Carolina moon, p.30
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       Carolina Moon, p.30

           Nora Roberts
 

  Sherry Bellows celebrated her potential job by opening a bottle of wine, turning up her Sheryl Crow CD as loud as her neighbors would tolerate, and dancing around her apartment.

  Everything was working out perfectly.

  She loved Progress. It was exactly the sort of small, close-knit town she wanted to be a part of. The stars, she thought, had been well aligned when she'd followed instinct and applied for the position at Progress High.

  She liked the other teachers. Though Sherry didn't know all her associates very well as yet, that would all change in the fall when she started full-time.

  She was going to be a wonderful teacher, someone her students could come to with their problems and their questions. Her classes were going to be fun, and she'd inspire her students to read, to enjoy, to seek out books for pleasure, planting the seeds for a lifelong love affair with literature.

  Oh, she'd make them work, and work hard, but she had so many ideas, so many fresh and wonderful notions on how to make the work interesting, even entertaining.

  Years from now, when her students looked back, they'd remember her fondly. Miss Bellows, they'd say. She made a difference in my life.

  It was all she'd ever wanted.

  Wanted it enough, she thought now, to study like a demon, to work long and hard to subsidize her scholarship. It had been worth every penny.

  She had the bills to prove it. But that was only money, and she'd found a way to deal with that.

  Working at Southern Comfort was going to be a delight. It would help ease the burden of those student loans, give her a little financial breathing room. But more, it would provide her with one more access to the community. She'd meet people, make friends, and before long she'd be a familiar face in Progress.

  She was already widening her circle. Her neighbors in the building, Maxine at the vet's. And she planned to cement that connection by giving a party, a kind of potluck get-together sometime in June. A summer kickoff, she mused, that wouldn't conflict with anyone's plans.

  She'd invite Tory, too, of course. And Dr. Hunk, the dreamily dimpled vet. She'd definitely like to get to know him better, she decided, as she poured a second glass of wine.

  She'd ask the Mooneys. Mr. Mooney at the bank had been so helpful when she'd set up her new accounts. Then there was Lissy at the realtors. A tongue wagger, Sherry admitted, but it was always good to have the town gossip in your camp. You found out such interesting things. And she was married to the mayor.

  Another looker, Sherry remembered, with a great smile and a superior butt. A bit of a flirt, too. It was a good thing she'd found out he was married.

  She wondered if it would be presumptuous to invite the Lavelles. They were, after all, the VIP’s of Progress. Still, Kincade Lavelle had been very nice, very friendly whenever they'd bumped into each other around town. And talk about gorgeous.

  She could make the invitation very casual. It couldn't do any harm. She wanted lots and lots of people. She'd keep the patio doors open as she always did, let guests spill outside.

  She loved her pretty little garden apartment, and she could buy another lounge chair to sit outside. The one she had looked lonely out there, and she didn't intend to be lonely.

  One day she'd meet the right man, and they'd fall in love over warm nights, and marry in the spring. Start a life together.

  She just wasn't meant to stay single. She wanted a family. Not that she'd give up teaching, of course. A teacher was what she was, but there was no reason she couldn't be a wife and mother, too.

  She wanted it all, and the sooner the better.

  Humming to the music, she stepped out onto the patio, where Mongo was dozing. He stirred enough to thump his tail, and rolled over in case she wanted to scratch his belly.

  Obliging, she crouched down, giving him a good rub as she sipped and glanced idly around. Her patio opened up to a nice grassy area that was bordered by the trees of the park on one side and a quiet residential avenue on the other.

  She'd chosen the apartment first because they allowed pets, and where she went, Mongo went. As a bonus it was convenient for their morning runs in the park.

  The apartment was small, but she didn't need much room as long as Mongo had a place to exercise. And in a town like Progress, housing didn't cost an arm and two legs as it did in Charleston or Columbia.

  "This is the right place for us, Mongo. This is home for us."

  Straightening, she wandered back inside, into the small galley kitchen, as she sang along with Sheryl about her favorite mistake. She'd continue her celebration by fixing herself a huge salad for dinner. Life, she thought, as she chopped and diced, was good.

  Twilight was edging closer by the time she finished. Made too much again, she thought. That was one of the problems with living alone. Still, Mongo liked his carrots and celery, too, so she'd add them to his evening meal. They'd have it on the patio, and she'd treat herself to one more glass of wine, get a little tipsy. Then they'd take a nice long walk, she decided, as she squatted down to scoop Mongo's kibble out of the plastic bin. Maybe get some ice cream.

  She lifted the bowl. A movement at the corner of her eye had her heart wheeling into her throat. The bowl flew out of her hands, and she managed one short scream.

  Then a hand clamped over her mouth. The knife she'd used to make her dinner pricked at her throat.

  "Be quiet. Be very, very quiet, and I won't cut you. Understand?"

  Her eyes were already circling wildly.

