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Nancy Bartholomew

Your Cheatin' Heart

Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Bartholomew

Cover illustration © 1999 by Barbara Gordon

For Grandma Alice, who held me close,

loved me unconditionally, and always said,

"Life ain't hard, honey. You make it hard."

And for Papa Lee and Mama Becky,

who believed in family and believed in me.

Chapter One

The day I married Vernell Spivey, it rained. I should've taken that as an omen. When his brother, Jimmy, pinched me on the ass as I was headed for the vestibule of the church, I should've seen that for what it was, too. However, I was young and pregnant and too tenderhearted to start a war between brothers on what was allegedly the best day of our young lives. I figured it was Jimmy's way of welcoming me to the family.

But then, when I was nine months pregnant with Sheila, too big to do more than waddle to the kitchen table and sit, Jimmy professed his undying love for me. He came over when he knew for certain Vernell would be at work, and gave me a speech that had obviously been rehearsed.

"Maggie," he said, "it ain't no use us denying it. I have wanted you since the day I met you, and I can tell by the look in your eyes that the feeling is mutual."

What I was really feeling was a sudden gas pain brought on by Sheila flipping over inside my womb. Tears flooded my eyes, and for a moment I was bent over, clutching the edge of the table for support. I was speechless.

"Let it out, honey," he said. "It'll be for the best."

Somehow I didn't think so.

There was a kernel of truth in what Jimmy was saying. As I sat at the kitchen table, clutching my belly and wishing like hell for a swig of Alka-Seltzer, I had to admit I found Jimmy attractive in a good-old-boy sort of way. He was tall and dark, with deep brown eyes that always looked lonely and left out. I'm a sucker for men like that.

"Maggie," he said, reaching out to touch my stomach tenderly. "I'll love your baby like it was my own. We can tell Vernell together." I cried out as Sheila kicked again, and Jimmy took it for a shriek of fear. "Aw, he'll be upset for awhile, but he'll get by. Vernell's always got an eye for the ladies." Didn't I know it. Already Vernell had shown his ass, chasing women that worked with him.

I tried to straighten up, if only for a moment, and give Jimmy the true picture. "You just want me 'cause I'm Vernell's wife, Jimmy," I said. "That's how it's always been with you and him." Jimmy started to protest. "And honest to Pete, you aren't my type."

In addition to being in Vernell's family, which was one strike against him, Jimmy had no ambition in life. He wanted it all handed to him. If we'd run off, it wouldn't have taken any time at all before I was the breadwinner and Jimmy was out bass fishing.

"Aw, come on, sugar," he said, his deep voice dropping almost to a whisper, "you know that ain't it." He reached his hand out again, letting it rest on my forearm briefly before he started gently stroking it. I had to admit that between his soothing voice and warm touch, I was starting to feel sleepy and maybe a little sexy. Nobody'd made me feel that way in months.

Vernell picked that moment to suddenly appear for lunch, bursting through the back door, letting the screen slam loudly behind him, and staring at the two of us.

"What?" he said, his voice pitched to a high, anxious squeak. "It ain't time, is it?"

Jimmy jumped like a scalded yard dog, and I favored Vernell with a withering glare. Vernell had not asked out of concern; he'd asked because his chief aim at this point in our lives was to avoid the labor and delivery room at all costs. He'd increased his hours at the mobile home lot, volunteering to deliver every home he sold, personally, no matter what the distance. He couldn't fool me.

"No, Vernell," I said. "Jimmy here was just professing his undying love and asking me to run off with him."

Vernell laughed, not noticing that Jimmy had turned heart-attack red and started gasping for breath.

"Yep, Vernell," I said, "strange as it may seem, pregnancy has not lessened my desirability to some men."

Vernell laughed again, but this time it had a strained quality as he took a quick glance over at his brother.

"Aw, don't worry, boys," I said, "I'm not about to take either one of you too seriously." I stood up and headed for the refrigerator. Then it happened. My water broke. Vernell's worst fear was realized and Jimmy's declaration of love forgotten.

From that day forward, Jimmy continued to wage his campaign of love, but from a safe distance. He'd pop up unexpectedly, sit in my kitchen like a lost soul, sighing and hoping I'd take pity on him and ask what was wrong. I never did. I knew that if I waited long enough, Jimmy'd tell me.

"Vernell's on my back again," he'd moan. "He wants me to take over the mobile home business so's he can start a satellite dish company. You ever, hear tell of such a ridiculous speculation?"

Famous last words. Jimmy got forty-nine percent of the mobile home business and Vernell got the gold mine. I have to admit, Vernell did work like a dog to get the satellite business off the ground. I can't help but wonder how much quicker his rise to the top would've been if he hadn't been pursuing and sleeping with the lovely Dish Girl, Jolene.

Jimmy finally married, but he didn't see that as cause to leave me alone. "Well, hell, sugar, you're married, too."

When his wife, Roxanne, turned out to be the queen bitch of the universe, content to lay on the sofa all day, watching soaps and eating Cheetos, I felt sorry for him. Even Jimmy didn't deserve the treatment she gave him. Always yelling, calling and checking on him all over town if he was two minutes late. No wonder I sometimes found him sitting at my kitchen table, even with no one home.

Of course, now that would all change. Jimmy'd played on my sympathies and irritated me for the very last time. Thanks to him, I was sitting in the Greensboro Police Department, staring at a possible charge of murder one and ruing the day I'd ever met up with the Spivey clan.

Chapter Two

On Vernell's fortieth birthday, he came home drunk and announced he didn't love me anymore. He went on to say that he had to be alone to find himself and that he knew he was put on this earth for a purpose.

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Aw, now ain't it just like you to think this is about a woman!"

One year later, he married Jolene Hayes, the Dish Girl from his Satellite Kingdom commercials. Blond, twenty-six, and stacked. I figured Vernell, North Carolina's self-proclaimed King of the Satellite Dish, had found his higher calling.

Then my sixteen-year-old, Sheila, pitched a fit because I took her driver's license away on account of her bad grades and a certain long-haired, nineteen-year-old, dope-dealing musician she'd been sneaking behind my back to see.

"I'm going to live with Daddy," she stormed, "and you can't stop me. He won't be so mean tome!"

I packed her bags. I drove her to Vernell's New Irving Park mansion, pulled up in the circular drive, and said, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out! You're here for the rest of the school year. We'll just see how lovely life is with Daddy!"

Then I went home to my College Hills bungalow, marched inside, and went to bed for three days. Even though I'd done the right thing by calling Sheila's hand, it hurt so bad I could scarcely catch my breath. I cried for my baby and the fifteen years I'd lost to Vernell Spivey.

I called in to the beauty shop I co-owned and told Bonnie to open without me and cancel all my appointments, even with the regulars. Then I ate, everything in the house that had a hint of chocolate, every french fry and greasy chip, and every chemical-laden snack cake that didn't have mold on it. I was pitiful.