burn with fatigue and strain before she had covered a third of the distance. Her exposed skin had been gouged, scraped, cut, bruised, and lashed. At several points she had thought it was futile and longed to surrender, to stop and sleep until the elements claimed their lives.
But her survival instinct was stronger than that lulling temptation, so she kept going. Using vines and boulders for handgrips and footholds, she had pulled herself up until she finally reached the road, where she began walking to seek help.
She had been on the verge of delirium when a pair of headlights appeared through the rain. Relief and exhaustion overcame her. Rather than run toward the car, she had collapsed to her knees on the center stripe of the narrow country road, waiting for the car to reach her.
Her rescuer was a garrulous woman on her way to a Wednesday night prayer meeting. She drove Kendall to the nearest house and notified the authorities of the accident. It amazed Kendall to learn later that she had walked only a mile from the site of the accident. It had seemed like ten.
She and Kevin had been transported by ambulance to the nearest community hospital, where they were given thorough examinations. Kevin was uninjured. He had been nursing when the car plunged over the cliff. Acting on instinct, Kendall had clutched him to her breast and bent forward before the shoulder harness caught and held. Her body had protected him.
Her numerous cuts and scrapes were painful but superficial. Splinters of glass had been picked out of her arms individually, an uncomfortable and time-consuming process but insignificant when compared to what she might have suffered. Her wounds were treated with a local antiseptic; she had declined a painkiller because she was breast-feeding.
Besides, now that they had been rescued and medically treated, she had to figure out how to sneak away. Sedated, she would be unable to think straight. In order to plan another disappearance, she needed a clear head.
"Is it okay if the deputy sheriff comes in now?"
"Sheriff?" Kendall repeated. The nurse's question had jarred her from her musings.
"He's been waiting to talk to you ever since they brought you in. He's got to go over the official stuff with you."
"Oh. Of course. Ask him to come in."
Having nursed his fill, Kevin was now sleeping peacefully. Kendall pulled together the hospital tunic that she had been given after stripping off her wet, dirty, bloody clothes and taking a hot shower.
At a signal from the nurse, the local lawman stepped through the curtain and nodded in greeting. "How're you doin', ma'am? Y'all okay?" He politely removed his hat and looked at her with concern.
"We're fine, I think." She cleared her throat and tried for more conviction. "We're fine."
"I'd say y'all're real lucky to be alive and all in one piece, ma'am."
"Easy to see how it happened, what with that felled tree lying across the road and all. Lightning got it. Broke it clean off at ground level. Been storming 'round here for days. Seems like the rain ain't never gonna quit. Floodin' all over the region. Ain't no wonder to me that Bingham Creek sucked your car clean out of sight."
The creek had been no more than ten yards in front of the battered car. Once she had climbed out of the wreckage, she had crouched in the mud and stared at the creek with fascination and fear. The muddy water had crested far above flood level, carrying with it all manner of debris. It roiled around trees that lined its normally placid banks.
She shuddered to think what would have been their fate if the car had skidded a few more yards following its collision with the tree. She had watched in horror as the car slid down the incline and was claimed by the raging creek.
For several moments the car had remained buoyant, bobbing its way to the middle of the swift stream before flipping into a nose dive. Within seconds it had disappeared beneath the churning surface. Aside from the scars left on the trunk of the felled pine tree and the deep, parallel furrows plowed by the tires, the accident had left the landscape unscathed.
"Miracle y'all got out in time and didn't drown when it went down," the deputy was saying.
"Not all of us got out," Kendall corrected him in an emotion-husky voice. "There was a passenger in the front seat. She went down with the car."
At the mention of a fatality, the deputy's routine interrogation suddenly became anything but routine. He frowned. "What? A passenger?"
As though watching from outside herself, Kendall saw her face crumple as she began to cry, a delayed reaction to the trauma. "I'm sorry."
The nurse passed her a box of Kleenex and patted her shoulder. "It's okay, honey. After the brave thing you did, you just go right ahead and bawl all you want to."
