Carnal Innocence (Page 11)

Junior Talbot stepped out of the cab of his tow truck, stuck a finger under his Atlanta Braves fielder's cap, and dug through his tangled mop of red hair to scratch his head. He made a long, slow circle around Tucker's mangled Porsche, his J. C. Penney work boots crunching on shards of glass. His pale blue eyes were sober in his round, powerfully freckled face. Thoughtfully, he pulled at his full bottom lip.

Caroline thought he looked like Howdy Doody on tranquilizers.

"Seems like you got yourself some trouble here," he said at length.

"Little bit," Tucker agreed. "Got a smoke, Junior?"

"Guess so." Junior pulled a pack of Winstons from the breast pocket of his grease-stained work shirt. He shook the pack, shooting a cigarette out to the filter, carefully replacing the pack after Tucker had taken it. Then he crouched down to contemplate the mashed fender. There was another long moment of silence. "Sure used to be a pretty car."

Tucker knew Junior wasn't rubbing his nose in it. It was simply his nature to state the obvious. Leaning over, Tucker opened the glove compartment and found a pack of matches. "I s'pose they can fix her up, down in Jackson."

Junior thought about that awhile. "I s'pose," he decided. "Could be you bent the frame, though. They got a way of straightening them out now. Used to be, you bent the frame and that was all she wrote."

Tucker smiled through a haze of smoke. "You just can't stop progress."

"That's the truth." Taking his time, Junior straightened, then studied the torn grass on the verge of the road, the shower of glass, and the lack of skid marks. After some consideration, he decided to have a cigarette himself. "You know, Tucker, I always said you were the best driver I've seen, outside of the time I went down to Daytona to watch the 500."

Caroline gave a snort, and was politely ignored.

"I recall how you took the Bonny boys for twenty dollars in the drag race down on Highway One-back in July of seventy-six it was. They put their Camaro up against your Mustang." Junior accepted a match from Tucker and lit it with a flick of his thumbnail. "Wasn't no contest."

Tucker remembered the race with pleasure. "Might've been closer if Billy T. had let John Thomas drive."

Junior nodded agreeably. "Closer, maybe. But neither of those boys got the talent for driving you have."

"Idiots," Caroline said under her breath. If Junior heard her, he pretended not to. He'd been a married man more than a year now, and knew when a man should let his ears work and when he shouldn't.

"I gotta ask you," Junior continued in the same slow, quiet voice. "How'd you happen to hit this pole here?"

"Well..." Tucker took a considering drag. "You could say the car got away from me. Steering seized up."

Junior nodded and continued to smoke. Caroline nearly asked them if they'd like her to go back and fetch a couple of folding chairs so they could have their conversation in comfort.

"Don't look to me like you even hit the brakes."

"I hit them," Tucker said. "They were out."

Junior eyes came as close to sharp as they ever did. If it had been anyone else, he would have shrugged off the story. But he knew and admired Tucker's skill at the wheel. "Now, that's a puzzle. Bad steering, bad brakes, all at once in a car like this? No more than six months old, is she?"


Junior nodded again. "We'll have to take a look."

"I'd be obliged if you would, Junior."

Caroline held her tongue until Junior walked back to his tow truck. "What the hell does a drag race more than fifteen years ago have to do with you crashing into my mail post?"

Tucker smiled. "It was a hell of a night. Get on back from the car now, darlin'. It might shift some when he hooks it on." Careful to keep her sympathy close to the surface, Tucker slid an arm around her shoulders, leaned a little of his weight on her, and allowed her to help him move back a few feet.

"Are you dizzy?"

He wasn't, but there was such sweet concern in her voice. "Maybe a little," he said-bravely, he thought. "It'll pass." He bit back a smile when her arm curved around his waist in support.

"Let's get you back in the car." She'd insisted on driving him to the end of the lane rather than allowing him to walk. "I'll take you home."

Home, hell. He was just starting to make progress. "Maybe I could just stretch out on your couch till I get my strength back."

