Carolina moon, p.18
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       Carolina Moon, p.18

           Nora Roberts
 

  "You think not?" Faith said quietly. "I wonder, would she have gone out that night, gone off to have her adventure with Tory, if she hadn't felt as closed-in here as I did? Would she have climbed out that window if she'd known that she'd be free to do as she pleased, with whom she pleased, the next morning? I knew her, better than anyone else in this house. That's the way of twins. She'd have made something of herself, Cade, because she'd have quietly chipped away at the bars. But she never got the chance. And when she died, the illusion of balance in this house went with her. They loved her best, you know."

  Faith pressed her lips together, heaved the cigarette over the rail. "Better than you or me. I can't count the times afterward, one of them would look at me, me who shared her face, and I'd see in their eyes what they were thinking. Why hadn't it been me out there in the swamp instead of Hope."

  "Don't." He got to his feet. "That's not true. No one ever thought that."

  "I did. And it's what I felt from them. And I was a constant reminder that she'd died. I was not to be forgiven for that."

  "No." He touched her face, saw the woman, and the child who'd been. "That she'd lived."

  "But I couldn't be her, Cade." The tears that sheened her eyes shone in the dim light, made them, he thought, so brutally alive. "She was something they shared the way they couldn't share anything or anyone else. But they couldn't share the loss of her."

  "No, they couldn't."

  "So Papa built his shrine to her, and found his solace in the bed of another woman. And Mama got colder and harder. You and me, we just went the way we'd already been directed. So here we are in the middle of the night, with no one to call our own. And we still have nobody who loves us best."

  It hurt to hear it, and know it was true. "We don't have to stay that way."

  "Cade, we are that way." She leaned against him, rested her head when his arms came around her. "Neither one of us has ever loved anyone, not enough to put that balance back. Maybe we loved Hope enough, maybe even back then we knew she was the one who held it all steady."

  "We can't change what happened, any of it. Only what we do about it now."

  "That's it, isn't it? I just don't want to do anything, about anything. I hate Tory Bodeen for coming back here, for making me remember Hope, miss her, grieve for her again."

  "She's not to blame, Faith." "Maybe not." She closed her eyes. "But I've got to blame someone."

  12

  The matter had to be dealt with, and as quickly and efficiently as possible- Money, Margaret knew, spoke to a certain class of people. It bought their silence, their loyalty, and what passed for their honor.

  She dressed carefully for the meeting, but then she always dressed carefully. She wore a crisp suit in dignified navy, and her grandmother's single-strand pearls at her throat. She'd sat, as she did every morning, at her vanity, not so much disguising the signs of age, as she considered age an advantage, but using them to show her character and her station.

  Character and station were both sword and shield. She left the house at precisely eight-fifty, telling Lilah that she had an early appointment and would then be attending a luncheon in Charleston. She could be expected back at three-thirty.

  She would, of course, be on time.

  Margaret calculated the business she had to attend to before making the drive south would take no more than thirty minutes, she had allowed forty-five, which would still give her time to tend to her short list of errands before the lunch. She could have hired a driver, even kept one on staff. She could have assigned the errands to a servant. These were indulgences, and therefore weaknesses she would not permit.

  The mistress of Beaux Reves was required, in her opinion, to be visible in town, to patronize certain shops and maintain the proper relationship with the right merchants and civil servants.

  This civic responsibility was never to be shrugged aside for convenience.

  Margaret did more than write generous checks to her selected charities. She held positions on committees. The local art council and the historical society might have been personal interests, but that bent did not negate the time, energy, and funds she funneled into them.

  In more than thirty-two years as mistress of Beaux Reves, she had never once failed in her duties. She did not intend to fail today.

  She didn't wince when she drove past the stand of moss-draped trees that cloaked the entrance to the swamp, nor did she slow down or speed up. She didn't notice that the planks on the little bridge had been replaced, and the sumac hacked down.

  She drove steadily past the site of her daughter's death. If there was a pang, it would not have shown on her face.

  It had not shown the day that child had been buried, even when her own heart lay ripped open and bleeding out.

  Her face remained set and composed as she turned in to the narrow lane that led to the Marsh House. She parked behind Tory's station wagon, retrieved her purse. She didn't take one last look at herself in the rearview mirror. That would have been vain, and it would have been weak.

  She stepped out of the car, closed the door, locked it.

  She hadn't been to the Marsh House in sixteen years. She knew there had been work done on it, work Cade had arranged and paid for over her silent disapproval. As far as she was concerned, fresh paint and flowering bushes didn't change what it was.

  A shanty. A slum. Better bulldozed into the ground than lived in. There had been a time, in the swarm of her grief, when she'd wanted to burn it, to set fire to the swamp, to see it all scorched to hell.

  But that, of course, was foolish. And she was not a foolish woman.

  It was Lavelle property, and despite everything, must be maintained and passed on to the next generation.

  She climbed the steps, ignoring the charm of the long clay troth full of spilling flowers and vines, and knocked briskly on the wooden frame of the screen door.