"Didn't know there was anybody else in the car 'cept you, your baby, and the driver," the deputy said quietly, in deference to her emotional state.
Kendall blotted her nose. "She was in the passenger seat and was already dead when the car went into the creek. She probably died instantly, upon impact."
After making certain that Kevin was unharmed, and noting how quickly the creek was rising, Kendall had approached the passenger side of the car with trepidation, almost certain of what she would find. This side had sustained the brunt of the collision. The door was caved in and the window had been broken out.
At a glance, Kendall had known the woman inside was dead. Her pleasant features were no longer recognizable from the facial bones and tissue that had been ravaged. The dashboard and a mishmash of engine parts had been driven into her chest cavity. Her head lolled against the headrest at an unnatural angle.
Ignoring the blood and gore, Kendall had reached in and pressed her fingers against the woman's neck in the vicinity of the carotid artery. She felt no pulse.
"I thought I should try and save the rest of us," she explained to the deputy after describing the scene. "I wish I could have gotten her out, too, but, knowing that she was already dead—"
"Under the circumstances you did what you had to do, little lady. You saved the living. Nobody can fault you for the choice you made." He nodded down at the sleeping infant. "You did a damn sight more than anybody could ask of you. How'd you go about getting the driver out?"
After determining that the passenger was dead, Kendall had laid Kevin on the ground and covered his face with a corner of his blanket. Although he would be uncomfortable, he would be safe for the moment. Then she stumbled around to the other side of the car. The driver's head was slumped over the steering wheel. Swallowing her dread, Kendall had called his name and pressed his shoulder.
She remembered giving it a slight shake, and how startled she'd been when this caused him to flop backward against the seat. She had recoiled as blood trickled from the corner of his slack lips. There was a deep gash on his right temple; otherwise his face was intact. His eyes were closed and still, but at that point she wasn't certain that he was dead. She reached in and placed her hand on his chest.
He had a heartbeat.
Then, without warning, the car had shifted on the uneven ground and slid several feet down the slope, dragging her along with it. Her arm, still inside the car, was nearly wrenched from its socket.
The auto came to a rocking, unsteady rest, but she'd known it was only a matter of time before it would be swallowed by the floodwaters, which were already lapping at the tires. Saturated ground was giving way beneath the weight of the car. There had been no time to contemplate the situation, or to carefully weigh her options, or to consider how badly she wanted to be rid of him.
She had every reason to fear and despise him. But she didn't wish him dead. She would never want that. A life, any life, was worth saving.
So, with a surge of adrenaline, she used her bare hands to scoop aside mud and tear at tenacious vines that prevented her from opening the driver's door.
Finally she managed to wedge it open, and when she did, his torso slumped into her waiting arms. His bloody head fell onto her shoulder. Beneath his dead weight, she collapsed to her knees.
Wrapping her arms around his chest, she pulled him from beneath the steering wheel. It was a struggle. Several times she lost her footing in the slippery mud and landed hard on her backside. But each time she clambered to her feet, dug her heels in, and put forth enormous effort into pulling him free of the wreckage. His heels had barely cleared the door when the car snapped free of its temporary moorings and slid into the creek.
Kendall related her story, omitting her private thoughts. When she finished, the deputy was practically standing at attention, looking as though he might salute her. "Lady, you'll prob'ly get a medal or something."
"I seriously doubt that," she murmured.
He removed a small spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen from the breast pocket of his shirt. "Name?"
Buying time, she pretended not to understand. "Pardon?"
The small hospital staff had been kind enough to admit them without first thrusting forms and questionnaires at her. That kind of trusting, informal procedure would be unheard of in a large city hospital. But in rural Georgia, compassion superseded collecting insurance cards.
Now, however, Kendall was faced with the grim realities of her situation, and she wasn't ready to deal with them. She hadn't yet decided what to do, how much to tell, where to go from here.
She had no compunctions about stretching the truth. She had done it before. All her life. Many times. Extensively and elaborately. But lying to the police was serious business. She had never gone quite that far before.
