Carolina moon, p.40
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       Carolina Moon, p.40

           Nora Roberts
 

  themselves to bite.

  If they didn't, a man was no worse off than he'd been when he dropped his line.

  Years had forged the men into solid citizens, pillars of responsibility. Family men with mortgages and paperwork. The few hours a week they spent drowning worms was a statement that each of them was still as much his own man as he'd always been.

  Sometimes they argued politics, and as

  J.R. was a staunch Republican and Carl D. an equally hidebound Democrat, these debates tended toward the explosive and effusive. Both of them enjoyed the conflict enormously. On other Sundays, and depending on the season, it was sports. A high school football game could keep them both entertained and passionate for two hours.

  But more often than not as their lives intersected, it was family, friends, and the town itself that dominated their meandering discussions as the water lapped the bank and the sun filtered through the trees.

  What each knew was that he could depend on the other for a sounding board, and that what was said between them by the river stayed by the river. Still there were times when loyalties had to blur. Knowing this, Carl D. chose his words and approach carefully.

  "Ida-Mae's birthday's coming up here shortly." Carl D. spoke of his wife while he popped the top on his second beer and studied the calm surface of the water. "That electric fry pan I bought her last year's still somewhat of a sore point between us."

  "Told ya." J.R. took a fistful of the barbecue potato chips from the bag ripped open between them.

  "Yeah, yeah." "You buy a woman something that plugs in, you're asking for grief."

  "She wanted a new one. Complained every time I turned around about how the old one had hot spots."

  "Don't matter. A woman doesn't want a kitchen appliance all wrapped up in a bow. What she wants is something useless."

  "I'm having a hell of a time thinking what's useless enough to suit her. Thought I might go by your niece's place, have her figure it for me."

  "Can't go wrong there. Tory's got a good sense of things." "Done her shop up nice. Lot of work there."

  "She's always been a good worker. Serious girl with a good head on her shoulders. Hard to believe she came out of what she did."

  It was the opening Carl D. had wanted, and still he maneuvered carefully. He got out a fresh stick of gum, went through his little ritual of unwrapping and folding. "She had it hard growing up. I remember her hardly having a word to say for herself. Just looking, just watching things with those big eyes. Your brother-in-law had a heavy hand."

  "I know it." J.R.'s mouth tightened. "I wish I'd known more back then. Don't know as it would've made much difference, but I wish I'd known how it was."

  "You know now. We're looking for him, J.R., on that business back in Hartsville."

  "Like to see you find him, too, give him some of what he's got coming. My sister, well, her life's gone to hell either way. But putting him behind bars might give Tory a better night's sleep."

  "I'm some relieved to hear you say so, J.R. And the fact is, I got worse than that going on here. The kind of worse that might spill over on you some."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "What happened to Sherry Bellows."

  "Christ, that was bad business. Bad business," J.R. repeated with a solemn shake of his head. "City business, not what we get here in town. Pretty young woman like that ... " He trailed off, his shoulders straightening, stiffening as he turned his head to stare into Carl D.'s face. "God almighty, you don't think Hannibal had part in that?"

  "I shouldn't be talking to you about it. Fact is I spent most of the night worrying it over in my head. Officially I should keep this to myself, but I'm not going to. Can't. Right now, J.R., your brother-in-law isn't just top of the list of suspects on this. He's the only suspect."

  J.R. pushed to his feet. He paced along the edge of the river, looked across its narrow curve. It was quiet, with just the absent chattering of a few busy birds. He had to listen hard to catch even the murmur of traffic from town. He had to want to hear it to make the connection between this solitary spot with its tall, wet grass and lazy water and the lives and business of Progress.

  "I can't get my mind around that, Carl D. Hannibal, he's a bully and a bastard. I can't think of one good thing to say about him, but killing that girl . . . For God's sake, killing her . . . No, I can't get my mind around that."

  "He's got a history of roughing up women."

  "I know that. I know it. I'm not making excuses here. But there's a wide road between rough handling and murder."

  "The road narrows after a while, especially if there's cause."

  "What cause would he have had?" J.R. strode back, crouched down until their eyes were level. "He didn't even know that girl."

  "Met her in your niece's shop the day she was killed. Met her, spoke with her, and as far as he knew, she and Tory were the only ones knew he was around. There's more," he said, when J.R. shook his head. "You're not going to like it. I'm sorrier than I can say your family's brought into this, but I got a duty and I can't let being sorry stop me."

  "I wouldn't ask you. But I think you're looking in the wrong direction, that's all." He sat again. "I have to think that."

  "I can't say I wasn't glancing that way to start, but it was Tory who turned me straight onto him."

  "Tory?"

  "I took her back to the scene with me."

  "The scene?" J.R.'s eyes went blank, then filled with shock. "The murder scene. Jesus, Carl D. Jesus Christ, why'd you do that? Why would you put her through something like that?"

