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Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Ain’t She Sweet?

© 2004

To Jayne Ann Krentz

A dear friend, a wonderful writer,

and the romance novel’s most eloquent

and insightful advocate

No reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree. The pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

JANE AUSTEN, Persuasion

“I am afraid,” confessed Pen, “that I am not very well-behaved. Aunt says that I had a lamentable upbringing.”

GEORGETTE HEYER, The Corinthian

CHAPTER ONE

The wild child of Parrish, Mississippi, had come back to the town she’d left behind forever. Sugar Beth Carey gazed from the rain-slicked windshield to the horrible dog who lay beside her on the passenger seat.

“I know what you’re thinking, Gordon, so go ahead and say it. How the mighty have fallen, right?” She gave a bitter laugh. “Well, screw you. Just…” She blinked her eyes against a sting of tears. “Just… screw you.”

Gordon lifted his head and sneered at her. He thought she was trash.

“Not me, pal.” She turned up the heater on her ancient Volvo against the chill of the late February day. “Griffin and Diddie Carey ruled this town, and I was their princess. The girl most likely to set the world on fire.”

She heard an imaginary howl of basset hound laughter.

Like the row of tin-roofed houses she’d just passed, Sugar Beth had grown a little shabby at the edges. The long blond hair that swirled to her shoulders didn’t gleam as brightly as it once had, and the tiny gold hearts at her earlobes no longer skipped in a carefree dance. Her pouty lips had lost the urge to curl in flirtatious smiles, and her baby doll cheeks had given up their innocence three husbands ago.

Thick lashes still framed a pair of amazing clear blue eyes, but a delicate tracing of lines had begun to make tiny fishtails at the corners. Fifteen years earlier, she’d been the best-dressed girl in Parrish, but now one of her calf-high stiletto-heeled boots had a small hole in the sole, and her scarlet body-hugging knit dress with its demure turtleneck and not-so-demure hemline had come from a discount store instead of a pricey boutique.

Parrish had begun its life in the 1820s as a northeastern Mississippi cotton town and later escaped the torches of the occupying Union army, thanks to the wiles of its female population, who’d showered the boys in blue with such unrelenting charm and indefatigable Southern hospitality that none of them had the heart to strike the first match. Sugar Beth was a direct descendant of those women, but on days like this, she had a tough time remembering it.

She adjusted the windshield wipers as she approached Shorty Smith Road and gazed toward the two-story building, empty on this Sunday afternoon, that still sat at the end. Thanks to her father’s economic blackmail, Parrish High School stood as one of the Deep South’s few successful experiments with integrated public education. Once she’d ruled those hallways. She alone had decided who sat at the best table in the cafeteria, which boys were acceptable to date, and whether an imitation Gucci purse was okay if your daddy wasn’t Griffin Carey, and you couldn’t afford the real thing. Blond and divine, she’d reigned supreme.

She hadn’t always been a benevolent dictator, but her power had seldom been challenged, not even by the teachers. One of them had tried, but Sugar Beth had made short work of that. As for Winnie Davis… What chance did a clumsy, insecure geek have against the power and might of Sugar Beth Carey?

As she gazed through the February drizzle at the high school, the old music began to drum in her head: INXS, Miami Sound Machine, Prince. In those days, when Elton John sang “Candle in the Wind,” he’d only been singing of Marilyn.

High school. The last time she’d owned the world.

Gordon farted.

“God, I hate you, you miserable dog.”

Gordon’s scornful expression told her he didn’t give a damn. These days, neither did she.

She checked the gas gauge. She was running on fumes, but she didn’t want to waste money filling the tank until she had to. Looking on the bright side, who needed gas when she’d reached the end of the road?

She turned the corner and saw the empty lot marking the place where Ryan’s house had once stood. Ryan Galantine had been Ken to her Barbie. The most popular boy; the most popular girl. Luv U 4- Ever. She’d broken his heart their freshman year at Ole Miss when she’d screwed around on him with Darren Tharp, the star athlete who’d become her first husband.

Sugar Beth remembered the way Winnie Davis used to look at Ryan when she didn’t think anyone was watching. As if a clumsy outcast had a chance with a dazzler like Ryan Galantine. Sugar Beth’s group of friends, the Seawillows, had wet their pants laughing at her behind her back. The memory depressed her even further.

As she drove toward the center of town, she saw that Parrish had capitalized on its newfound fame as the setting and leading character of the nonfiction best-seller Last Whistle-stop on the Nowhere Line. The new Visitors Bureau had attracted a steady stream of tourists, and she could see the town had spruced itself up. The sidewalk in front of the Presbyterian church no longer buckled, and the ugly streetlights she’d grown up with had been replaced with charming turn-of-the-century lampposts. Along Tyler Street, the historic Antebellum, Victorian, and Greek Revival homes sported fresh coats of paint, and a jaunty copper weathervane graced the cupola of Miss Eulie Baker’s Italianate monstrosity. Sugar Beth and Ryan had made out in the alley behind that house the night before they’d gone all the way.

She turned onto Broadway, the town’s four-block main street. The courthouse clock was no longer frozen at ten past ten, and the fountain in the park had shed its grime. The bank, along with a half dozen other businesses, sported maroon and green striped awnings, and the Confederate flag was nowhere in sight. She made a left on Valley and headed toward the old, abandoned train depot a block away. Until the early 1980s, the Mississippi Central had come through here once a day. Unlike the other buildings in the downtown area, the depot needed major repairs and a good cleaning.

Just like her.

She could postpone it no longer, and she headed toward Mockingbird Lane and the house known as Frenchman’s Bride.

Although Frenchman’s Bride wasn’t one of Parrish’s historic homes, it was the town’s grandest, with its soaring columns, sweeping verandas, and graceful bay windows. A beautiful amalgam of Southern plantation house and Queen Anne architecture, the house sat on a gentle rise well back from the street surrounded by magnolia, redbud,

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