Carolina moon, p.8
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       Carolina Moon, p.8

           Nora Roberts
 

  breathing, until it began to come slow and quiet. She couldn't see if her thoughts were tumbling, couldn't concentrate if her blood was screaming.

  For the first time in over four years she prepared to open herself to the gift she'd been cursed with at birth.

  But lights stabbed through the front window and washed across the room. Her thoughts scattered wild as blown petals at the sound of a car driving fast up her lane.

  Tires sent the thin layer of gravel spitting, an impatient, demanding sound. Her breath came harsh again as she forced herself to the door. She jabbed the flashlight in the pocket of the sweats she'd slept in, gripped the knife firmly in one hand and turned the lock.

  The car lights clicked off as the driver yanked open the door. "What do you want?" Snatching the flashlight again, Tory shoved at the switch. "What are you doing here?"

  "Just visiting an old friend.”

  Tory aimed the beam at the figure that stepped out of the car. Her knees went weak, her skin clammy. "Hope." She choked out the name as the knife slipped from her fingers and clattered to the floor. "Oh God."

  Another dream. Another episode. Or maybe it was just madness. Maybe it always had been.

  She stepped up to the porch. Moonlight shimmered onto her hair, into her eyes. The screen door creaked as she opened it. "You look like you've seen a ghost, or were expecting one." She bent down, picked up the knife. With one elegant finger she tapped the tip of the blade.

  "But I'm real enough." So saying she held up the finger, and the tiny drop of blood gleamed. "It's Faith," she added, and simply walked in. "I saw your light as I was driving by."

  "Faith?" There was a rush like the sea in her head. The joy in it, that frantic leap of it, ebbed as she said the name again. "Faith."

  “That’s right. Got anything to drink around here?" She wandered into the kitchen.

  As if she owned the place, Tory thought, then reminded herself that the Lavelles did indeed own the place. She ran a hand over her face, into her hair. Then bracing herself, followed Faith into the kitchen.

  "I have some iced tea." "I meant something with a little more punch." "No, I'm sorry. I don't. I'm not exactly set up for company as yet."

  "So I see." Intrigued, Faith did a turn around the kitchen, laying the knife on the counter as she passed. "A little more spartan than I expected. Even for you."

  This was how Hope would have looked if she'd lived. Tory couldn't get the thought out of her head. She would have looked just like this, deep blue eyes against clear white skin, hair the color of corn silk. Slim and beautiful. And alive.

  "I don't need much."

  "That was always the difference, one of them, anyway, between us. You didn't need much. I needed everything."

  "Did you ever get it?"

  Faith arched a brow, then only smiled and leaned back on the counter. "Oh, I'm still collecting. How does it feel to be back?" "I haven't been back long enough to know." "Long enough to come to the door with a kitchen knife in your hand when someone pays a call."

  "I'm not used to calls at three in the morning."

  "I had a late date. I'm between husbands at the moment. You never did marry, did you?"

  "No."

  "I swear I heard something about you being engaged at one time. I guess it didn't work out."

  The sense of failure, despair, betrayal wanted to come. "No, it didn't work out. I take it your marriages—two of them, weren't there?—didn't work out, either."

  Faith smiled, and this time meant it. She preferred an even match. "Grew into your teeth, I see."

  "I don't want to take a bite out of you, Faith. And it seems pointless for you to take one out of me after all this time. I lost her, too.”

  "She was my sister. You never could remember that."

  "She was your sister. She was my only friend."

  Something tried to stir inside her, but Faith blocked it off. "You could have made new friends."

  "You're right. There's nothing I can say to make up for it, to change things, to bring her back. Nothing I can say, nothing I can do."

  "Then why come back?"

  "They never let me say good-bye."

  "It's too late for good-byes. You believe in fresh starts and second chances, Tory?"

  "Yes, I do."

  "I don't. And I'll tell you why." She took a cigarette out of her purse, lighted it. After taking a drag she waved it. "Nobody wants to start over. Those who say they do are liars or delusional, but mostly liars. People just want to pick up where they left off, wherever things went wrong, and start off in a new direction without any of the baggage. Those who manage it are the lucky ones because somehow they're able to shrug off all those pesky weights like guilt and consequences."

  She took another drag, giving Tory a contemplative stare. "You don't look all that lucky to me."

  "You know what, neither do you. And that's a surprise."

  Faith's mouth trembled open, then she shut it again and smiled thinly. "Oh, I travel light and travel often. You just ask anyone."

  "Looks like we've landed in the same place. Why don't we make the best of it?" "Long as you remember who got here first, we won't have a problem." "You've never let me forget it. But right now this is my house, and I'm tired." "Then I'll see you around." She started out, trailing smoke. "You sleep tight, Tory. Oh, and if staying out here all alone gives you the willies, I'd trade that knife in for a gun."

