Carolina moon, p.21
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       Carolina Moon, p.21

           Nora Roberts
 

  "Then something's wrong with you."

  She said it so dryly, it took him a minute. With a laugh he laid the two sandwiches on the heated skillet. "You're likely right about that. After all, I'm a hell of a catch, you know. Healthy, not overly hard on the eyes, got me a big house, good land, and money enough to keep the wolf from the door. And in addition to that, and my subtle charm, I make a terrific cheese sandwich."

  "All that being the case, why hasn't some smart woman snatched you up?" "Thousands have tried." “Slippery, are you?"

  "Agile." He flipped the sandwiches. "I like to think of it as agile. I was engaged once."

  "Were you?" She said it casually as she reached for bowls, but her focus had sharpened.

  “Um-hmm.” He knew human nature well enough to be certain leaving it at that would swell her curiosity until she either burst or surrendered.

  She held until they'd set plates and bowls on the table, sat. "You think you're clever, don't you?"

  "Darling, a man in my position has to be. Cozy in here with the rain and all, isn't it?"

  "All right, damn it. What happened?"

  "About what?" The way her eyes narrowed delighted him. "Oh, about Deborah? The woman I was on the point of vowing to love, honor, and cherish until death and so on? Judge Purcell's daughter. You might remember the judge, except I don't think he was a judge yet when you left."

  “No, I don't remember him. I doubt the Bodeens moved in his social sphere."

  "In any case, he has a lovely daughter and she loved me for a while, then decided she didn't want to be a farmer's wife after all. At least not one who actually worked at it."

  "I'm sorry."

  "It wasn't a tragedy. I didn't love her. Liked her considerably," Cade mused as he sampled the soup. "She was lovely to look at, interesting to talk to, and . . . we'll say we were compatible in certain vital areas. But one. We just didn't want the same thing. We discovered that, much to our mutual embarrassment, a few months after we were engaged. We broke things off amicably enough, which goes to show there was considerable relief on both sides, and she went off to live in London for a few months."

  "How could you—" She broke off, filled her mouth with sandwich.

  "Go on. You can ask."

  "I just wondered how you could ask someone to marry you that you could let go again without a qualm." He considered it, kicking back to chew the sandwich as if he were also chewing his thoughts. "I suppose there were some minor qualms. But the fact is, in hindsight, I was twenty-five, and there was a bit of family pressure. My mother and the judge are good friends, and he was a friend of my father's as well. Time to settle down and make myself an heir or two, was the idea." "That's awfully cold-blooded." "Not entirely. I was attracted to her, we knew a lot of the same people. Her daddy was mine's lawyer for years. It was easy to slide into an arrangement, one that pleased both our families. Then as time got closer, I for one began to feel like you do when your tie's just a mite too tight. So you can't quite get a good gulp of air. So I asked myself, what would my life be like without her? And what would it be like with her, in five years." He took another bite of his sandwich, shrugged. "Turned out I liked the answer to the first part a whole lot better than I did the second. And as luck would have it, so did she. The only ones who were truly upset were our families." He paused, watching her eat. "And we just can't live our lives around what our parents want or don't want for us, can we, Tory?" "No. But we do live our lives carrying around the weight of it anyway. Mine could never accept me for who and what I was. For a long time I tried to be someone and something else." She lifted her gaze. "I can't."

  "I like who you are."

  "Last night you had trouble with it."

  "Some," he admitted. "You worried me You were frantic," he added, laying a hand over hers before she could pull away. "Then fragile. Made me feel clumsy. I didn't know what to do, and I'm used to knowing."

  "You didn't believe me."

  "I don't doubt what you saw, or felt. But I have to think part of it could be mixed up with coming here, with remembering what happened to Hope."

  She thought about the call from Abigail about the dates of both murders. But she held back. She'd trusted before, shared before. And had lost everything.

  "It is all mixed up with me coming here And with Hope. If it wasn't for Hope, you wouldn't be sitting here now."

  On more even ground again, he sat back continued to eat. "If I'd seen you for the first time four, five weeks ago, if we'd met before and there’d been nothing between us till then, I'd damn well have figured out how to get myself sitting here now Fact is, if we'd started weeks ago instead o years, I do believe I'd already have you in that very interesting bed."

  He smiled, slow and easy, when she se the spoon back down in her soup with a little plop. "I figure it's time we got that out in the open, so you can think about it."

  14

  The drive was pleasant enough and reminded her of all she'd missed by not staying close to

  J.R. There was such a hugeness to him, in his voice, his laugh, his gestures. Twice she'd had to dodge his arm as he'd thrown it toward her to point out something along the highway.

  He seemed to swallow you up with his simple joy of being.

  He sat in the little car, his knees all but up to his chin, his big, wide hand clutching the gearshift the way she'd seen some young boys clutch a joystick during a video game.

  For the fun and competition.

  The way he dived into the day they might have been racing to some mad picnic rather than a painful family duty.

  Living in the now, she thought, that was his gift, and a skill she'd struggled to master all her life.

  He got such a kick out of his new car, zipping and roaring up the interstate with his CDs of Clint Black and Garth Brooks blasting, and a natty glen plaid cap snugged down on his lamb's wool mat of ginger-colored hair.