  "I got a girl about the same age as my own Ella who went through something a hell of a lot worse. I got a duty to her, J.R., and I'll use whatever I can to see that through."

  "Tory's not part of this."

  "You're wrong. She's hitched into it tight. Now, you just listen a damn minute before you go kicking at me. I took her back there, and I'm sorry for how it was hard on her, but I'd do it again. She knew things she couldn't have known. Saw how it had been like she'd been right there while it was going on. I've heard about things like that, wondered on them, but never seen it before. Not something I'll ever forget." "She ought to be left alone. You had no business using her that way."

  "You didn't see that girl, J.R. I hope to God you never see anything like what was done to her. But if you did, you wouldn't tell me I had no business using anything that put that right again. It's the second time I've seen that kind of thing done. If we'd paid attention to Tory the first time, it might not have happened again."

  "What the hell are you talking about? We've never had a woman raped and murdered in Progress."

  "No, the first time it was a child." He saw J.R.'s eyes widen, and the blood drain from his face. "The first time it wasn't in town. But Tory was there. Just like she was here now. And when she tells me the same person killed Sherry Bellows who killed little Hope Lavelle, I'm going to believe her."

  The spit dried up in J.R.'s mouth. "Some vagrant killed Hope Lavelle."

  "That's what the report said. That's what everyone wanted to believe. That's what Chief Tate believed and I can't say he was wrong to. But I'm not going to say the same, and I can't believe the same anymore. I'm not going to try to hang this one on some passerby. There've been others, too.

  Tory knows about them. The FBI knows about them, and they're coming here. They'll go after him, J.R., and they're going to talk to Tory, to her mama, to your sister. And to you."

  "Hannibal Bodeen." J.R. laid his head in his hands. "This'll kill Sarabeth. It'll kill her." He dropped his hands. "He'll go back there. That's where he'll go. Holy God, Carl D., he'll go to Sari and—"

  "I've talked to the sheriff up there. He's got a man watching the place, keeping an eye on your sister."

  "I got to go up there myself. Make her come back here."

  "I expect if it was my sister I'd do the same. I'll go along with you, help smooth it out with the cops there."

  "I can handle it."

&
nbsp; "I reckon you can." Carl D. nodded as he began packing up. He heard the anger, the resentment. He'd expected both. Just as he expected what he'd done, and what he would do, was bound to do some damage to a lifelong friendship.

  There was nothing to do but wait and see how much could be mended again.

  "I reckon you can, J.R.," he said again. "But I'm going just the same. I need to talk to your sister, and I'd like to do it before the federal boys get here and snatch the whole goddamn business away from me."

  "Are you going as a cop or as a friend of mine?"

  "I'm both. Been your friend a lot longer, but I'm both." He shouldered his rod and met J.R.'s eyes. "Plan to keep being both. If it's all the same to you we'll take my car. Make better time."

  It was a struggle, but J.R. bit back words he knew would hang ugly between them. He managed a thin, humorless smile. "We'll make better yet if you put on the siren and drive like a man instead of an old lady."

  Relief eased some of the weight from Carl D.'s heart. "I might could do that, part of the way."

  Cade was working hard to control his own temper, to watch his own words. Every time he thought about what a foolish, reckless risk his sister and Tory had taken the evening before, fury stormed inside him.

  Lectures, threats, recriminations would have released some of his tension, and would have gotten him nowhere. He wasn't a man who indulged himself in idle directions. He knew exactly where he wanted to go, and simply had to choose the best route for getting there.

  Speed wasn't a priority, so he bided his time. He hadn't indulged in a lazy Sunday morning for quite a while. The best way to begin one, in his opinion, was to keep Tory in bed as long as possible. That was a simple matter of pinning her down and nibbling however, wherever he liked until she got into the spirit of the thing. And had the added benefit of smoothing out some of his own raw edges.

  He fixed breakfast because he was hungry and he'd come to the conclusion Tory considered the morning meal well met if she had a second cup of coffee. He steered conversation into casual lines. Books, movies, art. They were fortunate to share tastes. It wasn't something Cade deemed essential, but rather a nice, comfortable bonus.

  He imagined she didn't think he noticed how often her eyes skimmed over to a window, and searched.

  There was nothing he didn't notice. The nervous hands she tried to keep busy, the way she would stop, go still, as if straining to hear some change in the rhythm of sound outside. The way she jumped when he let the screen door bang when he came out to join her as she tended her flowers.

  How many times in his life had he come across his mother working in her garden? he wondered. He was just as unable to judge the direction of her thoughts as she weeded and plucked.

  How tidy, he mused, how precise both women were about the chore. Kneeling, wearing hat and gloves as they worked the bed, filling a basket with ruthlessly pulled weeds and spent blossoms.