  She stopped, opened her purse, and lifted out a trim, pearl-handled pistol. “A woman just can't be too careful, can she?" With a light laugh, she dropped the gun back into her bag, snapped it closed, then let the screen door slap behind her.

  Tory made herself stand in the doorway, even when the headlights blinded her. She stood there until the car reversed out of the lane, swung onto the road, and sped away.

  She locked the door, then went back in the kitchen for the flashlight, and the knife. Part of her wanted to get into the car, drive into town, and knock on her uncle's door. But if she couldn't spend this first night in the house, it would be that much easier to avoid the next, and the next.

  She lay with her back to the wall, her eyes on the window until the dark softened and the first birds of morning woke.

  He had been afraid. When he'd crept so quietly to the window, he'd felt what he felt so rarely. A fist of fear squeezing at his gut.

  Tory Bodeen, back where it had all started. She was sleeping, curled on the floor like a gypsy, and he could see the curve of her cheek, the shape of her lips in the slant moonlight.

  Something would have to be done. He’d known that, had begun to plan for it in quiet and steady way. But what a jolt to her here, to remember it all so vividly j by seeing her here.

  He'd been startled when she'd woke coming out of sleep as fast and straight an arrow from a bow. Even in the dark h seen visions in her eyes. It had brought sweat to his face, to the palms of his hands. But there were plenty of shadows, shelter to slide into. Cracks in the wall.

  He'd folded himself into one of the cracks and watched Faith arrive. The bright gleaming in the moonlight in such an interesting contrast to Tory's dark. Tory v seemed to absorb the light rather than fleet it.

  He'd known, of course, in that instant when they'd stood together, when their voices had mixed, where they would take him. Where he would take them.

  It would be as it had been the first time so long ago. It would be what he’d been trying to recapture for eighteen long years. It would be perfect.

  She'd planned to be up early. When a knock at the front door woke her at eight, Tory wasn't certain if she was more irritated with herself or the new visitor. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she stumbled out of the bedroom, blinked at the sunlight, and fumbled with the lock.

  She gave Cade one bleary stare through the screen. "Maybe I shouldn't be paying rent if the Lavelles have decided to make this their home away from home."

  "Sorry?"

  "Nothing." She gave the screen one hearted push that wasn't entirel
y an invitation, then turned away. "I need coffee."

  "I woke you." He stepped in to follow her into the kitchen. "Farmers tend to think everyone's up at dawn. I—" He stopped by the half-open door of the bedroom, swore. "For Christ's sake, Tory, you don't even have a bed."

  "I'm getting one today." "Why didn't you stay with J.R. and Boots?" "Because I didn't want to."

  “You prefer sleeping on the floor? What's this?" He walked into the room, taking over, as his sister had the night before, then came out holding the knife.

  “It’s my crochet hook. I’ve got one hell of an afghan going." When he only stared at her, out a breath and stomped into "I had a late night, and I'm surly, so watch your step.”

  Saying nothing, he slid the knife back, its slot in the block. While she measured coffee and water, he set the plate he carried on the counter. "What's that?"

  “Lilah sent it over, she knew I was coming this way this morning." Cade peeled up a corner of the foil. "Coffee cake. She said you had a taste for her sour cream coffee cake."

  Tory merely stared at it, shocking both when her eyes filled. Before he could move, she held up a hand, kept it aloft like a shield as she turned away.

  Unable to resist, he ran a hand over her hair, then let it drop when she step quickly, deliberately out of reach.

  "You tell her I appreciate it very much. She's well, is she?" "Why don't you come by and see yourself?"

  "No, not for a while yet. I don't think a little while yet." Steadier, she opened a cupboard and took down a cup.

  "You gonna share?"

  She glanced back over her shoulder. eyes were dry now, and clear. He did look like a damn farmer, she thought. He was tanned and lean, and his hair streaked from the sun. His jeans were old and his shirt faded blue. There were sunglasses hooked carelessly by one earpiece in the breast pocket. What he looked like, she decided, was some Hollywood director's image of a young, prosperous southern farmer who could ooze charm and sex appeal with one easy smile.

  She didn't trust images.

  "I suppose I have to be polite."

  "You could be rude and greedy," he said, "but you'd feel terrible about it later."

  She had four cups, he noted, four saucers, all in solid, sensible white. She had an automatic coffeemaker, and no bed. Her shelves were already tidily lined, again in white. There wasn't a single chair in the house.

  Just what, he wondered, did such matters say about Tory Bodeen?

  She took out another knife, then lifted her eyebrows at him as she measured a slice. He wagged his fingers until she widened it. "Got an appetite this morning?" she asked as she cut through.

  "I've been smelling that all the way over here." He picked up the plates. "Why don't we have this out on the front porch? I take my coffee black," he added, then walked out.

  Tory only sighed and poured two cups.

  He was sitting on the steps when she out, resting his back against the top riser. She sat beside him, sipping her coffee and looking out over his fields.

