Carnal Innocence (Page 15)

"Don't you ever work?" Caroline asked as she struggled to gather up the wiggling puppy, her purse, and some of her purchases.

"Only if they catch me." Tucker set the roses aside, then lazily unfolded himself. "Whatcha got there, Caro?"

"I call it a dog."

He chuckled and wandered over to where she'd managed to squeeze her car next to the boat-sized Oldsmobile. "Cute little fella." He ruffled the pup's fur, then peeked in the back of the BMW. "Need some help?"

She blew her hair out of her eyes. "What do you think?"

"I think you're glad to see me." He took advantage of her loaded arms and kissed her. "And you wish you weren't. Go on and take a load off. I'll haul the rest of this out for you."

She did, mainly to see if he could do anything with his hands other than raise a woman's blood pressure. After she'd sat on the steps, Caroline worked on fastening the new collar around the squirming puppy's neck.

"Looks like you got all the essentials," Tucker commented. He pulled out a bag, tossed the sack of puppy food over his shoulder. There was a faint and interesting ripple of muscle, Caroline noticed. Then he gathered up the bright-flowered cushion. "What's this?"

"He's got to sleep on something."

Your bed, Tucker figured with a grin. The pup didn't look backward. "So..." He dumped everything on the porch, then sat next to her. "That one of the Fuller pups?"

"Yes." The pup deserted her to sniff at Tucker's hand. Caroline could smell the roses and determined not to be charmed by them, not to ask about them, not even to look at them.

"Hey, boy." Tucker scratched the pup in a spot that had Useless grinning and slapping a hind foot rhythmically on the step. "That's a good dog, yeah. That's a pretty good dog. So what's his name?"

"Useless," Caroline muttered as the puppy-her puppy, she reminded herself-stretched himself adoringly over Tucker's lap. "I've already figured out he would be, as a guard dog."

Tucker's brows drew together briefly. "Guard dog, huh?" He tickled the puppy into turning over. "Hey, boy, let me see those teeth." Useless obligingly chewed on Tucker's knuckle. "Well, they'll grow soon enough. Just like the rest of him. Couple of months he'll start to grow into his feet."

"In a couple of months I-I'll be in Europe," she finished. "Actually, I may be leaving sooner than that. There's an engagement I might have to take-in September-that would require me to go to D.C. in August to prepare."

"Have to take?"

She hadn't meant to put it that way. "There's an engagement," she said, dismissing the rest. "But I imagine I'll be able to find a good home for the puppy before I leave."

Tucker looked up at her, golden eyes calm and just a little hard. He had a way of looking now and again, she thought, that stripped away all the nonsense and carved down to truth. "I expect you could take a dog along if you wanted to." His voice was quiet, hardly more than a ripple on the hot, still air. "You're a pretty big deal in what you do, aren't you?"

She hated the fact that she had to look away, had to before he saw through to things she was still hiding from herself. "Touring's complicated," she said, and left it at that.

But he didn't.

"Do you like it?"

"It's part of what I do." She started to make a grab for the puppy, when he scrambled off Tucker's lap to go exploring. "He could wander off."

"He's just sniffing the place out. You didn't answer me, Caroline. Do you like it?"

"It's not a matter of like or dislike. When you're performing, you travel." Airport to airport, she thought, city to city, hotel to hotel, rehearsal to rehearsal. She felt the tightening in her stomach, the little pull of a knot being tied. It warned her to ease off unless she wanted to extend an invitation to her old friend Mr. Ulcer.

When a man was rarely tense himself, he recognized the symptoms. Casually, he put a hand to the back of her neck and rubbed. "I never could understand why somebody'd make a habit of doing something they didn't care for."

"I didn't say-"

"Sure you did. You didn't say, Oh my gracious, Tuck, there's nothing like it. Flying off to London, scooting on to Paris, cruising over to Vienna or Venice. Now, I've always wanted to see some of those places myself. But you don't sound like you've piled up a load of fun by doing it."

See? she thought. What did you really see between interviews, rehearsals, performances, and packing? "There are people in this world who don't consider fun their life's ambition." She heard her own voice, recognized it as prim, and pouted in disgust.

"Now, that's a shame." He settled back to light a cigarette. "See that pup there? He's sniffing 'round there, happy as a frog with a belly full of flies. He'll water your grass, chase his tail if it appeals to him, then settle down and take a nice nap. I always figured dogs had the best idea for getting through."

Her lips twitched. "Just let me know if you have an urge to water my grass."

But Tucker didn't smile back. He studied the glowing tip of his cigarette a moment, then shot her that calm, scapel-honed look. "I asked Doc Shays about those pills you gave me. The Percodan? He said they were potent. It caused me to wonder why you'd need them."

She toughened up. The way she drew in reminded him of a porcupine curling up and showing spines to anything curious enough to take a poke. "That's none of your business."

