Carolina moon, p.24
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       Carolina Moon, p.24

           Nora Roberts
 

  "Yes, of course. Ah, for gifts?"

  "Gifts, hell. For me." She clanked glass carelessly together and made Tory's heart stop.

  "Why don't I put these up on the counter for you?"

  "Good, they're heavy." Rosie's eyes, weighed down by false eyelashes that disconcertingly resembled spiders, finally fixed on Tory's face. "You're the girl who used to play with little Hope."

  "Yes, ma'am."

  "Got a way about you, I recollect. I had my palm read once by a gypsy in Transylvania. Said how I'd have myself four husbands, but damned if I want another." Rosie stuck out a hand crowded with rings and bracelets. "What do you say?"

  "I'm sorry." Instead of feeling awkward, Tory was marvelously entertained. "I don't read palms."

  "Tea leaves then, or some such. One of my lovers, young fellow from Boston, claimed he was Lord Byron in another life. Don't expect to hear that kind of thing from a Yankee, do you? Cade, get on over here and hold on to these glass things. What's the point in having a man around if you can't use him as a pack mule," she said to Tory with a wink.

  "I have no idea. Would you like some iced tea, Miss Rosie? Some cookies." "I'll just work up an appetite first. Now, what the blue hell is this thing?" She picked up a polished wooden stand with a hole in it.

  "It's a wine rest."

  "Don't that beat all? Why anybody'd want to give a decent bottle of wine time to rest is beyond me. Wrap me up two of those. Lucy Talbott!" She shouted across the room to another customer. "What're you buying there?" And was off like a rocket, red and white stripes flapping.

  "We just can't break Aunt Rosie out of her shell," Cade said with a smile. "And how's your day going?"

  "Very well. Thank you for the flowers. They're lovely."

  "I'm glad you liked them. I'm hoping you'll let me take you out to dinner tonight, to celebrate your first day."

  "I—" She already begged off the evening at her uncle's, switching that to a Sunday family dinner the following day. She was going to be tired, and wired, she reminded herself. Not fit company. "I'd like that." "I'll come by your place around seven-thirty. That work for you?"

  "Yes, that'll be perfect. Cade, does your aunt really want all these things? I don't know what anyone could want with six glass paperweights."

  "She'll enjoy them, then she'll forget where she bought them and make up some story about how she found them in a dusty little shop in Beirut. Or claim she stole them from her lover the Breton count when she left him. Then she'll give them away to the paperboy or the next Jehovah's Witness who comes to her door."

  "Oh. Well."

  "You'll want to keep an eye on her. She tends to slip things in her pockets. Absentmindedly," he continued, when Tory's eyes went wide. "You just keep track of what goes in, and add it to her bill at the end."

  "But—" Even as she glanced over, she saw Rosie slide a spoon rest into the wide slit pocket of her dress. "Oh, for heaven's sakes!" Tory rushed over, leaving Cade chuckling.

  "Rosie hasn't changed any," Iris commented. "No, ma'am, not a whit. Bless her for it. How are you, Miz Mooney?"

  "Fiddle fit. You're looking fit yourself. Grew into your feet well enough. How's your family?"

  "They're well, thank you."

  "I was sorry to hear about your daddy. He was a good man, and an interesting one. You don't always get both in one."

  "I suppose you don't. He always spoke highly of you."

  "He gave me a chance to earn a decent living after I lost my husband, to put food on my table for my children. I don't forget that. You got something of him around your eyes. Are you a fair man like he was, now that you're full-grown, Kincade?"

  "I try to be." As Rosie let out a cackle and batted at the wind chimes to send them singing, Cade glanced over, met Tory's exasperated eyes. "Tory's got her hands full."

  "She can deal with it. She's good at dealing with things. Sometimes, maybe, a little too good."

  "She gets her back up when you want to help."

  "She can," Iris agreed. "From where I'm standing, I don't think the only thing you want to do about Tory is help her. I'd say there's something more basic on your mind along with that, and as I hope I'm correct in that assumption, I'd like to give you something everyone needs from time to time and no one likes to take."

  He adjusted the balance of the paperweights he still carried. "And that would be advice?"

  She beamed at him. "You're a smart boy. Always thought so. Advice it is. Just one little bit of it. Don't drag your feet. If there's one thing every woman deserves at least once in her life, it's to be swept off hers. Now, give me some of those things before they get banged together and cracked."

  "She's not sure of me yet." Cade transferred two of the paperweights and carried the other four to the counter. "She needs some time."

  "She tell you that?"

  "More or less."

  Iris just rolled her eyes. "Men. Don't you know a woman who says that's either one of three things. She's not really interested, she's being coy, or she's been hurt before. Tory'd tell you straight out if she wasn't interested, there isn't a coy bone in her body, so that leaves number three. You see that man over there?"

