Carolina moon, p.22
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       Carolina Moon, p.22

           Nora Roberts
 

  "I don't need you criticizing me." She slapped the plates to the floor. "I don't need you coming here with your hoity-toity ways and your fancy clothes trying to make me look bad. You turned your back on me years ago, and as far as I'm concerned, you can keep on walking."

  "You turned yours on me the first time you sat quiet while he beat me bloody." "God made man master of his own house. You never got licked you didn't deserve it."

  Licked, Tory thought. Such a friendly word for horror. "Is that how you sleep at night?"

  "Don't you sass me. Don't you disrespect your daddy. You tell me where he is, damn you. You know, you can see. You tell me where he is so I can go take care of him."

  "I won't look for him. If I stumbled over him bleeding in a ditch, I'd leave him there." Her head snapped back when Sarabeth slapped her, and the raw red print stained her cheek. But she barely flinched.

  “Sarabeth! God Almighty, Sari." J.R. grabbed her, pinned her arms while she struggled and sobbed and screamed.

  "I was going to say I hope he's dead." Tory spoke quietly. "But I don't. I hope he comes back to you, Mama. I dearly hope he comes back and gives you the life you seem to want."

  She opened her purse, took out the hundred-dollar bill she'd put in it that morning. "If and when he does, you tell him this is the last payment he'll ever get from me. You tell him I'm living back in Progress, that I'm making a life there for myself. If he wants to come and raise his hand to me again, then he better make it last, he better beat me dead this time. Because if he doesn't finish me, I will him." She closed her purse. "I'll be in the car," she said to J.R., and walked out.

  Her legs didn't start to shake until she sat down and pulled the door closed. Then the trembling started at her knees and worked up so that she crossed her arms over her torso, pressed hard and with her eyes closed, waited for it to pass.

  She could hear the weeping, rolling like lava out of the house, and the monotonous cluck and squawk of the chickens hunting for food. From somewhere close by was the deep-throated, angry bark of a dog.

  And still, she thought, over it all the birds sang, in determinedly cheerful notes.

  She concentrated on that sound, and willed her mind away. Oddly, unexpectedly, she found herself standing in her kitchen, her head on Cade's shoulder, his lips brushing her hair.

  Resting there, she didn't hear her uncle until he settled in the seat beside her and closed his door.

  He said nothing as he pulled away from the house, nothing when he stopped a half mile away and just sat, his hands resting on the wheel and his eyes staring away at empty space.

  "I shouldn't have let you come," he said at last. "I thought—I don't know what I was thinking, but I guess I had some idea that she'd want to see you, that the two of you might be able to make some of it up with Han gone off this way."

  "I'm not part of her life except to blame for things. He is her life. That's the way she wants it."

  "Why? For God's sake, Tory, why would she want to live like this, live with a man who's never given her any joy?"

  "She loves him."

  "That's not love." He spat the words out. along with anger and disgust. "That's a sickness. You heard the way she made excuses for him, how she put it off on everybody but him. The woman he attacked, the police, even the goddamn bank."

  "She wants to believe it. She needs to.” Seeing he was more upset than she'd realized, Tory laid a hand on his arm. “You did all you could.”

  “All I could. Gave her money and left her there, in that hovel. And I’ll tell you the truth, Tory, I’m thanking God right now she didn’t want to come home with me, that I don’t have to bring that sickness into my house. I’m ashamed of it.” His voice broke and he dropped his forehead to the wheel.

  Because he needed it, Tory unsnapped her seat belt and leaned into him, her head on his arm, her hand rubbing circles on his wide back. "There's no shame in that Uncle Jimmy, no shame in wanting to protect your home and Aunt Boots, to keep all of this away. I could've done what she asked me to do. I could have given her that. But I didn't, and I won't. I'm not going to be ashamed of it."

  He nodded, and struggling for composure sat back again. "Hell of a family, aren't we baby?" Gently, very gently, he touched his fingertips to the raw spot on her cheek Then he shifted back into first, eased on the gas. "Tory, if it's all the same to you, I don't have the heart to go by and see your gran just now."

  "Neither do I. Let's just go home."

  When her uncle dropped her off, Tory didn't go into her house, but transferred to her own car and drove directly to her shop. She had hours to make up for and was grateful the work and rush would keep her mind off how she'd spent her morning.

  Her first call was to the florist, clearing them to deliver the ficus and the flower arrangement she'd ordered the week before. Her next was to the bakery to confirm the cookies and petits fours she'd selected would be ready for her to pick up first thing in the morning.

  It was late into the day before she'd satisfied herself that all the arrangements were in the most attractive spots. For a celebrational touch, she began to string fairy lights through the graceful branches of the ficus.

  The little bell on her door rang, reminding her she'd forgotten to lock it after the last delivery.

  "Saw you as I was passing by." Dwight stepped in, scanned the shop, then gave a low whistle. "I was going to see if everything worked out for you, and if you needed any last-minute help. But seems like you've got it under control."