Bowing her head, she massaged her temples and reconsidered asking for a painkiller to muffle her drumming headache. "My name?" she repeated, stalling, praying that a brilliant idea would suddenly occur to her. "Or the name of the woman who died?"
"Let's start with you."
She held her breath for a moment, then said softly, "Kendall."
"That'd be K-e-n-d-a-l-l?" he asked as he wrote it in his notebook.
"Okay, Mrs. Kendall. Was that also the name of the fatality?"
"No, it's Kendall—"
Before she could correct the deputy's mistake, the curtain was whisked aside with a screech of metal rings on an unoiled track. The doctor on call strode in.
Kendall's heart skipped a beat. Breathlessly, she asked, "How is he?"
The doctor grinned. "Alive, thanks to you."
"Has he regained consciousness? Has he said anything? What has he told you?"
"Want to take a look-see for yourself?"
"I… I suppose."
"Hey, Doc, hold on a sec. I have some questions to ask her," the deputy complained. "Lots of important paperwork, don'cha know."
"Can't that wait? She's upset, and I can't give her anything to calm her down because she's nursing."
The deputy glanced at the baby, then at Kendall's chest. His face turned the color of a ripe tomato. "Well, I reckon it'll keep for a spell. But it's got to be done."
"Sure, sure," the doctor said.
The nurse lifted Kevin from Kendall's arms. He remained asleep. "I'll find this little precious one a crib in the nursery. Don't worry about him. You go with the doctor."
The deputy fiddled with the brim of his hat while shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I'll just sit out here. Then, whenever you're ready, ma'am, to, uh, you know, finish up here…"
"Have a cup of coffee, why don't you?" the doctor suggested, humoring the officer.
The doctor was young and brash and, in Kendall's estimation, very full of himself. She doubted that the ink on his medical diploma was dry yet, but he obviously enjoyed asserting his limited authority. Without a backward glance at the deputy, he ushered her down the corridor.
"He has a tibial shaft fracture, or your basic broken shinbone," he explained. "There was no displacement, so he won't require surgery, or a rod, etcetera. In that respect, he was extremely lucky. From the way you described the car—"
"The hood was pleated like a paper fan. I don't know why the steering wheel didn't crush his chest."
"Right. I was afraid he'd have busted ribs, internal bleeding, organ damage, but I see no evidence of any. His vital signs have stabilized. That's the good news.
"The bad news is that he took quite a knock on the head. X rays show only a hairline fracture on the skull, but I had to take several dozen stitches to close the wound. It isn't too pretty right now, but eventually his hair'll grow back over it. Won't spoil his good looks too much," he said, smiling down at her.
"He bled quite a lot."
"We've given him a unit of blood just to be on the safe side. He sustained a concussion, but if he's quiet for several days, he'll be okay. With his leg broken like it is, he'll be on crutches for at least a month. He won't have much choice but to lie around, be lazy, and let himself heal. Here we are." He steered her toward a room. "He just regained consciousness a few minutes ago, so he's still groggy."
The doctor went into the dimly lighted room ahead of her. She hesitated on the threshold and surveyed the room. On one wall was an atrocious paint-by-number picture of Jesus ascending into the clouds; an AIDS awareness poster hung on the opposite wall. It was a semiprivate room with two beds, but he was the only patient.
His lower leg, secured in a cast, was propped up on a pillow. He'd been dressed in a hospital gown that reached only to the middle of his thighs. They looked strong and tan against the white sheets, out of keeping with an infirmary.
A nurse was taking his blood pressure. His dark eyebrows were drawn into a frown beneath the wide gauze bandage encircling his head. His hair was matted with dried blood and an antiseptic solution. A ghastly number of bruises discolored his arms. The features of his face had been distorted by swelling, contusions, and bruises, but he was recognizable by the vertical cleft in his chin and the hard slant of his mouth, from which protruded a thermometer.
Briskly, the doctor moved to the bedside and consulted the blood pressure reading the nurse had noted on the patient's chart. "Looking better all the time." He also murmured approval when the nurse showed him the patient's current body temperature.