  Baffled, Cade glanced over to where Cecil was arranging fresh cookies on a plate with hands the size of whole smoked hams. "Yes, ma'am."

  "You hurt my baby, and I'll send that big old bear after you with a pipe wrench. But since I don't think you're going to do that, I'd suggest you show her that there are some men worth trusting."

  "I'm working on that."

  "Since my girl is trying to convince herself that the two of you are no more than friendly acquaintances, I'd say work faster."

  Chew on that, Iris mused, then moved off to try to prod another customer into a sale.

  "She put five napkin rings into her pocket." At six-ten, with the door locked and Cecil nodding off in the stockroom, Tory plopped on her counter stool and threw up her hands. "Five. Now, I could see, in a twisted way, taking four or six. But what kind of person takes five napkin rings?"

  "Don't imagine she was thinking of them as a set."

  "Add two spoon rests, three wine toppers, and a pair of salad tongs. She put those in her pocket while I was standing right there talking to her. Put them in her pocket, smiled, then took off her pink plastic beads and gave them to me."

  Still bemused, Tory fingered the beads around her neck. "She likes you. Rosie's always giving things to people she takes a shine to."

  "I don't feel right charging her for all those things. She might not even have wanted them. Lord, Gran, she spent over a thousand dollars. A thousand," she repeated, and pressed a hand to her stomach. "I think I might be sick after all."

  "No, you won't. You'll be happy soon as you let yourself be. Now, I'm going to go give Cecil a shake and move him along so you have a chance to catch your breath. You come on by J.R.'s around one tomorrow. It's too long since we had the family together."

  "I'll be there. Gran, I don't know how to thank you for staying all day. You must be tired."

  "My feet are smarting some, and I'm ready to put them up and let Boots give me a glass of wine." She leaned over to kiss Tory's cheek. "You celebrate, you hear?"

  Celebrate, Tory thought, after she'd made her notes, tidied, and locked up. She could barely think, much less celebrate. She'd gotten through the day. More than gotten through it, she told herself on the dazed drive home. She'd proven that she was back, to stay, back to make a mark.

  Not just survival this time, but success. Some might look at her and see the small, hollow-eyed girl in hand-me-downs. But it wasn't going to matter. More would look and see just what she'd made herself. What she wanted to be.

  She would make that matter.

  She wasn't going to fail, and she wasn't going to run. This time, finally, she was going to win.

  The wonder of that began to set in as she turned into her lane, as she saw the house as it had been, and as it was. Herself as she had been. As she was.

 
Unable to fight them back any longer, she laid her head on the steering wheel and let the tears come.

  She was sitting on the ground, trying not to cry. Only babies cried. And she was not a crybaby. But the tears leaked out despite her.

  She'd skinned her knees and her elbow and the heel of her hand when she'd fallen off the bike. The scraped skin burned and seeped blood. She wanted to go to Lilah and be hugged and petted and soothed. Lilah would give her a cookie and make it all better.

  She didn't care about learning how to ride a stupid bike anyway. She hated the stupid bike.

  It lay beside her, a downed soldier with one wheel still spinning in a mocking whirl as she lay her head on her folded arms and sniffled.

  She was just six.

  "Hope! What the heck are you doing?" Cade rushed down the lane, his Nikes bulleting on the gravel. His father had dropped him off at the entrance to Beaux Reves, giving him his freedom for the rest of the Saturday morning. His whole world had been wrapped around how quickly he could get his bike and ride to the swamp to meet up with Wade and Dwight.

  And here was his old and beloved three-speed, crashed, with his baby sister sprawled beside it.

  He wasn't sure which he wanted to do more, yell at her or croon to his wounded bike.

  "Oh man, look at this! You ruined the paint. Damn it." He hissed the last. He was just beginning to try out swear words in secret. "You got no business taking my bike. You got your own."

  "It's a baby bike." She lifted her face and tears streaked through the fine layer of dirt on her cheeks. "Mama won't let Daddy take off the training wheels."

  "Well, jeez, guess why." Disgusted he righted his bike and sent her a superior look. "Go on inside and get Lilah to wash you up. And keep your sticky fingers off my stuff.”

  "I just want to learn." She swiped a hand under her nose and through the tears shone a light of defiance. "I could ride as good as you if somebody'd teach me."

  "Yeah, right." He snorted, swung a leg over the bar. "You're just a little girl."

  She sprang to her feet then, thin chest heaving with insult. "I'll get bigger," she said between her teeth. "I'll get bigger and I'll ride faster than you or anybody. Then you'll be sorry."

  "Oh, now I'm shaking." The amusement was coming back, sliding into his deep blue eyes, crinkling them at the corners. If a guy was going to be saddled with a couple of little sisters, the least he could do was tease them. "I'll always be bigger, I'll always be older, I'll always be faster."

  Her bottom lip trembled, a sure sign more tears wanted to come. He sneered at her, shrugged, and began to pedal up the lane, popping a quick wheelie just to prove his superior talents.