  He lost the cap just past the exit for Sumter when a frisky tail of wind caught it and flipped it toward the ramp and under the wheels of a Dodge minivan. J.R. never slowed down, and laughed like a lunatic.

  With the top down and the music up, conversation was exchanged in shouts, but J.R. still managed to hold one, with his topics of interest bouncing like a big rubber ball from Tory's store, politics, fat-free ice cream, and the stock market.

  As they approached the exit to Florence, he allowed as he hoped they'd have just a bit of time to slip by and visit his mother. It was the first time since he'd picked her up that he mentioned family.

  Tory shouted out that she'd love to stop and see her grandmother. Then she thought of Cecil and wondered if J.R. knew about the new arrangements. Thinking about that kept her mind occupied and entertained until they bypassed Florence and headed northeast.

  She'd never been to her parents' place outside of Hartsville. She had no idea what either of them did now for a living, or how they spent their time together or apart.

  She'd never asked her grandmother, and Iris never brought it up.

  "Nearly there." J.R. shifted in his seat. Tory felt his mood shift as well. "Last I heard, Han, he was doing some factory work. They, ah, leased a patch of land and were raising chickens." "I see." '

  J.R. cleared his throat as if about to speak again, then fell silent until he turned off the main road onto a shoulderless twist of pitted asphalt. "I haven't been up to see their place. Ah, Sarabeth gave me the directions when I said I'd come to see what was what."

  "It's all right, Uncle Jimmy, don't fret about me. We both know what to expect."

  The scatter of houses that could be seen were small and skeletal, yellowed bones stuck on overgrown yards or dust bowl lots. A rusted pickup with its windshield cracked like an eggshell tilted on cinder blocks. An ugly black dog leaped on its chain and barked viciously while less than a foot away a child wearing nothing but grayed cotton underwear and a tangle of dark hair sat on an old dented washing machine abandoned in a scrub-grass yard. She sucked her thumb and stared vacantly as the
spiffy convertible drove by.

  Yes, Tory thought. They knew what to expect.

  The road turned, climbed a little, then veered off in a fork. J.R. switched off the music and slowed to a crawl to navigate the dirt and gravel path.

  “Your county taxes at work," he said, with an attempt at a joke, then only sighed and eased his car into the hardpack driveway that butted up to the house. No, not a house, Tory corrected. A shack You couldn't call such a thing a house, and never a home. The roof sagged, and like an old man's smile, showed gaps where shingles had blown away or fallen off. The ancient speckled gray siding was torn and ragged. One of the windows was plugged with cardboard. The yard, such as it was choked with weeds. Dandelion and thistle grew in nasty abundance. An black fist-sized hole in the bowl.

  Beside and back from the housemetal building gray with grime and spotted with blood-colored rust. A wire fence spilled out from its side and in this enclosure a dozen or so scrawny chickens pecked at the dirt and complained.

  The stench of them stung the air.

  "Jesus. Jesus Christ," J.R. muttered "Didn't think it would be this bad. You never think it'll be this bad. No call for this, No call for it to come to this."

  "She knows we're here," Tory said dully and pushed the car door open. "She's been waiting."

  J.R. slammed his own door, then as they walked toward the house lay his hand on Tory's shoulder.

  She wondered if he was giving her support, or asking for it.

  The woman who appeared had gray hair. Stone gray that was scraped back pitilessly from a thin face. The skin seemed to be scraped back as well, so that the bones jutted out like knobs. The lines that bracketed her mouth might have been carved with a knife, and the deep gouge of them pulled the lips down into misery.

  She wore a wrinkled cotton dress, too big for her, and a small silver cross between her lifeless breasts.

  Her eyes, rimmed red as fire, glanced at Tory, then away, fast, as if a look could burn.

  "You didn't say you were bringing her."

  “Hello, Mama."

  "You didn't say you were bringing her," Sarabeth said again, then pushed open the screen. "Haven't I got worries enough?"

  J.R. gave Tory's shoulder a squeeze. "We're here to do what we can to help, Sari." With his hand still on Tory's shoulder, J.R. stepped inside.

  The air stank of garbage gone over, of stale sweat. Of hopelessness.

  "I don't know what you can do, 'less you can get that woman, that lying slut, down to Hartsville to tell the truth." She pulled a tattered tissue out of her dress pocket and blew her nose. "I'm at my wit's end, J.R. I think something awful's happened to my Han. He's never stayed away so long as this."

  "Why don't we sit down?" He transferred his hand from Tory to his sister, then scanned the room.

  His stomach clenched.

  There was a sagging sofa draped in a din yellow slipcover, and a vile green recliner patched with duct tape. The tables were littered with paper plates, plastic cups, and what he supposed was the remains of last night's dinner. A woodstove, streaked with soot, stood in the corner, hobbled on three legs with a block of wood for the fourth. There was a picture of a Jesus, his mournful exposing his Sacred Heart, inside a cheap wire frame.

  As his sister's face was still buried in tissue, J.R. led her to the sofa and sent pleading look at Tory.

