"You rode your pony, didn't you?" Griffin asked.
"Cat got your tongue?" Rachel asked.
The phone rang and Griffin excused himself to answer it, stepping out of the dining room into the foyer. His voice was low and his tone serious.
"What's the matter with you?" Rachel asked Lizzy.
"Nothing," she answered.
"You could talk to me. I intend to live here before very long, and you're going to be my stepdaughter. You'll have to talk to me then so you might as well start now." Rachel's tone was syrupy sweet.
Lizzy decided to give her a chance. "Do you like cats?"
"No, I hate them and you aren't going to bring any of those horrible barn cats in this house when I move in here. That will be understood from the first day." The tone was suddenly snappy and sour.
"You aren't very pretty when you do that with your eyes and make your mouth all puckered up," Lizzy said.
"You are a horrible little girl," Rachel said.
"Hey, you two, go ahead and eat. I'll be back in fifteen minutes. There's a cow down and I've got to help Carl pull the calf," Griffin yelled from the other room.
Lizzy jumped up from the table. "I'll go with you, Daddy."
"No, you stay here and talk to Rachel."
Lizzy kept walking. "But I want to go with you."
He frowned. "I said you will stay here with Rachel."
She sat back down and hunched her thin shoulders, dropping her chin to her chest in a pout.
Rachel waited until she heard the door shut before she turned to Lizzy.
"Little girl, you better understand something right now. I
will marry your father. Now straighten up you
r back and eat your carrots."
"I don't like carrots." Lizzy glared at Rachel. If
moved to the Lucky Clover, then Lizzy was going to ride her pony to Annie's house and live there. Even that Lassyturn witch wasn't as mean as Rachel.
"Eat them anyway or else."
"I told you I don't like carrots. Daddy never puts them on my plate and he won't make me eat them," Lizzy said.
"Do you like a spanking? I can turn you over my knee so fast that it'll make you dizzy. I said eat those carrots." Rachel's eyes narrowed into slits. She was almost as tall as Griffin at five feet eleven inches. Her black hair came straight from a bottle and her eyes were dark brown. No little girl was about to refuse to do something she told her to do.
Lizzy shook her head.
Rachel jerked her up by the arm, bent her over her lap, and swatted her twice. She plopped her back down on the chair hard enough to make a thud.
So that's what a spanking feels like, Lizzy thought
, but she didn't cry. She'd heard about spankings but she'd never had one. She'd asked Nana Rita about them but Nana Rita said spankings were for really bad things. Little girls who just did something a little bad had to stay in their room all afternoon or sometimes they didn't get to ride their pony or play with their kittens. Lizzy couldn't wait to tell Annie all about it tomorrow at school.
"I still hate carrots," she said.
"It doesn't matter. If I tell you to eat them, then you will eat them," Rachel said.
"I'm going to my room and I'm not eating them carrots. You can tell my daddy that you whipped me."
Rachel pointed her finger at Lizzy. "I'm not telling him anything and neither are you or you'll get twice as many swats next time. I'm coming back next Saturday to spend the whole day because Marita and Carl need to be away from the ranch. You'll learn to mind me, little girl."
Lizzy raced up to her bedroom and slammed the door.
Julie had trouble getting to sleep that night. She'd found Edna's recipes written neatly in a notebook, along with last year's price of sugar, spices, and jars that she bought at the Wal-Mart store in Gainesville. It wouldn't be so difficult to keep the business going, and it would give her a little extra income.
She finally drifted off at midnight to hear Annie screaming. Fear glued her to the bed for a moment before the adrenaline rush set in. She ran to the bedroom to find Annie as white as a sheet, sitting straight up in bed, her eyes opened so wide they were frightening.
"What is the matter, baby?" Julie tried to soothe her.
"It's a witch. Her name is Edna and she won't die. She's a mean old woman and she hates me because I look like Lizzy. She said she was going to put me in a dark place and never let me out, and she said I was a spawn like Lizzy."
"It was just a dream," Julie said. "You must have overheard Mamie talking today. Edna is dead. She died and is buried at Saint Jo. She can't put you in a dark place because she's not here."
"Promise?" Annie asked.
"Will you sleep with me?"
"Lizzy would sleep with me but she's afraid to come in our house because of that mean old witch," Annie said.
It must have been a hell of a nightmare,
Julie thought as she crawled into the bed and cradled her daughter in her arms.
NOT A LEAF WAS STIRRING AND THE DIRT KICKED UP BY Griffin's tractor settled back to the earth quickly. August was even hotter than June and July, and they'd broken heat records during those months. It had been weeks since they'd had rain and there was none in the next week's forecast. The temperatures had been over the hundred-degree mark for days on end. Over to his right he could see Paul, one of his hired hands, driving the John Deere to the barbed wire fence. He made a turn and started another round. Griffin did the same thing in the pasture on the other side of the fence.
Thank goodness for air-conditioned cabs on his tractors or he'd be spitting dust for a week. While he plowed, his thoughts went to Rachel, who was back at the ranch house keeping Lizzy that day. Griffin was thinking about taking their relationship up to the next notch. Lizzy was getting to the age when she needed a mother. The past five years had passed like a blur. Before long she'd need another woman to talk to about things like sex and boys.
Griffin's brows knit into a solid black line across. His little girl and boys? He was frowning when his cell phone rang. He groped in the pocket of his bibbed overalls for the phone. It rang three times before he fished it out of his pocket. "I know it's dinner time. I'm on my way."
"Dinner is on the bar. I put it out there twenty minutes ago, just like the instructions Marita left me said to do. Several of the hired hands have already been in and eaten. I'm just calling to remind you and Lizzy to come on home to eat," Rachel said.
