- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- Release Date: 2004, 2005
- ISBN-13: 978-1416593546
- Available Languages: French (2), German (3), Albanian (99943), Greek (960)
- Available Formats: Audio, e-Book, Print
A tragedy occurs, bringing Sayer Hoyle back to Destiny, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence, and the atmosphere is immediately heated and fraught with hostility.
While trying to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one, Sayre wrangles with her domineering father, contends with her conniving brother, and struggles against her sparking attraction to their corporate attorney, Beck Merchant, who is every bit as unscrupulous as they.
To this explosive mix of personal relationships, add the mounting malcontent of Hoyle Enterprises employees on the verge of a labor strike, plus the sweltering temperature of a Louisiana summer, and it makes for a bubbling gumbo of a story which I hope generates enough excitement, dread, anticipation and tension to make you feel — you got it — swampy.
The highway was barely recognizable. Countless times, Sayre Lynch had driven this stretch of road between New Orleans International Airport and Destiny. But traveling it today was like doing so for the first time.
In the name of progress, landmarks that had made the area distinct had been obscured or obliterated. Rural Louisiana’s charm had been sacrificed to gaudy commercialism. Little that was quaint or picturesque had survived the onslaught. She could have been in Anywhere, USA.
Fast food franchises now occupied the spots where once had been mom and pop cafes. Homemade meat pies and muffaletta sandwiches had been replaced with buckets of wings and Value Meals. Hand-painted signs had given way to neon. Menus scribbled daily on chalkboards had been supplanted by disembodied voices at drive-through windows.
During the ten years she had been away, trees draped with Spanish moss had been bulldozed to allow for additional highway construction. This expansion had diminished the vastness and mystery of the swamps that flanked the road. The dense marshes were now ribboned with entrance and exit ramps jammed with semis and minivans.
Until now Sayre hadn’t realized the depth of her homesickness. But these substantial changes in the landscape made her nostalgic for the way things had been. She longed for the mingled aromas of cayenne and file’. She would like to hear again the patois of the people who served up Cajun dishes that took more than three minutes to prepare.
While super-highways made for faster travel, she wished for the roadway she had known, the one lined with trees that grew so close to it the branches overlapped to cover it like a canopy and cast lacy patterns of shadow on the asphalt.
She longed for the times she could drive with the windows down and rather than choking on motor exhaust, inhale in the soft air that was perfumed with honeysuckle and magnolia and the seminal scent of the swamp.
The changes that had come about in the past decade were jarring to her senses and an affront to her memories of the place in which she’d grown up. But then, she supposed that the changes in herself were equally as drastic, although perhaps not as apparent.
The last time she’d driven this road, she’d been traveling in the opposite direction, away from Destiny. That day, the farther she got from home, the lighter she felt, as though she were molting layers of negativity along the way. Today she was returning, and her dread was as heavy as chain mail.
Homesickness for the area, no matter how acute, would never have brought her back. Only her brother Danny’s death could have compelled her to return. Apparently he had withstood Huff and Chris for as long as he could and had escaped them in the only manner he’d felt was open to him.
Fittingly, as she approached the outskirts of Destiny, she saw the smokestacks first. They jutted belligerently above the town, large and black and ugly. Smoke billowed from them today as on every other day of the year. It would have been too costly and inefficient to have shut down the furnaces, even in observance of Danny’s demise. Knowing Huff, it probably hadn’t even occurred to him to make this concession to his youngest child.
The billboard marking the city limit read Welcome to Destiny, Home of Hoyle Enterprises. As though that’s something to boast, she thought. Quite the contrary. Iron pipe casting had made Huff rich, but it was a blood-stained wealth.
She navigated the streets of town which she had first explored on bicycle. Later she’d learned to drive on them. Then as a teen she had cruised them with her friends, looking for action, boys, and whatever amusements they could scare up.
