Carolina moon, p.28
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       Carolina Moon, p.28

           Nora Roberts
 

  took them like a champ."

  "Then what are you doing with her?"

  "Keeping her for you."

  "For me?" Faith took a full step back. "I don't want a dog."

  "Sure you do." He plucked the puppy from the bed, then pushed her into Faith's arms. "Look, she likes you."

  "Puppies like everybody," Faith protested, as she twisted her head to try to avoid the pup's cheerful tongue.

  "Exactly." With the dimples flickering in his cheeks, Wade slipped his arms around Faith's waist, sandwiching the puppy between them. "And everybody likes puppies. She'll depend on you, entertain you, keep you company, and love you no matter what."

  "She'll pee on the rug. She'll chew my shoes." "Some. She'll need discipline and training and patience. She'll need you."

  They'd known each other most of their lives. Just because they'd spent most of their time together between the sheets didn't mean she didn't have clues as to how his mind worked.

  "Is this a dog or a life lesson you're giving me?"

  "Both." He leaned over to kiss Faith's cheek. "Give it a try. If it doesn't work out, I'll take her back."

  The puppy was warm and trying desperately to snuggle in the curve of Faith's neck and shoulder. What was going on? It seemed everyone was hammering at her all at once. First Boots, then Cade, and now Wade.

  "You've got my head spinning. I can't keep up with you today, and that's the only reason I'm agreeing to this."

  "To us, or to the puppy?"

  "A little bit of both."

  "That's a good enough start for me. There's puppy food in the kitchen. Why don't you go feed her while I get a shower? I'm going to be late for dinner at my folks'. Why don't you come with me?"

  "Thanks, but I'm not ready for family dinners quite yet." She remembered, all too well, the cool, clear gleam in his mother's eyes. "Go on and shower. You stink worse than a litter of puppies." She frowned as she carried the puppy into the kitchen. She wasn't sure if she was ready for any of this. Any of it at all.

  18

  Tory had barely unlocked the door on Monday morning when it chimed open.

  "Morning. I'm Sherry Bellows. I tied my dog to your bench outside. Hope that's all right."

  Tory glanced out, saw a hairy mountain sitting docilely on the sidewalk. "It's fine. He's big, isn't he? And beautiful."

  "He's a doll baby. We just got back from a morning run in the park, and I thought I'd stop in. I was here Saturday for a little while. You had quite a crowd."

  "Yes, it kept me busy. Is there something I can show you, or would you just like to browse?"

  "Actually, I wondered if you were thinking of taking on any help." Sherry flipped back her ponytail, lifted her arms. "I'm not exactly dressed for job hunting," she said with a smile, and tugged the damp T-shirt down over her running shorts. "But I just followed impulse. I teach at the high school. Will teach. Summer classes starting middle of June, then full-time in the fall."

  "It doesn't sound like you need a job." "I've got the next couple of weeks, then Saturdays and half days through September.

  I'd enjoy working in a place like yours and the extra money a part-time job would bring in. I put myself through college working retail, so I know the ropes. I can give you references, and I don't have a problem working for minimum wage."

  "To tell you the truth, Sherry, I haven't really thought about hiring, at least not until I see how the business goes for the first few weeks."

  "It can't be easy to run the place solo." If there was one thing Sherry had learned while pursuing her teaching degree, it was persistence. "No breaks, no time to do paperwork or check inventory or make your orders. Since you're open six days a week, that doesn't give you much opportunity to run errands. Do your banking, your shopping. I imagine you ship, don't you?"

  "Well, yes—"

  "You'd have to close the shop every time you needed to scoot down to the post office, or wait to ship orders until the next morning before you opened. That adds extra hours to your day. Anybody who can put together a business like this, on her own, knows her time is worth money."

  Tory took another good look. Sherry was young, pretty, damp from jogging. And very direct. And she had a point. Tory had been in the shop since eight, boxing orders for shipping, doing paperwork, rushing to the bank and the post office.

  Not that she didn't enjoy it. It gave her a lovely flush of satisfaction. But it would become more and more demanding as time went on.

  At the same time she wasn't sure she wanted to share her shop with anyone, even part-time. There was a deep pleasure in having it all to herself. And that, she admitted, was indulgent and impractical.

  “You’ve caught me off guard. Why don't you write down your address and phone number, and those references." Tory walked behind the counter for her clipboard. "Give me some time to think about it.”

  "Terrific." Sherry took the pen Tory offered, tapped it on the clipboard. "And I come with a partner, a two-for-one deal." She nodded toward the window where two women had stopped to admire Mongo. "He's so precious people can't help but want to give him a good pet. Since they're standing there, they'll just have to look at your display. I bet they come in."

  "Clever." Tory lifted a brow. "Maybe I should just buy a dog."

  Sherry laughed and began to write. "Oh, you'd never find another like my Mongo. And as good as he is, he can't ring up sales."

