Carolina moon, p.48
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       Carolina Moon, p.48

           Nora Roberts
 

  better of me. I expect you to think better of me than I do myself."

  "I think considerable of you."

  "Do you, Wade?" Her eyes shifted and met his in the mirror. "Do you really? And at the same time you think you can put on that irritable attitude and buzz me off today. Maybe I should just go get my hair done while you're at your aunt's funeral. Then the next time you have to deal with something difficult or uncomfortable, I'll go shopping. And the time after that," she continued, her voice rising, hardening, "I'll just have moved on anyway so it won't be an issue."

  "This is different, Faith."

  "I thought it was." She set the bottle down, turned. "I hoped it was. But if you don't want me with you today, if you don't think I want to be with you today, or have the belly for it, then this is no different than what I've already done. I'm not interested in repeating myself."

  Emotion stormed into his eyes, raged through him until his hands were fists. "I hate this. I hate seeing my father torn to pieces this way. I hate knowing your family's been ripped again, and that mine had a part in it. I hate knowing you were in the same room with Bodeen, imagining what could have happened."

  "That's good, because I hate all those things, too. And I'll tell you something maybe you don't know. As soon as it was over that day, as soon as I started thinking again, I wanted you. You were the one person I needed with me. I knew you'd take care of me, and hold on to me, and everything would be all right. If you don't need the same from me, then I won't let myself need you, either. I'm selfish enough to stop. I'll go with you today, and stand with you and try to be some comfort to you. Or I'll go back to Beaux Reves and start working on getting over you."

  "You could do it, too," he said quietly. "Why is it I admire that? Flighty? Foolish?" He shook his head as he walked to her. "You're the strongest woman I know. Stay with me." He lowered his forehead to hers. "Stay with me."

  "That's my plan." She slipped her arms around him, ran her hands up and down his back. "I want to be there for you. That's new for me. It's your own fault. You just kept at me till I was in love with you. First time I haven't aimed and shot first. I kinda like it."

  She held him, felt him lean on her. She liked that, too, she realized. No one had ever leaned on her before. "Now, come on." She spoke briskly, kissed his cheek. "We'll be late, and funerals aren't the kind of occasions where you make grand entrances."

  He had to laugh. "Right. Got an umbrella?"

  "Of course not."

  "Of course not. Let me get one."

  When he went to the closet to root around, she angled her head and studied him with a faint smile. "Wade, when we get engaged, will you buy me a sapphire instead of a diamond?"

  His hand closed over the handle of the umbrella, then simply froze there. "Are we getting engaged?"

  "A nice one, not too big or gaudy, mind. Square cut. That first moron I was married to didn't even get me a ring, and the second got me the tackiest diamond."

  She picked up the black straw hat she'd tossed on the bed and walked to the mirror to set it on her head at an appropriately dignified angle. "Might as well have been a big hunk of glass for all the style it had. I sold it after the divorce and had a lovely two weeks at a fancy spa on the proceeds. So what I'd like is a square-cut sapphire."

  He took the umbrella down, stepped back out of the closet. "Are you proposing, Faith?"

  "Certainly not." She tipped back her head to look down her nose. "And don't think because I'm giving you some inclination of my response it gets you out of asking. I expect you to follow tradition, all the way down on one knee. With," she added, "a square-cut sapphire in your hand."

  "I'll make a note of it." "Fine, you do that little thing." She held out a hand. "Ready?"

  "I used to think I was." He took her hand, laced his fingers firmly with hers. "No one's ever ready for you."

  They buried her mother in rain that pelted the ground like bullets while lightning ripped and clawed at the eastern sky. Violence, Tory thought. Her mother had lived with it, died from it, and even now, it seemed, drew it to her.

  She didn't listen to the minister, though she was sure his words were meant to comfort. She felt too detached to need it, and couldn't be sorry for it. She'd never known the woman inside the flower-draped box. Never understood her, never depended on her. If Tory had grief, it was for the lack she'd lived with all her life.

  She watched the rain beat against the casket, listened to it hammer on the umbrellas. And waited for it to be over.

  More had come than she'd expected, and stood in a small dark circle in the gloom. She and her uncle flanked her grandmother, with the sturdy Cecil just behind them. And Cade stood beside her.

  Boots, bless her easy heart, wept quietly between her husband and son.

  Heads were bowed as prayers were read, but Faith's lifted, and her eyes met Tory's. And there was comfort, so unexpected, from someone who understood.

  Dwight had come, as mayor, Tory supposed. And as Wade's friend. He stood a little apart, looking solemn and respectful. She imagined he'd be glad to be done with this duty and get back to Lissy.

  There was Lilah, steady as a rock, eyes dry as she silently mouthed the prayers with the minister.

  And oddly, Cade's aunt Rosie, in full black, complete with hat and veil. It had caught everyone off guard when she'd arrived, with a trunk, the night before.