While still a block away from the First United Methodist Church, she heard the organ music. The pipe organ had been a gift to the church from her mother, Laurel Lynch Hoyle. It bore a brass plaque in her memory. It was the small congregation’s pride and joy, being the only pipe organ in Destiny. None of the Catholic churches had one, and Destiny was predominantly Catholic. Her mother’s gift had been generous and sincere, but it was yet another symbol of how the Hoyles lorded over their town and everyone in it and refused to be outdone.
How heartbreaking that the organ was playing a dirge for one of Laurel Hoyle’s children who had died fifty years too soon, and by his own hand.
Sayre had received the news Sunday afternoon upon returning to her office from a meeting with a client. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have worked on a Sunday, but that was the only day this particular client was free for an appointment. Julia Miller had recently celebrated her fifth year as Sayre’s assistant. She wouldn’t let Sayre work on a weekend without working herself. While Sayre was with the client, Julia had been catching up on paperwork.
When Sayre returned, Julia passed her a pink memo slip. “This gentleman has called three times, Ms. Lynch. I wouldn’t give him your cell number, although he demanded it.”
Sayre had glanced at the area code, then wadded up the memo and tossed it into the wastepaper basket. “I don’t wish to speak to anyone in my family.”
“He’s not family. He says he works for the family. It’s imperative that he reach you as soon as possible.”
“I won’t talk to anybody who works for my family either. Any other messages? By any chance has Mr. Taylor called? He promised those valances by tomorrow.”
“It’s your brother,” Julia had blurted out. “He’s dead.”
Sayre stopped short of her private office. For a long moment she stared through the wall of windows toward the Golden Gate bridge. Only the very tops of the orange supports were visible above a solid blanket of fog. The water in the bay looked gray, cold, and angry. Foreboding.
Without turning around, she asked, “Which one?”
“Which — “
Danny who had called her twice in the last several days. Danny’s, whose calls she had refused to take.
Sayre turned to face her assistant, who was regarding her sympathetically. She said gently, “Your brother Danny died earlier today, Sayre. I thought you should be told in person, not over a cell phone.”
Sayre had released a long breath through her mouth. “How?”
“I think you should speak with this Mr. Merchant.”
“Julia, please. How did Danny die?”
Gently she said, “It appears he killed himself. I’m sorry.” Then after a moment, she added, “That’s all the information Mr. Merchant would give me.”
Sayre had then retreated to her private office and closed the door. She heard the phone in the anteroom ring several times, but Julia didn’t put the calls through, realizing that she needed time alone to assimilate the news.
Had Danny been calling to tell her goodbye? If so, how would she live with the guilt of refusing to speak to him?
After about an hour, Julia knocked tentatively on the door. “Come in.” When Julia stepped inside, Sayre said, “There’s no point in your staying, Julia. Go home. I’ll be fine.”
The assistant laid a sheet of paper on her desk. “I’ve still got work to do. Buzz me if you need me. Can I bring you anything?”
Sayre shook her head no. Julia withdrew and closed the door. On the sheet of paper she’d brought in she’d written down the time and place of the funeral. Tuesday morning, eleven o’clock.
Sayre hadn’t been surprised that it was scheduled so soon. Huff always acted with dispatch. He and Chris would be impatient to put this behind them, to bury Danny and get on with their lives as soon as possible.
However, the timeliness of the funeral had probably worked to her advantage, too. She hadn’t had time for a lengthy internal debate on whether or not to attend. She couldn’t languish in indecision, but had been forced to make up her mind quickly.
Yesterday morning she’d caught a flight to New Orleans via Dallas/Fort Worth and had arrived in the late afternoon. She’d taken a walk through the French Quarter, eaten dinner at a gumbo shop, then spent the night at the Windsor Court.
For all the comfort the luxury hotel afforded, she’d had a virtually sleepless night. She did not want to go back to Destiny. She did not. Silly as it was, she feared walking into some kind of snare that would trap her there, keep her in Huff’s clutches forever.
Daybreak hadn’t lessened her dread. She’d gotten up, dressed for the funeral, and set out for Destiny, planning to arrive just in time for the service and to leave immediately thereafter.
