Carolina moon, p.16
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       Carolina Moon, p.16

           Nora Roberts
 

  He found a little waterside restaurant, well south of the crowds that flocked to Myrtle Beach. It was warm enough to sit outside, at a little table where a squat white candle sputtered in a glass globe and the conversation around them was muted under the steady rise and slap of the surf.

  On the beach children chased the bug-eyed sand crabs into their holes or threw bread crumbs into the air for the crying gulls. A group of young people thrashed in the surf and sent out the squeals and shouts that were caught between mating calls and childhood. In a sky still deep blue with the last gasp of day, the first star winked to life and shone like a single diamond. The tension and temper of the day melted out of her mind.

  She didn't think she was hungry. Her appetite was never particularly keen. But she poked at her salad while he began to tell her of his work.

  "When you feel your eyes begin to glaze over, just stop me."

  "I don't bore that easy. And I know something about organic cotton. The gift shop where I worked in Charleston sold organic cotton shirts. We got them from California. They were pricy, but sold well for us."

  "Give me the name of the shop. Lavelle Cotton started manufacturing organic last year. I can guarantee we'll beat the price from California. That's part of what I haven't been able to get across as well as I'd like. Growing organically, after you're established, competes head-on with chemical methods. And the product commands a premium in the marketplace."

  "Which equals more profit." "Exactly." He buttered a roll, passed it to her. "People listen to profit more than they listen to environmental concerns. I can talk about pesticide drift, the effect on wildlife and edge species—"

  "Edge species?" "Quail and other birds that nest in the grass along the fields. Hunters shoot the quail, eat the quail, and consume the pesticide. Then there's insecticide. Sure they kill off the' pests, but they also kill off the good bugs, infect birds, reduce the food chain. A chick eats a dead or dying insect after spraying, then the chick's infected. It's a cycle you can't break until you try another method."

  Odd, she thought, to realize she'd carried her father's view of farming inside her, where nature was the enemy to be fought day after day, with the government running a close second.

  "You love it. Farming."

  "Yes. Why wouldn't I?"

  She shook her head. "A great many people make a living doing things they don't enjoy and have no real talent for. I was supposed to go on and work at the tool and dye factory after high school. I took business courses in secret rather than argue about it. So I suppose I know what it's like to go against the grain to do what you want to do."

  "How did you know what you wanted to do?"

  "I just wanted to be smart." To escape, she thought, but steered the conversation back to him. "The organic method's sensible, and certainly forward-thinking, but if you don't spray, you've got weeds and disease and pests. You've got a sick crop."

  "Cotton's been cultivated over four thousand years. What do you think people did up until sixty, seventy years ago, before we started using aldicarb and methyl parathion and trifluralin?"

  It intrigued her, interested her, to see him getting worked up. To feel the passion for his work vibrating out of him. "They had slaves. And after that, field hands they could work obscene hours for slave wages. That's just one of the reasons, in case you were wondering, why the South lost the War Between the States."

  "We can discuss history another time." He leaned forward, needing to make his point. "Organically grown cotton can and does use more hand labor, but it also makes use of natural resources. Animal manure, compost, instead of chemical fertilizers that can pollute groundwater. Cover crops to help control weeds and pests and add to revenue, and the basic soil conservation of rotation. Good bugs—ladybugs, mantis, and so on—to feed on the cotton pests instead of exposing farm workers, neighbors, children to pesticide drift. We let the plants die naturally instead of using a defoliant."

  He sat back as their entrees were served, topped off the wine in their glasses, but he was on a roll. "We keep up the process through the ginning. We clear the gin of residue from conventional cotton, that's federal regulation. So when it's sold, it's pure, free of chemicals. Not everyone thinks that such a big deal for a shirt or your jockey shorts, but cotton's seed as well as fiber. And cottonseed's in a whole lot of prepared food. How much pesticide do you figure you're taking in every time you eat a bag of potato chips."

  "I don't think I want to know." But she remembered her father coming home, cursing the land. She remembered watching the crop dusters dropping their clouds, and how the filaments would linger and drift toward the house.

  She remembered the stench of it. And the burn in the air. "How did you get interested in the whole organic method?"

  "First year of college. I started reading about it and, well, the fact is, there was this girl."

  "Ah." Amused, Tory, cut into her trout. "Now we see the picture form." "Her name was Lorilinda Dorset, from Mill Valley, California. My tongue fell onto my toes the first time I saw her. A long, lanky brunette in tight jeans."

  He gave a sigh at the memory, sweet with distance. "And a card-carrying member of PETA, Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, and God knows what all. So of course, to impress her, I read up on animal rights and natural farming and whatnot. Gave up meat for two months." She lifted a brow at the steak on his plate. "Must have been love."

  "For a few bright, shiny weeks it was. I let her drag me to a seminar on organic farming, and she let me get her out of those tight jeans." His smile was slow and wicked. "Of course, eventually, my desperate need for a hamburger outweighed my devotion and Lorilinda turned in disgust from the carnivore."

  "What else could she do?"

