Carolina moon, p.14
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       Carolina Moon, p.14

           Nora Roberts
 

  "Nobody latches on to a Lavelle until we want them to." But she was going to think about this. She was going to think about it good and hard.

  Tory was tempted to close up as soon as she nudged her two unexpected customers out the door. But that would have thrown her off schedule, and given Lissy's foolish gossip too much importance.

  She worked on her stock another three hours, systematically pricing, logging, and arranging. The manual labor and the tedium of paperwork kept her from brooding. But the drive home gave her ample opportunity.

  This was not the way she intended to establish herself in Progress again. She wasn't going to tolerate, not for one minute, being the focus of town gossip. The way to quash it, she told herself, was to ignore it, to rise above it.

  And to keep her distance from Cade. None of that would cause her any problem at all.

  She was used to ignoring wagging tongues, and over matters a great deal more vital than some trumped-up romance. She certainly didn't have to spend any time with Cade Lavelle. She barely had, in any case. A couple of meals, a movie or two, maybe a drive. All harmless occupations where they'd just happened to go together.

  From now on, she'd just go alone.

  And that, she thought, was that.

  It might have been, if she hadn't spotted his truck at the edge of a field.

  She told herself to drive by. Really, there was no point in stopping, no reason to discuss it. It would be much more sensible to continue home and let the entire foolish matter die a natural death.

  And she kept seeing the hungry, predatory gleam in Lissy's eyes. She jerked the wheel, pulled to the side of the road where the grass was choppy and thick. She was just going to mention it, that was all. Just mention that Cade should shut the hell up and stop talking about her with his idiot buddies. This wasn't high school, damn it.

  Piney Cobb took a long, contemplative drag from the last Marlboro in his pack. He'd watched the station wagon swerve to the shoulder, watched the woman—damn if it wasn't the little Bodeen girl, all grown up—start her march to the field, and he kept watching as she aimed her feet between the rows and kept on coming.

  Beside him, Cade stood studying the day's work and the progress of the crop.

  Boy had funny ideas if you asked him, but those funny ideas were working. It was none of his never mind, anyway. He got paid all the same whether he sprayed hell out of the crop, or babied it with cow shit and ladybugs.

  "Could use another good rain like we had the other night," Cade mused.

  "Could." Piney scratched his grizzled chin, pursed his lips. "What you got here's a good three inches higher than the traditional fields."

  "Organic cotton grows faster," Cade said absently. "Chemicals stunt growth." "Yeah, so you've said." And so, despite Piney's doubts, it had been proven true. It made him think maybe, all in all, college educations weren't all bullshit.

  Not that he'd say so right out loud. But it was something to mull on.

  "Boss?" Piney took a last pull on his cigarette, then carefully tramped it out underfoot. "You got female problems?"

  Since his mind was full of work, it took Cade a minute. "Excuse me?"

  "See, myself, I've kept pretty clear of females, but I been around this world long enough to recognize a woman getting up a head of steam."

  He shifted his gaze, squinting against the sun, and nodded lazily to where Tory was plowing her way up the rows. "There's one now. From the look of things, you're dead in her sights."

  "I got no problems."

  "I'd say you're wrong about that one," Piney muttered, and eased a step back so as not to be hit with the fallout.

  "Cade." It was a pleasure to see her, a simple, easy pleasure. "Tory. This is a nice surprise." "Really? We'll see about that. I need to talk to you."

  "All right."

  "Alone."

  "I'll just mosey along."

  Tory sucked in her breath, remembered her manners. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Cobb.”

  "No need for that. Didn't think you'd remember me."

  She hadn't, or hadn't consciously. She'd said his name without thinking about it. Now, for a moment, her temper was coated with an old image of a scrawny, thin-chested man with wheat-colored hair who smelled most usually of liquor and snuck her little peppermint drops.

  He was still scrawny, she noted, but age and drink had ravaged his face. It was red and worn and saggy, and the wheat-colored hair, if he still owned it, was thin enough to be covered completely by an old gray cap.

  "I remember you used to give me candy, and you worked the field next to my father's."

  "Did." His lips stretched out in a smile, revealing teeth as tilted and gapped as an old picket fence. "Work for the college boy now. Pays better. I'll just be getting on. See you in the morning, boss man."

  He tipped his cap, then took a peppermint out of his pocket and handed it to Tory. "As I recollect, you always favored these."

  "I still do. Thank you."

  "It pleased him that you remembered," Cade said, as Piney walked across the field toward the road.

  "My father used to shout at him about the evils of whiskey, then about once a month they'd get drunk together. Next Piney'd be out in the field, working as usual. And my father'd go back to shouting at him across the rows."