  "Why don't I make some coffee?"

  "Got some instant left." Sarabeth lower the tissue and stared at the wall rather the look at her daughter. "I haven't felt much like going to the store, didn't want to go from home in case Han ... "

  Saying nothing, Tory turned away. T. house was shotgun style, so she walked straight back into the kitchen. Dishes we piled in the sink, and the splatters on t stove were old and crusted. Her shoes stuck to the torn linoleum floor.

  During Tory's childhood, Sarabeth to cleaned like a tornado, chasing dust and grime, whirling through them as though sins against the soul. As Tory filled the kettle she wondered when her mother had given up this nervous habit when poverty and disinterest had outweighed the illusion that she was making a home, or that God would come into it as long as the floor was swept.

  Then she stopped wondering, stopped thinking, blocked everything out but the mechanical chore of heating water and hacking a spoon at coffee grains gone to brown concrete in a little glass jar.

  The milk was sour, and there was no sugar to be found. She carried two mugs of dismal-looking liquid back to the living room. Her stomach would have rejected even the appearance of drinking.

  "That woman," Sarabeth was saying. "She tried to lure my Han. She played on his weaknesses, tempted him. But he resisted. He told me all about it. I don't know where she got herself beat up, probably some pervert she sold herself to, but she said it was Han to pay him back for refusing her. That's what happened."

  “All right, Sari." J.R. sat on the sofa beside her, patted her hand. "We won't worry about that part of it right now, okay? Do you have any notion, any notion at all where Han might go?"

  “No!” She shouted it, jerking away from him and nearly upending the coffee Tory put on the table. "You think I wouldn't go to him if I knew? A woman cleaves to her husband. I told the cops the same thing. Told them just what I'm telling you. I don’t expect a bunch of corrupt, godforsaken cops to take my word, but I'd think my own flesh and blood would believe me."

  "I do. 'Course I do." He picked up a mug of coffee and gently pushed it into her hands. "I just thought maybe something occurred to you, that maybe you remembered a couple of places that he went when he went off before."

  "It's not like he went off." Sarabeth's lip trembled as she sipped. "He just needs to get away and think sometimes is all. Men got a lot of pressure, providing. And sometimes, Han, he just needs to be off by himself, to think things through, to pray on them. But he's been gone too long now. I’m thinking maybe he's hurt."

  Tears spurted into her eyes again. “That woman lying about him, getting him in all that trouble, it was weighing heavy on his mind. Now the police are talking like he's fugitive. They just don't understand." "Was he going to the alcohol rehab program?"

  "I guess he was." She sniffed. “Han didn't need no program. He wasn't a drunk. Just now and then he took a bit to relax.”

  Jesus drank wine, didn't he?" Jesus, Tory thought, hadn't made a habit of downing the best part of a bottle of Wild Turkey and stomping hell out of the womenfolk. But her mother wouldn't see the difference. "They're always on his back at work, you know, pushing at him 'cause they know he's smarter than they are. And the chickens cost more to keep than we figured. That bastard down at the feed and grain raised his prices so he can keep his on-the-side chickie in perfume. Han told me how it was." "Honey, you have to face the fact that by leaving this way, Han broke his probation. He broke the law." "Well, the law's wrong. What am I going to do, J.R.? I'm just frantic over it. And everybody's wanting money, and there's nothing coming in except what I get for eggs. I've been to the bank, but those thieving, sneaking liars took what we got in there and said how Han withdrew the funds. Withdrew the funds, they said, with their prissy lying mouths."

  "I'll take care of the bills." He had done "You don't worry about that. Here's what I think we should do. I think you should get some things together and come on home on home with me. You can stay with me and Boots until everything's straight out."

  "I can't leave. Han could come back any minute."

  "You can leave him a note."

  "That'd just make him mad." Her eyes began to dart around, wary birds looking for a safe place to light, away from her husband's righteous fury. "A man's got a right to expect his wife to be home when he gets there. For her to be waiting under the roof he puts over her head."

  “Your roof has holes in it, Mama," Tory said quietly, and earned a searing whip of stare.

  "Nothing was ever good enough for was it? No matter how hard your daddy worked and I sweated, it was never enough. Always wanting more."

  "I never as
ked for more."

  "You were smart enough not to say it loud. But I saw it, saw it in your eyes. Sneaky's what you were, sneaky and sneaky and sly,” Sarabeth said, with a violent twist of her mouth. "And didn't you run off first chance you got, never looked back, either, never honored your father and mother. You were obliged to pay back what we sacrificed for you, but you were too selfish. We had a decent life in Progress, still would if you hadn’t ruined it.”

  "Sarabeth." Helplessly, J.R. gave her hand quick, light pats. "That's not fair an that's not true."

  "She brought shame on us. Brought it the minute she was born. We were happy before she came along." She began to cry again, harsh, racking sobs that shook her shoulders.

  At a loss, J.R. put an arm around her and made shushing noises.

  With her face and mind blank, Tory bent down and began to clear the litter from the table.

  Sarabeth was up like a thunderbolt. "What do you think you're doing?" "Since you're determined to stay, I thought I'd clean this up for you."

 
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