She was wavering, he could tell. When he heard the blare of a horn, he had to swallow an oath. Dwayne screeched his white Caddy to a stop, dead in the middle of the road. He hadn't shaved yet, and his hair was sticking out at all angles. He had pulled a pair of pants over his Jockeys and had added a muscle shirt.

"Jesus H. Christ, boy."

He glanced at Tucker, saw he was standing on both feet, and gave his attention to the car Junior was hooking up.

"Out for a Sunday drive, Dwayne?"

"Crystal called." Dwayne whistled through his teeth as he took a look at the front end of the Porsche. "Seems Singleton Fuller was in the Mobile when Junior got the call. He ran into Jed Larsson, then Crystal stopped in for a six-pack of Cokes. Good thing I answered the phone before Josie, or she'd've had a hissy fit for sure." His hangover, thanks to Josie's stock of pills and remedies, had backed off enough to make him sympathetic. "Shit on toast, Tuck, you sure did kill that pretty little toy."

Out of patience, Caroline sucked in a breath. "He's doing as well as can be expected," she shot out. "It could have been worse, but as it happens he only rapped his concrete head. It's understandable that you're so concerned about your brother's condition, but let me reassure you. He'll be fine."

Junior had stopped what he was doing to stare, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Dwayne blinked. Tucker struggled not to lose his dignity by hooting with laughter.

She was crazy about him, he decided.

"Yes, ma'am," Dwayne said, meticulously polite. "I can see he is. I just rode down so I could take him home."

"What a concerned, close-knit family you must be."

"We do tend to stick together." When he smiled, there was something charming about him despite the bloodshot eyes, the barroom glow.

"I've never known another family like yours," Caroline said sincerely.

"She's all set, Tuck," Junior called. "I'll let you know what's what."

"You do that. Thanks." Tucker had to turn away. He just couldn't watch his car being towed off. It was almost as bad as watching a loved one being carried away on a stretcher.

"Nice to see you again, Caroline," Dwayne began, then headed to his car. "Let's go, Tucker. There was a game starting when Crystal called. I've missed the whole first inning by now."

"In a minute." Tucker turned back to Caroline. "I appreciate the nursing." He touched a hand to her hair. "And the listening. I didn't realize I needed someone to listen."

It took her a moment to understand he was being sincere. There were no teasing lights in his eyes, no trace of mockery in his voice. "You're welcome."

"I'd like to pay you back." When she started to shake her head, Tucker cupped her chin. "I'd like you to come to dinner tonight, at Sweetwater."

"Really, Tucker, you don't have to-"

"It occurs to me that I'd like you to see me under some better circumstances than I've managed so far." His thumb traced along her jawline. "And I'd just like to see you, period."

Her heartbeat skittered for a moment, but her voice was clear. "I'm not interested in starting anything, not with anyone."

"Having neighbors in for Sunday dinner's an old country custom."

She had to smile. "I don't mind being neighborly."

"Shit, Tuck, would you just kiss her and come on?"

Smiling back, Tucker brushed a finger over her lips. "She won't let me. Yet. Come on down around five, Caro. I'll show you around Sweetwater."

"All right."

She watched him walk to the Caddy, ease in carefully beside his brother. He flashed her a quick grin before Dwayne shot toward Sweetwater, the Caddy hugging dead center of the road.

"Here I come rushing home from the bake sale, thinking you've cracked your skull or worse, and you tell me company's coming." Delia whacked her rolling pin down on the pie crust. "Now I don't even know how much we took in. Had to leave Susie Truesdale in charge, and she don't know squat about salesmanship." As this particular refrain had been playing for the best part of three hours, Tucker decided to act. He pulled a twenty out of his pocket and slapped it on the counter. "There. That's my contribution to the Trinity Lutheran bake sale."

