Carolina moon, p.6
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       Carolina Moon, p.6

           Nora Roberts
 

  It took the will, and the pride she'd carved into herself, to keep her gaze level. "When you were twelve, you were too busy running wild with my cousin Wade and Dwight the—Dwight Frazier, to pay any notice of me."

  "You're wrong about that. When I was twelve," he said slowly, "there was a space of time I noticed everything about you. I still carry that picture of you inside my head. Why don't we stop pretending she's not standing right here between us?"

  Tory rose in a jerk, walked to the far end of the porch and stood, arms crossed over her chest, to stare out at the fields.

  "We both loved her," Cade said. "We both lost her. And neither of us has forgotten her."

  The weight descended on her chest, like hands pushing. "I can't help you."

  "I'm not asking you for help."

  "For what, then?"

  Puzzled, he shifted, then settled back again to study her profile. She'd closed he realized. Whatever small opening been was shuttered down again. "I'm not asking for anything, Tory. Is that what expect from everyone?"

  She felt stronger now, on her feet, an turned to give him a steady stare. "Yes."

  A bird darted behind him, a quick gray flash that swept by and found a perch in one of the tupelos edging the swamp. And then it seemed to her, it sang its heart out for hours before Cade spoke again.

  Had she forgotten this? she wondered The long, easy pauses, the patient rhythm of country conversations?

  "That's a pity," he said, as her began to beat in the silence. "But I don’t want anything from you, except maybe friendly word now and then. The fact is, Hope meant something to both of us. Losing her had an effect on my life. I hesitate to call a lady a liar, but if you were to stand there, eye to eye with me, and tell me it didn’t affect yours, that's what I'd have to do.”

  "What difference does it make to you how I feel?" She wanted to rub the chill from her arms, but resisted.

  “We don't know each other. We never really did."

  "We knew her. Maybe your coming back stirs things to the surface again. That's no fault of yours, it just is."

  "Is this visit a welcome back, or a warning for me to keep my distance?"

  He said nothing for a moment, then shook his head. The humor slid back into his eyes, a glint so much speedier than his voice. "You sure grew up prickly. First, I don't make a habit of asking beautiful women to keep their distance. I'd be the one to suffer, wouldn't I?"

  She didn't smile, but he did, and this time deliberately took a step closer. Perhaps the motion, perhaps the sound of work boots on wood, sent the bird deeper into the swamp and silenced the song.

  "You could always tell me to keep mine, but I'm unlikely to listen. I came by to welcome you back, Tory, and to get a look at you. I got a right to my own curiosity. And seeing you brings some of that summer back. That's a natural thing. It's going to bring it back for others, too. You had to know that before you decided to come.”

  “I came for me."

  Is that why you look sick and scared and tired? he wondered. "Then welcome home."

  He held out his hand. She hesitated, but it seemed as much a dare as an offering. When she placed hers in it, she found his warm, and harder than she'd expected. Just as she felt the connection, a kind of quiet internal click, unexpected. And unwelcome.

  "I'm sorry if it seems unfriendly." She slid her hand free. "But I've got a lot of work to do. I need to get started."

  "You just let me know if there's anything I can do for you." "I appreciate that. Ah .. . you fixed the house up nice."

  "It's a good house." But he looked at her as he said it. "It's a good spot. I'll let you get doing," he added, and started down the steps. He stopped beside a tough-looking pickup that desperately needed washing. "Tory? You know that picture of you I carried in my head?" He opened the truck door, and a quick little breeze ruffled through his sun-streaked hair. "I got a better one now."

  He drove off, keeping her framed in the rearview mirror until he made the turn from hard-packed dirt to asphalt.

  He hadn't meant to bring up Hope, not right off. As the owner of Beaux Reves, as her landlord, as a childhood acquaintance, he'd told himself it was a straight duty call. But he hadn't fooled himself, and he obviously hadn't fooled Tory, either.

  Curiosity had sent him straight out to what people hereabouts still called the Marsh House, when he'd had a dozen pressing matters demanding his attention. He'd been raised to run the farm, but he ran it his own way. That way didn't please everyone.

  He'd learned to play politician and diplomat. He'd learned to play whatever role was required, as long as he got what he wanted.

  He wondered just what role he'd need to play with Tory.

  Whether she was ready to admit it or not, her coming back shifted all manner of balances. She was the pebble in the pond, and the ripples were going to run long and wide.

  He wasn't sure what to do about her, what he wanted to do about her. But he was a man of the land, and men who made their living from earth and seed and weather knew how to bide time.

  On impulse he pulled the truck to the side of the road. He had no business making this stop when all his responsibilities were gathered at Beaux Reves. The new crops were coming up, and when the crops grew, so did the weeds. He had cultivating to oversee. This was a pivotal year for the plans he'd implemented. He wanted his finger on every step and stage.