  Inside, Tory paused in the act of reaching for a cup. She was running behind, and didn't much give a damn. Tired to the bone, she'd slept late, had yet to dress. She was trying to gear herself up for a lecture on responsibility, to scold herself for self-indulgence. She hoped the coffee would help snap her system to life so she could work up the enthusiasm it would take to go into the shop and finish preparing for her opening.

  The interruption wasn't just unwelcome, it was almost intolerable. There was no one she wanted to see, no words she wanted to exchange. She wanted, more than anything, to go back to bed and fight her way into the dreamless sleep that had eluded her through the night.

  But she answered the knock because to ignore it would have been weak. That, at least, Margaret would have understood.

  Faced with Hope's mother, Tory felt immediately guilty, frazzled, and embarrassed. "Mrs. Lavelle."

  "Victoria." Margaret skimmed her ice-edged gaze up from Tory's bare feet, over the rumpled robe, to the top of her tousled hair. This sloth, she told herself with cold satisfaction, was no more or less than what she'd expected from a Bodeen. "I beg your pardon. I assumed you would be up by nine, and preparing for the day."

  "Yes. Yes, I should be." Miserably self-conscious, Tory tugged at the belt of her robe. "I was . . . I'm afraid I overslept."

  "I need a few moments of your time. If I might come in."

  "Yes. Of course." With all her carefully learned layers of composure shredded, Tory fumbled with the screen door. "I'm sorry, the house isn't much more presentable than I am."

  She'd found a chair she'd liked, a big, overstuffed wingback in soft, faded blue. That and the little pie-crust table she planned to refinish eventually were the sum total of her living room furniture.

  There was no rug, no curtains, no lamp. Neither was there dirt or dust, but Tory stepped back feeling as though she were inviting a queen into a hovel.

  Her voice echoed uncomfortably in the near-empty room as Margaret stood taking a silent and damning assessment.

  "I've been concentrating on setting up my shop and haven't ... " Tory caught herself clutchi
ng her hands together, deliberately unlaced her fingers. Damn it, she wasn't eight years old any longer, a child to be mortified and awed by the regal disapproval of a friend's mother. "I've just made coffee," she said, rigidly polite. "Would you like some?" "Is there a seat?"

  "Yes. It seems I live primarily in the kitchen and the bedroom, and will until I have my business up and running smoothly." Babbling, Tory told herself, as she led the way. Stop babbling. You've nothing to apologize for.

  Everything to apologize for.

  "Please, sit down."

  At least she'd bought a good solid kitchen table and chairs, she thought. And the kitchen was clean, nearly cheerful with the little herbs she'd potted on the windowsill and the darkly glazed bowl from her own stock on the table.

  It helped to pour the coffee, to set the sugar bowl out, but when she opened the refrigerator, fresh mortification reared up and bit pink into her cheeks.

  "I'm afraid I don't have any cream. Or milk."

  "This will do." Margaret nudged her cup aside a bare inch. A subtle and deliberate slap. "If you would sit down, please?" Margaret let the silence hang a moment. She knew the value of silences, and of timing.

  When Tory was seated, Margaret folded her hands on the edge of the table, and with her eyes mild and level, began.

  "It has come to my attention that you have become involved with my son." Another beat of silence while she watched surprise flicker over Tory's face. "Small-town gossip is as unattractive as it is unavoidable."

  "Mrs. Lavelle—"

  "Please." Margaret cut her off with the lift of one finger. "You've been away for a number of years. Though you do have family connections in Progress, you are, virtually, a newcomer. A stranger. Virtually," Margaret repeated. "But not entirely. For whatever reason, you've decided to return, to establish a business here."

  "Are you here to ask me my reasons, Mrs. Lavelle?"

  "They hold no interest for me. I will be frank and tell you I did not approve of my son renting you space for your business, or renting you this house. However, Cade is the head of the family, and as such, business decisions are his alone. When those decisions, and their results, affect our family position, it becomes a different matter."

  The longer Margaret spoke in that soft, implacable tone, the easier it was for Tory to settle. Her stomach continued to jump, but when she spoke her voice was equally soft, and equally implacable. "And how, Mrs. Lavelle, do my business and my choice of residence affect your family position?"

  “That alone would have been difficult enough to tolerate. The circumstances are inconvenient, as I'm sure you're aware. But this personal element is not in any way acceptable."

  "So while you will tolerate, for now, my business association with your family, you're asking me not to see Cade in a personal manner? Is that correct?"

  "Yes." Who was this cool-eyed woman who remained so still, so composed? Margaret wondered. Where was the spindly child who'd slunk away or stared out from shadows?

  "That is problematic, seeing as he's the landlord of both my home and business and seems to take those responsibilities seriously."

  "I'm prepared to compensate you for the time and effort it takes to relocate. Perhaps back to Charleston, or to Florence, where you again have family."

  "Compensate me? I see." With deadly calm, Tory picked up her coffee. "Would it be crass for me to ask just what form of compensation you had in mind?" She smiled a little, and saw Margaret's jaw tighten like a bow pulled. "After all, I'm a businesswoman."