  When he glanced back, grin wide, to make sure she'd witnessed his prowess, he saw her head was bent, her tangled hair hanging forward in a curtain. A thin trickle of blood slid down her shin.

  He stopped, rolled his eyes, shook his head. His friends were waiting. There were a zillion things to do. Half of Saturday was already gone. He didn't have time to waste on girls. Especially sisters.

  But he heaved a weighty sigh and rode the bike back. As annoyed with himself as with her now, he hopped off.

  "Get on. Damn it." She sniffled again, knuckled her eyes, and peered at him. "Really?" "Yeah, yeah, come on. I haven't got all day."

  Joy sprang into her, rushing her heartbeat as she climbed onto the seat. As her hands clutched the rubber tips of the handlebars, she giggled.

  "Pay attention. This is serious business." He glanced back, toward the house, and hoped to God his mother didn't chance to look out. She'd have them both skinned for supper.

  "No, you gotta, like, center your body." It embarrassed him to say body, though he couldn't say why. "And keep looking forward."

  She looked up at him, all trust, her smile bright as the sunlight that streamed through the new spring leaves.

  “Okay.”

  He remembered the way his father had taught him to ride and kept his hand on the back of the seat, jogging lightly as she began to pedal.

  The bike wobbled comically. They made it three yards before she went down.

  She didn't cry, didn't hesitate to get back on. He had to give her points for it. They pedaled and jogged together, up the lane and down again, past the big oaks, the sunny-faced daffodils, the young tulips while late morning waned away to afternoon.

  Her skin was slicked with sweat now, and her heart kept bumping, bumping, bumping. More than once she bit her bottom lip hard to hold back a squeal as the bike tipped. She heard his breath near her ear, felt his hand reach to steady her. And was filled with love for him.

  More than for herself now, it was for him she was determined to succeed.

  "I can do it. I can do it," she whispered to herself, as the bike tipped and was righted. Her eyes narrowed in the fierce concentration of a child with only one goal, one world, one path. Her legs trembled, and the muscles in her arms were tight as drums.

  The bike wobbled under her, but didn't fall. And suddenly Cade was jogging along beside her, a grin splitting his face.

  "You're doing it! Keep going, you're doing it."

  "I'm riding!" Under her the bike became a majestic steed. With her face lifted, she rode like the wind.

  Tory woke on the ground beside her car, her muscles trembling, her pulse pounding, with an ache of joy and joys lost in her heart.

  16

  She'd forgotten about dinner until minutes before Cade knocked. There'd barely been time to wash her face and repair the damage from the crying jag and what had followed it, and no time at all to think of an acceptable excuse to send him away.

  She couldn't get her mind around it. The bout with tears had left her hollow, head and body. The swing back into Hope's past brought both uneasiness and sorrow.

  And a thrill. That was the oddest part of it, she admitted. This lingering thrill of that first solo ride, the sheer delight of wobbling down that lovely, shade-dappled lane with Cade running beside her.

  The way his eyes, so blue, so bright, laughed into hers.

  The love she'd felt for him, the innocent love of a sister, still shimmered through her and mixed, dangerously, she knew, with her own emotions that were very adult and had nothing to do with kinship.

  The combination made her vulnerable, to herself and to him. Better, wiser, to be alone until it passed.

  She'd tell him she was exhausted, too tired to eat. That, at least, would be the truth.

  He was a reasonable man. Almost too reasonable, she told herself. He'd understand and let her be.

  When she opened the door he was standing there, holding a casserole dish. Neighbors, she thought, brought food for death. Well, she was dead on her feet so it seemed appropriate enough.

  “Lilah sent this." He stepped in, handed it over. "She said anyone who worked as hard as you shouldn't have to cook on top of it. You're instructed to put this in the freezer and pull it out the next time you come home and just need to sit and put your feet up. Which," he added, as he continued to study her face, "looks like tonight."

  Yes, she thought, almost too reasonable. "I hadn't realized how geared up I was about today. Now that it's over, I'm limp."

  "You've been crying."

  "Delayed reaction. Relief." She carried the dish into the kitchen to put it away, then wondered what to do next. "I'm sorry about tonight. It was a nice idea, going out to celebrate. Maybe in a couple of days, we could—" She turned, all but bumped into him, then backed hard against the counter.

  There was a rough-and-ready jolt of lust. From her, from him, she couldn't be sure. "You had a lot to deal with today." He didn't give her room. He figured he'd already given her plenty. He simply laid his palms on the counter on either side of her. Caged her in. He saw her awareness of the move in her eyes. The wariness.

  “A lot of people, and the memories they bring along with them."

  "Yes." She started to shift, realized there wasn't anywhere to go. It was her blood that was hot, she thought with some e
mbarrassment. Running hot, fast, and greedy. "It seemed like memories were shooting out like pebbles from a slingshot."

 
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