  "Good point. And good call," she added quietly, when the two women stepped into the shop. "Is that your dog?" "He's mine." Sherry turned, beaming. "I hope he didn't bother you." "Why, he's the sweetest thing. Just a great big ball of fur." "Gentle as a lamb," Sherry assured them.

  "We just had to stop in and see all the pretty things in here. Isn't this a wonderful place?"

  "Very nice. I don't recall seeing it before." "We just opened Saturday," Tory told her.

  "I haven't been down this part of town for quite a while." The woman glanced around. Her friend was already wandering. "I do like those candle stands in the window. We've just moved into a new house and I'm doing some redecorating."

  "I'll get them out for you." Tory glanced at Sherry. "Excuse me."

  "Oh you go right on, take your time."

  Sherry watched as Tory assisted the customers. Low-key, she noted. Well, she could do low-key, let the merchandise sell itself. But she didn't think it would hurt if she chatted. It was so hard for her not to, and she thought it might be a nice balance against Tory's quiet class.

  She'd get the job, Sherry determined, as she continued to write and keep one eye on the procedure. She was good at talking people into things, and she really could use the extra money.

  To gild the lily a bit, she enthused over the customers' choices, drew them into friendly conversation while Tory boxed and wrapped. They left happy, and well loaded down.

  "That was nice. But I think you could have talked Sally into those garden plaques."

  "If she wants them, she'll be back." Amused, Tory filed the credit card receipts. "And I'm banking on her friend talking her into it over lunch. You're good with people. Do you know anything about crafts?"

  "I'm a very fast learner. And since I admire your taste in merchandise, it'll be an easy lesson. I can start right away."

  Tory was on the point of agreeing. Something about Sherry hit all the right notes. Then the door opened, and her mind emptied of everything but terrorized shock.

  "Hello there, Tory." Hannibal spread his lips in a wide, wide smile. "Been a while." He shifted his eyes, spread that bright look over Sherry. "That your dog out there, missy?"

  "Yes, that's Mongo. I hope you didn't mind him." "Oh no, indeed. Looks to be as friendly as a Sunday social. Mighty big dog for a little thing like you. Saw you running with him in the park a while ago. Couldn't tell who was leading who."

  Sherry felt a quick ripple of unease, but managed a laugh. "Oh, he lets me think I'm in charge."

  "A good dog's a faithful friend. More faithful than people, mostly. Tory, aren
't you going to introduce me to your friend here? Hannibal Bodeen," he said, before Tory could speak, and held out the big hand he'd so often used to silence her. "I'm Victoria's daddy."

  "It's nice to meet you." Relaxed again, Sherry gave his hand a warm shake. "You must be so proud of your daughter, and what she's done here."

  "Hardly a day goes by I don't think of it." His eyes pinned Tory again. "And her."

  Tory shoved at the edges of shock. If he was here she had to deal with him. And deal with him alone. "Sherry, I appreciate your coming in. I'll look this over, and call you soon."

  "I appreciate that. I'm trying to talk your daughter into hiring me. Maybe you could put in a good word. Nice to have met you, Mr. Bodeen. I'll wait to hear from you, Tory."

  She walked out, crouched by the dog. Tory could hear her delighted laughter and the dog's welcoming bark through the closed door.

  "Well now." He put his hands on his hips and turned to study the shop. "This is quite a place you've got here. Looks like you're doing pretty well for yourself."

  He hadn't changed. Why hadn't he changed? Did he look older? He didn't seem to. He hadn't lost his girth or his hair or that dark gleam in his eyes. Time didn't seem to touch him. And when he turned back, she felt herself shrinking, she felt the years, and all the effort she'd put into remaking herself, slipping away.

  "What do you want?"

  "Real well for yourself." He stepped up to the counter, closing the distance. And she saw she'd been wrong, at least partially wrong. There was some age on his face, carved into deep lines around his mouth, sagging in his jowls, scored across his brow like whiplashes. "You come back here to flaunt that in your old hometown. Pride goeth before a fall, Victoria."

  "How did you know I was here? Did Mama tell you?"

  "A father's a father all of his life. I've kept my eye on you. Did you come back here to boast, and to shame me?"

  "I came back here for myself. It has nothing to do with you." Lies, lies, lies. "It was here you set the town talking, had them pointing fingers. It was here you defied me and the Lord for the first time. The shame of what you did and what you were drove me from here."

  "Margaret Lavelle's money in your pocket drove you from here."

  A muscle jumped in his cheek. A warning. "So, people are talking already. I don't care for that. 'A liar giveth ear to a naughty tongue.' "

  "They'll talk more if you spend any time around here. And those who are looking for you are bound to find you. I've been to see Mama. She's worried about you."

  "Got no cause to. I'm head of my own house. A man comes and goes as he sees fit."

  "Runs. You ran after you were caught and arrested and charged for assaulting that woman. You lit out and left Mama alone. And when they catch you this time, there won't be probation. They'll put you behind bars."