  Wings of fear beat in her belly, had her skin going hot and damp. But confusion rode over it. She couldn't see his face, but thought she recognized the voice. It made no sense. No sense at all.

  His hand slid slowly away from her mouth to grip her chin. "Don't hurt me. Please don't hurt me."

  “Now, why would I do that?" Her hair smelled sweet. A whore's blond hair. "Let's go in the bedroom where we can be comfortable."

  "Don't." She gasped as the edge of the knife teased along her throat, tipped up her chin. The scream was inside her, desperate to burst out, but the knife turned it into silent tears as he pushed her out of the kitchen.

  Her patio doors were closed now, the blinds shut. "Mongo. What did you do with Mongo?"

  "You don't think I'd hurt a nice, friendly dog like that do you?" The power of the moment cruised through him, spread, made him hard and hot and invincible. "He's just taking a quiet nap. Don’t you worry about a thing. This is going to be just what you want.”

  He shoved her belly down on the bed, put his knee in the small of her back and added weight. He'd brought precautions. A man had to be prepared, even for a whore. Especially for a whore.

  After a while, they screamed no matter what. And he didn't want to use the knife. Not when he was so good with his hands. He took the bandanna from his pocket, gagged her.

  When she began to stir, when she began to struggle, he was in heaven.

  She wasn't weak. She kept the body she liked to flaunt and tease men with in good shape. It only excited him to have her struggle. The first time he hit her, the thrill of it slammed into him like sex. He hit her again so they both understood who was in charge.

  He tied her hands behind her back. He couldn't afford those nails with their sluttish pink polish scraping any of his skin.

  Quietly, he walked over to shut the curtain and close them into the dark.

  She was moaning against the gag, dazed from the blows. The sound of it made him tremble so that he nicked her skin a little as he used the knife to cut her clothes away. She tried to roll, tried to buck, but when he put the point of the blade just under her eye, pressed, she went very still.

  "This is what you want." He unzipped, then flipped her onto her back and straddled her. "It's what you asked for. What you all ask for."

  When it was done, he wept. Tears of self-pity ran down his face. She wasn't the one, but what else could he do? She'd put herself in his path, she'd given him no choice.

  It wasn't perfect! He'd done everything he'd wanted
and still it wasn't perfect.

  Her eyes were glazed and empty as he took off the gag, kissed her cheeks. He cut the cord from her wrists, stuffed it back in his pockets.

  He turned her music off, and left the way he'd come in.

  "I can't come to Beaux Reves."

  Tory sat on the front porch in the soft night air. She couldn't face going back inside quite yet, wasn't yet prepared to deal with the mess left by her father and compounded by the police.

  Cade contemplated the cigar he'd lighted to ease his own nerves, wished fleetingly he had a whiskey to go with it. "You're going to have to tell me why. Staying here the way things are doesn't make any sense, and you're a sensible woman."

  "Most of the time," she agreed. "Being sensible cuts down on complications and saves energy. You were right about calling the police, I realize that now. I wasn't being sensible. It was pure raw emotion. He frightens me, and embarrasses me. By trying to keep it contained, as always, I thought I'd limit the fear and humiliation. It's hateful to be a victim, Cade. Makes you feel exposed and angry and somehow guilty at the same time."

  "I won't argue with that, even though you're smart enough to know that guilt has no part in what you should be feeling."

  "Smart enough to know it, but not clever enough to figure out how not to feel it. It'll be easier once I put the house back to rights and get rid of what he left behind in it. But I'll still remember the way Chief Russ sat writing in his little book and watching my face, how my father intimidated me today, how he's done so all my life."

  "There's no cause for your pride to be wounded over this, Tory."

  " 'Pride goeth before a fall.' My father reminded me of that this morning. He does love to use the Bible to hammer his point home."

  "They'll find him. There are police in two counties looking for him now."

  "The world's a lot bigger than two counties. Hell, South Carolina's a lot bigger than two counties. Swamps and mountains and glades. Lots and lots of places to hide." She rocked restlessly, needing movement. "If he finds a way to contact my mother, she'll help him. Out of love and out of duty."

  "That being the case, it just makes my point about you coming with me to Beaux Reves."

  "I can't do that."

  "Why?"

  "A number of reasons. First, your mother would object."

  "My mother has nothing to say about it."

  "Oh, don't say that, Cade." She pushed out of her chair, walked to the end of the porch. Was he out there? she wondered. Watching? Waiting? "You don't mean it, or you shouldn't. That's her home, and she has a right in saying who comes into it."

  "Why should she object? Especially after I explain it to her."

  "Explain what?" She turned back. "That you're installing your lover in her house, because your lover's daddy is a crazy man?"

  He drew on his cigar, took his time about it. "I wouldn't choose those particular words, but more or less."

  "And I'm sure she'll greet me with fresh flowers and a box of fine chocolates. Oh, don't be such a man about this," she said with a wave of her hand before he could speak. "Whatever it says on the damn deed, Cade, the house belongs to the woman in it, and I will not intrude on your mother's home."