"Hmph." But Delia's nimble fingers snatched up the bill and tucked it away in the deep pocket of her apron. She was far from through. "Nearly had me a spell when Earleen came running down to tell me you'd gone and wrecked that car. Told you when you bought it, no good comes of buying foreign. Out racing the roads on the Lord's day, too." She flipped the crust into a pie plate. "And when I come hurrying home to see if you're dead or alive, you tell me you've invited a guest for dinner."

Fuming, she trimmed and fluted the edges. "As if that ham in the oven was going to fix itself. Edith's grandbaby, too. I had a great fondness for Edith, and she told me how her grandbaby'd been to Paris, France, and Italy, walked right into Buckingham Palace and even had dinner with the President of the United States in the White House." She pounded out the next crust. "Here she's coming to dinner and I ain't had time to see if the silver needs polishing. Your mama'd turn over in her grave-God rest her-if I weren't to use the good silver." She wiped the back of her wrist over her brow. Her heavy charm bracelet danced and jangled. "It's just like a man to think Sunday dinner makes itself."

Tucker scowled down at the potato he was peeling. "I'm helping you, aren't I?"

She gave a superior sniff and glanced at him. "Fine help you are. You're taking too much meat off them 'taters- and getting peelings all over my clean floor."

"Jesus Christ-"

Delia's eyes flashed with the cold ire Tucker respected. "Don't you use the Lord's name in vain-not in my kitchen on Sunday."

"I'll clean up the floor, Delia."

"See that you do-and not with one of my good dishrags neither."

"No, ma'am." It was time to pull out the big guns, Tucker decided. He set the bowl of potatoes in the sink, then moved over to wrap his arms around Delia's considerable waist. "I just wanted to do something nice for Caroline after she'd patched up my head."

Delia grunted. "I've see what she looks like. I can guess what that something nice is."

He grinned into her wild red curls. "Can't say the thought hasn't passed through my mind."

"Passed under your zipper, more like." But her lips were quirking. "Seems a bit skinny for your taste."

"Well, see, I figured she'd flesh out some, especially after sampling your cooking. You know there's nobody in the county who can set a table compared to yours. I kind of thought I'd like to impress her, and the surefire way was to have her taste some of your honey-glazed ham."

Delia snorted and shifted, but the flush of pride was creeping up her cheeks. "I guess I don't begrudge giving the girl a decent meal."

"Decent?" He gave Delia a squeeze. "Sugar, she won't have had better in the White House. You can take that to the bank."

Delia chuckled and slapped his hands away. "She won't get nothing if I don't finish. You drop them 'taters in that kale I got simmering, then clear out. I can do this quicker without you sniffing 'round."

"Yes'm." Tucker pressed a kiss to her cheek that made her grumble and grin. When he walked out of the steamy kitchen a few minutes later, he found Dwayne sprawled in the parlor watching another baseball game. "Wouldn't hurt you to shave."

Dwayne shifted and reached for the bottle of Coke sitting on the floor. "It's Sunday. I never shave on Sunday."

"We've got company coming."

Dwayne took a long swallow, and swore when the shortstop bobbled the ball. "If I shave, she might see that I'm better looking than you. Then where'd you be?"

"I'll risk it."

Dwayne snorted. "They're going to be pulling this pitcher before the inning's up-if they got half a brain. I'll do it then."

Satisfied, Tucker started upstairs. Before he reached his room, Josie called to him.

"Tucker? Is that you, honey?"

"I'm going to take a shower."

"Well, just come on back here for a minute and help me out."

He checked the grandfather clock, saw he had a half hour before Caroline would arrive, and sauntered down the hall to Josie's room.

It looked like a department store after a clearance sale. Blouses, dresses, lingerie, shoes, were tossed over bed, chair, and window seat. A black lace teddy hung suggestively from the trunk of a stuffed pink elephant some forgotten swain had won for her at the state fair.

She was still wearing the little red robe and her head was stuck in her closet as she pawed through what was left hanging there.