Although Kendall still hesitated just outside the door, the patient's eyes instantly homed in on her. They penetrated the shadowed depths of their sockets, which were sunken and dark from blood loss and pain. But his unflinching stare was as incisive as ever.
The first time she had looked directly into his eyes, she had sensed and respected their keen perception. She had even feared it a little. She still did. He seemed to possess an uncanny ability to see straight into her in a way that was most unsettling.
He had her pegged from their first meeting. He knew a liar when he saw one.
She hoped that his talent for reading her thoughts would serve now to let him know how genuinely sorry she was that he'd been injured. If not for her, the wreck never would have occurred. He had been driving, but it was she who was accountable for the pain and discomfort he was suffering. Realizing this, she was filled with remorse. She was the last person he would want hovering over his hospital bed.
Misreading the cause of her hesitation, the nurse smiled and motioned her forward. "He's decent. You can come in now."
Battling her apprehension, Kendall stepped into the room and gave the patient a faltering smile. "Hi. How do you feel?"
He fixed an unblinking stare on her that lasted for several moments. Finally, he glanced up at the doctor, then at the nurse, before his gaze moved back to Kendall. Then in a weak, hoarse voice, he asked, "Who are you?"
The doctor bent over his patient. "You mean you don't recognize her?"
"No. Am I supposed to? Where am I? Who am I?"
The doctor just gaped at his patient. The nurse stood dumbfounded, the hose of the blood pressure gauge dangling from her hand. Kendall appeared stunned, although she felt her emotions rioting. Her mind scurried to assimilate this shocking twist and how she might use it to her advantage.
The doctor was the first to recover. With a bravado belied by his weak smile, he said, "Well, it seems that the concussion has left our patient with amnesia. This frequently happens. It's temporary, I'm sure. Nothing to worry about. You'll laugh over it in a day or two."
He turned to Kendall. "For now, you're our only source of information. Guess you'd better tell us—and tell him—who he is."
She hesitated so long that the moment stretched taut. The doctor and nurse looked at her expectantly. The man in the hospital bed seemed both interested in and wary of her answer. His eyes narrowed suspiciously, but Kendall could tell that, miraculously, he genuinely remembered nothing. Nothing!
This was a blessing unforeseen, an incredibly generous gift of fate. It was almost too good, almost overwhelming, too intricate to handle without having time to prepare. But she knew one thing for certain: She would be a fool not to seize it with both hands.
With remarkable calm, she declared, "He's my husband."
By the authority vested in me by Almighty God and the state of South Carolina, I pronounce you husband and wife. Matthew, you may kiss your bride."
The wedding guests applauded as Matt Burnwood drew Kendall Deaton into his arms. Laughter erupted when his kiss extended beyond a chaste token. He was reluctant to stop.
"That'll have to wait," Kendall whispered against his lips. "Unfortunately."
Matt gave her a pained look, but, being a good sport, turned to face the several hundred people who had turned out in their Sunday best to attend the affair.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the minister intoned, "may I present, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Burnwood."
Arm in arm, Kendall and Matt faced their smiling guests. Matt's father was seated alone in the front row. He stood and opened his arms to Kendall.
"Welcome to our family," he said, embracing her. "God sent you to us. We've needed a woman in our family. If Laurelann were alive, she'd love you, Kendall. Just as I do."
Kendall kissed Gibb Burnwood's ruddy cheek. "Thank you, Gibb. That's very sweet of you."
Laurelann Burnwood had passed away when Matt was a youngster, but he and Gibb spoke of her death as though it were recent. The widower cut an impressive figure, with his white crew cut and tall, trim physique. Many widows and divorcées had set their caps for Gibb, but their affections remained unrequited. He'd had his one true love, he often said. He wasn't looking for another.
Matt placed one arm around his father's broad shoulders, the other around Kendall. "We needed each other. We're a complete family now."
"I only wish Grandmother could have been here," Kendall remarked sadly.
Matt gave her a sympathetic smile. "I wish she'd felt up to making the trip from Tennessee."