  She shook her head, turned to face Cade. "I didn't stop for a trip down memory lane. Just what do you mean telling your friend Dwight that we're seeing each other?"

  "I'm not sure—"

  "We're not seeing each other."

  Cade arched a brow, slipped off his sunglasses, hooked them on his shirt. "Well now, Tory, yes, we are. I'm standing here seeing you right now."

  "You know very well what I mean. We're not dating."

  He didn't smile, but he wanted to. He settled for scratching his head instead, and looking bemused. "Seems to me we're doing something pretty close to that. We've gone out, what, four times in the last ten days or so. To my thinking, when a man and a woman go out to dinner and such, it's a date."

  "Your thinking's wrong. We're not dating, so just get that straight."

  “Yes’m.”

  "Don't grin at me." A trio of crows cawed by, sleek and shiny. "And even if you had that idea in your head, you had no business, no right, to tell Dwight we were involved. He went right off and told Lissy, and now she's got it in her pea-brained head we’re having some sort of wild sexual affair. I do not want or intend for people around hen to assume I'm your latest fling."

  "My latest?" He hooked his thumbs in his pockets, rocked back on the worn heels of his work boots. As far as entertainment went, he considered this the day's highlight "Just how many flings do you think I've had?"

  "I have no interest."

  "You're the one who brought it up," he pointed out, just for the pleasure of seeing her snarl.

  "The point is you told Dwight we were involved." "No, I didn't. But I don't see ... " It came back to him. "Oh yeah.”

  "There!" With a kind of triumph, jabbed a finger at him. "You're a grown man, and should have gotten over the locker room talk."

  "It was a misunderstanding." And a fascinating one, in his opinion. "Lissy keeps trying to set me up. Can't appear to stand having a single man running loose. It's pain in the ass. Last time it came up, I told Dwight to get her off my back, to tell her was having a hot affair or something."

  "With me?" She wondered steam didn't stream from her ears. "Why, of all the—"

  "I didn't say you," Cade broke in. "I imagine Dwight just picked you out, as we were in your place at the time of the conversation. You want to jump somebody, jump him. But personally, I don't see what you're all het up about. We're both single, we're seeing each other—now, we are, Tory," he added, before she could argue the point. "And if Lissy wants to think things between us have progressed to what would be a natural stage, where's the harm?"

  She wasn't sure she could speak. He was amused. She could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. "You think this is funny?"
>
  "Not so much funny as anecdotal," he decided. "Makes for an amusing little anecdote."

  "Anecdotal, my butt. Lissy'll have this spread all over the county, if she hasn't already."

  The crows came back, circling. "Oh well, now, there's a tragedy. Maybe we should issue a press release denying all."

  She made a sound, something perilously close to a growl. When she whirled away, he took her arm, held her in place. "Just simmer down, Victoria."

  "Don't you tell me to simmer down. I'm trying to establish a business, a home here, and I don't want to be the subject of back fence gossip."

  "Back fence gossip's the fuel that powers up small towns. You've lived in the city too long if you've forgotten that. And if people are talking, people are going to stroll into your shop to get a close-up look. Where's the harm in that?"

  He made it sound gentle, reasonable. "I don't like being gawked at. I've had enough of being gawked at."

  "You knew there’d be some of that before you came back here. And if people want to gawk a bit at the woman who's caught Cade Lavelle's eye, all they'll have to do is look at you to see why."

  "You're turning this around." She wasn't entirely sure how, but she knew she wasn't on solid ground any longer. "Faith was in the shop when Lissy made her announcement." He did wince, which gave her some satisfaction. "There, not so cheerful about it now, are you?"

  "If Faith's going to poke at me about it, and she won't be able to resist, it's about time I got something out of it." He tightened his grip on her arm, tossed his sunglasses on the ground beside them. Then brought her a step closer.

  Alarm bells shrilled, and her hand slapped against his chest. "What are you doing?"

  "No need to jump out of your skin." With his free hand he cupped the back of her neck. "I'm just going to taste you."

  "Don't." But his lips were already skimming over hers.

  "Won't hurt. Promise."

  He kept his word. It didn't hurt. It soothed and aroused, it eased and it stirred up those needs she'd locked so carefully away. But it didn't hurt.

  His mouth was soft, gentle, coaxing hers to taste. As he was. Warmth spread into her belly even as ropes of tension and awareness tangled together. And as that mix rose up toward her heart, he eased back.

  "I had a feeling," he murmured. His hand continued to rub and stroke the back of her neck. "Had it the first time I saw you again."

  Her head was spinning. It wasn't a sensation she enjoyed. "This is a mistake. I don't—" She stepped back in defense and felt something crunch under her heel.

