Carolina moon, p.5
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       Carolina Moon, p.5

           Nora Roberts
 

  her head back to study his face. He'd always been pretty, she remembered, but she imagined he was relieved that the angelic face of his youth had weathered a bit. His eyes were a deep, slumberous chocolate. His face had fined down from childhood, but he still boasted dimples. His hair, shades lighter than her own, was well cut to tame the tendency to curl.

  He was dressed in jeans and a plain cotton shirt of faded blue. As she took his measure his lips quirked.

  He looked, she decided, young, handsome, and quietly prosperous.

  "If I look wonderful, I don't have words for how you look. You got all the handsome in the family, Cousin Wade."

  He flashed a grin at that, quick and boyish, but resisted hugging her again. Tory, he knew, had always been skittish about hugs and strokes. He settled for giving her hair a little tug.

  "I'm glad you're back."

  "I couldn't have picked a better welcoming committee." She gestured widely. "The town looks good. The same in a lot of ways, but better. Tidier, I suppose."

  "Progress in Progress," he said. "We owe a lot of it to the Lavelles, the town council, and particularly the mayor of the last five years. You remember Dwight? Dwight Frazier?"

  “Dwight the Dweeb, one of the Mighty Three formed by you, him, and Cade Lavelle.”

  "The Dweeb hit his stride in high school, became a track star, married the homecoming queen, went into his daddy's construction business, and helped turn Progress around. We're all goddamn solid citizens these days."

  Standing there with the light traffic cruising the street behind him, hearing the familiar rhythm of his voice, she remembered why he'd always held her affection. "Miss hell-raising, do you, Wade?"

  "Some. Listen, I'm between appointments. I have to get back and convince a Great Dane named Igor he needs his rabies shot.”

  "Better you than me, Dr. Mooney."

  "My office is across the street, end of the block. Walk up with me, and I'll buy you an iced tea."

  "I'd like that, but I need to go by the realtor, see what they've got lined up for me." She caught the flicker in his eyes, tilted her head. "What?"

  "I don't know how you'll feel about it, but your old place? It's vacant." "The house?"

  Instinctively she crossed her arms, hugged her elbows. Fate, she thought, had such a long and sneaky reach. "I don't know how I feel about it, either. I guess I should find out."

  In a town of less than six thousand it was hard to walk two blocks without running into someone you knew.

  It didn't matter if you'd been away sixteen years or sixty. When she stepped into the realtor's office there was only one person manning a desk.

  The woman was pretty, petite, and polished. Her long blond hair was swept back from a heart-shaped face dominated by big baby-blue eyes.

  "Afternoon." The woman fluttered her lashes and set aside a paperback novel with a bare-chested pirate on the cover. "Can I help you?" Tory had a quick image of the playground at Progress Elementary. A group of little girls shrieking in fear and disgust and running away. And the smug, satisfied look in the big blue eyes of the leader as she tossed a sneer over her shoulder while her long blond hair flew behind her.

  “Lissy Harlowe." Lissy cocked her head.

  “Do I know you? Why, I'm so sorry, I just don't ... " Those blue eyes widened. "Tory? Tory Bodeen? For heaven's sake." She gave a little squeal and hauled herself to her feet. She looked to be about six months pregnant from the bulge under the pale pink shirt. "Daddy said how you'd be coming by sometime this week."

  Despite Tory's automatic step in retreat, Lissy scurried around the desk to embrace her like a long-lost friend. "This is so exciting." She pulled back to beam cheer and welcome. "Tory Bodeen come back to Progress after all this time. And don't you look pretty."

  "Thank you." Tory watched Lissy's eyes scan, measure, then glint with satisfaction. There was no doubt here who'd grown up better. "You look so much the same. But you were always the prettiest girl in Progress."

  "Oh, what foolishness." Lissy waved a hand but couldn't stop herself from preening a bit. "Now, you just sit right down and let me get you something cold to drink."

  "No, don't bother. I'm fine. Did your father get the lease agreement?"

  "Seems like he mentioned he did. The whole town's talking about your shop. I can't wait till you're open. You just can't find pretty things in Progress." She walked behind the desk again as she spoke. "Lord knows you can't be driving down to Charleston every time you want something with a bit of style."

  "That's good to know." Tory sat, and found herself eye level with the sign that identified Lissy Frazier. "Frazier? Dwight? You married Dwight?"

  "Five happy years. We have a son. My Luke's the cutest thing." She turned a framed photo around to show off a bright eyed, towheaded toddler. "And we're expecting his brother or sister by end of summer."

  She gave the mound of her belly a satisfied pat, and wiggled her fingers so her wedding and engagement rings caught the light and flashed fire from the diamonds.

  "You never married, honey?"

  There was just enough bite in the question to let Tory know Lissy still liked being the best. "No."

  "I just admire you career women more than I can say. You're all so brave and smart. Yall put us homebodies to shame." When Tory lifted a brow at the desk and the name plate, Lissy laughed and waved her hand again. "Oh, I just come in a couple times a week to help Daddy out. Once the baby's born, I'm sure I won't have the time or energy."