  Margaret was staying temporarily at her place, she'd announced. Which meant Rosie had immediately packed to stay temporarily elsewhere.

  She'd offered Tory her mother's wedding dress, gone yellow as butter with age and smelling strongly of mothballs. Then had put it on herself and worn it the rest of the evening.

  When the casket was lowered into the fresh grave, and the minister closed his book, J.R. stepped forward. "She had a harder life than she needed to." He cleared his throat. "And a harder death than she deserved. She's at peace now. When she was a little girl, she liked yellow daisies best." He kissed the one he held in his hand, then dropped it into the grave.

  And turned away, to his wife.

  "He'd have done more for her," Iris said, "if she'd let him. I'm going to visit Jimmy awhile," she told Tory. "Then we'll be going home." She took Tory's shoulders, kissed her cheeks. "I'm happy for you, Tory. And proud. Kincade, you take care of my little girl."

  "Yes, ma'am. I hope you'll come and stay with us, both of you, when you come back to Progress."

  Cecil bent down to touch his lips to Tory's cheek. "I'll look after her," he whispered. "Don't you worry."

  "I won't." She turned, knowing she was expected to receive condolences. Rosie was right there, her eyes bird-bright behind her veil. "It was a proper service. Dignified and brief. It reflects well on you."

  "Thank you, Miss Rosie."

  "We can't choose our blood, but we can choose what to do with it, what to do about it." She tipped up her face, looked at her nephew. "You've chosen well. Margaret will come around, or she won't, but that's not for you to worry about. I'm going to talk to Iris, find out who that big, strapping man is she's got with her."

  She plowed through the wet in a two-thousand-dollar Chanel suit, and Birkenstocks.

  Struggling against twin urges to laugh and weep, Tory laid a hand on Cade's arm. "Go take her your umbrella. I'll be fine."

  "I'll be right back."

  "Tory, I'm very sorry." Dwight held out a hand, and clasping hers, kissed her cheek even as he shifted his umbrella to shield her from the rain. "Lissy wanted to come, but I made her stay home."

  "I'm glad you did. It wouldn't be good for her to be out in this weather today. It was kind of you to come, Dwight."

  "We've known each other a long time. And Wade, he's one of my two closest friends. Tory, is there anything I can do for you?"

  "No, but thank you. I'm going to walk over and visit Hope's grave before I leave. You should go on back to Lissy."

  "I will. Take this." He brought her hand up to the handle of the umbrella.

  "
No, I'll be fine."

  "Take it," he insisted. "And don't stay out in the wet too long." He left her to walk back to Wade. Grateful for the shelter, Tory turned away from her mother's grave to walk through the grass, through the stones, to Hope's.

  Rain ran down the angel's face like tears and beat at the fairy roses. Inside the globe, the winged horse flew.

  "It's all over now. It doesn't feel settled yet," Tory said with a sigh. "I have this heaviness inside me. Well, it's so much to take in at once. I wish I could . . . there are too many things to wish for."

  "I never bring flowers here," Faith said from behind her. "I don't know why."

  "She has the roses."

  "That's not it. They're not my roses, not mine to bring her."

  Tory looked behind her, then shifted so they were standing together. "I can't feel her here. Maybe you can't, either."

  "I don't want to go in the ground when my time comes. I want my ashes spread somewhere. The sea, I think, as that's where I plan to have Wade ask me to marry him. By the sea. She might have felt the same, only hers would have been for the river, or near it in the marsh. That was her place."

  "Yes, it was. It is." It seemed important, and natural, to reach out a hand and clasp Faith's. "There are flowers at Beaux Reves, that was her place, too. I could cut some when the storm passes, take them to the marsh. To the river. Put them there for Hope. Maybe it would be the right way, laying flowers on the water instead of letting them die on the ground. Would you do that with me?"

  "I hated sharing her with you." Faith paused, closed her eyes. "Now I don't. It'll be clear this afternoon. I'll tell Wade." She started to walk away, stopped. "Tory, if you get there first—"

  "I'll wait for you."

  Tory watched her go, looked back over the gentle slope, the curtaining rain, the gathering ground fog. There was her grandmother with Cecil strong at her back, Rosie in her veil and Lilah holding an umbrella over her.

  J.R. and Boots still by the grave of the sister he had loved more than he might have realized.

  And there was Cade, with his friends, waiting.

  As she walked to him, the rain began to thin and the first hint of sun shimmered watery light through the gloom.

  "You understand why I want to do this?"

  "I understand you want to."

  Tory smiled a little as she shook rain from the spears of lavender she'd cut. "And you're annoyed, just a little, that I'm not asking you to come with me."

  "A little. It's counterbalanced by the fact that you and Faith are becoming friends. And all of that is overpowered by the sheer terror of knowing I'm going to be at Aunt Rosie's mercy until you return. She has a gift for me, and I've seen it. It's a moldy top hat, which she expects I will wear for our wedding."