  "Exactly. But I kept thinking about what I'd heard in that seminar, and what I read in those books, and it made more and more sense to me. I saw how it could be done, and why it should be. So when Beaux Reves came to me, I started the long and not entirely without conflict process."

  "Lorilinda would be proud."

  "No, she'll never forgive me for the cheeseburger. It was a serious breech of faith. For months afterward, I could barely choke one down over the guilt."

  "Men are bastards."

  "I know it." He also knew that she might actually eat a full meal if he kept her mind engaged. "But forgiving that genetic flaw, how would you feel about being Progress's exclusive outlet for Lavelle's Green Cotton products?"

  "You want me to sell your shirts in my shop?" she asked, surprised.

  "Not necessarily shirts, if that doesn't fit the ambiance. But linens? Tablecloths, napkins, that sort of thing."

  "Well." Caught off-guard, she shifted gears to business. "I'd want to see some samples, of course. But as the product would be produced here in the state, it should fit in with my stock. We'll need to discuss cost and supply and quality and style, of course. I'm keeping clear of assembly-line type products. I'm providing the unique, and celebrating South Carolina's impressive variety of artists and craftsmen."

  She paused to sip her wine and think. "Organic cotton linens," she murmured. "From field to display to table, all within Georgetown County. That could be very appealing."

  "Good." He lifted his glass, tapped hers. "We'll find a way to make it work for both of us. To make it all work," he added.

  The evening was certainly ending on a much nicer note than it had begun. With a full moon riding overhead, and a lovely fog of wine in the brain. She hadn't meant to drink, she did so rarely, but it had been so pleasant to sit by the water and sip at wine.

  So pleasant that she'd had two glasses instead of one, and was now comfortably sleepy. The car ran smooth and fast, and the wind that blew over her smelled of the approaching summer.

  It made her think of honeysuckle and overblown roses, the smell of tar melting in se sun and the lazy hum of bees courting the magnolia blossoms in the marsh.

  Wishing to God it’d get a little cooler now that the sun’d gone down. If a ride didn’t co
me along soon she could hook her thumb around, end up walking all the way to the goddamn beach. ‘Course it was Marcie’s fault, the bitch, ditching her so she could go off and make it with that asshole Tim. Well, she didn’t give a flying fuck about Marcie, she'd hitch her way up to Myrtle Beach and have a fine time. All she needed was a fricking ride. Come on, sweetheart, stop the car! There you go. Hot damn.

  Tory reared up in the seat, eyes wide, sucking at air like a swimmer surfacing from a long, lung-bursting dive.

  "She got in the car. She tossed her pack in the back and got in the car."

  "Tory?" Cade pulled to the side of the road, shifted to take her shoulders. "It's all right. You just fell asleep for a minute."

  "No." She shoved at him, sick and desperate, and yanked at her seat belt. There were hands squeezing her heart so it beat in hitchy strikes. "No." She wrenched open the door, leaped out, and began a stumbling run along the shoulder. "She's hitchhiking, to the beach. He picked her up, back there, somewhere back there."

  "Wait. Hold on." He caught up with her, had to drag her around. "Honey, you're shaking."

  "He took her." It was sliding into her head, images and shapes, sounds and scents. There was a burn in her throat, a smoker's rasp from pulling deep on one too many cigarettes. "He took her, pulled off the road, pulled off and into the trees. And he hit her with something. She doesn't see what it is, she only feels the pain, and she's dazed. What's happening? What's the matter? She pushes at him, but he's dragging her out of the car."

  "Who?"

  She shook her head, fighting to find herself in the confusion, in the pain. In the terror. "That way. Just up that way."

  "All right." Her eyes were huge, unfocused, and her skin had gone clammy under his hands. "You want to walk up there a little ways?"

  "I have to. Leave me alone."

  "No." He wrapped an arm firmly around her. "That I won't. We'll walk. I'm right here. You can feel me right here."

  "I don't want this. I don't want it." But she began to walk. She opened herself, overriding her instinct for self-preservation. She didn't struggle when the images shifted, solidified.

  The stars wheeled overhead, blindingly bright. Heat closed around her like a fist.

  "She wanted to go to the beach. She couldn't get a ride. She was angry at her friend. Marcie. A friend named Marcie, they were supposed to drive together, spend the weekend. Now she's going to hitchhike because, by God, she's not going to let that stupid bitch ruin her trip. He comes along, and she's happy. She's tired and she's thirsty, and he says he's going all the way to Myrtle. It's less than an hour by car."

  She stopped, held up a hand. Her head lolled back, but her eyes stayed open. Wide open. "He gives you a bottle. Jack Black. Blackjack. You take a drink, a long one. To kill your thirst and because it's so cool to be riding along and drinking whiskey.

  "It must've been the bottle he hit you with. Must've been, because you passed it back to him, and were laughing, then something crashed into the side of your head. Christ! It hurts!"

  She staggered, and her hand flew to her cheek. The taste of blood filled her mouth.

  "No. Don't." Cade pulled her against him, surprised she didn't slide out of his arms like smoke.

