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|Wicked as They Come(Blud #1) by Delilah S. Dawson|
I was the one who found Mrs. Stein’s body two weeks ago. Now here I was, pawing through her things, finally free to explore her creepy old house. It wasn’t personal, though—I had barely known her. And the estate sale was probably her idea, anyway, one last attempt to infuriate her children.
The second I saw the sign, I had to stop. She had been surprisingly paranoid for a hospice patient, and I had never seen anything of her historic Victorian home beyond the downstairs bedroom where she had chosen to spend her remaining days. The chance to explore was just too interesting to pass up. Plus, I’d said good-bye to most of my worldly possessions when I left Jeff , and I had an hour to kill until my next patient.
I was starting over from scratch and didn’t have the money or the lifestyle for priceless antiques, but I always had room for treasure. Knickknacks, odd paintings, or costume jewelry would help liven up my empty apartment. Best of all, though, the sun-dappled attic upstairs was wall-to-wall books. For me, that was heaven.
When I first saw the chain hanging from the top of the old tome, I didn’t know what to think. I tugged it up. As the flat locket slid from between the pages, I got a little rush of excitement, like when pulling the prize out of a box of cereal. Sure, it was tarnished and grimy, but it was a prize nonetheless. Maybe my luck was finally changing.
I let the locket dangle in a sunbeam, charmed by its age and strangeness. I could picture it shining on some young lady’s neck, part of an epic story full of romance and a Prince Charming who didn’t turn out to be an overbearing, soul-sucking jerk. Not that I was bitter or anything. I just wanted to start over fresh, make that good-bye really mean something positive.
It’s funny how a relationship can sneak up on you like that. It starts with a whirlwind courtship, dozens of roses and poetry and dancing. He buys you a toothbrush, gives you a drawer. You move in. You give in on little things, just to make him happy. The curtains. Your hair, which he thinks you should grow out. Then it’s bigger things. The checkbook. Your job. And the one big-big thing, the baby that you lose, the gift he wasn’t ready to give you. His relief at your pain kills something inside you, the hardest goodbye of all.
And then one day, you realize that you’re basically a plaything and property to a man who’s charmed you out of your pants and into the perfect wedding ring he had picked out before he even met you. That he’s not making plans with you, he’s making you fit into his plans, no matter what the cost. You realize that you’ve become a paper doll with paper thoughts, that it was all too easy to give up control. And then one night, he hits you, and you pull your dignity off the floor and kick the bastard to the curb.
You say good-bye. And then you leave. And then you get somewhere else and learn how to say hello again.
“Hello,” I said to the locket, trying it out.
Just looking at it made me happy in a way I had forgotten. A feeling of hope, of indulgence. I’d forgotten how good it felt to choose something for myself, to see an object and say, “I’m going to make that mine.”
It was pretty in such a Gothic, old-fashioned way. One side had a large, flat stone—maybe a ruby or maybe just glass. And the other side of the oval had indecipherable writing around the edge with a compass rose in the center. I breathed on the metal and rubbed it on my scrub pants, but its secrets remained safe under eons of muck.
Just as I was about to head downstairs to pay for the locket, a little old lady appeared at my elbow and said, “Excuse me, miss. Can you read this?”
“I’d be glad to try,” I said with a smile.
She handed me a crusty old saltcellar, and I read the smudged grease-pencil price. I was like a magnet for old people. Maybe because I was accustomed to helping them at work. Maybe because I looked kind. Or maybe because every time I looked at an elderly person, I thought of my grandmother and couldn’t help smiling.
Taking care of my grandmother was one of my greatest joys and greatest sorrows. I got to be with her and help her, take care of all of the nursing tasks that she would be mortified to impose on a stranger. But I also had to watch her die, and it broke my heart. With my mom gone and my dad remarried across the country, she was all the family I had. The hours I spent with her every day were precious to me, and I couldn’t believe how much time I had lost with her by wasting time with Jeff in Birmingham.
