Carolina moon, p.9
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       Carolina Moon, p.9

           Nora Roberts
 

  "Now, you're here to see J.R."

  "If he's busy, I can just—"

  "Don't be silly. I've got instructions to take you straight into his office." She wrapped an arm around Tory's waist as she led her through the gate.

  She'd have to get used to this, Tory reminded herself. To being touched. Handled. She couldn't be a stranger here.

  "It must be so exciting, opening a store all your own. I just can't wait to come shopping. I bet Miz Mooney's just so proud she could pop." Betsy rapped on a door at the end of a short hall.

  “J.R., your niece is here to see you." The door swung open, and J.R. Mooney filled it. The size of him always astonished Tory. How this big, brawny man had come from her grandmother was one of life's mysteries. "There she is!" His voice was as big as the rest of him and boomed out as he made his grab.

  Tory was braced for it, and still lost he breath when he scooped her off her feet into his wild grizzly hug. And as always, the surprise came as her toes left the ground that the rib-cracking embrace made her laugh.

  "Uncle Jimmy." Tory pressed her face into his bull's neck, and finally, finally, felt home.

  "J.R., you're going to snap that girl like twig."

  "She's little." J.R. winked at Betsy.

  “But she's wiry. You make sure we got us a few minutes ' quiet in here, won't you, Betsy?"

  "Don't you worry. Welcome home Tory," Betsy added, and closed the door. "Here, now, you sit down. Want anything? Coca-Cola?" "No, nothing. I'm fine.” She didn't sit but lifted her hands, then dropped them. I should have come to see you yesterday."

  "Don't you fret about that. You're now." He leaned back on his desk, a man of six-two and a muscled two-fifty. His ginger colored hair hadn't faded with age, but there were thin wires of silver wove through the mass of it. The brush mustache that added a bit of dash to his round face had grown in pure silver, as had his wooly caterpillar eyebrows. His eyes were more blue than gray, and had always seemed as kind to Tory.

  Abruptly, he grinned, big as the moon.

  “Girl, you look like city. Just as pretty and polished as a TV star. Boots is gonna love showing you off." He laughed at Tory's automatic wince. "Oh now, you'll indulge her a bit, won't you? She never did have that daughter she pined for, and Wade just won't cooperate and get married to give her little granddaughters to dress up."

  "She tries to put a lace pinafore on me, we're going to have trouble. I'll go see her, Uncle Jimmy. I need to get settled first, get into the shop and roll up my sleeves. I've got stock and supplies coming in over the next few days."

  "Ready to work, are you?"

  "Eager. I've wanted to take this step a long time. I hope the Progress Bank and Trust has room for another account."

  "We've always got room for more money. I'll set you up myself, and we'll get to that in just a minute. Honey, I heard you rented the old house."

  "Does Lissy Frazier hold the record for biggest mouth in Progress these days?"

  "She runs neck and neck with a few others. Now, I don't mean to crowd you or anything like that, but Cade Lavelle wouldn’t hold you to that lease if you wanted to change your mind. Boots and I wish you'd come stay with us. We got room, God knows."

  "I appreciate that, Uncle Jimmy—"

  "No, hold on. Don't say ‘but’ just yet. You're a grown woman. I got eyes, I can see that. You've been on your own some years now. But I can't say as I like the idea of you living out there, not in that house. I don't see how it can be good for you."

  "Good or not, it feels necessary. He beat me in that house." When J.R. closed his eyes, Tory stepped closer. "Uncle Jimmy, I don't say that to hurt you."

  "I should've done something about it. I shouldn’ve got you out of there. Away from him. Should've got you both out."

  "Mama wouldn't go." She spoke gently now, because he seemed to need it. "You know that."

  "I didn't know how bad it was, not then. I didn't look hard enough. But I know now, and I don't like to think about you being out there, remembering all that."

  "I remember it wherever I am. Staying there, well, that proves to me I can face it. I can live with it. I'm not afraid of him anymore. I won't let myself be."

  "Why don't you come on to the house, just for a few days then. See how you settle?" He only sighed when she shook her head. "It's my plight to be surrounded by stubborn women. Well, sit down so I can do this paperwork and take your money."

  At noon the bells of the Baptist church chimed the hour. Tory stepped back, wiped the sweat off her face. Her display window sparkled like a diamond. She'd carted boxes in from her car and stacked them in the storeroom. She'd measured for shelving, for counters, and made a list of demands and requirements she intended to take down to the realtor. She was working on the second list, one she would take to the hardware store, when someone tapped on the cracked glass of the shop door. She studied the spare man in workman's clothes as she approached. Dark hair, well cut, a smooth, handsome face with an easy, crooked smile. Sunglasses hid his eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm not open," she said as she opened the door. "Looks like you could use a carpenter." He tapped his finger at the crack again. "And a glass man. How's it going, Tory?" He took off his sunglasses, revealing dark, intense eyes, and a tiny hook-shaped scar just under the right one. "Dwight Frazier." "I didn't recognize you." "Few inches taller, several pounds lighter than the last time you saw me. Thought I should come by, welcome you as mayor, and shift hats to see if there's anything Frazier Construction can do for you. Mind if I come in a minute?" "Oh, sure." She stepped back. "Nothing much to see just now."