  "You mind your mouth." His hand shot out. She was prepared for a blow, was braced for it, but he grabbed her shirtfront and hauled her half over the counter. "You show me respect. You owe me your life. It was my seed started you into this world."

  "To my everlasting regret." She thought of the scissors under the counter. Imagined them in her hand as he dragged her over another inch. And wondered, as she looked into the terrible and familiar rage in his face, if she was capable of using them. "If you lay a hand on me, I swear I'll go straight to the police. You hit me, and I'll tell them, and I'll tell them of all the times you left me bruised and battered. When I'm done—"

  She gasped, fought not to cry out when he yanked her hair back with his free hand and the rough edge of his fingers scraped like a burn over the side of her throat. Tears of pain leaked out of her eyes and made her voice rasp. "When I'm done, they'll nut more bars around you. I swear it. Now, you let me go, and you walk out of here. I'll forget I ever saw you."

  "You would dare to threaten me?"

  "It's not a threat. It's a fact." The fury and hate rolling out of him almost smothered her. She could feel her throat closing against it, her chest clogging. She wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. "Let me go." She kept her eyes on his as she slid her hand under the counter, feeling for the scissors. "Let me go before someone comes through and sees you."

  Emotions lit over his face. Fear added to the mix of violence pumping from him. Her fingers brushed the cool metal handles, and he jerked her to the side, all but rammed her into the cash register.

  "I need money. You give me what you've got in there. You owe me for every breath you've ever taken."

  "There isn't much. It won't take you far." She opened the cash drawer, pulled out money with both hands. Anything to get him out, anything to get him away.

  "That lying whore back in Hartsville will burn in hell." He kept his hand on her hair as he stuffed the money in his pocket. "And so will you."

  "You'll already be there." She didn't know why she did it. She couldn't foresee future events, she couldn't predict. That was one small blessing. But she focused her eyes on his and spoke as if ripe with visions. "You won't live the year out, and you'll die in pain and fear and fire. You'll die screaming for mercy. The mercy you never gave me."

  He went white and shoved her away from him so that her back hit the wall and supplies tumbled. He lifted an arm, pointing. " 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' You remember that. You tell anyone you saw me here today, I'll come back for you and do what should have been done the minute you were born. Born with a cowl over your face. Devil's mark. You're already damned."

  He shoved out the door, ducked his head, and hurried away. Tory simply slid down to the floor. Already damned? She stared blankly at the scissors, teetering on the edge of the under counter. She'd nearly had them in her hand, very nearly . . .

  One of them would have been in hell if she'd firmed her grip on them. She wasn't sure she would have cared which one of them. At least it would've been over.

  She brought her knees up, pressed her face into them, and curled into a ball as she'd done so often as a child.

  That's how Faith found her when she came in with a wriggling puppy under her arm.

  "Jesus, Tory!" With one glance she took in the open and empty register, the scatter of supplies, and the woman trembling on the floor. "God, are you hurt?"

  She set the puppy down, and as it scampered joyfully away, rushed behind the counter. "Let's have a look, let me have a look at you."

  "I'm all right. It's nothing."

  "Getting robbed in broad daylight in this town is something. You're shaking all over. Did they have a gun, a knife?"

  "No. No. It's okay."

  "I don't see any blood. Well, ouch, you're a little raw back here on the neck. I'll call the police. You want a doctor?"

  "No! No police, no doctor."

  "No police? I just saw some big brute of a man skulking out of here, walk in, and see your cash register open, empty, and you sprawled behind the counter, and you don't want the police? What do they do in the big city when they get robbed, make cupcakes?"

  "I wasn't robbed." Exhausted, she let her head fall back and rest against the wall. "I gave him the money. Under a hundred dollars. The money doesn't matter."

  "Then you want to give me some while you're at it, 'cause if that's how you plan to run your business, you won't be here very long."

  "I'm going to be here. I'm going to stay here. Nothing's going to make me run away again. Nothing. No one. Not ever again."

  Faith didn't have much experience with hysteria, unless it was her own, but she thought she recognized it in the rise of Tory's voice, the sudden wildness in her eyes.

  "That's the spirit. Why don't we just get up off the floor here, go on in the back a minute."

  "I said I'm all right." "Then you're stupid or a liar. Either way, let's go."

  Tory tried to push her away, tried to stand on her own, but her legs wouldn't manage it. They buckled as Faith pulled her up and left her no choice but to lean.

  "We'll just go on back. I'm going to leave the puppy out here." "The what?"

&n
bsp; "Don't you worry about him. He's about half housebroken. You got anything back here to drink that's got a bite to it?"

  "No."

  "That figures. Tidy Tory wouldn't have herself a bottle of Jim Beam in the drawer. Now, sit down, catch your breath, then tell me why I'm not calling the police."

  "It would just make it worse."

 
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