  "It'll go well with the moth-eaten dress she's giving me. I tell you what. You wear the hat, I'll wear the dress, and we'll have Lilah take our picture. We'll put it in a nice frame for Miss Rosie, then we'll pack them away someplace dark and safe before the wedding."

  "That's brilliant. I'm marrying a very wise woman. But we'll have to take the picture tonight. We're getting married tomorrow."

  "Tomorrow? But—"

  "Here," he said, as he turned her into his arm. "Quietly, in the garden. I've taken care of most of the details, and will get to the rest this afternoon."

  "But my grandmother—"

  "I spoke with her. She and Cecil will be staying another night. They'll be here." "I haven't had time to buy a dress or—" "Your grandmother mentioned that, and

  hoped you'd be receptive to wearing the one she wore when she married your grandfather. She's running up to Florence to get it this afternoon. She said it would mean a lot to her."

  "Thought of everything, didn't you?"

  "Yes. Do you have a problem with that?"

  "We're going to have lots of problems with that over the next fifty or sixty years, but just now? No."

  "Good. Lilah's baking a cake. J.R.'s bringing a case of champagne. The idea brightened him considerably."

  "Thank you." "Since you're grateful, I'll just add, Aunt Rosie plans to sing."

  "Don't tell me." She drew back. "Let's not spoil the moment. Well, since everyone has approved the schedule and the details, who am I to object? Have you arranged for the honeymoon, too?" She saw him wince and rolled her eyes. "Cade, really."

  "You're not going to argue about a trip to Paris, are you? Of course not." He gave her a quick kiss before she could. "You might want to close the shop for a few days, but Boots really liked the idea of running it for you, and Faith had some ideas."

  "Oh God."

  "But that's up to you."

  "Thank you very much." She pushed a hand through her hair. "My head's spinning. We'll discuss all this when I get back."

  "Sure. I'm flexible."

  "The hell you are," she muttered. "You just pretend to be." She shifted the basket of flowers, handed him the shears. "Don't start naming the children while I'm gone."

  Exasperating man, she thought, as she slid into her car and set the basket of flowers on the seat. Planning their wedding behind her back. Planning exactly the sort of wedding she wanted, too.

  How irritating, and how lovely, to be known that well.

  So why wasn't she relaxed? As she turned onto the road, she shifted her shoulders. She just couldn't quite break through the tension. Understandable, she reminded herself. She'd been through a hideous ordeal. She couldn't imagine getting married within twenty-four hours with so much still tied up inside her.

  But she wanted to begin. She wanted to close this door and open the next. She glanced at the flowers beside her. Maybe she was about to.

  She pulled off onto the side of the road, where Hope had once parked her bike. And climbing out, she crossed the little bridge where tiger lilies burst into storybook bloom, then took the path she knew her friend had taken that night.

  Hope Lavelle, girl spy.

  The rain had turned to steam, and the steam rose out of the ground in curling fingers that broke apart, then twined together again around her ankles. The air was thick with wet, with green, with rot. Mysteries waiting to be solved.

  As she approached the clearing, she wished she'd thought to bring some wood. Everything would be too damp to start a fire, and perhaps it was foolish to want to in all the heat. But she wished she'd thought of it, and could have laid one, the way Hope had.

  Just thinking of it, remembering it, she caught a drift of smoke.

  There was the fire, small and carefully built to burn low, a little circle of flame with long, sharpened sticks beside it waiting for marshmallows.

  She blinked once, to clear the vision. But the fire simmered, and the smoke puffed sluggishly in the mist. Dazed, Tory stepped into the clearing, the basket tipping to spill out flowers at her feet.

  "Hope?" She pressed a hand to her heart, almost to make sure it continued to beat. But the marble child who'd been her friend stood in her pool of flowers and said nothing.

  With a trembling hand, she picked up one of the sticks and saw that the cuts to sharpen it were fresh.

  Not a dream, not a flashback. But here and now. Real.

  Not Hope. Never again Hope.

  The pressure rose up in her, a hot gush of fear, and of knowledge.

  In the brush came a rustling, wet and sly.

  She whirled toward it. Password. She thought it, heard it sound in her head. But she wasn't Hope. She wasn't eight. And dear God, it wasn't over after all.

  Cade was in the garden deciding where they should set up tables for the wedding reception when Chief Russ pulled in.

  "Glad you're here. I just got news. I thought you should know."

  "Come on inside where it's cool."

  "No, I gotta get back, but I wanted to tell you in person. We got ballistic reports on Sarabeth Bodeen. The gun she was killed with wasn't the same one Bodeen had with

  him. Not even the same caliber." Cade felt one quick knock of dread. "I'm not sure I u
nderstand."

  "Turns out the one Bodeen had when he broke in on Tory and your
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