  "I think so." She straightened, standing with the end of the string of lights still in her hand. "Your crew did a wonderful job, Dwight. I couldn't be happier with the work."

  "Just make sure you mention Frazier's if anyone compliments your carpentry."

  "You can count on it."

  "Oh now, this is nice work." He walked over to a cutting board fashioned of narrow strips of various tones of wood, and sanded smooth as glass. "Beautiful work. I do some woodworking in my hobby room, but nothing as nice as this. Almost too pretty to use."

  "Form and function. That's the key here."

  "Lissy's happy with that candle thing she bought in here, and shows off the mirror every chance she gets. Said it wouldn't hurt her feelings if I took a look at the jewelry and found her something to brighten her mood."

  "Isn't she feeling well?"

  "Oh, she's fine.”

  Dwight waved at the question as he wandered the shop. "Gets the baby blues now and then, that's all." He tucked his thumbs in his front pockets and gave her a sheepish grin. "While I'm here I guess I ought to apologize."

  "Oh." Since he appeared to be staying awhile longer, Tory continued to thread the lights through the branches. "For?"

  "For letting Lissy think you and Cade were enjoying each other's company."

  "I don't mind Cade's company."

  "Now, I don't know whether you're letting me off the hook or stringing me like you are those little lights. The thing is, well, Lissy just gets the bit between her teeth on some things. She keeps trying to match Cade up with someone, and if it's not him, it's Wade. She's got some wild hair about getting my friends married off. Cade just wanted to wiggle out of her last matchmaking attempt and told me to tell her he was . . ."

  He flushed now as Tory simply studied him silently.

  "That he was what you could say involved with someone. I told her how it was you, figuring since you'd pretty much just gotten back to town she'd believe it, and let things alone for a while."

  "Uh-huh." Finished, Tory plugged the lights in, then stepped back to gauge the results.

  "I should've known better," Dwight went on, frantically digging the hole deeper. "God knows I'm not deaf and know Lissy tends to talk. By the time Cade got back to me to ring a peel over my head, I'd already heard from six different people the two of you were half near engaged and planning a nursery."

  "It might've been simpler just to tell her the truth, that Cade wasn't interested in being fixed up."

 
; "Now, I wouldn't say simpler." His handsome white teeth flashed again, quick, charming, and male. "I tell her that, she wants to know why. I say something like some men aren't looking for marriage. She comes back and says it's good enough for you, isn't it? Or are you wishing you were footloose and fancy-free like your two best pals? I say, no, honeybunch, but by then I've got one foot in the doghouse."

  Trying to look pitiful, he scratched his head. "I tell you, Tory, marriage is a walk on a greased-up tightrope, and any man who tells you he wouldn't sacrifice a friend to keep from slipping off’s a damn liar. Besides, the way I hear it, you and Cade've been seen around together a few times."

  "Are you making a statement or asking a question?"

  He shook his head. "I should've said dealing with a woman's like a walk on that tightrope. Better quit while I can still make it to safe ground."

  "Good idea."

  "Well, Lissy's having herself a hen party, a woman's get-together," he corrected quickly, seeing Tory's brows shoot up. "I'm going to wander over to Wade's, see if he wants to grab some supper and keep me company till it's safe to go home. I'll stop by tomorrow. Maybe you can help me pick out some earrings or something."

  "I'll be happy to."

  He walked to the door, paused. "It looks nice in here, Tory. Classy. This place is going to be good for the town."

  She hoped so, she thought, as she went behind him to lock up. But more, she hoped the town was going to be good for her.

  Dwight walked down to cross at the light. As mayor it was important to set a good example. He'd given up jaywalking, and drinking more than two beers a night in a bar, and driving over the posted limit. Small sacrifices, he thought, but every now and again he had the urge to shake off the restraints.

  Came from being a late bloomer, he supposed, and gave a quick salute toward the beep of a horn as Betsy Gluck drove by. He hadn't started to hit his stride until his middle teens, then he'd been so dazzled that girls actually wanted to talk to him, he'd stumbled straight into the backseat of his first car with Lissy—well, a few others, then Lissy—found himself going steady with the prettiest and most popular girl in school. Before he knew it he was renting a tux for his wedding.

  Not that he regretted it. Not for a minute.

  Lissy was just what he wanted. She was still as pretty as she'd been in high school. Maybe she fussed and pouted some, but name him a woman who didn't.

  They had a fine house, a beautiful son, and another baby on the way. A damn good life, and he was mayor of the town in which he'd once been a joke.

  A man had to appreciate the irony of that.

  If now and again he got an itch, it was natural enough. But the fact was he didn't want to be married to anyone but his Lissy, didn't want to live anywhere but Progress, and wanted his life to keep right on going just as it was.

  He opened the door to Wade's waiting room in time to be all but bowled over by a frantic sheepdog bent on escape.

  "Sorry! Oh, Mongo." The blonde struggling to hold the leash was both pretty and unfamiliar. She sent Dwight an apologetic look out of soft green eyes, even while her kewpie-doll lips turned up in a quick smile. "He just got his shots and he's feeling betrayed."