He put a hand on her cheek. "Caroline, I care about you."

She was very aware-they both were-that he'd said that before, to dozens of women. And they were both aware, uncomfortably, that this time it was different.

"I get headaches," she said, hating the fact that her voice was waspish and defensive.


"What is this? A test? A lot of people get headaches, especially if they do more than sit in a porch rocker all day."

"I prefer a good rope hammock myself," he said equably. "But we were talking about you."

Her eyes went flat and cold. "Back off, Tucker."

Normally he would have. He wasn't one to poke and prod where his hand could get snapped off. "It doesn't sit well with me, thinking about you hurting."

"I'm not hurting." But a headache was coming on as relentlessly as a highballing freight train.

"Or worrying."

"Worrying." She repeated the word twice, then dropped her head in her lap and laughed. There was a tint of hysteria in the sound that had the puppy bellying over to whine at her feet. "Oh, what's to worry about? Just because some maniac's out carving up women and leaving them floating in my pond. Why should I worry that Austin Hatinger's on the loose again, and may decide to come back and blow out my windows? I certainly shouldn't lose any sleep over the fact that he's sure to try to put a few holes in you."

"I'm not looking for more holes than I've already got." He ran a soothing hand up and down her spine. "We Longstreets have a knack for coming out on top."

"Oh, I can see that. With your eye blackened and your head bashed in."

Tucker frowned a little. He'd been thinking his eye was looking a lot better. "By next week the bruises'll go and Austin's likely to be back in jail. Longstreet luck works that way, darlin'. Take Cousin Jeremiah."

Caroline groaned, but he ignored her.

"Now, he was a good friend of Davy Crockett's. A Kentucky boy, you know?" His voice settled naturally into a story-telling mode. "They'd fought together during the War for Independence. 'Course, Jeremiah'd been no more'n a boy then, but he sure did like to fight. After the war he knocked around here and there, not quite sure what the hell to do with himself. Never settled down. It was like he couldn't find himself a purpose. Anyhow, he heard about this ruckus going on in Texas, and figured he'd mosey on over and see his old friend Davy. Maybe shoot a few Mexicans. He was still this side of Louisiana when his horse stepped down in a rabbit hole. Tossed Jeremiah off. Horse broke a leg, so did Jeremiah. Had to shoot the horse, which pained Jeremiah some, as they'd been together the best part of eight years.

"Now, it so happened this farmer came along, hauled Jeremiah back to his place in his wagon. The farmer had a daughter, as any decent farmer should, and between them they set the leg-it was a bad break and nearly did Jeremiah in, but after a couple a weeks he was able to hobble around on a crutch."

"And he fell in love with the farmer's daughter, had a handsome brood of children who got rich planting cotton or whatever they plant in Louisiana."

"That's true enough, but not my point exactly. The point is Jeremiah lost his horse and walked with a limp the rest of his days. But he never did get out there to join Davy in Texas. At the Alamo."

She'd turned her head to rest her cheek on her knees so that she could watch him as he finished the story which was probably a lie. The odd thing was her headache had receded along with those warning jags in her stomach.

"So the point is," she said, "a Longstreet's lucky enough to break a leg to avoid something more fatal."

"There you go. Now, honey, why don't you gather up your dog and whatever you think you need and come on down and stay at Sweetwater for a while?" The instant wariness in her eyes made him smile. "We've got a dozen bedrooms or more, so you don't have to stay in mine." He flicked a finger down her nose. "Unless you're ready to admit you're going to end up there sooner or later anyway."

"I thank you for the graciousness of your offer, but I'll have to decline."

The faintest shadow of impatience flickered in his eyes. "Caroline, you've got plenty of chaperones and a good solid lock on every bedroom door if you're thinking I'll try to sneak under your sheets."

"I'm sure you would," she said, but with a laugh. "And don't flatter yourself by thinking I'm afraid I can't handle you. I have to stay here."

"I'm not proposing you move in permanently." But it surprised him that the idea didn't give him the shivers. "Just for a visit, till Austin's where he belongs."

"I have to stay here," she said again. "Tucker, up until the last couple months I've never taken a stand on anything. My whole life I've done what I was told, gone where I was pointed, and acted as I was expected to act."

"Tell me."

"No, not now." She let out a long sigh. "Maybe some other time. But this is my home, my place, and I'm sticking. My grandmother lived here her entire adult life. My mother was born here, though she'd prefer you didn't mention it. I'd like to think there was enough McNair in me to last one summer." She shook off the mood and smiled. "Are you going to give me those flowers or let them wilt on the step?"

He considered several valid arguments, then let it go. When people weren't allowed to go their own way, they were more likely to break than bend. "These?" All innocence, he held up the roses. The little plastic nipple of water each stem was tucked in kept them fresh. "Did you want them?"