As always, there was a scent clinging to the air, a mixture of perfumes, powders, and lotions. The result was something between the perfume counter at Blooming dale's and a high-class bordello.

Tucker gave the room a brief survey, and came to the obvious conclusion. "Got a date?"

"Teddy's driving me down to the nine o'clock show in Greenville. I told him to come on to dinner, since we're having company anyway. How's this?" She turned, holding a short orange leather skirt up to her waist.

"Too hot for leather."

Josie pouted a minute because she knew the skirt showed off her legs, then tossed it aside. "You're right. I know what I need, that little cotton dress, the pink one. I wore it at a garden party last month in Jackson and got a marriage proposal and three indecent propositions. Now, where the hell is it?"

Tucker watched as she started tossing through clothes already discarded. "I thought you were trying out the doctor for Crystal."

"I did." She glanced up and grinned. "Thing is, I decided he wasn't Crystal's type at all. And he'll be going back north in a day or two, and that would just break her heart. She couldn't afford to visit him if things got serious between them. And I can. Does your head still hurt?"

"Not much."

"Look here." She pointed to a small bruise on her calf. "You went tearing out of here so fast before, you kicked up gravel. Now I'll have to put Erase on that if I want to wear a skirt."


She shrugged and went back to looking for the pink dress. "I guess it's okay. You were upset. Everybody's going to know she was lying, Tucker. Even before they bury her on Tuesday, everybody'll know."

"I expect so." He spotted a swatch of shell pink and crouched down to pull the dress out from under the pile. "I've calmed down, Josie. Hearing it from Burke just fired me up."

She touched the bandage on his forehead, and they stood close, in a drift of Josie's perfume. They shared more than their mother's face, more than the Longstreet name. Between them was a tie deeper than blood. It went to the heart.

"I'm sorry she hurt you, Tucker."

"Poked a few holes in my pride, that's all." He kissed Josie lightly on the lips. "They'll heal up fast enough."

"You're just too nice to women, Tucker. It makes them fall in love with you, then you've got nothing but trouble. If you were a little harder on them, you wouldn't get their expectations up."

"I'll keep that in mind. Next time I take a woman out, I'll tell her she's ugly."

Josie laughed and stood up to hold the dress in front of her as she twisted and turned in front of her cheval glass. "Don't go reciting any poetry, either."

"Who says I do?"

"Carolanne told me you talked poetry when you took her over to Lake Village to look at stars."

Tucker shoved his hands in his pockets. "How come women always tell the intimate details of their life over a manicure or a permanent?"

"It's the same as men bragging about the size of their wangers over a bottle of beer. How's this look?"

He scowled. "I'm finished handing out compliments to females."

Josie only chuckled as he strode off to shower.

Caroline was so stunned by Sweetwater that she stopped her car halfway up the drive to stare. The house was pearly white in the afternoon sun, all gracious curves and delicate ironwork, slender columns and glinting windows. It took no imagination at all to picture women in hoop skirts strolling across the grass, or gentlemen in frock coats sitting on the porch discussing the possibility of secession while silent black servants served cool drinks.

Flowers grew everywhere, climbing up trellises, spilling over the borders of brick-edged beds. The heady smells of gardenia, magnolia, and roses perfumed the air.

A Confederate flag, faded and ragged at the edges, hung from a white pole in the center of the front lawn.

Beyond the house, she could see neat stone buildings. What once were slave quarters, smokehouse, summer kitchen-she could guess that much. The lawn stretched back to acre after acre of flat, fertile land thick with cotton. She saw a single tree in the center of one of the fields, a huge old cypress left standing either through laziness or sentiment.

For some reason that-just that single tree-brought tears to her throat. The simple majesty of it, the endurance it symbolized, touched her in some deep corner of her heart. Surely it had stood there for more than a century, watching over the rise and fall of the South, the struggle for a way of life, and the ultimate end of it.

How many spring plantings had it seen, how many summer harvests?