  "Can't say I blame him." Since doing otherwise would compromise his manhood, Dwight risked his fingers and patted the dog through the mop of gray and white hair. "Don't recall seeing you or Mongo around town before."

  "We've only been here a few weeks. Just moved down from Dillon. I teach English at the high school—well, I'll be teaching summer classes, then I'll start full-time in the fall. Mongo, sit!" With a toss of her hair, she offered a hand. "Sherry Bellows, and you can blame me for the dog hair covering your jeans."

  "Dwight Frazier, nice to meet you. I'm the town mayor, so I'm the one you come to if you've got any complaints."

  "Oh, everything's been just fine. But I'll keep that in mind." She turned her head back toward the examining room. "Every-one's been very friendly and helpful. I'd better get Mongo in the car before he breaks the leash and you have to give me a citation.”

  "Need a hand?"

  "No, I've got him." She laughed as she and the dog lunged out the door. "Barely. Nice to have met you, Mayor Frazier. Bye,

  "Likewise," he murmured, then rolled his eyes toward Maxine at reception. "Didn't have English teachers like that when I was in Progress High. Might've taken me a few more years to graduate."

  "You men." Maxine chuckled as she took her handbag out of the bottom drawer. "So predictable. Mongo was our last patient, Mayor. Doc Wade's washing up in the back. You mind telling him I'm running off to make my evening lecture?" "Go right on. Have a nice night, now." He wandered back to find Wade straightening the drug cabinet. "Got any good stuff?”

  "Got me some steroids that'll put hair on your chest. You never did grow any."

  " 'Cause you used it all on your ass," Dwight said easily. "So how about that blonde?"

  “Hmm?”

  "Jesus, Wade, you been hitting that cabinet for doggie downers? The blonde with the big dog who just left. English teacher."

  "Oh, Mongo."

  "Well, I see it's too late." Dwight shook his head, boosted himself up to sit on the padded table. "When you start missing pretty blondes who fill out their skinny jeans the way that one did, and remember a big, sloppy dog, you're too far gone even for Lissy to fix up." "I'm not going on another blind date. And I noticed the blonde." "I'd say she noticed you, too. You hit on her?"

  "Jesus, Dwight, she's a patient."

  "The dog's the patient. You're missing a golden opportunity here, son." "Get your mind off my sex life." "You don't have one." Dwight leaned back on his elbows, grinned. "Now, if I was single and only half ugly like you, I'd have talked the blonde onto this table, instead of her big, hairy dog."

  "Maybe I did."

  "In your dreams."

  "Ah, but they're my dreams, aren't they? Why aren't you home washing your hands for supper like a good boy?"

  "Lissy's got a bunch of women coming over to look at Tupperware or something. I'm steering clear."

  "It's makeup." Wade closed the cabinet door. "My mother's going."

  "Whatever the hell. Christ knows the woman doesn't need any more face paint or plastic bowls, but she gets bored to death when she's this pregnant. So how about we have a beer and something to eat? Like the old days."

  "I've got some things to do around here." Faith could come by, he thought.

  "Come on, Wade. A couple hours."

  He started to refuse again. What the hell was wrong with him, locking himself in his apartment, waiting for Faith to call? It was as bad as a teenage girl mooning after the football star. Worse.

  "You're buying." "Shit." Cheered, Dwight pushed off the table. "Let's give Cade a call, get him to meet us. Then we'll make him pay for it." "That's a plan."

  15

  She hadn't expected to be nervous. She was prepared, she'd checked and rechecked every detail down to the color and weight of the cord used to secure her boxes. She had experience and knew every piece of her merchandise almost as well as the craftsmen who created it.

  She had gone through every step and stage of the creation of her shop with a calm and often cool eye, and a steady hand. There were no mistakes, no gaps, no flaws.

  The shop itself looked perfect, warm and welcoming and bright. She herself looked casually professional and efficient. She should, as she'd spent the hour between three and four that morning agonizing over her choice of outfit before settling on the navy slacks and white linen shirt.

  Now she worried it was too much like a uniform. Now she worried about everything.

  Less than an hour before opening and all the nerves and doubts and fears she'd managed to ignore for months tumbled down on her like broken bricks.

  She sat in her storeroom at her desk with her head between her knees.

  The sick giddiness insulted her, shamed her. Even as she went limp with dizziness she berated herself. She was stronger than this. S
he had to be. She couldn't come so far, work so hard, then collapse inches from the goal.

  They would come. She wasn't worried about drawing in people. They would come and they would gawk, and shoot her the quick, curious glances she was already used to seeing aimed at her around town.

  The Bodeen girl. You remember her. Spooky little thing.

  She couldn't let it matter. But oh, it mattered. She'd been insane to come back here where everyone knew her, where no secret was ever truly kept. Why hadn't she stayed in Charleston where it was safe, where her life had been quiet and her privacy complete?

 
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