Come Rain or Shine – Denise Grover Swank

t oday is a good day to die.” I threw back my bedroom curtains and glanced over my shoulder. “You stop talkin’ nonsense right now, Violet Mae Beauregard.” “We all know it’s comin’,” she said with a sigh. “I should at least have a say about the kind of day I’m gonna go out on.” I spun at the waist to face her, lowering my hand to my hip. She’d spent the last two months under my roof, but I still wasn’t used to seeing my previously healthy and robust sister looking like a concentration camp victim. I wasn’t sure I could ever get used to that. But I held on to my irritation, because she much preferred it to pity. “You already had your say when you refused further treatment. You want to special-order the weather now?” “Well, of course I do,” she said, leaning back on her stack of pillows. “I’m the one dying; I should get to choose the weather.” I turned my attention to the next window. “Why don’t I ask Jonah to come by and help you put in that special request.” Jonah Pruitt was the pastor at the New Living Hope Revival Church, and a good friend who had helped me in more ways than I could count, including counseling me off and on for the past year.

“No need,” she said in a smug tone. “Already taken care of.” “You talked to Jonah?” I asked in disbelief. She gave me a look that suggested I was a fool. “I’ve got the same line to God as Jonah Pruitt.” Then she held up her hands in front of her as though in prayer. She had a point, and I was actually relieved my sister was still trying to manipulate the world to her liking. Death had her in its jaws, but she was still Violet. The past few days had been rough. Her pain had progressively worsened, and the only thing that seemed to help was a medicated sleep.

She’d been on heavy doses of pain medication for the past week, and the hospice nurses had told me she’d need it from now up until the end. They’d warned me that the end would be here much sooner than I would like. But today seemed like a good day. Violet was sitting up and had a bit of color in her cheeks. “Good mornin’, Violet,” a cheerful voice called out from behind me. “How are we feeling today?” Carly. Violet had called her one of my “strays” when I’d first brought her to the nursery we co-owned, and there was no denying that my best friend Neely Kate and I had found her stranded on the side of the road next to her broken-down car. We’d known from the beginning that Carly was running from something that scared the crap out of her. I’d given her a job and a room in my four-bedroom home until she could figure out where to go next, but she’d paid me back a hundredfold. She was helping me care for Violet, which had turned into a nearly full-time job over the last week or two as Violet’s health deteriorated.

“I’ve had better days,” my sister said. “I was just telling Rose that today would be a good day to die.” “True,” Carly said as she started to take Violet’s blood pressure with a mechanical device hospice had loaned us. “The weather’s perfect today. The sun’s supposed to shine all day. But if you haven’t keeled over by midafternoon, maybe we could get Joe to help carry you downstairs so you can sit on the front porch and watch the kids play with Muffy. Mike said he’d bring them out to the farm after he finished work.” Violet was silent for a second, then said in a softer voice, “I’d like that.” An eavesdropper would have been horrified by Carly’s statement, but Violet loved the way she talked. Carly held her own, throwing back irreverent comments, and she didn’t treat my sister like she was made of glass.

I was relieved to hear that Violet’s kids were coming to visit, but it hurt knowing we’d gotten to this state with Mike. Up until now, I was the one who’d made the arrangements to get the kids to and from Violet’s ex-husband, but he’d obviously gone around me. Mike had become more and more distant over the past few weeks, so while I was relieved the kids were coming, his attitude didn’t bode well for my relationship with them after Violet was gone. At least he wasn’t as confrontational as he had been before Violet had moved out to the farm. For that, I knew I had James “Skeeter” Malcolm to thank. The last time I’d seen James, he’d promised to see to it that Mike would be more cooperative. But that begged the question: how did my brother-in-law know the king of the Fenton County crime world? The world may have known him as Skeeter, but he was James to me. We’d neither spoken to, nor seen, each other for two months, but he was never far from my thoughts. I tried to remind myself that I’d known from the beginning he would never be mine. Still, I lay awake at night thinking about him.