  "I can't see. Can't. There's nothing in him. Just blank. Wait. Wait." With her hands fisted, her breath in rags, she pushed. Sickness rolled in her stomach, but she slipped through, and saw. "He took her in there." She began to rock. "I can't. I just can't." "You don't have to. It's all right now. Come on back to the car."

  "He took her in there." Pity and grief overwhelmed everything else. "He rapes her." Now she closed her eyes, let it come, let it burn. "You fight for a while. He's hurting you, and you're so scared, so you fight. He hits you again, twice, hard in the face. Oh it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. You don't want to be here. You want your mother. You just cry while he grunts and pants and finishes.

  "You smell his sweat and his sex and your own blood, and you can't fight anymore."

  Tory lifted her hands, ran them over her own face. She needed to feel the lines of her own cheeks, nose, mouth. She needed to remember who she was.

  "I can't see him. It's dark and he's just a thing. There's nothing from him for me to feel that seems real. She doesn't see him, either, not really. Not even when he uses his hands to strangle her. It doesn't take long because she's barely conscious anyway and hardly struggles. She hasn't been with him more than half an hour, and she's dead. Lying naked in the shadow of the trees. That's where he leaves her. He—he was whistling on his way back to the car."

  She stepped back from Cade then, in that deliberate way of hers. All he could see was her face, pale as the moon, with those eyes swirling smoke.

  "She was only sixteen. A pretty girl with long blond hair and long legs. Her name was Alice, but she didn't like it, so everyone called her Ally."

  The strain and the sorrow swallowed her up.

  Cade caught her, lifted her. She was limp as the dead. Shaken as much by her utter stillness as the story she'd told, he carried her away quickly. He thought, hoped, if he got her away from that spot, that place, she'd be better.

  Even as he bent to lay her back in the car she stirred. When her eyes opened, they were dark and glazed.

  "It's all right. You're all right. I'm going to get you home."

  "I just need a minute." The queasiness came on, and the chill. But they would pass. The horror would take longer. "I'm sorry." She shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry."

  "For what?" He skirted the hood, got back behind the wheel. Then just sat. "I don't know what to do for you. There ought to be something I could do. I'm going to get you home, then I'll come back and . . . I'll find her."

  Confused, Tory stared at him. "She isn't there now. It happened a long time ago. Years ago."

  He started to speak, then stopped himself. Alice, she'd said. A young blond girl named Alice. It stirred his memory, and a kind of sickness in his gut. "Does it always come on you like that? Out of nowhere?"

  "Sometimes."

  "It hurts you."

  "No, it wears you out, makes you a little sick, but it doesn't hurt." "It hurts you," he said again, and reached down to turn the key.

  "Cade." Tentatively she touched a hand to his. "It was . . . I'm sorry to bring this back to you, but you have to know. It was like Hope. That's why it came so strong. It was like Hope."

  "I know it."

  "No, you don't understand. The man who killed that poor girl, left her there in the trees, it was the same man who killed Hope.”

  Progress

  Would you realize what Revolution is, call it Progress; and would you realize what Progress is, call it Tomorrow.

  — Victor Hugo

  11

  I didn't want to believe it. There were—are—dozens of rational, logical reasons why Tory is wrong. Small points and major ones that make her claim about the teenager killed along the roadside impossible. The girl couldn't have been murdered by the same monster who killed my sister.

  Little Hope with her flyaway hair and eyes full of fun and secrets.

  I can list those reasons here in a straightforward manner, the way I couldn't seem to relate to Tory last night. I know I let her down. I know by the way she looked at me, by the way she slipped back behind that barricaded silence of hers. I know I hurt her by the way I turned aside her claim, the way I suggested, no, insisted, that she let it alone.

  But what she told me, what she let me see through her eyes, the horror she relived right in front of me, and later spoke of with such quiet restraint, brought it all back. Brought me back to that long-ago summer when everything in the world changed.

  Maybe it'll help more to write of Hope than of that doomed young girl I never knew.

  As I sit here at my father's desk it will forever be my father's desk in everyone's mind, including my own—I can turn back the days and months and years until I'm twelve again, still innocent enough to be careless with people I love, still seeing my friends as superi
or in every way to family, still dreaming of the day when I'm old enough to drive, or to drink, or to do any of the magical things that belong to the coveted world of adulthood.

  I'd done my chores that morning, as always. My father had been a stickler for responsibilities, and for hammering what was expected of me into my head. At least he was before we lost Hope. I'd gone out with him, midmorning, to look over the fields. I remember standing, looking over that ocean of cotton. My father stuck mostly with cotton, even when many of the neighboring farms turned heavily to soybeans or tomatoes or tobacco. Beaux Reves was cotton, and I was never to forget it

  I never did.

  And that day it was so simple to see why, to stand and look out over that vast space, to see the magic of the bolls burst open by the straining lint To watch the stalks bend with the weight—some of them carrying what must have been a hundred bolls, all cracked open like eggs. And that late in the year, with the fields so rich with it, the very air smelled of cotton. The hot smell of summer dying.

  It was to be a good harvest that year. The cotton would spill
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