She shrugged. "I wouldn't want them to go to waste."

"Me neither, since I had to drive all the way over to Rosedale to get them-and that wine there. Had to borrow Delia's car to do it," he added, taking an indulgent sniff of the blooms. "And with Delia, nothing comes free. You should've seen the list of chores she gave me. Dry cleaning and marketing, and since she'd gotten herself a flyer about a dollar sale at Woolworth's, I had to fetch all that stuff, too. I drew the line at picking out a negligee for her sister Sarah's girl, who's engaged to be married and having a wedding shower next week. A man's got to have his standards, and I don't buy fancy underwear for women unless I'm intimately acquainted with them."

"You're a man of substance, Tucker."

"It's a matter of principle." He laid the roses over her lap, where the slender cupped blossoms glowed like little points of sunlight. "I thought yellow ones suited you best."

"They're beautiful." She inhaled the perfume, sweet and strong. "I suppose I'll have to thank you for them, and for all the trouble you went through to get them for me."

"You could kiss me instead. I'd rather you did." He smiled when her brow creased, then tipped up his chin with a fingertip. "Don't think about it, Caroline, just do it. It's better than any pill for curing headaches."

So with the roses glowing between them, she leaned over and touched her lips to his. The taste was as sweet and as strong as the fragrance that floated over to her. And, she discovered, as comforting. A little dreamy-eyed, she started to draw back, but he cupped a hand around the back of her neck.

"You Yankees," he murmured. "Always in a hurry." He nudged her mouth back to his.

He was savoring. She understood that even as her mind began to mist over with emotion. She was aware of how slow, how deep a kiss could be if you just let yourself fall into it. With a little sigh she did just that.

Even when she felt his fingers tense on her skin, she didn't worry. Under the palm she'd pressed to his chest, his heart was beating fast and hard. But the rhythm brought her pleasure rather than taut nerves.

And all the while his lips cruised over hers so that the kiss was like slipping into a cool blue lake dappled with sunlight.

It was he who drew back now. He hadn't touched her, but for those fingers that had grown strong at the back of her neck, he hadn't touched her. Hadn't dared. For he knew once he did, he wouldn't be able to stop.

Something here wasn't playing the tune he was used to. Difficult though it was to stop, Tucker knew he'd better think this through.

"I don't suppose you're going to ask me in."

"No," she said, and let out a long breath. "Not yet."

"I'd better be getting back, then." After a quick internal tug-of-war between stay and go, he rose. "I promised Cousin Lulu a game of Parcheesi. She cheats." He grinned. "But so do I, and I'm quicker."

"Thanks for the flowers. And the wine."

Tucker stepped over the pup, who was snoring at the base of the stairs. Since there was only three inches between Delia's Olds and the BMW, he had to get in through the passenger side and slide over. After he'd started the engine, he rolled down the window.

"You keep that wine chilled, sugar. I'll be back."

As Caroline watched him shoot backward down her lane, she wondered why that brief, cocky statement had sounded so much like a threat.

Josie and Crystal sat in their favorite booth in the Chat 'N Chew. Their excuse was dinner, but since both of them were on a perpetual diet, the reason was gossip.

Josie poked at her chicken salad with little interest. What she wanted was a thick steak and a side of nice greasy fries. But she worried about her body. She was past thirty now, and watched vigilantly for any sags or droops or paunches.

Her mama had kept a trim, willowy figure up to the day she'd dropped dead in her roses. Josie intended to do no less.

Since the day she'd realized her mama was different from her daddy, Josie had been in a subtle and constant competition. It had made her feel guilty from time to time, but she hadn't been able to resist the need to be as pretty as her mother. Then prettier. To be as desirable to men. Then more desirable.

She'd never been able to get a handle on her mother's quiet dignity, had failed miserably in trying to emulate it in her first marriage, so she had chosen to copy her father's bold and bawdy talk instead. She felt it suited her-the stunning femme-fatale looks and the earthy personality. As a child she'd fit the pieces of herself together. Now the puzzle of Josie Longstreet was linked tight.

While Josie toyed with her chicken salad, Crystal made short work of her tuna-stuffed tomato. Crystal was chattering the whole time she forked the tuna into her mouth. As she had all of her life, Josie turned the sound on and off.

She was fond of Crystal, had been since they'd made the solemn decision to be best friends back in first grade, when they'd been two privileged little girls with no idea how radically their lives would diverge. Josie going one way-debutante balls and that first, proper marriage. Crystal going another, after her lawyer father ran off to parts unknown with his secretary. Her path had been the work force and a bad marriage that had ended in divorce after a second miscarriage.