Wondering where he was and what he was doing. Hoping, above all, he was safe. The last words he’d spoken to me had implied that he was working undercover for someone. That he was attempting to protect me and clear the way for us to be together, although he hadn’t explained what he’d meant. More than anything, I was confused—if he truly loved me, wouldn’t he have found a way to reach out? Especially when he knew my sister was dying and I needed the people who loved me more than ever. There wasn’t much time to stew over it, all told. Violet deserved my full attention, and so she got it. The kids had been staying at the farmhouse with us at first, but they’d started spending more time with their father as Violet’s illness progressed. While I knew Violet hated missing a single minute of what time she had left with them, I also knew she was relieved they didn’t have to see her suffer. It was a delicate balance between letting Violet be with her children yet sparing them the horror of her illness.

I suspected two-year-old Mikey would only have hazy memories of Violet—a snatch of a song she’d sung him, the sense of being loved in the way only a momma could—but six-year-old Ashley…she’d remember everything. Violet always put on a show of cheerfulness whenever the kids were visiting, and then she’d fall into a deep, exhausted sleep after they left. But Vi’s sassiness this morning gave me hope. Maybe we’d have weeks or months rather than days. “I think Joe has several meetings this afternoon,” I said. “But I bet Jed would be more than happy to help.” Violet grinned. “I wouldn’t mind Jed Carlisle carryin’ me down the stairs like Rhett Butler carryin’ Scarlett O’Hara on that grand staircase in Gone with the Wind.” “You have that silky robe your Aunt Bessie brought you last week,” Carly said as she removed the cuff from Violet’s arm and set it in the nightstand drawer. “We’ll make sure you’re wearing it.

” I laughed. Violet was all about the drama, and Carly not only encouraged it but took it to the next level. “I’m pretty sure Rhett carried Scarlett up the stairs.” Violet rolled her eyes. “Details.” “You better be careful,” Carly teased. “Neely Kate’s pretty protective of her man.” “She won’t mind,” Violet assured her, then looked up at me. “In fact, this plan works perfectly. I invited Neely Kate and Jed for dinner.

” That was news to me. “When did you invite them?” “Yesterday afternoon. I guess I forgot to tell you.” It was a perfectly reasonable explanation, but I knew my manipulative sister, and I could see she was up to something. “Neely Kate’s not cooking, is she?” Carly asked, scrunching her nose. “I love that girl, but I can’t eat another one of her concoctions.” We all laughed, but Violet’s laughter transitioned into a deep cough, a bitter reminder that she was living with me and sleeping in my bed while we waited for her to die. No amount of banter would change that. Nothing about our situation was normal. Violet slept in my bed, day and night, while I slept in a spare bedroom.

Joe, Neely Kate’s brother and my ex-boyfriend, had moved into the farmhouse to help keep us safe. Carly picked up a cup from the bedside table and headed into the bathroom to refill it. Violet’s coughing episode settled down, and I forced cheerfulness into my voice as I said, “I’ll cook. We haven’t had a good dinner party in ages.” “I want lots of people,” Violet said. Carly emerged from the bathroom, handing the cup to Violet. “Sounds fun,” Carly said. “I’d love to help. In fact, why don’t you leave dinner to me, Rose?” She shot Violet a mock glare. “Any more surprise guests? I figure I’ll take your head count and make twice as much food.

” “Joe, of course,” Violet said. “Now, that man loves your cookin’.” “Violet,” Carly said in a warning tone as she turned to tidy up the room. “What?” Violet said. “Joe’s unattached. You’re unattached. You should try to snag him. He’s probably the best catch you can find around here.” “Second-best catch after that vet, Levi Romano,” Carly teased. “Every married woman I’ve met since arriving in Henryetta has been quick to point that out the moment they find out I’m single.

” She lifted a brow and shot me a teasing grin. “And we’ve been over this before. The last thing I need is another man in my life. The last one was a lying asshole, but I would have married him none the wiser if I hadn’t overheard him scheming with my father. Obviously, my judgment in men is not to be trusted.” Carly had run from her old life after discovering her fiancé had proposed to her as part of an arrangement with her father. “Then trust me,” Violet cooed. “I’ve known Joe for over a year, and they don’t make men as good as him. You better snatch him up before someone else does.” “Even if I were interested in Joe,” she said, “he’s not interested in me.