She shifted her gaze back to the house. It, too, symbolized continuity and change, and the stately elegance of the Old South that so many from the north thought of as indolence. Babies had been born there, grown up and died there. And the rhythm of this quiet spot on the delta went on. And on. The slow pulse of their culture and traditions survived.

The proof was here, just as it was in her grandmother's house, in those houses and farms and fields dotting the road into Innocence. And in Innocence itself.

She wondered why she was just beginning to understand that.

When she saw Tucker come out the front doorway to stand on the porch, she wondered if she was beginning to understand him as well. She got the car moving again, eased it around the island of peonies, and stopped.

"The way you were sitting back there on the drive, I was beginning to think you'd changed your mind."

"No." She opened the car door and stepped out. "I was just looking."

He was doing some looking of his own, and decided not to speak until the fingers squeezing his heart loosened up. She was wearing a thin white dress, with a full skirt he imagined would billow gloriously in a breeze. Two finger-width straps held it over her shoulders and left her arms bare. There was a necklace of polished stones around her throat. Her hair was sleeked back to set off matching stones that dangled from her ears. She'd done something mysterious and female to her face, deepening her eyes, darkening her mouth.

As she mounted the steps toward him, he caught the first whiff of her light, tempting scent.

He took her right hand in his left, and turned her slowly in a circle under the arch of his arm, as if in a dance. It made her laugh. When he saw how low the dress dipped in the back, he swallowed hard.

"I've got to tell you something, Caroline."

"All right."

"You're ugly." He shook his head before she could comment. "That's just something I had to get out of my system."

"It's an interesting approach."

"My sister's idea. It's supposed to keep women from falling in love with me."

Why did he always make her want to smile? "It could work. Are you going to ask me in?"

He traded her left hand for her right. "It seems like I've been waiting a long time to do just that." He led her to the door, opened it. Pausing, he studied her, wanting to see how she looked in the doorway-his doorway-with flowers and magnolia trees at her back. She looked, he realized, perfect.

"Welcome to Sweetwater."

The moment she stepped inside, Caroline heard the shouting.

"If you've gone and asked somebody to come and sit at my table, the least you can do is set it." Delia stood at the base of a curving stairway, one hand braced on a mahogany newel post, the other on her sturdy hip.

"I said I would, didn't I?" Josie's voice tumbled down the steps. "I don't know what you're in such a god-awful lather about. I'm going to finish putting my face on, then I'll get to it."

"Way she's messing around with those paints, it'll get set next week." Delia turned. The righteous indignation on her face gave way to curiosity when she spotted Caroline. "Well now, you're Edith's grandbaby, aren't you?"

"Yes, I suppose I am."

"Edith and I, we used to have ourselves some nice chats out on her front porch. You favor her a bit, 'round the eyes."

"Thank you."

"This is Delia," Tucker announced. "She takes care of us."

"I've been trying for the best part of thirty years, but it ain't done all that much good. You take her on into the guest parlor and give her some of the good sherry. Dinner'll be ready before long." With a last scowl at the stairway, she lifted her voice. "If somebody would stop tarting herself up and come set the table."

"I'd be happy to do it," Caroline began, but Delia was already pulling her along the hallway toward the living room.

"No sir, you'll do no such thing. Tucker peeled the potatoes and that girl's going to set out the china. Least she can do after asking that dead doctor to dinner." She patted Caroline's arm then scurried off toward the kitchen.

"Ah... dead doctor?"

Tucker grinned, strolling over to an antique walnut server for the sherry. "Pathologist."

"Oh, Teddy. He's certainly an... interesting character." She took a slow sweep of the room with its tall windows, lace curtains, Turkey carpets. The twin settees, as she was sure they were called, were in misty pastels. Cool colors predominated in the subtle stripes of the wallpaper, the hand-worked pillows, the plump ottoman. The richness of antiques melded with it. On the mantel above the white marble fireplace was a Waterford vase filled with baby roses.

"This is a lovely house." She took the glass he offered. "Thank you."