The church parking lot was already overflowing into the surrounding neighborhood streets. She had to park several blocks away from the picture book church with the stained glass windows and tall white steeple. Just as she stepped onto the columned porch, the bell chimed the hour of eleven.
The vestibule was cool compared to outdoors, but Sayre noticed that many in the sanctuary were waving paper fans to supplement the inadequate air conditioning. As she slipped into the back row, the choir finished singing the opening hymn and the pastor stepped up to the pulpit.
While everyone else bowed their heads for prayer, Sayre looked at the casket in front of the chancel rail. It was simple, silver, and sealed. She was glad of that. She didn’t think she could bear her last image of Danny to be his lying like a wax doll in a satin lined coffin. To prevent thoughts of that, she concentrated on the elegant purity of the arrangement of white calla lilies on top of the casket.
She couldn’t see either Huff or Chris for the crowd, but she supposed they were seated in the front row pew, looking appropriately bereaved. The hypocrisy of it all made her nauseous.
She was named among the surviving family members. “A sister, Sayre Hoyle of San Francisco,” the minister intoned.
She wanted to stand up and shout that Hoyle was no longer her name. After her second divorce, she had begun using her middle name, which had been her mother’s maiden name. She’d had her name legally changed to Lynch. That was the name on her college degree, her business stationery, her California drivers licence, and her passport.
She wasn’t a Hoyle any longer, but she had no doubt that whoever had supplied the minister with the information had intentionally given him the incorrect name.
The homily was straight out of a how-to clerical textbook, delivered by a shiny-faced minister who looked too young to vote. His remarks were directed toward mankind in general. There was very little mention of Danny as an individual, nothing poignant or personal, which seemed particularly sad since his own sister had refused his telephone call.
As the service concluded with the singing of “Amazing Grace,” there were sniffles among the congregation. The pall bearers were Chris, a fair-haired man she didn’t know, and four others whom she recognized as executives of Hoyle Enterprises. They carried the casket up the center aisle of the church.
It was slow-going, giving her time to study her brother. He was as trim and handsome as ever, with the suavity of a 1930s matinee idol. The only thing missing was a thin mustache. His hair was still as black as a raven’s wing, but he was wearing it shorter than he used to. It was spiked up in front with gel, a rather hip look for a man in his late thirties, but nonetheless the style suited Chris. His eyes were disconcerting because the pupils were indistinguishable from the dark irises.
Huff followed the casket. Even on this occasion he carried himself with an air of superiority. His shoulders were back, his head high. Each footstep was firmly planted, as though he was a conqueror with the sovereign right to claim the ground beneath him.
His lips were set in the hard, thin, resolute line that she remembered well. His eyes glittered like the black bead eyes of a stuffed toy. They were dry and clear; he hadn’t cried for Danny. Since she’d last seen him, his hair had turned from salt-and-pepper to solid white, but he still wore it in a flat-top of military preciseness. He had put on a few pounds around his mid-section but appeared as robust as she remembered.
Fortunately neither Chris nor Huff saw her.
To avoid the crowd and risk being recognized, she slipped out a side door of the sanctuary. Her car was last in the procession to the cemetery. She parked quite a distance from the tent that had been set up over the newly dug grave.
In somber groups and singly, people made their way up the slight rise for the grave site service. For the most part, they were dressed in their Sunday best, although armholes had sweat rings and hat bands were stained with perspiration. They walked in shoes that were too tight from infrequent wear.
Sayre recognized and remembered many of these people by name. They were townsfolk who had lived in Destiny all their lives. Some owned small businesses, but most worked for the Hoyles in one capacity or another.
She spotted several faculty members from the public school system. Her mother’s fondest desire had been to send her children to the most exclusive private schools in the South, but Huff had been adamant. He wanted them to grow up tough and under his tutelage.
Whenever the argument recurred, he would say, “A sissy prep school isn’t the place to learn about life and how to muscle your way through it.” Like all their arguments, her mother had conceded with a relinquishing sigh.
Sayre remained in her car with the motor idling. The service was mercifully brief. As soon as it concluded, the crowd dispersed and returned to their cars, making an effort to conceal their haste.