He’s not interested in anyone right now. He’s still getting over his last breakup.” Violet released a white-flag-waving sigh. “If you’re not interested in Joe, you should take Muffy to the vet. I’m pretty sure I saw her limping.” Muffy, who had taken up residence under the bed, let out a whoof. “See?” Violet said. “Even Muffy approves.” “Muffy doesn’t have a limp,” I said. Violet gave me a look that said shut up and go along.

She knew I wasn’t interested in Levi in the slightest, and I’d told her until I was blue in the face that Joe and I were two entirely different people from the couple who’d fallen in love a year and a half ago. She must have figured it was Carly’s turn since I’d passed on both Levi and Joe. She knew I’d been involved with someone, although I hadn’t given her any details, and since I’d steadfastly refused her matchmaking attempts, she seemed determined to get at least one person in our household matched up. I understood all that…so why did I feel a pinprick of jealousy over her trying to hook Carly up with Joe? “I don’t need a man, Violet,” Carly said again as she pulled back the bedding, revealing Violet’s emaciated frame. “I’m quite content at the moment.” “Content living in a house full of people you didn’t even know two months ago, taking care of a dying woman?” Violet asked in disbelief. Carly helped Violet sit up. “As a matter of fact, yes. I absolutely love it here.” “Don’t you miss your family?” Violet asked.

This wasn’t a new line of questioning from her. Naturally nosy, she hated Carly’s reticence about her mysterious past. “I’ve already told you that I don’t have any family to speak of. My mother died when I was a girl and I don’t have any siblings.” “And you’re not close to your father. I get it,” Violet said as Carly wrapped an arm around her back and pulled her to a sitting position. “But what about friends? Aunts and uncles? Cousins? Who just takes off and leaves their life behind?” Pain washed over Carly’s face, but Violet’s attention was on her legs, which she was attempting to swing over the side of the bed. “Violet,” I softly chastised. “Enough.” Violet’s feet were now hanging over the edge of the bed, but the effort had cost her.

Her breath was coming in pants. “I want to know your story before I die.” All hint of teasing was gone as she held Carly’s gaze. Carly stared at her for several seconds, then grasped her hand in a firm grip and nodded solemnly. “I’ll tell you, but not until you’re about to enter the pearly gates. You’re too far from the end for me to be spilling my story now.” “Deal,” Violet said, then slowly slid off the bed until her feet touched the wood floor. Her knees started to buckle, and Carly wrapped an arm around her back to hold her up. My heart throbbed in my chest. Violet wasn’t better.

She wasn’t going to get better either. I rushed to her side, intent on helping Carly get her back in bed, but Violet resisted. “I still have to pee.” It took both of us to walk Violet to the toilet. When she finished and we got her back into bed, she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Rose, will you call hospice and tell them Carly needs help?” “I don’t think we need to do that quite yet,” Carly protested. “I just didn’t have a good grip on you.” “I can’t go to the bathroom without two of you holding me up,” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s time.” Carly gave me an apologetic look, as though she thought she’d let us down. “Carly, we all know I’m getting weaker, and goodness knows you’ve gone above and beyond,” Violet said.

“You need help, and Rose and Neely Kate have to work.” “The landscaping business has slowed down,” I lied. “I can spend more time at home or even work from home. Joe’s been letting me use his large-screen laptop for my designs.” “Rose,” my sister said in her know-it-all tone. “You know bringing in additional help was always part of the plan.” She glanced between Carly and me. “Why are you two fighting this?” Because bringing in a nurse for even part-time care would mean we were closer to the end than I was willing to admit. “Just call them, okay?” Violet said, reaching for my hand. Her bony fingers squeezed my hand, and I tried to blink away tears as I looked down at our joined hands.