  "It's a good space."

  He moved well, she noted. Not at all like the awkward, chubby boy he'd been. The braces were gone, and so was the ruthless buzz cut his father had insisted on.

  He looked fit, and he looked prosperous. No, she thought. She wouldn't have recognized him.

  "It's a solid building," he continued, "with a strong foundation. And the sound." He turned back, flashing the smile that had helped his orthodontist buy a cabin cruiser. "I should know, we put it on two years back."

  "Then I'll know who to come after if it leaks."

  He laughed and hooked his sunglasses in the collar of his T-shirt. "Frazier builds to last. You're going to want counters, shelves, displays."

  "Yes, I was just measuring." "I can send you a good carpenter, at a fair rate."

  It was smart, and again political, to use local labor. If, she thought, local labor met her budget. "Well, your idea of a fair rate and mine might not connect."

  His grin was lightning and full of charm. "Tell you what. Let me get some things out of my truck. You can tell me what you've got in mind, and I'll give you an estimate.

  We'll see if we can make them connect."

  He was aware she was measuring him, even as he measured her walls. He was used to it. As a boy, his father had measured him, and had forever found him just short of the mark.

  Dwight Frazier, ex-marine, avid hunter, town councilman, and founder of Frazier Construction, had high standards for the fruit of his loins. His disappointment when that fruit had turned out undersized and soft had been keen.

  Young Dwight Junior had never been allowed to forget it.

  The truth was, Dwight mused, as he scribbled numbers on his clipboard, he had been short of the mark. Short, fat, clumsy, he'd been a prime candidate for jokes and sneers, and his father's tight-lipped disappointment.

  Worse, he'd had a brain. As a boy, there was no more deadly combination than a pudgy body, clumsy feet, and a sharp brain. He'd been the darling of his teachers, which meant he might as well have painted a kick my ass sign on his back.

  His mother had struggled to make up for it the best way she knew how. By shoving food in his face. There was nothing like a box of Ho Ho's, in his dear mama's thinking, to make all right with the world again.

  His salvation had been Cade and Wade.

  Why they'd befriended him had never made full sense to Dwight. Class had been part of it. They
had come from three of the town's most prominent families. For that he had been, and continued to be, grateful.

  Perhaps there was, still, a tiny splinter of resentment in his gut over the whims of fate that had made those two tall, handsome, and agile, while he'd been plump, plain, and awkward. But he'd made up for it. In spades.

  "I started running when I was fourteen." He said it casually as he drew out his measuring tape again.

  "Excuse me?"

  "You're wondering." He crouched, noted on his pad again. "Got sick of being the fat kid and decided to do something about it. Took off twelve pounds of blubber in a couple of months. First few times I ran, I did it at night when no one could see me. I got sick as three dogs. Stopped eating the cupcakes and candy bars and chips my mother packed in my lunch every day. Thought I'd starve to death."

  He rose, flashed his grin again. "First year of high school I started going out to the track at night, running there. I was still overweight, still slow, but I didn't puke up dinner anymore. Seems that Coach Heister used to come out there at night, too, in his Chevy sedan in the company of another man's wife. I won't mention who, as the lady remains married and is the proud grandmother of three now. Hold this end for me, sugar."

  Fascinated, Tory took the end of the measuring tape as Dwight walked backward to span the projected counter area.

  "Now, it so happened that on one of our mutual visits to the Progress High School track, I got an eyeful of the coach and the future grandmother of three. It was, you can imagine, a rather awkward moment for all parties involved."

  "To say the least."

  "And the least said, the better, which is what Coach suggested to me as he clamped his hands around my throat. I had to agree. However, being a fair man, or perhaps just a suspicious one, he offered me a token in return. If I continued to train, and could take off another ten pounds, he'd give me a place on the track team come spring. This was our tacit agreement, that I would forget the incident and that he would refrain from killing me and burying my body in a shallow grave."

  "Seemed to work for everyone."

  "Sure worked for me. I took off the weight, and shocked everyone, including myself, by not only making the team but blowing the competition to hell in the fifty and hundred-yard dash. I was a hell of a sprinter, it turned out. I won the All Star trophy three years running, and the love of pretty Lissy Harlowe." She warmed to him, one outsider to another. "That's a nice story."

  "Happy endings. I think I can help you get your own here in your shop. Why don't I buy you lunch and we'll talk about it."

  "I don't—" She broke off as the door opened behind her.

  "Don't tell me you're hiring this two-bit hustler." Wade strolled in, swung an arm around Tory's shoulder. "Thank God I got here in time."

  "This puppy doctor here doesn't know a damn thing about building. Go give a poodle an enema, Wade. I'm about to take your pretty cousin, and my potential client, to lunch."

  "Then I'll just have to come along and protect her interests." "I need shelves more than I need a sand-

  "I'll see you get both." Dwight winked at her. "Come on, sugar, and bring this dead weight along with you."