"It would have been too hard on her. She's here in spirit, though."
"Let's not get too maudlin," Gibb cut in. "These folks came to eat, drink, and be merry. This is your day. Enjoy it."
Gibb had spared no expense to guarantee that their wedding would be remembered and talked about for years to come. Kendall had been shocked by his extravagance. Shortly after accepting Matt's proposal, she had suggested that they have a private ceremony, perhaps in a pastor's study.
Gibb wouldn't hear of it.
He eschewed the tradition of the bride's family financing the wedding and insisted on hosting it himself. Kendall demurred, but Gibb, with his disarming, winning personality, had shot down all her arguments.
"Don't take offense," Matt had told her when she expressed her dismay over Gibb's elaborate plans. "Dad wants to throw a party, the likes of which Prosper has never seen. Since neither you nor your grandmother is financially able to do it, he's pleased to foot the bill. I'm his only child. This is a once-in-a-lifetime event for him. So let's give him his head and let him run."
It hadn't taken long for Kendall to be swept up in the excitement. She selected her gown, but Gibb took control of everything else, although he considerately consulted her before any major decisions were finalized.
His strict attention to detail had paid off, because today his house and lawn looked spectacular. Matt and she had exchanged vows beneath a latticed arch bedecked with gardenias, white lilies, and white roses. Inside a large tent was an elaborate buffet of salads, side dishes, and entrees to suit every palate.
The wedding cake was a breathtaking sculpture with several tiers. The creamy frosting was decorated with clusters of fresh rosebuds. There was also a chocolate groom's cake with fudge icing drizzled over strawberries nearly as large as tennis balls. Magnums of champagne were chilling in tubs of ice. The guests seemed dedicated to drinking every drop of it.
Despite such glamour, the reception was truly a family affair. Children played under the shade trees. After the bride and groom initiated the dancing with a wedding waltz, other couples crowded the floor until everyone was dancing.
It was a fairy tale wedding. Complete with an ogre.
Kendall, unaware of the menace surrounding her, couldn't have imagined being happier. Matt held her close and twirled her about the dance floor. With his tall, slender physique, he seemed made to wear a tuxedo without looking awkward. He was incredibly handsome. His evenly defined features and straight hair gave him the aristocratic bearing of a robber baron.
"You have that elegant, aloof air about you. Like Gatsby," Kendall had once told him teasingly.
She wanted to go on dancing with him for hours, but guests were vying for a dance with the bride. Among them was Judge H. W. Fargo. She all but groaned when Matt relinquished her to the judge, who demonstrated no more grace on the dance floor than he did in the courtroom.
"I had my doubts about you," Judge Fargo remarked as he swung her into a turn that almost caused her a whiplash. "When I heard they were hiring a female to be this county's public defender, I had serious misgivings that you could handle the job."
"Really?" she said coolly.
Fargo was not only a terrible dancer and a lamentable judge but a sexist to boot, Kendall thought. Since her first appearance in his courtroom, he'd made no effort to conceal his "misgivings."
"Why were you apprehensive, Judge?" she asked, struggling to keep her pleasant smile in place.
"Prosper's a conservative county and town," he said expansively. "Damn proud of it, too. Around here, folks have been doing things the same way for generations. We're slow to change and don't like it when we're forced to. A lady lawyer is a novelty."
"You think women should remain at home to cook, clean, and care for children, is that it? They shouldn't aspire to be professionals?"
He harrumphed. "I wouldn't put it like that."
"No, of course you wouldn't."
Such a candid statement might cost him votes. Everything he said in public was self-censored. Judge H. W. Fargo was a consummate politician. If only he were as effective a judge.
"This page-turner is a must on any summer beach reading list and a testament to Brown's gifts as a talented storyteller."
"Through a mosaic of tantalizing clues, premonitions, and withheld identities, Brown has created another page-turner to ensure her phenomenal popularity...Secrets keep popping out until the last page. Brown's forte is glitch-free, all-over-the-map plotting."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- On Sale
- Mar 29, 2016
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Grand Central Publishing