“I’ll do it,” Carly said, her voice sounding strained. “You have a full day ahead of you, Rose. I’ll call them.” “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” Violet said as she released me, her hand falling to her lap as though she’d used up all her strength. “I’m feeling tired again. I think I’ll take a nap.” “Not yet,” Carly said, tucking her in. “You’ve got some pills to take first.” “I’m going to go catch Joe before he heads out,” I said, my eyes still burning with tears, “and let him know attendance is mandatory at our dinner party.” Out in the hall, I took several long seconds to get myself together before I headed downstairs.

Muffy sat at my feet, offering her silent support. I squatted down next to her and rubbed her head. “You’re a good girl, Muff, and I know you love comin’ to work with me, but I need to ask you to do me a favor. I need you to stay with Violet today, okay?” I knew it was silly, but I knew how much comfort Muffy gave me, and I knew that Violet secretly loved having her around. Muffy jumped up and rested her chin on my bent knee, releasing a low whine. Then she licked my hand as though to say you can count on me. “Let’s go get you a special treat.” She ran down the stairs ahead of me, and I hurried after her, not surprised to find her sitting patiently in front of the counter that held her jar of treats. Joe was in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee, studying his laptop screen. When I walked in, he glanced up and nodded to Muffy.

“It’s a wonder Muffy hasn’t packed on the pounds with all the treats the people in this house give her.” “She deserves every one of them, and she runs it off in the yard,” I said. She wolfed down the treat I gave her, then trotted over to the door. “How’s Vi today?” he asked as I walked past him to the back door to let Muffy out. I headed for the coffee maker and poured myself a cup. “Ornery as ever. She’s currently special-ordering the weather for the day she dies.” He chuckled. “That sounds like Vi. I wouldn’t be surprised if she managed it somehow.

” He shook his head. “What’s she goin’ for? Bright and sunny, or the angst and somber mood of a rainy day?” “Bright and sunny.” Biting my lip, I turned to look at him. “It seems so wrong to joke about it.” “It’s how Violet’s dealing with it, and frankly, I respect the hell out of it,” he said with a soft smile. “She wants to make her exit with grand flair. I wouldn’t expect anything less from her.” “She’s invited Neely Kate and Jed for dinner tonight, and she wants you here too.” He pushed his chair away from the table. “Is she up to a large dinner party?” He must have been too thrown at the idea of a get-together to show his usual tension at the mention of Jed.

Although he acknowledged that Neely Kate’s boyfriend would do anything for her, and was grateful for it, he struggled with the knowledge that Jed had been his criminal adversary’s right-hand man. “Violet’s request, or orders are more like it.” I poured creamer into my cup, then moved to the table. “Carly said Mike’s bringin’ the kids over this afternoon.” His brows shot up. “I didn’t know they were comin’. Are they spendin’ the night?” “He made the arrangements with Carly, so I don’t know either. I suspect we’ll have to take them home later. They haven’t spent the night in nearly two weeks.” He rubbed the back of his neck.

“I’d take them home, but I’ve got to be at the station later.” “That’s all right. I’ll get them back to Mike’s. Will you be able to make it to dinner?” “Sure, as long as it’s at a reasonable time. The last time Neely Kate cooked, we didn’t eat until nearly nine o’clock, and it wasn’t even edible.” “Carly’s cookin,” I said with a grin. “And I expect we’ll eat around six. It’s a school night for Ashley, so we’ll have to get her home by eight thirty.” I paused, then said, “Violet wants me to bring in a nurse to help take care of her.” He set his coffee cup on the table.

“What brought that on?” “When Carly helped her get out of bed to pee, she nearly fell. It took the both of us to get her to the toilet and back.” He made a face. “I should probably come home at lunch to help get her out of bed… unless you plan to.” I shook my head. “I’ve got several appointments today. I won’t be back until later this afternoon.” “Is Neely Kate goin’ with you?” he asked in a stern tone. “She’s workin’ at the nursery, Joe. I’ll be fine.