  And would, Lissy thought, go quickly and not so quietly mad at home with two children. But she'd deal with that, and Dwight, when the time came.

  "Now, you just tell me everything you've been up to."

  "I'd love to chat, Lissy." If you yanked my tongue out and wrapped it around my neck. "But I need to get settled."

  "Oh, how silly of me. You must be just worn out and ready to drop." The thin smile told Tory that if she wasn't, Lissy certainly thought she looked it. "We'll have ourselves a nice, long catch-up once you're rested."

  "I'll look forward to it." Remember, Tory told herself, this is just the type of customer you need. "I ran into Wade just a few minutes ago. He mentioned the house—my old house—might be available to rent."

  "Why, it sure is. The Lavelle tenants moved on just a couple weeks back. But honey, you don't want to live way out there, now, do you? We've got some nice apartments right here in town. River Terrace has everything a single girl could want, including single men," she added with a sly wink. "Modern fixtures, wall-to-wall carpet. We've got us a garden unit available that's just lovely."

  "I'm not interested in an apartment. I'd enjoy being out in the country a ways. What's the rent?"

  "I'll just look that up for you." She knew it, of course. Lissy's mind was much sharper than people expected. She preferred it way. She shifted her chair, fumbled with the keyboard of her computer a bit for form. "I swear, I'll never get the hang of these things. You know that's a one-bath frame construction."

  "Yes, I know."

  Scanning the screen, Lissy tossed off the monthly rent. "Now, that's a good fifteen twenty-minute drive from town. This sweet little apartment I was telling you about's no more’n a ten-minute walk on a pretty day." "I'll take the house." Lissy glanced up, blinked. "Take it? Don't you want to run out and see it first?" "I have seen it. I'll write out a check. First and last month's rent?" "Yes." Lissy shrugged. "Just let me print out the rental agreement."

  Less than thirty seconds after the deal was signed and sealed and Tory walked out with the keys, Lissy was on the phone spreading the word.

  This, too, had changed. The house stood as it had always stood, back from a narrow dirt lane a short spit from the swamp. Fields spread on its west side, the tender shoots of cotton already sprung up out of the earth, their rows neat as docile schoolchildren. But someone had planted azaleas in pink and white, and a young magnolia tree near the bedroom window.

  She remembered the screens going rusty, and the white paint goi
ng gray. But someone had taken care here. The windows sparkled, and the paint was a fresh and soft blue. A front porch had been added, wide enough for the rocking chair that stood alongside the door.

  It was almost welcoming.

  Her pulse beat dull and thick as she walked toward it. There would be ghosts, but ghosts were why she'd come back. Wasn't it better to face them all?

  The keys rattled in her hand.

  The screen door squeaked. She told herself it was a homey sound. A friendly screen door should squeak, and it should slam.

  Bracing it open, she fit the key in the lock, turned it. She took one deep breath before stepping inside.

  She saw the ragged couch with its faded roses, the old console TV, the frayed braided rug. Dull yellow walls with no pictures to brighten the space. The smell of overcooked greens and Lysol.

  Tory! You get in here and clean yourself up this minute. Didn't I tell you I wanted this table set for supper before your daddy gets home?

  Then the image winked away, and she stood in an empty room. The walls were painted cream, a plain but serviceable color. The floors were bare but clean. The air carried the faint scent of paint and polish, more efficient than offensive.

  She stepped through to the kitchen.

  The counters had been redone in a neutral stone gray and the cabinets painted white. The stove was new—or newer than the one her mother had sweated over. The window over the sink looked out to the swamp, as it always had. Lush and green and secret. Gathering her courage, she turned and headed toward her old bedroom.

  Had it always been so small? she wondered. Barely big enough to swing a cat in, she decided, though it had been large enough for her needs. Her bed had been close to the window. She'd liked looking out into the night, or into the morning. She'd had a little dresser, and its drawers had swelled and stuck every summer. She'd hidden books in the bottom drawer because Daddy didn't approve of her reading anything but the Bible.

  There were good memories mixed with the bad in this room. Of reading late into the night in secret, of dreaming private dreams, of planning adventures with Hope.

  And, of course, of the beatings. No one would ever lay hands on her again. It would make a reasonable office she decided. A desk, a file cabinet, perhaps a reading chair and lamp. It would do.

  She would sleep in her parents' old room. Yes, she would sleep there, and she would make it her own.

  She started to go out, but couldn't resist. Quietly, she opened the closet door. There, the ghost of herself huddled in the dark, face streaked with tears. She'd shed tears of a lifetime before she was eight.

  Crouching, she ran her fingers along the baseboard, and they trembled over the shallow carving. With her eyes closed, she read the letters with fingertips, the way the blind read braille.

  I AM TORY

  "That's right. That's right. I am Tory.

  You couldn't take that from me, couldn't beat that out of me. I'm Tory. And back."