  Still, he got out of the cab, walked across the little wooden bridge, and stepped into the swamp. Here the world was green and rich and alive. Paths had been cleared and alongside them neat as a park, grew azaleas in staggering, stubborn bloom. Among the magnolia and tupelo were swaths of wildflowers, tidy hills and spears of evergreens. It was no longer the exciting, slightly dangerous world of his youth.

  Now it was a shrine to a lost child.

  His father had done this. In grief, in pride, perhaps even in the fury he'd never shown. But it had lived inside him, Cade knew, like a cancer. Growing and spreading in secret and silence, those tumors of rage and despair.

  Grief had been treated like a disease inside the walls of Beaux Reves. And here, he thought, it had been turned to flowers.

  Lilies would dance in the summer, a colorful parade, and the delicate yellow irises that liked their feet wet were already blooming in the spring shadows like tiny sunbeams. Brush had been cleared for them. Though it grew back quickly, as long as his father had lived there had been hands to hack it down again. Now that responsibility lay on Cade as well.

  There was a small stone bench in the clearing where Hope had built her fire that last night of her life. There was another arched bridge over the tobacco-brown water haunted by cypress trees, bordered by thickly curling ferns and rhododendrons flowering in sheer white. Camellias and pansies that would bring flower and scent over the winter when they thrived.

  And between the bench and the bridge, in the midst of a pool of pink and blue blossoms, stood a marble statue carved in the likeness of a laughing young girl who would be forever eight.

  They had buried her eighteen years before, on a hill in the sunlight. But here, in the green shadows and wild scents, was where Hope's spirit lay.

  Cade sat on the bench, let his hands dangle between his knees. He didn't come here often. Since his father's death eight years before no one did, at least no one in the family.

  As far as his mother was concerned, this place ceased to exist from the moment Hope had been found. Raped, strangled, then tossed aside like a used-up doll.

  Just how much, Cade asked himself, as he had countless times over that long sea of years, just how much of what had been done to her was on his head?

  He sat back, closed his eyes. He'd lied to Tory, he admitted now. He did want something from her. He wanted answers. Answers he'd waited for more than half his life.

  He took five precious minutes to steady himself. Strange he hadn't realized until now how much it had unnerved him to see her again. She'd been right that he'd paid scant attention to her when they were childre
n. She'd been the little Bodeen girl his sister had run with, and beneath the notice of a twelve-year-old boy.

  Until that morning, that horrible morning in August when she'd come to the door with her cheek raw and bruised and her wide eyes terrified. From that moment, there'd been nothing about her he hadn't noticed. Nothing about her he'd forgotten.

  He'd made it his business to know all there was to know about where she'd gone, what she'd done, who she'd been long after she left Progress.

  He'd known, nearly to the hour, when she'd begun making her plans to come back.

  And still he hadn't been prepared to see her standing in that empty room, the color leached out of her face so that her eyes stood out like pools of smoke.

  They'd both take rime to settle, Cade decided as he got to his feet. And then they'd deal with each other. Then they'd deal with Hope.

  He walked back to his truck, drove out to check his crops and his crew.

  He was hot, sweaty, and dirty by the time he turned between the stone pillars that guarded the long, shady lane to Beaux Reves. Twenty oaks, ten on either side, flanked the drive and arched over it to make a green and gold tunnel. In between their thick trunks he could see the flowering shrubs in bloom, the wide sweep of lawn, the ribbon of a bricked path that led to garden and outbuildings.

  When he was tired, as he was now, this last stretch never failed to reach out to him, to stroke at his fatigue like a loving hand. Through drought and war, through the ripping apart of one way of life and the making of another, Beaux Reves stood.

  More than two hundred years the land had been in Lavelle hands. They had tended it, nurtured it, abused it, and cursed it, but it survived. It had buried them, and it had birthed them.

  And now it was his.

  Perhaps the house was one huge eccentricity in the center of elegance, more fortress than house, more defiant than graceful. The stone caught sparks from the dying sun, and glinted. The towers lanced arrogantly into a sky going the color of a fresh bruise.

  There was a huge pool of flowers in the oval centering the circular drive. Some long-ago ancestor's attempt to soften the arrogantly masculine lines, Cade had always thought. Instead, the sea of flowers and shrubs served as a sharp contrast to the massive front doors of deeply carved oak and the straight spears of windows.

  He left the truck at the far curve of the drive and walked up the six stone steps. The veranda had been added on by his great-grandfather. A bit of civility, Cade mused, with its shading roof and twining vines of clematis. He could sit, if he chose, as those of his blood had sat for generations, and look out over grass and tree and flower without smudging the view with the vicious and sweat-soaked work of the fields.

  Which was why he rarely sat there.

  He scraped the soil off his boots. Inside those doors was his mother's domain, and though she would say nothing, her disapproving silence, her cool-eyed stare at any trace of the fields on her floors, would be worse than a blistering lecture.

  Spring had been kind, so the windows were open to the evening. The scents from the gardens spilled in to mingle with the perfumes of the flowers that had been selected and arranged indoors.

  The entrance hall was massive, the floor marbled in sea green so it felt as though his feet would simply sink into cool water.