"I'll give you the grand tour sometime. Tell you the whole history."

"I'd like to hear it." She walked to the window where she could look out at the garden and beyond to the fields and the old cypress. "I didn't realize you farmed."

"We're planters," he corrected her as he came up behind her. "Longstreets have been planters since the eighteenth century-right after Beauregard Longstreet cheated Henry Van Haven out of six hundred acres of prime delta farmland in a two-day poker game down in Natchez in 1796. It was in a bawdy house called the Red Starr."

Caroline turned. "You made that up."

"No ma'am, that's just the way my daddy told it to me, and his daddy to him, and so on since that fateful April night in ninety-six. 'Course it's just speculation about the cheating part. The Larssons put in that bit-they're by way of being cousins of the Van Havens."

"Spoilsports," Caroline said, smiling.

"Could be that, or it could be the God's truth, but neither changes the outcome." He was enjoying the way she looked at him, her lips tilted up just a little, her eyes laughing. "Anyhow, Henry got so irritated about losing the land, he tried to ambush old Beau when Beau finished celebrating with one of the Starr's best girls. Her name was Millie Jones."

Caroline sipped and shook her head. "You ought to write short stories, Tuck."

"I'm just telling you the way it was. Now, Millie was pleased with Beau's performance-did I mention that the Longstreets have always been known as exceptional lovers?"

"I don't believe you did."

"Documented, through the ages," Tucker assured her. He loved the way laughter brightened her eyes, softened her mouth. If he hadn't had a story to tell, by God he would've made one up. "And Millie, being grateful for Beau's stamina-and the extra five-dollar gold piece he'd left on the night stand, went on over to the window to wave him off. It was she who spotted Henry in the bushes with his flintlock loaded and ready. At just the right moment, Millie shouted a warning. The gun went off. Beau's frock coat was singed at the arm, but his reflexes were keen. He pulled out his knife and sent it whipping into the brush where the shot had come from. Hit Henry dead in the pump, as my grandpappy used to say."

"He was, of course, an expert at knife-throwing as well as lovemaking."

"A man of many talents," Tucker agreed. "And being a prudent man as well, he decided it best not to stay around Natchez and answer uncomfortable questions about a deed, a dead man, and an Arkansas Toothpick. Being a romantic, he took pretty young Millie out of that bawdy house, and they traveled to the delta."

"And planted cotton."

"Planted cotton, got rich, and had babies. It was their son who started building this house, in 1825."

Caroline said nothing for a moment. It was much too easy to become caught up in the flow of his words, the easy rhythm of his voice. It's not really the point  -  how much is true and how much is made up, she decided. It's all in the telling. She moved away from the window, acutely aware that he was about to touch her again, and less sure if she'd want to stop him. "I don't know much of anything about my family history. And certainly nothing that goes back two hundred years."

"We look back more than forward in the delta. History makes the best gossip. And tomorrow... well, tomorrow's going to take care of itself anyway, isn't it?"

He thought he heard her sigh, but the sound was so soft, it might have been silence.

"I've spent my whole life thinking about tomorrow-planning next month, next season. It must be the air here," she said, and this time she did sigh. There was something wistful in the sound. "I've hardly thought of next week since I walked into my grandmother's house. Haven't wanted to, anyway," she said, remembering the phone calls from her manager that she'd been dodging ever since she decided to come to Mississippi.

He had a strong urge to hold her-just to offer her the circle of his arms and the support of his shoulder. But he was afraid the gesture would spoil whatever was happening between them.

"Why are you unhappy, Caro?"

Surprised, she looked back at him. "I'm not." But she knew it was only part of the truth. And part of the truth was a lie.

"I listen almost as well as I talk." His hand was gentle as he touched her face. "Maybe you'll try me sometime."

"Maybe." But she moved back, marking the distance. "Someone's coming."

Now he knew the time wasn't right, and turned to the window again. "The dead doctor," he said, and grinned. "Let's go see if Josie set the table."