Every hair on Griffin's neck stood straight up. "Lizzy isn't with me. Isn't she there with you?"
"Haven't seen her all morning. I figured she'd begged to go with you this morning and you let her. You know you spoil her too much, Griff."
"When did you see her last?" Griffin asked.
"I haven't seen her. When I got here you were leaving and said to let her sleep since you two watched a late movie together. At ten I decided she'd slept long enough so I went to wake her and she wasn't there. I did check the barn about fifteen minutes ago to see if she was playing with those miserable cats. But since she wasn't there I figured she was with you on the tractor," Rachel said.
Griffin stopped the tractor and jogged to his truck parked at the side of the field. His pulse raced and his heart felt like a band of steel was tightened around it. For some silly reason Lizzy didn't like Rachel. He'd asked her about it the night before when they were watching
Over the Hedge
, and she'd only shrugged.
The ranch was safe and everyone knew Lizzy. No one could steal her right out of her bedroom, could they? She'd been told that she could not ride her pony except when Griff told her it was okay, and then she was never to leave the property.
"Dian?" he said aloud, then discarded the idea. Lizzy's mother had agreed on a settlement and left Lizzy in his care when she was two months old. Surely after five years she hadn't gotten a maternal itch and come back to steal Lizzy.
The band got tighter and tighter.
He figured that Lizzy was hiding from Rachel and would come out from behind a playhouse made of hay bales when he called her name. He hit the back porch at a run and slung open the door.
Rachel met him, shaking her finger at him. "You give that kid too much freedom, Griffin. She's allowed to run all over the place and ride that pony of hers wherever she wants on the ranch. It's not my fault she's gone. She's spoiled rotten and needs a good solid whipping for scaring us like this."
"No one is whipping my daughter. She'll be punished if she's wrong, but there might be an explanation," he said icily.
Griffin went to the bottom of the stairs and called up. "Lizzy! Come down here right now. It's dinner time."
Silence answered him.
He called her name a dozen times as he went up the steps and checked every bedroom, under the beds, in the back corners of the closets, and even the attic. No Lizzy. By the time he checked the basement, fear had his heart in a vice grip. He hurried out the back door, jumped the fence, and went to the barn.
She'd be in there with her momma cat and the kittens. She had to be. It was the last place she could be unless she'd ridden her pony to one of the far corners of the ranch and gotten hurt. She knew her boundaries and had been told always to put the spare cell phone in her pocket before she left the house.
He grabbed his phone and dialed the number. It rang four times before someone picked up. He let out a whoosh of air.
"Lizzy, where are you?" he demanded before she even said, "hello."
"This is Rachel. I heard the phone ringing and was about to say 'hello' when you started talking."
He snapped it shut without another word and began to call Lizzy's name, searching all over the barn—but no Lizzy. He checked the pasture for her pony and found it missing along with her saddle out of the tack room. Visions of her lying in a pool of blood after a fall raced through his head. He was climbing back down the ladder when kittens gathered around his ankles, meowing and demanding attention. He stepped carefully to keep from stomping a tail or hurting one of them and was already out the door with the phone in his hand to call the Saint Jo police when something stopped him.
There was a yellow kitten in with the black and white ones. The old black barn cat that Lizzy called Fluffy always produced black and white kittens. Three to five in a litter a couple of times a year. He'd just been out to the barn the day before with Lizzy and they'd played with black and white kittens. He turned around abruptly and went back into the barn. Three little kittens with a black mother. He remembered it well because he and Lizzy had watched an old rerun of
The Three Stooges
a few days before and she named them Larry, Moe, and Curly. Larry had a black smudge on his nose. Moe had a white streak on his head. And Curly had a white tip on his tail. Now there was one yellow and two black and white. Where was Curly?
"Here kitty, kitty," he called. No more kittens came running.
His phone rang and he snapped it open. "Yes."
"I don't like the way you hung up on me, Griffin. It hurt my feelings and you owe me an apology," Rachel said.
"I'm sorry. I'm worried about Lizzy."
"Well, so am I, but she'll turn up. Come have some dinner and then we'll both go hunt for the little runaway…"
He hung up again and called Marita's cell phone number.
"Hello," she answered.
"Lizzy is missing," he said bluntly. "And there's a yellow cat in our barn with the black and white ones."
"Did you call the police? Was it Dian? Did she steal her? Have you gone looking for her? Did she ride her pony?"
"I don't know what's going on. Her pony and saddle are gone so she's out riding somewhere. The only thing I can find that's weird is that yellow kitten."
"Edna had a yellow cat. She had a notice up in the grocery store for free yellow kittens the week before she died. Didn't you tell me that that schoolteacher bought her place?"
"But it's almost a mile from our property line to the Lassiter place and Lizzy knows better than to ride her pony on the road."
"She knows better but Annie is all she talks about. Check that house and when I get home we'll comb the rest of the ranch. I'm calling the police if you haven't located her in an hour. It could be Dian is mixed up in this."
"I'm on my way to the Lassiter place. I'll call if I find her."
He didn't go through the house but around it and left a trail of dust behind him as he took off in the truck. He drove to the end of the lane and headed south toward town. Surely Lizzy hadn't disobeyed him and ridden down the country road that far. Just this past month he'd let her ride the pony out of the yard and that was with the promise that she'd always have the cell phone in her pocket.
It was a hot Saturday at the end of August.
Not merely hot but stinking hot.
Julie had been outside with a hoe weeding Edna's garden most of the morning. In spite of the heat the garden was still producing. The squash had golden blossoms the size of saucers, which meant in a few days there would be a crop to make squash relish for Mamie. New cucumbers were two inches long. Just right for bread and butter pickles.