  He thought of a shower, a beer, and a good hot meal before he tackled the evening's paperwork. He moved quietly, listening, and felt no guilt at the hope he could avoid any contact with his family until he was clean and refueled.

  He'd gotten as far as the bar in the main parlor, had just popped the top on a Beck's, when he heard the feminine click of heels. He winced, but his face was composed and relaxed when Faith swirled into the room.

  "Pour me a white wine, darling, I got some rough edges need smoothing." She stretched herself out on the sofa as she spoke, with a fussy little sigh and a finger brush of her short bob of blond hair. She was back to blond. There were those who said Faith Lavelle changed her hair color nearly as often as she changed men.

  There were those who relished saying it.

  She'd been divorced twice in her twenty-six years, and had gathered and discarded more lovers than most cared to count. Particularly Faith. Yet she managed to project the image of the delicate southern flower with camellia-white skin and the Lavelle blue eyes. Moody blue eyes that could well up with tears on command, and were skilled at making promises she might or might not intend to keep.

  Her first husband had been a wild and handsome boy of eighteen with whom she'd eloped two months before she graduated from high school. She'd loved him with all the passion and capriciousness of youth and had been devastated when he'd left her flat, and broke, less than a year later.

  Not that she let anyone know that. As far as the world was concerned, she'd dumped Bobby Lee Matthews and had come back to Beaux Reves because she'd grown bored playing house.

  Three years later, she d married an aspiring country-western singer she'd met in a bar. That she had done out of boredom, but she'd stuck it out for two years before she realized Clive had also aspired to live the cheating, beating lyrics of the songs he scribbled in a haze of Budweiser and Marlboros. So once again, she was back at Beaux Reves, edgy, dissatisfied, and secretly disgusted with herself.

  She sent Cade a sweet and melting smile when he brought her a glass of wine. "Honey, you look worn out. Why don't you sit down and put your feet up for a while?" She grabbed his hand, gave it a little tug. "You work too hard."

  "Anytime you want to pitch in . . ."

  Her smile sharpened, a blade turned to the keen edge. "Beaux Reves is yours. Papa made that clear all our lives."

  "Papa's not here anymore."

  Faith merely moved one careless shoulder. "Doesn't change the facts." She lifted her wine, sipped. She was a lovely woman who took great pains to exploit her beauty. Even now, for an evening at home, she'd added soft color to her cheeks, painted her sensuously wide mouth a poppy pink and had draped herself in a silk blouse and slacks in soft rose.

  "You can change anything you want to change."

  "I've been raised to be decorative, and useless." She tossed her head, then stretched like a cat. "And I'm so good at it."

  "You irritate me, Faith."

  "I'm good at that, too." Amused, she nudged his leg with her bare foot. "Don't be cross, Cade. Arguing's going to spoil my taste for this wine. I've already had words with Mama today."

  "A day doesn't go by you don't have words with Mama."

  "I wouldn't if she wasn't so critical of every damn thing. She's been in a mood most of the day." Faith's eyes glittered. "Since Lissy called from town, anyhow."

  "No point in it. She knew Tory was coming back."

  "Coming's different from being. I don't think she likes the idea of renting the Marsh House to her."

  "If she doesn't live there, she'll just live somewhere else." Since he was tired, he lay his head back and tried to will the tension of the day out of his neck and shoulders.

  "She's back, and it appears she means to stay."

  "So you did go see her." Faith drummed her fingers against her thigh. "I thought you would. Duty first for our Cade. Well . . . What's she like?"

  "Polite, reserved. Nervous, I think, about being back." He took a sip of beer. "Attractive."

  "Attractive? I remember tree-bark hair and knobby knees. Skinny and spooky."

  He let it pass. Faith tended to pout if a man, even her brother, commented on another woman's good looks. He wasn't in the mood for her sulks. "You could make the effort to be nice to her, Faith. Tory wasn't responsible for what happened to Hope. What's the point of making her feel as though she were?"

  "Did I say I wasn't going to be nice to her?" Faith ran her fingers around the rim of her glass, she couldn't seem to keep them still.

  "I imagine she could use a friend."

  Faith dropped her hand, and her silky voice went flat. "She was Hope's friend, never mine."

  "Maybe not, but Hope's not here a
nymore, either. And you could use a friend yourself."

  "Honey, I've got plenty of friends. It's just that none of them happens to be a woman. Fact is, things are so dull around here, I might go into town tonight after all. See if I can find me a friend for a few hours."

  "Suit yourself." He pushed her foot aside and rose. "I need a shower."

  "Cade," she said before he got to the door. She'd seen that flare of derision in his eyes, and it stung. "I got a right to live my life as I choose."

  "You've got a right to waste your life as you choose."

  "All right," she said evenly. "And so do you. But I'm saying maybe for once I agree with Mama on one thing. We'd all be better off if Victoria Bodeen went back to Charleston and stayed there. You'd sure as hell be better off keeping your distance from whatever trouble she's carrying with her."

 
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