This old lady had the same sort of fire that made my grandmother special, a mix of manners and moxie that I hoped I had inherited. Watching her eyes narrow at the offending saltcellar reminded me of going antiques shopping with Nana when I was little, popping jelly beans one by one as she haggled. Still, I didn’t have much time until I was expected at Mr. Rathbin’s house, and after that, I had four more hospice patients waiting. Old people get really cranky when you’re late.
I was just opening my mouth to apologize and slip away when my beeper went off. It was my case manager, followed by 911.
“Excuse me,” I said, rushing past the surprised old woman and down the narrow staircase.
“Must be a doctor,” I heard her remark to someone else before I was out of earshot.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda, I thought, remembering the night that Jeff tore up my applications to medical school and threw them into the trash. Then I corrected myself.
I can still be a doctor if I want to. Nothing’s stopping me, dammit. I can be anything and anyone I want to be. No one’s going to tell me what to be ever again.
Back in my car, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone to call the office. Instead, I found the locket. Staring at it, I reminded myself that I was not a thief, that I had never stolen anything in my life … on purpose.
But something I couldn’t explain kept me from going back inside and making things right. The busy woman running the estate sale probably didn’t even know the locket existed. And the recently deceased Mrs. Stein wouldn’t miss it. There wasn’t a price on it. Still, I couldn’t help imagining police cars with blinking lights surrounding my little sedan in the driveway as officers with guns ordered me to put my hands up. So much of the last three years of my life had been based on fear.
I tugged the chain over my head and pulled my long dark hair out from under it. I couldn’t help giving myself a sly grin in the pull-down mirror. The locket was heavy, and it hung exactly over my heart, much lower than most of my necklaces. I tucked it under my T-shirt and scrub top, enjoying the dull weight against my skin and wondering what sort of metal lurked under the tarnish. Maybe once it was cleaned, I could have the chain shortened.
Or maybe I’d keep it a secret, just because I could.
“What’s this thing made of—Kryptonite?” I muttered to myself. “It’s useless.”
Nana didn’t even glance up from her crossword puzzle to ask, “What’s useless?”
“Getting this locket clean. I’ve tried everything under your sink. It’s making me crazy.”
I looked at the array of cleaners and scrubby things cluttering the kitchen table. I’d tried them all. Up next: a jack-hammer.
One corner of her mouth twitched up, and the other puckered down. “Tish, honey, please tell me you didn’t just put bleach on a valuable piece of antique jewelry.”
“Yep,” I said.
“Lordy loo, sugar,” she said from her wheelchair, her face all crumpled up like a dried-out apple. “You’re going to ruin it. You have to be careful with old things. Show some respect.”
“What would you recommend?” I asked her. If she didn’t have a good old Southern recipe for hope, no one did.
“Patience,” she said with a smile. “Take it to a jewelry store tomorrow, before you muck it up. You’re too impetuous. Have you opened it yet?”
“I’ve been too busy trying to clean it to see what’s inside,” I said. To be honest, though, I was saving that for later, when I was alone. I wanted to savor it, keep it my own little secret.
When she turned back to her crossword, I tried the bleach one more time, just in case. In the silence of my scrubbing, I heard it. The sound I hated most. Nana’s labored breathing. She was having a tough night, but she wouldn’t admit it. I had arranged it so she was the last call on my rounds, so that I would always have plenty of time for her. I logged all of my nursing duties, making sure she had her chemo meds and antinausea drugs. And after that, I heated up her dinner, helped her tie the scarf around what was left of her hair, and tucked her into bed. She couldn’t climb into it anymore on her own, and she hated that.
“Do you need more Demerol, Nana?” I asked softly.
Her mouth turned down again, and her eyes narrowed. “No, I don’t need any more, thank you very much, missy,” she said. “Don’t you go telling me how I feel.” She’d been prickly after the latest relapse. We had thought she was in remission, but apparently, her cancer thought the third time was the charm.