  "The entire matter is crass, and deplorable to me. I see no choice but to sink to your level in order to preserve my family and its reputation." She opened the purse on her lap. "I'm willing to write you a check for fifty thousand dollars upon your agreement to sever ties with Cade, and with Progress. I will give you half that amount today, and the rest will be sent to you upon your relocation. I will give you two weeks to remove yourself."

  Tory said nothing. She also knew the weapon of silence.

  "That amount," Margaret continued with her voice sharpening, "will allow you to live quite comfortably during your transition."

  "Oh, undoubtedly." Tory sipped her coffee again, then set the cup neatly back in its saucer. "I do have a question. I wonder, Mrs. Lavelle, what makes you think that I would be, in any way, receptive to the insult of a bribe?"

  "Don't pretend a sensibility you don't possess. I know you," Margaret said, leaning forward. "I know where and who you come from. You may think you can hide behind a quiet manner, behind the mask of some borrowed respectability. But I know you."

  "You think you do. But I can promise you I'm not feeling quiet or respectable right at this moment."

  It was Margaret's composure that unraveled, that had to be gathered back, tightly rewound like a ball of yarn. "Your parents were trash and let you run wild as a cat, sidling down the road to push yourself on my child. Luring her away from her family, and finally to her death. You cost me one child, and you won't cost me another. You'll take my money, Victoria. Just as your father did."

  She was shaken now, down to the heart, but she held on. "What do you mean, as my father did?"

  "It only took five thousand for them. Five thousand for them to take you out of my sight. My husband wouldn't turn them out though I begged him to do so."

  Her lips trembled open, then firmed. It had been the first and last time she had begged him for anything. Had begged anyone for anything. "Finally, it was up to me to see to it. Just as it is now. You'll go, you'll take the life you should have lost that night instead of her and live it somewhere else. And you'll stay away from my son."

  "You paid him to leave. Five thousand," Tory mused. "That would've been a lot of money for us. I wonder why we never saw it. I wonder what he did with it. Well, it doesn't matter. I'm sorry to disappoint you, Mrs. Lavelle, but I'm not my father. Nothing he ever did to me could make me like him, and your money won't change that. I'm staying, because I need to stay. It’d be easier not to. You won't understand that, but it'd be easier. As for Cade . . ."

  She remembered how distant he'd been, how removed after her episode the night before. "There's not as much between us as you seem to think. He's been kind to me, that's all, because he is a kind man. I don't intend to repay that kindness by breaking a friendship, or by telling him of this conversation."

  "If you go against my wishes in this, I'll ruin you. You'll lose everything, as you did before. When you killed that child in New York."

  Tory went white, and for the first time, her hands shook. "I didn't kill Jonah Mansfield." She gulped in air, let it out in a broken sigh. "I just didn't save him."

  Here was the chink. Margaret dug her fingers into it. "The family held you responsible, and the police. And the press. A second child dead because of you. If you stay here, there will be talk about that. Talk about the part you played. Ugly talk." How foolish, Tory thought, to have believed no one would connect her with the woman she'd been in New York. With the life she'd built and destroyed there. Nothing could be done to change it. Nothing could be done but face it. "Mrs. Lavelle, I've lived with ugly talk all my life. But I've learned I don't have to tolerate it in my own home." Tory got to her feet.

  "You'll have to leave now." "I will not make this offer again." "No, I don't suppose you will. I'll see you out.”

  Tight-lipped, Margaret rose, picked up her bag. "I know the way."

  Tory waited until the length of the living room separated them. "Mrs. Lavelle," she said quietly, "Cade is so much more than you believe him to be. So was Hope."

  Rigid with pain, and with fury, Margaret gripped the doorknob. "You would dare speak to me of my children?"

  "Yes," Tory murmured as the door snapped shut and left her alone in the house. "I would."

  She locked the door. The click was like a symbol. Nothing she didn't allow in would get in. And nothing, she told herself, that was already inside would hurt her now. She walked to the bathroom and stripped, couldn't get her nightclothes off fa
st enough. She ran the shower hot, almost too hot to bear, and stepped into the vicious heat and steam.

  There, she let herself weep. Not an indulgence, she told herself. But because, as the water beat on her skin to make her feel clean again, the tears washed away the scum of bitterness inside her.

  Memories of another dead child, and her helplessness.

  She cried until she was empty, and the water ran cool. Then she turned her face up to the chilling spray and let it soothe.

  When she was dry, she used the towel to wipe the steam from the mirror. Without compassion, without excuses, she studied her face. Fear, denial, evasion. They were all there, she admitted. Had been there. She'd come back, then she'd buried herself. Hidden herself in work and routine and details.

  Not once had she opened herself to Hope. Not once had she gone beyond the trees and visited the place they'd made there. Not once had she gone to the grave of her only real friend.

  Not once had she faced the true reason she was here.

  Was that any different from running away? she wondered. Was it any different from taking the money that had been offered and running anywhere that wasn't here?

 
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