  "She's a difficult woman at times . . . most of the time," he admitted. "But she isn't heartless."

  "No, and her heart will not accept the woman she holds responsible for a beloved daughter's death. Don't argue with me about that." Tory's voice shook, nearly broke. "It hurts me."

  "All right." He tossed the cigar aside with one violent gesture, but his hands were gentle enough as he laid them on Tory's shoulders. "If you won't or can't come with me, then I'll take you to your uncle's."

  "And there we come to the second part of the problem." She lifted her hands to his. "Irrational, bullheaded, illogical. I'll admit all that now, so you don't have to feel obliged to point it out to me. I have to make a stand here, Cade."

  "This isn't a strategic hill on a field."

  "For me, it's very much like that. I never thought about it quite that way," she said with a quiet laugh. "But yes, this is very much my hill on my own personal field. I've retreated so often. You once called me a coward to get my dander up, but the fact is, I've been one most of my life. I've had small spurts of courage, and that makes it only worse when I see myself fall back yet again. I can't do it this time."

  "How does staying here make you brave instead of stupid?"

  "Not brave, and yes, maybe stupid. But whole. I want so much to be whole again. I think I'd risk anything not to have this empty place in me. I can't let him run me out."

  She gazed toward the marsh that grew thicker, deeper, greener with encroaching summer. Mosquitoes whined in there, breeding in the dark water. Alligators slid through it, silent death. It was a place where snakes could slither and bogs could suck the shoe right off your foot.

  And it was a place, she thought, that went bright and beautiful with the twinkling of fireflies, where wildflowers thrived in the shade and the stingy light. Where an eagle could soar like a king.

  There was no beauty without risk. No life without it.

  "When I was a child I lived scared in this house. It was a way of life," she said, "and you got used to it the way you get used to certain smells, I suppose. When I came back, I made it mine, shaking out all those bad memories like dust from a rug. Airing out that smell, Cade. Now he's tried to bring the fear back. I can't let him. I won't let him," she added, shifting until her eyes met his again.

  "That's what I did this morning. Don't tell anyone, keep it quiet. One more dirty little secret. If you hadn't pushed me, that's what I'd have done here, too.

  "I'm staying. I'm cleaning him out of this place and staying. I hope he knows it." "I wish I didn't admire you for it." He ran a hand down the sleek tail of her hair.

  "Make it easier to bully you into doing things my way."

  "You don't have much bully in you." Maybe it was relief, maybe it was something else that made her stroke her hand over his cheek. "You maneuver, you don't push."

  "Well, it speaks well for the future of our relationship that you've figured that out and can live with it." He drew her in, laid his lips on the top of her head. "You matter to me. No, don't go stiff on me. I'll just have to maneuver you. You matter, Tory, more than I'd planned for you to matter."

  When she remained silent, he let frustration lead. Sometimes it was the most honest way. "Give me something back. Damn it."

  He jerked her back, then up, crushing his mouth to hers.

  She tasted the demand, the heat, the little licks of rage he'd concealed so well. And it was that shot of pure, unfiltered emotion from him that turned another bolt inside her.

  God, she didn't want to be loved or needed, didn't want to have those same feelings stirred to life again inside her. But he was here, and just by being made her feel again.

  "I've already given you more than I thought I had. I don't know how much more there is." She held on to him, burrowed into him. "There's so much happening inside me, I can't keep up with it. It all circles back to you. Isn't that enough?"

  "Yeah." He eased her back to kiss her again, softly this time. "Yeah, that's enough for now. As long as you make room for more." He skimmed his thumbs over her cheeks. "Had a hell of a day, haven't you?"

  "I can't say it's been one of my best so far." "Let's finish it right, then. We'll get started."

  "On what?"

  He opened the screen door. "You wanted to clean him out. Let's do it."

  They worked together for two hours. He turned on music. She wouldn't have thought of it, would have stayed focused on the details, kept her mind channeled down those strict lines. But the music drifted through the house, into her head, just distracting enough to keep her from brooding.

  She wanted to burn the clothes he'd touched, could visualize carrying them outside, heaping them up, striking a match. But she couldn't afford the indulgence. Instead, she washed, folded, put away.

  They
turned the damaged mattress over. It would have to be replaced, but it would do for now. And with fresh linens, you hardly noticed.

  He talked about his work, in a way that had his voice drifting pleasantly through her mind like the music. They dealt with the wreckage of the kitchen, ate sandwiches, and she told him that she was considering hiring on help.

  "It's a good idea." He helped himself to a beer, quietly pleased that she'd stocked some for him. "You'll enjoy your business more if it doesn't strangle all your time. Sherry Bellows, that's the new high school teacher, isn't it? I met her and her dog a few weeks ago out at the minimart. Seems like a bundle of energy."

 
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