Carolina moon, p.4
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       Carolina Moon, p.4

           Nora Roberts
 

  strong light in you, Tory. You'll find your way."

  "So you always said. But the one thing that's always scared me the most is being lost."

  "I should have helped you more. I should have been there for you."

  "Gran." Tory rose, crossed the room to wrap her arms around Iris's waist, to press cheek to cheek while the bacon snapped and sizzled. "You've always been the one steady hand in my life. I wouldn't be here without you."

  "Yes, you would." Iris patted Tory's hand, then briskly lifted out bacon to drain. "You're stronger than the lot of us put together. And that, if you ask me, is what scared Hannibal Bodeen. He wanted to break you, out of his own fear. In the end, well, he forged you, didn't he? Ignorant s.o.b." She cracked an egg on the side of the skillet, let it slide into the bubbling grease. "Make us some toast, honey-pot."

  "She's nothing like you. Mama," Tory said as she dropped bread into the toaster. "She's nothing like you at all."

  "I don't know what Sarabeth's like. I lost her years ago. Same time I lost your granddaddy, I suppose. She was only twelve when he died. Hell, I was hardly more than thirty myself, and found myself a widow with two children to raise on my own. That was the worst year of my life. Nothing's ever come close to matching it. Sweet Jesus, I loved that man."

  She let out a sigh, flipped the eggs onto plates. "He was my world, my Jimmy. One minute, the world was steady, and the next it was just gone. And there's Sarabeth twelve years old, and J.R. barely sixteen. She went wild on me. Maybe I could've reined her in. God knows I should have."

  "You can't blame yourself."

  "I don't. But you see things when you look back. See how if one thing was done different the whole picture of a life changes. If I'd moved away from Progress back then, if I'd used Jimmy's insurance instead of taking a job at the bank. If I hadn't been so hell-bent to save so my children could have a college education."

  "You wanted the best for them."

  "I did." Iris set the plates on the table, turned to get butter and jelly from the refrigerator. "J.R. got his college education, and he used it. Sarabeth got Hannibal Bodeen. That's the way it was meant to be. That's why my granddaughter and I are going to sit here and eat a couple of heart attacks on a plate. If I could go back and do that one thing different, I wouldn't. Because I wouldn't have you."

  "I'm going back, Gran, knowing I can't do anything different." Tory put the toast on a little plate, carried it to the table. "It scares me that I need to go back so much. I don't know those people anymore. I'm afraid I won't know myself once I'm there."

  "You won't settle yourself until you do this thing, Tory. Until you take hold of it, you can't let go of it. You've been heading back to Progress since you left it."

  "I know." And having someone else understand that helped. Smiling a little, Tory lifted a slice of bacon. "So, tell me about your plumber." "Oh, that sweetie pie." Delighted with the topic, Iris dug into her breakfast. "Looks like a big old bear, doesn't he? You wouldn't guess looking at him how smart he is. Started that company on his own over forty years back. Lost his wife, I knew her slightly, about five years ago. He's mostly retired now. Two of his sons do most of the running of the business. Got six grandsons."

  "Six?"

  "Yes, indeed. Fact is, one of them's a doctor. Good-looking young man. I was thinking—"

  "Stop right there." Eyes narrowed, Tory slathered jelly on toast. "I'm not interested." "How do you know? You haven't even met the boy."

  "I'm not interested in boys. Or men."

  "Tory, you haven't been involved with a man since ... "

  "Jack," Tory finished. "That's right, and I don't intend to be involved again. Once was enough." Since it still left a bitter taste in her mouth, she picked up her tea. "Not all of us are made to be half of a couple, Gran. I'm happy on my own."

  At Iris's lifted eyebrows, Tory shrugged. "Okay, let's say I intend to be happy on my own. I'm going to work my ass off to make sure of it."

  3

  It had been too long, Tory thought, since she'd sat on a porch swing watching the stars come out and hearing the crickets chirp. A long time since she'd been relaxed enough to simply sit and smell the breeze.

  Even as she thought it, she realized it was likely to be a long time before she did so again.

  Tomorrow she'd travel the last miles to Progress. There she would pick up the pieces of her life and finally lay a dead friend to rest.

  But tonight was for soft breezes and quiet thoughts.

  She glanced up at the squeak of the screen door and offered Cecil a smile. Her grandmother was right, she decided. He did look like a big old bear. And, at the moment, a very nervous one.

  "Iris kicked me out of the kitchen." He had a dark brown bottle of beer in one hand and shifted uneasily from foot to foot on size fourteen boots. "She said how I should come on out here and sit a spell, keep you company."

  "She wants us to be friends. Why don't you sit a spell? I'd like the company."

  "Feels a little funny." He eased his bulk down on the swing, darted a look at Tory out of the corner of his eye. "I know what you young people think. An old coot like me courting a woman like Iris."

  He still smelled of the Lava soap he'd used to wash up before dinner. Lava soap, Tory mused, and Coors. It was a pleasantly male combination. "Your family doesn't approve?"