“I just want you to be comfortable,” I said. “Because I love you.”
“I’d rather be me than be doped up,” she said, fire in her eyes. “If I don’t have much time left, you’re darned tootin’ I’m going to spend it awake and raising heck.”
“But it’s bedtime, Nana,” I said with a soft laugh. “You need your sleep.”
“You’re the one who needs it, sugar,” she said. “Old bones don’t sleep so easy. Now, why don’t you get me ready so you can go out and enjoy being young?”
“I’m twenty-five,” I said. “That’s not very young.”
“I’m eighty-four,” she said. “You’ll have to be young for both of us. Go to a party, or whatever it is you do. Go meet a nice young man.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” I said.
The last nice young man I’d met had nearly broken me. I wasn’t ready to be tied down again. And I wasn’t ready to share what was left of myself yet, either.
I thought about it as I went through our nightly ritual. Thought about bars and bookstores, online dating, handing out little cards to attractive men. None of it was appealing. And it wasn’t as if I was going to meet any eligible bachelors at work. All of my patients were older than seventy except one, who was thirty and a vegetable.
As I pulled the covers over my grandmother’s shrunken arms and bloated stomach, I gave her my brightest smile. I made sure she had her remote controls, her crossword book and pen, her cordless phone, and her “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” button.
“Good night, Nana. I’ll see you in the morning. I love you,” I said.
“Quit saying that like it’s the last time you’re going to say it,” she said peevishly. “Somebody besides me has to pretend I’ll live forever.”
“You’ll live forever,” I said. “Until I’m as old as you are, and then you’ll finally teach me how to make your famous chocolate pie.”
“Maybe,” she said. “If you’re good.”
I’d be back at her house at eight in the morning to help her out of bed and into her remote-control wheelchair. She could do almost everything else for herself and didn’t want to give up her independence and move into a home. I was happy to help. After I had left Jeff, she was the first one I called, standing at a pay phone, crying in the freezing cold. I’d left my cell phone behind, not wanting to give him a way to find me.
“Just come home, Tish,” she had said. “Us Everett women can get through anything. Just come home.”
And I had. I’d lived with her for a few weeks before she offered to give me money for the deposit on my apartment. I was touched that she understood how much I needed space of my own, space to find myself. I was broke, and she’d called it an early inheritance. Since then, we’d anchored each other and developed a friendly, loving relationship with only one rule: we never talked about her illness or my past.
Driving home, I browsed through my CD case. Sure, I had an iPod full of music, but it was all stuff Jeff had picked out, things we had listened to together. I wanted my old favorites, songs that made me feel powerful and pretty and wild and young. The sort of music Jeff had called immature and part of the “old Tish.” I rolled down my windows to the balmy spring night and sang at the top of my lungs, loving the wind in my hair and the thump of the locket against my heart in time with the drums. He wouldn’t have liked that, either. Would have asked me, with that plaintive voice, if I didn’t prefer the diamonds he had given me.
Nope. That’s why I’d dumped them down the garbage disposal on my way out and flicked the switch.
Back at my little apartment, I felt lighthearted for the first time in a long time. As if taking the locket had soothed me, become another choice that further defined who I was. I liked loud music. I took care of my grandmother. I had a good book and a rescued cat named Mr.Surly. I was having cheese toast and tomato soup for dinner. And I had stolen an antique locket from my dead patient’s attic.
As I undressed and put on my pajamas, my eyes didn’t leave the locket’s reflection in the dresser mirror. I didn’t want to take it off. There was something exciting about it, about having something I wasn’t supposed to have.
It was time to open it. I felt around the edge opposite the hinge but couldn’t find a clasp. Then I tried to work it open with my fingers, but it didn’t budge. I went to the bathroom and tried to use a nail file to pry it open like an oyster, but it was very unwilling to produce its pearl. Mr. Surly watched me from the counter, tail twitching. He seemed amused.
With a weary sigh, I waggled my fingers at it and said, “Locket, reveal thy secrets!”