“Of course it was! That was the plan all along.” Imogene reached out her finger to point accusingly at Marietta. “And you knew it! But did that stop you? No! Not bloody likely.”
Imogene sat up in her chair, insulted. “What’s so funny?”
“You’re right. I did know that.”
Imogene was appalled. “I knew it.”
“It wasn’t why I moved into the cottage. But”—Marietta shrugged as a sly smile eased across her cheeks—“knowing I’d be skewering you a bit in the bargain made the move all the sweeter.”
Imogene stared at Marietta as one unable to believe what she’d just heard. Then her lips twitched and she burst out laughing. “I’d have done the same thing!”
“Don’t I know it!”
“Gawd, what a pair we make. Maybe we should move in together.”
“We’d kill each other.”
“But what sport we’d have!” Imogene reached for her bottle of water and took a long swallow. She put the bottle on the table and made a face. “You wouldn’t happen to have any of your special tea, would you? The family recipe?”
Marietta chuckled and shook her head. “Not now. But how about a game of cards tomorrow afternoon? I’ll make it special.”
“You’re on. Make a pitcher. Make two. I need a purge.”
The air of a truce floated between them as they settled back into their chairs. They lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Marietta studied the woman across the table from her. Once again she’d leaned back into the cushions and looked off at the Cove. Imogene just didn’t have the same vitality she’d had the last time she was here. Imogene shivered under the heavy towel. Her hair, drying in the sun, blew in soft wisps, exposing a pinkening scalp. They were old soldiers, Marietta realized. Comrades-in-arms. They’d fought many battles in their years. Seen their triumphs, too. But the woman across from her appeared near broken.
“Come sit in the shade. You’re getting a sunburn,” Marietta said.
“I’m too chilly.”
“Then wear a hat.” Marietta reached beside her, grabbed her floppy beach hat, and handed it to Imogene.
Imogene took it and flopped it on her head with an exaggerated push. “Happy now?”
“You’re a bossy bitch.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Imogene adjusted the hat on her head and settled into a brooding silence.
When it appeared she had nothing more to say, Marietta prompted her, “Why do you feel the need to come to Sea Breeze? You have so many options. Money isn’t a problem. You could move anywhere. Imogene . . . my friend . . . what’s got you so shaken?”
Imogene’s eyes watered and she brought her hand to her lips. The coral polish was chipped. “I feel lost,” Imogene said softly. “For the first time in my life.”
“Lost? How so?”
“You know very well how I feel,” Imogene said reproachfully. “When your husband died . . . I’m sorry, what was his name?”
“Yes, when Edward died. Didn’t you feel lost?”
“Yes, I did.” Marietta recalled the deep depression she’d slipped into after his death, so close after the loss of her son. She’d felt she was drowning in her sorrow. Lucille had saved her with her trademark compassion, care, and unwavering diligence. She wouldn’t let Mamaw go under.
“You had a good marriage, didn’t you? Happy?”
“As happy as can be expected. Naturally we had our ups and downs.”
“But of course you did,” Imogene said impatiently. “No couple can be married for some fifty years and not have ups and downs. Hell, even thirty years. A long marriage can be a battlefield. We had bloody blowups, I can tell you. There were times I hated Jeffrey. Wished he would just die. I’d be free without the scandal of a divorce.” She laughed shortly. “I can’t count the times I’d planned to leave him. And he me. He cheated on me, you know. Several times. He felt somehow entitled to a bit of dalliance, don’t you know. His own father did, and his father did the same thing to his wife before him. We wives are meant to look the other way. Excuse their flirting about as simply a man’s way. The self-important pricks,” Imogene muttered under her breath. “I suppose that’s what happens when a man’s wealthy and successful and powerful in his business. And has a title to boot.”
“?‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’?”
“Oh, I couldn’t agree more.” Imogene nodded vehemently. “Jeffrey was decent enough looking, to be sure. But it’s that other stuff that was the aphrodisiac to young women. We muddled through, however. Age has a marvelous way of mellowing one, doesn’t it? In the end, we found great comfort in each other’s company. The reward of perseverance.” Imogene picked lint from the towel. “I admired him. Jeffrey was a brilliant man.” She stilled her hand and looked vacantly at the pool. “Then came the Alzheimer’s. It’s a dreadful disease. I hate it. It stole Jeffrey from me. Not all at once. Bit by bit. It’s terrible to watch a luminous mind implode like a black star and not be able to do a single thing to stop it.” Her voice broke and she reached for her water bottle.
Marietta felt her own eyes moisten at Imogene’s unexpected display of emotion. “I’m so sorry.”
“I am, too.” Imogene sipped water, then licked her lips. As she screwed the top back on the bottle, her voice grew thin. “That wasn’t the worst of it, though.”
Marietta leaned forward to hear her voice, which had grown as soft as a breeze.
“I did my best to care for him at Greenfields Park. I hired a full-time nurse. A nutritionist. Therapists. No expense was spared. I thought if I couldn’t cure the disease, I might be able to slow it down a little. At the very least make Jeffrey comfortable and feel safe. They get quite frightened at times, you know. When they don’t remember things or get lost. These things I was prepared for. There are loads of books published on the subject. I must have read them all.
“What I wasn’t prepared for were the small daily hurts.” Imogene paused in recollection. “Jeffrey was a publisher, you know. Years back. He was a very fast reader. Had an extensive library. Reading was his world. I’d watch him as he sat and read. He’d set the book down, then pick it up again a bit later and begin reading from the beginning. Over and over. He didn’t remember what he’d just read. It was painful to watch. Eventually he stopped reading altogether. He couldn’t make sense of the words. A part of him died that day.” Her lips trembled. “And a part of me died the day he didn’t know who I was.”