  "Oh, they're all right with it now. Iris's charmed the socks off my boys. She's got that way about her. One son, Jerry, he got a mite huffy about it, but she brought him around. The thing is ... "

  He trailed off, cleared his throat twice. Tory folded her hands and bit back a grin as he launched into what was surely a prepared speech.

  "You're mighty important to her, Tory. I guess you're about the most important thing there is to Iris. She's proud of you, and she worries about you, and she brags on you. I know there's a rift between her and your mama. Guess you could say that makes you even more special to her."

  "The feeling's mutual."

  "I know it. I could see how it is over dinner. The thing is," he said again, then lifted his beer and gulped deeply. "Oh hell I love her." He blurted it out and color sprang into his cheeks. "I guess that sounds foolish to you coming from a man who won't see sixty-five again, but—"

  "Why would it?" She wasn't comfortable with casual touching, but since he seemed to need it she patted his knee. "And what does age have to do with it? Gran cares for you. That's good enough for me."

  Relief slid through him. Tory could hear it in his sigh. "Never thought I'd have these feelings again. I was married forty-six years to a wonderful woman. We grew up together, raised a family together, started a business together. When I lost her I figured that was the end of that part of my life. Then I met Iris and, Christ Jesus, she makes me feel twenty years old again."

  "You put stars in her eyes."

  He blushed deeper at that but his lips twitched into a shy and delighted smile. "Yeah? I'm good with my hands." At Tory's uncontrollable snort of laughter, his eyes went huge. "I mean to say I'm handy around the house. Fixing stuff."

  "I know what you meant."

  "And Stella, that was my wife, I guess you could say she trained me pretty good. I know better than to track in mud on a clean floor, to toss dirty towels on the floor. I can cook a little if you're not too particular, and I've got a decent living."

  Gran was right, Tory decided. The man was a sweetie pie. "Cecil, are you asking for my blessing?"

  He huffed out a breath. "I mean to marry her. She won't hear of it just now. Mule stubborn, that woman. But I got a hard head of my own. Just want you to know that I'm not taking advantage, that my intentions ... "

  "Are honorable," Tory finished, wonderfully moved. "I'm pulling for you."

  "Yeah?" He sat back again, making the swing groan. "That's a relief to me, Tory. That's a relief, all right. God almighty, I'm glad that's over." With a shake of his head, he drank more beer. "My tongue gets all tangled up."

  "You did fine. Cecil, you keep her
happy."

  "I aim to." At ease again, he draped his arm over the back of the swing and looked out over Iris's back garden. "Nice night."

  "Yeah. A very nice night."

  She slept deep and dreamless in her grandmother's house.

  “I wish you’d stay, just another day or two.”

  "I have to get started."

  Iris nodded, struggling not to fuss as Tory carried her suitcase toward the car. "You'll call, once you settle in a bit."

  "Of course I will." "And you'll go see J.R. right off, so he and Boots can help you along."

  "I'll go see him, and Aunt Boots and Wade." She kissed both her grandmother's cheeks. "Now, stop worrying."

  "I'm just missing you already. Give me your hands." When Tory hesitated, Iris simply took them. "Indulge me, honey-pot." She held firm, her eyes blurring a bit as she focused.

  She didn't have the brilliance of light her granddaughter had been gifted with. She saw in colors and shapes. The smudgy gray of worry, the shimmering pink of excitement, the dull blue of grief. And through it all was the dark, deep red of love.

  "You'll be all right." Iris gave her hands a last squeeze. "I'll be right here if you need me."

  "I've always known that." Tory climbed in the car, took a deep breath. "Don't tell them where I am, Gran."

  Iris shook her head, knowing Tory meant her parents. "I won't." "I love you." She kept her eyes straight ahead as she drove away.

  The fields began to roll, gentle ripples on the earth covered with the tender green of growing things. She recognized the row crops. Soybeans, tobacco, cotton; the delicate shoots hazed the brown soil.

  She'd missed planting time.

  The land had never called to her as it did to some. She enjoyed puttering in a flower garden now and then, but had no driving need to feel earth under her hands, to tend and harvest, to put by what she'd grown.

  Still, she appreciated the cycle, the continuity. She enjoyed the look of it. The neat and practical fields men plowed and nurtured rode side by side with the tangled lushness of the live oaks and moss, the ubiquitous sumac, the ribbons of dark water that could never, would never, be truly tamed.

  The smell of it was rich and again dark. Fertilizer and swamp water. More, she thought, the perfume of the South than any magnolia. This was its true heart, after all. Beyond the formal gardens and lavish lawns, the South beat on crops and sweat and the secret shadows of its rivers.

  She'd taken the back roads for solitude, and with every mile felt herself drawn closer to that heart.

