Excerpt From 'Softly & Tenderly' by Sara Evans

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"Oh my, oh, oh--" June crashed backward into the door, her tea cup toppling to the plush cream and beige carpet. The golden-brown liquid spread through the fibers, sinking into the pile, creating a sprawling stain.

Jade surged into the room, accosted by the pungent scent of day-old cologne and sweat. As she stooped to pick up June's mug, her gaze strafed a topless woman standing on the other side of the U-shaped sofa. Her tangled, bleached hair stood high over her head and her unfastened jeans rode low on her hips. Surprise shoved the woman's name through her lips.

"Claire?"

Wasn't she one of June's best friends? What's going on? Jade averted her eyes from Claire's form and glanced at June.

Her mother-in-law's high, rosy cheeks faded beyond pale, her eyes fixed, and for an insane moment, Jade wondered if she was even breathing. "June," Jade whispered, gathering June's cup by the tips of her fingers.

"June...we didn't know..." Claire Falcon tugged on her cotton top, then hunted around for her shoes. "We thought you were--"

"We? Who's we?" June's blank, unblinking gaze matched her monotone.

"I gotta go." Claire peered down at the sofa before darting for the door, her bra, socks, and shoes clutched to her chest. A sour bile burned at the base of Jade's throat as she moved aside for Claire to exit.

Suddenly, there was Rebel, standing, smoothing his hair, fixing his belt, and fastening the bottom buttons of his blue shirt.

Jade dropped June's mug, barely having the presence of mind to set hers on the edge of the wall table just inside the door. Rebel? Her knees buckled.

"Maybe you should go, Jade." Rebel stepped around the couch. "I'm sorry you had to see this."

"In my own home, Rebel?" June's tone sent chills over Jade's skin. "My. Own. Home."

"You weren't supposed to be here." Rebel casually walked between the women and out the door.

June dashed after him as he descended the stairs. "Don't you dare walk away from me." She smashed her fist into his back.

Flinching, Jade tucked in behind the wall. For a short moment, she was eight again, watching her daddy leave their Iowa farm in the middle of the night, Mama hollering after him.

But June and Rebel? The benevolent king and queen of Whisper Hollow?

"My...own...home."

The smack of June's hand against Rebel's cheek shocked Jade's heart. Tears swelled in her eyes. She expected infidelity from her mama, but not from the refined and dignified Bensons. Rebel was a church deacon. June chaired the women's auxiliary.

"You disrespect me so much you bring your filth into my home? Forty-one years, Rebel, I've been faithful and--" Back to the wall, Jade slid down until her bottom hit the hardwood.

"Forty-one, June? Are you sure you want to stick with that number?" Jade waited for Rebel's chest-rumbling "Ah, June bug," paired with a contrite apology. She listened for his tender begging, pulling her into their room to talk in private. But instead he spoke as if June railed on about petty things--a towel on the bathroom floor. A forgotten dinner date with old friends.

"I don't deserve this, Rebel, not in my own home. Where's Constance?"

"I sent her home. Didn't need her interfering."

"Never again, you hear me?" June's voice rose with command. She would be obeyed. "Never. In my home. Do you hear me, Rebel Benson?"

Dread filled Jade's belly. Never again? Max never mentioned his dad's affairs. A door slammed. Footsteps hammered down the stairs and tapped across the marble.

"Jade--" June's call carried up from the foyer and bounced around the hollow pockets of the second floor.

She couldn't move.

"Jade!"

Pushing off the floor, Jade scrambled for the stairs. She peered at June as she inched her way down.

"You might want to keep this to yourself." June gripped her hands together at her waist, squeezing her fingers.

"To myself?" The chill of the encounter lifted, but her bones rattled beneath her skin. "What are you saying? Max doesn't--"

"Jade, you heard me." June's olive-green eyes pleaded, red and swimming. "To yourself."

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