  She'd missed this. The realization came a backward slap of surprise that was m shock than pain. She'd missed mornings when the heat of the day had yet to the air, when the birds sang like miracles, the fields lay green and growing.

  He'd had precious mornings like even as a child, when she had sat on had been a cracked concrete stoop, stud the coming day, and dreamed fool dreams.

  “It’s a nice smile," he commented. "Is it the cake or the company that tugged it out of you?"

  It vanished like a ghost. "Why were coming this way this morning, Cade?"

  "I got fields to look after, crews to check.” He broke off a corner of coffee cake. "And I wanted another look at you."

  "Why?" "To see if you were as pretty as I thought you were yesterday."

  She shook her head, took a bite of cake and went straight back to Miss Lilah's wonderful kitchen. It cheered her so much smiled again, took another bite. "Why, really?"

  "You did look a sight better yesterday he said conversationally. "But I have to take into account you didn't get much sleep on that floor. You make a fine cup of coffee, Miz Bodeen."

  "There's no reason you have to feel you need to check up on me. I'm fine here. I just need a couple of days to settle in. I'm not going to be here half the time anyway. Setting up the store's going to take most of my time."

  "I imagine so. Have dinner with me tonight." "What for?" When he didn't answer, she turned her head. His eyes were amused, his lips faintly curved. And in that mild and friendly expression she saw something she'd successfully avoided for years. Frank male interest. "No, no. Oh no." She lifted her cup, gulped down coffee. "That was pretty definite. Let's make it tomorrow night." "No. Cade, I'm sure that's very flattering, but I don't have the time or the inclination for any sort of a .. . of a thing." He stretched out his long legs, crossed them at the ankles. "We don't know what sort of a thing either of us has in mind at this stage. Me, I enjoy a meal now and again, and find I enjoy one more in good company." "I don't date." "Is that a religious obligation or a societal Preference?" "It's a personal choice. Now . . ." Because he looked to be settling in, entirely too comfortably, she got to her feet. "I'm sorry, but I have to get started on my day. I'm already behind schedule."

  He rose, watched her eyes go wide and watchful when he shifted just an inch closer. "Somebody roughed you up plenty, didn't they?"

  “Don’t.”

  "That's just the point, Tory." Because he didn't care to have her flinch away from him, he eased back. "I wouldn't. Thanks for the coffee."

  He walked to his truck, pausing to turn back when he'd opened the door. He gave her a good long stare, figuring it would do them both good for her to get used to it. "I was wrong," he called out as he climbed in the cab. "You're just as pretty today."

  She smiled before she could help herself, watched him grin before he backed out of the lane.

  Alone, she sat back down. "Oh hell," she muttered, and stuffed more cake into her mouth.

  6

  Independent small-town banks were a dying breed. Tory knew this because her uncle, who'd managed Progress Bank and Trust for twelve years, rarely failed to mention it. Even without the family connection, she would have chosen it for her business. It was just good politics. It sat on the east side of Market, two blocks down from her shop. That added convenience. The old redbrick building had been carefully and lovingly preserved. That added charm. The Lavelles had established it in 1853, and maintained a proprietary interest. There, she thought, as she turned toward the front door, was the politics. If you wanted to do business successfully in Progress, South Carolina, you did business with the Lavelles. It was a rare pie their fingers weren't dipped in. The interior of the bank had changed. She could remember visiting with her grandmother and thinking the tellers worked in cages like exotic animals in the zoo. Now the lobby area was open, almost airy, and four tellers manned a long, high counter.

  They'd added a drive-through window in the back, and behind a waist-high wooden rail and gate two employees sat at lovely old desks topped with sharp and efficient looking computers. There were several nicely executed paintings of South Carolinian land and seascapes adorning the walls.

  Someone, she mused, had figured out how to modernize without deleting the soul. She wondered if she could gently nudge uncle into one of the paintings or wall hangings she'd soon have for sale.

  "Tory Bodeen, is that you?" With a little jolt, Tory turned her attention to the woman behind the rail. She worked up a smile as she tried to place the face, and came up blank. "Yes, hello."

  "Well, it's just so nice to see you again and all grown-up, too." The woman was tiny, could barely have topped five feet. She came through the gate, held out both hands. "Always knew you'd be a pretty thing. You won't remember me."

  It felt so rude not to in the face of such sincere delight. For a moment, Tory tempted to use the connection, grab on to a name. But she couldn't break a vow over something so trivial. "I'm sorry."

  "N
ow, there's no need for that. You were just a bit of a thing last I saw you. I'm Betsy Gluck. Your grandma trained me when I was just out of high school. I remember how you used to come in now and again and sit quiet as a mouse."

  "You gave me lollipops." It was such a relief to remember, to have that quick, sweet taste of cherry on her tongue.

  "Why, imagine you remembering that after all this time." Betsy's green eyes sparkled as she gave Tory's hands a squeeze.
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