Huff and Chris were the last to leave the tent after shaking hands with the minister. Sayre watched them make their way to the waiting limousine provided by Weir’s Funeral Home. Amazingly the ancient Mr. Weir was still plying his trade when he was way past due going to his own reward.
He opened the limo door for Chris and Huff, then stood at a discreet distance while they conducted a short conversation with the blond-haired pall bearer. When the conversation concluded, they climbed into the limo, the man waved them off, Mr. Weir got behind the wheel and chauffeured them away. Sayre was glad to see them go.
She waited another ten minutes, until the last of the mourners had left. Only then did she kill her engine and get out of her car.
“I’ve been asked by your family to escort you to the house for the wake.”
Startled, she spun around so quickly that her shoes sent up a shower of dusty gravel.
He was leaning against the rear bumper of her car. He’d taken off his suit jacket and folded it over his arm. His necktie was askew, and the collar button of his shirt was undone, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He’d put on a pair of dark sunglasses.
“I’m Beck Merchant.”
She had only seen his name in print and had wondered if he used the French pronunciation. He didn’t. It was the standard pronunciation, and his appearance was as American as apple pie, from his dark blond hair, to his easy smile and straight teeth, to the Ralph Lauren cut of his trousers.
Giving no heed to her ungracious tone, he said, “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Hoyle.”
“I stand corrected.” He spoke with utmost courtesy, but his smile mocked her.
“Does delivering messages fall into your job description? I thought you were their lawyer,” she said.
“Lawyer, errand boy — “
He laid his hand over his heart and flashed an even wider grin. “You give me far too much credit.”
“I doubt it.” She slammed shut her car door. “You’ve extended their invitation. Tell them I decline. Now, I would appreciate some time alone to say goodbye to Danny.” She turned and headed up the rise.
“Take your time. I’ll wait for you.”
She came back around. “I’m not going to their damn wake. As soon as I’m done here, I’m returning to New Orleans and catching a flight back to San Francisco.”
“You could do that. Or you could do the decent thing and attend your brother’s wake. Then later this evening, Hoyle Enterprises’s corporate jet could whisk you back to San Francisco without all the hassle of commercial flight.”
“I can charter my own jet.”
She’d walked right into that one and hated herself for it. She had been back in Destiny barely an hour, and already she was reverting to old habits. But she had learned how to recognize the traps and avoid them.
“No thank you. Goodbye, Mr. Merchant.” Once again started up the rise toward the grave.
“Do you believe Danny killed himself?”
Of all the things he could have said, she didn’t expect that. She turned to face him again. He was no longer leaning indolently against the car fender, but had taken a few steps toward her as though not only to hear her answer but to gauge her reaction to his surprising question.
“Don’t you?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter what I believe,” he said. “It’s the sheriff’s office that’s questioning the suicide.”
“WHITE-HOT labor disputes, family conflict, murder and romance are ablaze in bestselling Brown’s latest…” —Publishers Weekly
“Once again, Sandra Brown presents her myriad of readers with an action thriller that will keep reader attention from first page to last.” —The Best Reviews
A Note From Sandra
In early spring of 2003, I had a meeting with my editors, Michael Korda and Chuck Adams in New York. During this meeting, which was conducted over cups of hot chocolate, they asked if I’d had any thoughts yet about a new storyline. “Something swampy,” I replied.
“Swampy?” they repeated in unison.
I explained that the creative impulses I was feeling for the next book were hot, torrid, decadent, sultry, steamy, seedy, sweaty. . . You get the idea — swampy.
As you may have guessed by now, White Hot is set in Louisiana, in the small, rural, fictitious town of Destiny. Dominating the town are the black smokestacks of the metal smelting and pipe casting plant, on which the town’s economy depends. You may be wondering why I would choose such an unattractive — no, make that downright ugly — industry to write about? Because the ugliness of it symbolizes the soul of the man who rules Destiny, Louisiana, with an iron fist, who owns and operates its one and only industry, and who controls the people who live there.