  On the west edge of Progress some of the farms and fields had given way to homes. Tidy developments with yards kept green and lush with underground sprinklers. There were late-model sedans and minivans in the drives, and sidewalks running wide and even. Here were the young marrieds, she mused, most with double incomes, who wanted a nice home in the suburbs for raising a family.

  These were her target customers, and the primary reason she'd been able to justify the move. Successful home owners with disposable income enjoyed decorating their space. With the right advertising and clever displays she would draw them into her shop.

  And they would buy.

  Were there any living well in those quiet homes she'd known as a child? Any who might remember the thin young girl who'd come to school with bruises? Would they remember she'd sometimes known things she wasn't supposed to know?

  Memories were short, Tory reminded herself. And even if some remembered, she would find a way to use it to promote her store.

  The houses elbowed closer together as she approached the town line, as if they were anxious for company. Into her mind flashed an image of the far side, where the narrow whip of the river was the border of Progress. In her youth, the houses that slipped and slithered down into the had been small and dark, with leaky roofs and rusted trucks that most often stood on chipped cinder blocks. A place where dogs snarled and leaped viciously at the ends of their chains. Where the women hung out dingy laundry while children sat on patchy grass that was mostly dirt.

  Some of the men farmed to eke out a living, and some of them simply lived on beer and mead. As a child she'd been one shaky step above that fate. And even as a child she'd feared losing the balance and tumbling into the holler, where daily bread was served with exhaustion.

  She saw the church steeple first. The town boasted four, or had. Still, nearly everyone she'd known had belonged to the Baptist church. She'd sat, countless hours, on one of the hard pews listening, listening desperately to the sermon because her father would quiz her on the content that night before supper.

  If she didn't respond well, the punishment was hard and it was quick. She hadn't been inside a church of any kind in eight years.

  Don't think about it, she ordered herself. Think about now. But now, she saw, was very much like then. It seemed to her very little had changed inside the edges of Progress.

  Deliberately, she turned onto Live Oak Drive to cruise through the oldest residential section of town. The homes here were large and gracious, the trees old and leafy. Her uncle had moved here a few years before she'd left Progress. On his wife's money, her father had said brittlely.

  Tory hadn't been allowed to visit there, and even now felt a twinge of guilty panic

  just driving by the lovely old white brick home with its flowering shrubs and sparkling windows.

  Her uncle would be at work now, managing the bank as he'd managed it nearly as long as she could remember. And though she had a great deal of affection for her aunt, Tory wasn't in the mood for Boots Mooney's fluttering hands and whispery voice.

  She wove through the streets, past smaller homes and a small apartment complex that hadn't existed sixteen years before. She lifted her eyebrows at a corner convenience store that had sprung up in bright reds and yellows out of the old Progress Drive-in.

  The high school had an addition, and there was a charming little park just off the square where there'd once been a line of crumbling row houses. There were new young trees planted among the old soldiers and graceful flowers spilling out of concrete pots.

  It all seemed prettier, cleaner, fresher than she remembered. She wondered how much would turn out to be the same under that new coat of varnish.

  As she turned onto Market, she was ridiculously pleased to see Hanson's was still standing, still wore the same battered old sign, and its front window remained patch worked with flyers and billboards.

  The sweet childhood taste of Grape Nehi immediately filled her mouth, her throat, and made her smile.

  The beauty salon had changed hands, she noted. Lou's Beauty Shoppe was now called Hair Today. But the Market Street Diner stood where it had always stood, and it seemed to her the same old men wearing the same overalls were loitering outside to gossip.

  Midway down the block, tucked between Rollins Paint and Hardware and The Flower Basket was the old dry-goods store. That, Tory thought, as she pulled to the curb, would be her change.

  She climbed out of the car and stepped into the thick midday heat. The outside of the building was exactly as she remembered. The old clinker bricks cobbled together with the mortar gray as smoke between. The window was high and wide and just now coated with dust and street grime. But she would fix that.

  The door was glass as well, and cracked. The landlord, she determined, taking out her notebook, would that.

  She'd put a bench outside, the narrow one with the black wrought-iron back she was having shipped. And beside it pots filled with purple and white petunias. Friendly flowers.

  High on the window above the bench, she'd have the store name printed.

  SOUTHERN COMFORT

  That would be what she offered her clientele. Comfortable surroundings where stock was stylishly displayed and tagged.

  In her mind she was already inside, filling shelves, arranging tables and lamps. She didn't hear her name called until she was scooped off her feet.

  The blood rushed to her head, ringing there while her pulse went into panic
trip.

  "Tory! I thought that was you. I've been keeping an eye out for you the last days."

  "Wade." His name came out in a whoosh.

  "I scared you." Immediately contrite, he set her back on her feet. "Sorry. I'm just so glad to see you."

  "Let me catch my breath."

  "You catch it while I look at you. Damn has it really been two years? You look wonderful."

  "Do I?" It was nice to hear, even if didn't believe it for a minute. She pushed back her hair while her pulse leveled.

  Though he was a couple of inches shy o six feet, she had to tip
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