  And how furious both would be if he voiced the comparison.

  Throughout the morning, Tory's voice, her face, stayed utterly calm. And that alone infuriated him. She wouldn't share her nerves with him. Still kept part of herself closed off and separate.

  His mother, he thought again, as he loitered on the porch and studied Tory's bent head, had kept part of herself closed off and separate. He could do nothing, had never been able to do anything, to reach his mother.

  He would damn well reach Tory.

  "Come on, take a ride with me."

  "A ride?"

  He pulled her to her feet. "I've got some things I need to see to. Come along with me."

  Her first reaction was quiet relief. She would be alone. She could lie down, shut her eyes, and try to sort through the turmoil swirling inside her head. A few hours of solitude to shore up the wall and chase away the shakes.

  "I have a dozen things to do, too. You just go ahead."

  "It's Sunday."

  "I'm aware of the day of the week. And tomorrow, oddly enough, is Monday. I'm expecting some new shipments, including one from Lavelle Cotton. I have paperwork—"

  "Which can wait till Monday." He stripped off her garden gloves as he spoke. "There's something I want to show you."

  "Cade, I'm not fit to go anywhere. I don't have my purse."

  "You won't need it," he said, as he pulled her to the car.

  "That's a statement only a man could make." She snarled as he all but dumped her in the car. "Well, let me go brush my hair, at least."

  He plucked off her hat, tossed it in the backseat. "It looks fine." He slid behind the wheel before she could make another excuse. "Gets a little windblown, it'll just be sexier."

  He picked up his sunglasses from the dash, put them on, then shoved the car in reverse. "And yeah, that's another statement only a man could make." He turned onto the road, punched the gas. "You look pretty when you're annoyed."

  "Then I must be gorgeous right now."

  "That you are, darling. But then I like the look of you no matter what your mood. That's handy, isn't it? How long have we known each other, Tory?"

  She held her hair back with one hand.

  "Altogether? About twenty years, I suppose."

  "No. We've known each other about two and a half months. Before that we knew of each other, we walked around the edges of each other. Maybe we occasionally thought about or wondered about each other. But for 'round about two months, we've known each other. Do you want to know what I've learned about you in that space of time?"

  She couldn't quite judge this mood. His tone was light, his face relaxed, but there was something. "I'm not sure I do."

  "That's one of the things I've learned right there. Victoria Bodeen's a cautious woman. She rarely leaps before she looks, and then she'll do a comprehensive study. She doesn't trust easily. Not even herself."

  "If you leap before you look, you lower your chances of landing on the other side in one piece."

  "There's another thing. Logic. A cautious and logical woman. Now, that might seem like a fairly ordinary, even uninteresting combination to some people. But those wouldn't have taken the entire package into account. They wouldn't have added in the determination, the brain, the wit, or the kindness. Most of all they would have missed the warmth that's all the more precious for being so rarely shared. And all of this is wrapped, sometimes too tightly, in a very appealing package."

  He turned onto a narrow dirt road, slowed. "That's quite an analysis." "It barely scratches the surface. You're a complex and fascinating woman. Complicated and difficult. Demanding simply because you refuse to demand. Hard on a man's ego because you never ask for a damn thing."

  She said nothing, but her hands had linked together, a sure sign of tension. She'd heard the anger now, just the rougher edge of it, in his voice.

  "We'll walk from here."

  He stopped the car and climbed out. On either side the fields spread with row after row of cotton marching like soldiers. She could smell earth and manure and heat, all ripe and sweet and strong. They must have cultivated recently, she mused, turned the weeds into the earth.

  Puzzled, unsure what needed to be done here or why they had come, she followed him down the rows while the young plants brushed her legs and reminded her of childhood.

  "We haven't had a lot of rain," Cade said. "Enough, but not a lot. We don't need as much irrigation as the other farms. The soil holds more water when it isn't full of chemicals. Treat it like a natural thing and it thrives like one. Insist on changing it, force it to live up to your expectations, and it needs more and more just to get by. Couple of months, the balls'll open."

  He crouched down, removing his sunglasses and hooking them on his shirt before he lifted a tightly closed boll with a fingertip. "My father would've used a regulator to slow the growth, a defoliant to kill the leaves. That's what he knew. That's how it was done. You do things different, people don't like it much. You have to prove yourself to them. You have to want to." He straightened, met her eyes. "How much do I have to prove to yo
u, Tory?"

  "I don't know what you mean."

  "The way I figure, most people treated you a certain way. That's what you knew. That's how it was done. I'd say I've done things different."

  "You're angry with me."

  "Oh yeah. I'm angry with you. We'll get to that. But right now I'm asking what you want from me. Just exactly what you want."

  "I don't want anything, Cade." "Goddamn it. That's the wrong answer." When he strode away, she hurried after him.

 
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