  "Damn, second pair this week." Cade only shook his head over the broken sunglasses. "Life's full of mistakes," he went on, and kissed her again, lightly. "This doesn't feel like one, but we're just going to have to see it through to find out."

  "Cade, I'm no good at this sort of thing."

  "Which sort? The kissing sort?"

  "No." Her own laugh came as a surprise. How could he make her laugh when she was terrified? "The man-woman thing, the relationship thing."

  "Then you'll just have to practice."

  "I don't want to practice." She could do nothing but sigh when he pressed his lips to her forehead. "Cade, there's so much you don't know about me."

  "That goes both ways. So let's find out. It's a nice evening." He slid his hand down to hers. "Why don't we go for a drive?"

  "This isn't dealing with the issue."

  "We can stop and get something to eat when the mood strikes." He turned her, rather elegantly bent down to pick up his ruined glasses. He began to walk, with the young cotton between them. "One step at a time, Tory," he said quietly. "I'm a patient man. You look around here, pay attention, you can see how patient. It took me three seasons to turn the farm around to where I wanted it. To what I believed in, and I did that against a couple of generations of tradition. There are people who still point and snicker, or grumble and curse. All because I didn't go the way most are comfortable with, that most understand. And what people don't understand usually scares them."

  She looked at him, then away. The charmingly careless man who'd chuckled at her temper had a line of steel running through him. It wouldn't be wise, she mused, to forget it. "I know that. I live with that."

  "So why don't we just consider ourselves two misfits, and see where that takes us?" "I don't know what you're talking about. No Lavelle's a misfit in Progress."

  "You think that because I've yet to bore you senseless with the wonders of organic farming and the beauty of green cotton." Casually, he lifted her hand, kissed the back of it. "But I will, as I haven't had a new victim in months. Tell you what, you go on home. I need to clean up some. I'll come by and get you in about an hour."

  "I have things to do."

  "God knows there isn't a day goes by there aren't things to do." He opened her car door. "I'll be by in an hour," he told her as she slid behind the wheel. "And Tory? Just so there's no confusion. This is a date."

  He closed the door, then, tucking his hands in his pockets, strolled over to his truck.

  10

  "Oh, don't be mean, Cade. I'm just asking one little favor." Faith stretched out across her brother's bed, her chin on her fists, and aimed her most winsome look.

  She'd developed the habit of coming into his room for company after Hope had died and being alone was unbearable. Now she most often dropped in when she wanted something.

  They both knew it, and he didn't seem to mind.

  "You're wasting those eyes on me." Stripped to the waist, his hair still damp from his shower, Cade pulled a fresh shirt from his closet. "I'm using the car tonight."

  "You can use it anytime." She tried a pout.

  "That's right, I can. And I'm using it night." He gave her the smug smile reserved for irritating siblings.

  "I'm the one who did the marketing for the food you stuffed in your mouth." She scrambled up to kneel on the bed. "And went to the dry cleaners to pick up your stupid clothes, and all I'm asking is to borrow your damn car for one evening. But you're too selfish."

  He slipped on his shirt, began to button it, with that same satisfied smile on his face. "And your point would be?"

  "I hate you." She yanked up a pillow, heaved it, and missed by a good foot and a half. She'd never had decent aim.

  "I hope you wreck the goddamn car and end up trapped in a heap of twisting, burning metal." The next pillow sailed over his head. He didn't even bother to duck. "I hope glass gets in your eyes and you go blind, and if you do I'll laugh when you walk into walls."

  He turned away from her, a deliberate and calculated insult. "Well then, I guess you won't want to borrow what's left of the car tomorrow night."

  "I want it now!"

  "Faith, my treasure ... " He tucked the shirt in, picked up his watch from the bureau. "You want everything now." Unable to resist, he picked up the keys, dangled them. "But you can't have it."

  She screamed, a primal war cry, and launched herself off the bed. He could have sidestepped, but it was more entertaining to brace and catch her arms before she could use those pretty, lethal nails on his face.

  Besides, if he'd nipped out of her way, she'd have plowed straight, blind with temper, into his dresser. "You're going to hurt yourself," he warned, dancing with her as he held her trembling arms high. "No, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to rip your eyes right out of your head."

  "You've got a real obsession with me going blind tonight. You rip my eyes out, how can I see how pretty you are?"

  "Let me go, you bastard. Fight like a man."

  "If I fought like a man, I'd just coldcock you and be done with it." To infuriate her, he leaned down to give her a quick kiss.

  “It’d take less energy."

  She slumped, eyes tearing up in defeat. "Oh, just let go. I
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