  Unsteadily she got to her feet. Air, thought. She needed air. There was never any air in the closet, never any light. Sweat sprang to her palms as she backed up.

  She turned to dash from the room, would have run from the house. But a shadow wavered outside the screen door. The afternoon sun poured in behind it, outlined into the shape of a man.

  As the door squeaked open, she was eight years old again. Alone, helpless. Terrified.

  4

  The shadow said her name. The whole of it, Victoria, so that it flowed out like something rich poured from a warmed bottle.

  She might have run, and it shamed and surprised her to find there was still that much rabbit inside her that wanted to careen away, plunge into a bolt-hole at the first snap of a twig. The ghosts of the house circled around her, whispering taunts in her ear.

  She'd run before. More than once. It had never saved her.

  She stood where she was, frozen. Panic swam up sickly from gut to throat as the door creaked open.

  "I've frightened you. I'm sorry." His voice was quiet, the tone a man uses to soothe the injured, or complete a seduction. "I wanted to stop by, see if you needed anything."

  He stood just inside the door so the sun beamed behind him, blurred his features. In her mind, thoughts tumbled, going soft so they spilled over each other. “How did you know I was here?"

  "Have you been away so long you don't know how quick the grapevine climbs in Progress?"

  There was a smile in his voice, calculated, she thought, to put her at ease. It meant the fear showed, and made her too easy a target. That, at least that, she could stop. She folded her hands. "No, I haven't forgotten anything. Who are you?"

  "That sound you hear's my ego crumbling. Even after all these years, I could've picked you out in a crowd. It's Cade," he said, and stepped closer. "Kincade Lavelle."

  He stepped out of the harsh light, until it fell behind him into sun and shadow. The keenest edge of fear ebbed with the glare, and she saw him clearly. Kincade Lavelle, Hope's brother. Would she have recognized him? No, she didn't think so. The boy she remembered had been thin of body and soft of face. This man's build was rangy, hinted of tough in the muscles of the forearms showing under rolled-up sleeves of his work shirt. And though he smiled easily enough, there was nothing soft in the sharp bones and high planes of his face.

  His hair was darker than it had been, the color of walnuts, with the curling tips bleached out by the sun. He'd always been one for the out-of-doors. She remembered that. Remembered she'd sometimes see him walking the fields with his father in a kind of swagger that came from owning the lad your feet landed on.

  The eyes, she thought. She might have placed the eyes. That deep summer blue, like Hope's. The sun had left its mark there as well with faint lines etched into the corners. The kind, she thought, that brought men character and women despair.

  Those eyes watched her now, with a kind of lazy patience that might have embarrassed her if her pulse had been level.

  "It's been a long time" was the best she could do.

  "About half my life." He didn't offer his hand. Instinct told him she'd only jolt and embarrass both of them. She looked ready to jump, or collapse. Neither would suit him. Instead he tucked his thumbs casually in the front pockets of his jeans.

  "Why don't you come on out on the front porch and sit down? It appears that old rocker's the only chair we've got right now."

  "I'm fine. I'm all right."

  White as death was what she was, with those soft gray eyes that had always fascinated him still wide and bright. Growing up in a household largely dominated by women had taught him how to get around female pride and sulks with the least fuss and energy. He simply turned back, pushed open the screen. "Stuffy in here," he said, and stepped out, keeping the door wide and banking on man nudging her to follow.

  Left with little choice, she crossed the room, walked out onto the porch. He caught the faintest drift of her scent and thought of the jasmine that preferred to bloom at night, almost in secret, in his mother's garden.

  "Must be an experience." He touched her now, lightly, to guide her to the chair. "Coming back here."

  She didn't jump, but she did edge away in a small but deliberate motion. "I needed a place to live, and wanted to settle in quickly." Her stomach muscles refused to loosen up again. She didn't like talking to men this way. You never knew, not for certain, what was under the easy words and easy smiles.

  "You've been living in Charleston awhile. Life's a lot quieter here."

  "I want quiet."

  He leaned back against the rail. There was an edge here, he mused. However delicate she looked, there was an edge, like a raw nerve ready to scream. Odd, he realized, it was just what he remembered most about her.

  Her delicacy, like the business end of a scalpel.

  "There's a lot of talk about your store."

  "That's good." She smiled, just the faintest curve of lips, but her eyes remained serious and watchful. "Talk means curiosity, and curiosity will bring people
through the door."

  "Did you run a store in Charleston?"

  "I managed one. Owning's different."

  "So it is." Beaux Reves was his now, and owning was indeed different. He glanced behind him, out to the fields where seedlings and sprouts reached for the sun. "How does it look to you, Tory? After all this time and distance?"

  "The same." She didn't look at the fields, but at him. "And not at all the same."

  "I was thinking that about you. You grew up." He looked back at her, watched her fingers curl on the arms of the chair as if to steady herself. "Grew into your eyes. You always had a woman's eyes. When I was twelve, they spooked me."

 
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