” “When was the last time you saw someone following you? The truth.” “I haven’t seen any kind of threat for at least a few weeks.” “You sure?” he asked, holding my gaze. “I wouldn’t lie about Denny Carmichael or his men. I let you move in to protect me, Carly, Vi, and the kids, but it looks like we’re fine for now.” Denny Carmichael, the biggest drug dealer in Fenton County, and likely all of southern Arkansas, had killed two Sugar Branch police officers who’d attempted to rape and kill me, and now he thought I owed him a favor. Joe didn’t know about the favor—he only knew Denny had taken a special interest in me. He’d originally moved into the farmhouse in the hopes that the presence of a sheriff’s deputy would dissuade Denny Carmichael from making a move on me. Besides which, it would hopefully throw off anyone who suspected I had a personal relationship with James. So far it had worked—the tongues in town were wagging, all right—and it wasn’t such a stretch for people to believe Joe and I had a relationship.

We had dated in the past, and he’d moved into my house immediately after breaking up with his girlfriend. The fact that I hadn’t seen Denny’s men in a while made me wonder if he believed the ruse and had given up. Did James believe it too? I’d worried the arrangement would be awkward, but Joe had insisted we could live together as friends, no more or less, and now that he lived with us, I was starting to believe it. I never got the feeling he wanted anything more from me, although I sometimes caught him sneaking glances at me when he thought I wasn’t paying attention. It didn’t seem like he was pining for me—more like he was having a hard time processing how much I’d changed. Before Joe had moved in, I’d told him about the interactions I’d had with Denny Carmichael—how I’d held my own with him and other criminals with my wits and my gun. Joe knew I wasn’t the woman he’d met that chilly May night, and I suspected that was exactly the type of woman he wanted—soft, quiet, and wanting a simple life. I’d wanted that life then; I had no idea what I wanted now. I’d outgrown what Joe wanted in a wife. Maybe he was finally willing to let that dream go.

In the beginning, I’d wondered how Joe would fit into a household full of women, but he’d found his place just fine. He seemed to love living with us. Truth be told, I enjoyed his company more than I should, and it was a comfort knowing he was here at night to help watch over us. Neely Kate had moved in with Jed, and I missed her something fierce. While I was getting close to Carly, she’d been focusing more on Violet these past few weeks. Joe was a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, and a great friend, but lately I couldn’t help worrying that I was taking advantage of his kindness…and his singleness. While Carly wasn’t interested in him in that way, I realized there were plenty of women who would be—and as long as they thought we were together, Joe would never get another chance at love. Maybe it was time for him to go. He studied me for a moment. “If you’re tryin’ to claim I can move because you’re safe now, don’t waste your breath.

Even if you were, I wouldn’t leave unless you kicked me out. I suspect things are about to go from bad to worse with Vi, and I’ll feel better all the way around if I’m stayin’ here.” “Plus you have nowhere else to go,” I teased. The enormity of what he’d done struck me again—he’d given up his rental house so he could move into my first-floor office. “There is that.” He grinned, his lopsided boy-next-door grin that smoothed out the stress lines he’d accumulated over the past year. “I’m grateful for your help,” I said. “I don’t know how I would have done this without you.” “That’s what friends are for.” He got to his feet and took his coffee cup to the sink.

“I’ve come up with some plans for redoin’ your kitchen. I can show them to you tonight.” “You know I can’t afford a new kitchen.” “Just look at the plans, okay?” he asked. “I know I’m not the only one tired of handwashing and drying dishes for a house full of people.” He had a point. “Yeah, I’ll—” I stopped when we heard someone pounding on the front door. Joe instantly turned serious. “You expectin’ anyone?” “No.” His face hardened, and he picked up his gun, which was in its holster on the table.

“Stay in the kitchen,” he grunted as he headed to the living room. Like that was going to happen. Worried that Muffy might attack whomever was on the front porch, I went to the back door and called her in. She instantly made a beeline through the house for the front door and I followed. Joe had already opened the door, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw a state police officer standing on my front porch. “I’m lookin’ for Rose Gardner,” the officer said, then lifted his gaze from Joe to me. “Are you Ms. Gardner?” I hesitated, stopping a foot behind Joe. “Yes.” He lifted his hand, holding out a large manila envelope.

“Ms. Gardner, you’ve been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock.” My worst nightmare had just come to pass.

.

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