  She took thirty minutes, and enjoyed herself more than she'd expected. It was a pleasure to see the adult friendship between Dwight and Wade that had its roots in the boys she remembered.

  It made her miss Hope. It was easy enough for a woman who was rarely comfortable around men to relax when one was her cousin and the other tidily married. So tidily, Dwight was showing off pictures of his son before the sandwiches were served. Tory would have made the appropriate and expected noises in any case, but the truth was the little boy was seriously adorable, with Lissy's pretty face and Dwight's snapping eyes.

  And, she decided, as she headed off to do errands, it had been constructive as well as easy. Not only did Dwight understand what she wanted, but he improved on her basic layout, and the estimate slipped comfortably into her budget. Or did after she wheedled, refused, questioned, and pushed. And, wiping imaginary sweat from his brow, he promised the work would be done before the middle of May.

  Satisfied, she went out and bought a bed.

  She really meant to pick up just the mattress and box spring. Years of frugality had never permitted her to impulse buy. And it was rare, very rare, for her to experience the deep-seated desire to own something.

  The minute she saw it, she was hooked.

  She walked away from it twice, and back again. The price wasn't out of line, but she didn't need a lovely, classic iron bed with slim, smooth posts to frame both head and foot of the mattress. Yes, it was practical, but it wasn't necessary.

  A sturdy bed frame, and a good solid mattress set, that was all she required. All she was going to do was sleep in it, for goodness sake.

  She argued with herself even as she pulled out her credit card, as she drove to the loading dock, as she drove home. Then she was too busy hauling and cursing and tugging to waste time arguing.

  Standing between rows of newly cultivated cotton, Cade watched her struggle for ten minutes. Then he did some cursing of his own, marched to his truck, and drove down to her lane.

  He didn't slam the door after he climbed out, but he wanted to.

  "You forgot your magic bracelets."

  She was out of breath, some stray wisps of hair had escaped her braid and were plastered to her face, but she had the huge and heavy box halfway up the porch steps. She straightened, tried not to pant. "What?"

  "You can't be Wonder Woman without your magic bracelets. I'll get this end."

  "I don't need any help."

  "Stop being an ass, and get the door."

  She stomped over, yanked the door open. "Are you always here?" He took off his sunglasses, tossed them aside. It was a habit that cost him a pair on the average of two a month. "You see that field over there? It's mine. Now, move aside while I get this up there. What the hell kind of bed is this?" "Iron," she said with some satisfaction, when she noted he had to put his back into it. "Figures. We need to angle it up through the door." "I knew that." She planted her feet, crouched, and took the weight of her end. There was a lot of muttering, a great deal of finessing, and a scraped knuckle on her end, but they got it through. She continued to walk backward, forced to trust him as he directed her right or left, until they muscled it into the bedroom. "Thank you." Her arms felt like rubber. "I can manage from here." "Got any tools?" "Of course I have tools." "Good. Get them. It'll save me from going for mine. Might as well set this up before we bring the rest in." In one irritable gesture, she pushed her sweaty hair back. "I can do it." "And you're almost contrary enough for me to let you. I am trapped by my superior breeding." He took her hand, examined the broken skin, and kissed it lightly before she could snatch it free. "You can put something on that while I do this."

  She considered insulting him, ordering him out, even kicking him out, and decided every option was a waste of time. She got the tools.

  He admired the seriously efficient black toolbox. "Aren't you just prepared for everything?"

  "You probably don't know pliers from a wrench." Obviously amused, he pulled out a pair of needle-nose pliers. "Scissors, right?"

  When the breath she huffed out ended on a laugh, he got to work on the heavy-duty staples plugged into the box. "Go put something on that knuckle."

  "It's all right."

  He didn't bother to look at her, or change the tone of his voice, but there was the light and tempered steel of command. "Put something on it. Then why don't you go fix us something cold to drink?"

  "Look, Cade, I'm not the little woman."

  He glanced up now, measured her with one cool look. "You're little, and you're a woman. And I've got the scissors." "I don't suppose my suggesting just where you might shove those pliers would wipe that smile off your face."

  "I don't suppose telling you you're sexy when you're frazzled would convince you to christen this bed with me once we set it up?"

  "Jesus"
was all she said as she strode out of the room. She left him alone. She could hear the clatter and the occasional oath, as she hauled in groceries, put them away, brewed tea. He had long hands, she mused. Elegant pianist's fingers, that contrasted with the hard, calloused palms. She was sure he knew how to plant and tend and harvest. He'd been raised to do so. But everyday chores? No, that was a different matter.

  Since she didn't expect he'd put together a single bed frame in his own privileged life, she imagined she'd walk in on complete chaos. And she was determined to give him plenty of time to make a mess of things.

  She hooked up her new kitchen phone, put away her new dishcloths, and lazily sliced lemons for the tea. Satisfied he'd had enough time to mortify himself, she poured two glasses over ice and strolled into the bedroom with them.

  He was just turning the last bolt.

  Her eyes lit up, and the quick little sound she made was one of sheer, feminine delight. "Oh! It's wonderful. It's really wonderful. I knew it would be." Without thinking, she shoved the
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