But they had remained friends. Whenever Josie swept back into Innocence, she always spent time with Crystal. Josie was sentimental enough to want a childhood friend in her adult life. And she liked the way they complemented each other. Crystal was tiny and nicely rounded while Josie herself was tall and slim. Crystal had white skin dashed with a sprinkle of freckles. She'd spent a fortune on every freckle remover on the market until she'd finally accepted them as a personality trait. She'd learned to care for her skin in Madame Alexandra's Beauty School in Lamont, where she'd graduated third in her class and had the certificate to prove it.

As a result, she had the blooming complexion of a milkmaid, which was the perfect foil for Josie's dusky Gypsy looks. Her hair, which she changed every few months as a kind of walking advertisement for her skills, was currently Clairol's Sparkling Sherry, which she wore in a viciously lacquered modified beehive. Crystal insisted they were coming back.

"And then, when Bea was doing Nancy Koons's nails, that Justine started going on about how Will told her the FBI figured out it was a black that killed Edda Lou and the others. How they knew it 'cause of the way they were killed, and how they'd found this pubic hair and all." Crystal dug into her tomato, daintily tipping the tuna onto her fork with her pinky. "Now, I don't know if that's the way it was or not, but I don't think it was right for her to be going on like that with Bea-who's black as the ace of spades-sitting there filing nails. I was real embarrassed, Josie, but Bea, she just asks Nancy if she wants ridge filler, and keeps on filing."

Josie sucked on her straw. "Justine's so besotted with Will, if he told her a frog shits gold nuggets, she'd be panning for them in Little Hope Creek."

"That's no excuse," Crystal said righteously. "I mean, we all know it probably was a colored, but you won't find me talking about it in front of Bea. Why, Bea's my best operator. So I gave Justine's hair a jerk and when she squealed, I said, just as nice as you please: 'Oh, honey, did that hurt? I'm awful sorry. All that talk about murder and all just makes me so nervous. Good thing I didn't clip your earlobe while I was trimming. A clipped ear bleeds worse'n a stuck pig.' " Crystal smiled. "That shut her right up."

"Maybe I'll talk Will into driving me home tonight." Josie tossed back her mane of hair. "That'll give Justine something to squeal about."

Crystal gave one of her quick, birdlike laughs. "Oh, Josie. You're such a one." Her eyes shifted as the diner's door swung open. Poking out her lip, she leaned closer to Josie. "There's that Darleen Talbot coming in with her baby." She sniffed and sucked her Coke dry. "There's trash and there's trash, I say."

Josie's gaze flicked up as Darleen walked by to settle herself in a booth. "Billy T. Bonny, huh?"

"Speaking of trash." And Crystal dearly loved to. "Just like I told you, I saw him saunter right on in Darleen's kitchen door not ten minutes after Junior went out the front. And all she was wearing was a little pink baby-doll nightgown when she let him in. I saw them clear through Susie Truesdale's kitchen window. There I was, rinsing Susie's hair in the sink. Now, that Susie, she keeps a spotless kitchen, let me tell you, even with all those kids. If her youngest hadn't had a sick stomach, she'd have come on in the shop for her usual wash and style, and I wouldn't have seen a thing."

"What did Susie say?"

"Well, her head was in the sink, but when I was blowing her dry, I mentioned it, real casual like. And I could see by the way she looked that she knew. But she just said she never paid any mind to what went on next door."

"So Darleen's cheating on Junior with Billy T." Josie's lips curved around her straw. Her eyes took on that deep, faraway glow that warned Crystal something was up.

"You're thinking, Josie."

"I was doing just that, Crystal. I was thinking that Junior's got a sweet face even if he is a little bit dim. And I'm real fond of him."

"Shoot." Crystal poked at the remains of her tomato. "Far as I know, he's about the only man in town between twenty and fifty you've never looked twice at."

"I can be fond of a man without wanting to do it with him." Josie examined her straw. There was a smear of red on the tip. "Seems to me somebody ought to give him a little hint about what's happening in his own house when he's not around to see it."

"I don't know, Josie."

"I know, and that's enough." She dug in her bag for a pad and pen. "Let's see now. I'll just write him a little note, and you can get it to him."

"Me?" Crystal squeaked, then looked guiltily around. "How come I have to do it?"

"Because everybody knows you stop at the station on your way home to buy yourself a Milky Way bar."

"Well, sure, but-"

"So when you go in," Josie continued, busily writing, "all you have to do is distract Junior while he's got the cash register open. Then you drop this on in and scoot out. Easy as pie."

"You know I always get a rash under my arms when I get nervous." Crystal thought she could already feel her skin prickling.

"Two seconds, and you're all done." When she saw Crystal wavering, Josie brought out the big guns. "I told you, didn't I, how Darleen was saying that color you used on her hair turned brassy and she was going to save her money by doing it herself with Miss Clairol? She said right out that it was a crime for you to charge seventeen fifty for a color job when all anyone had to do was pick up a box for five dollars and do it themselves."

"That little bitch has no right talking that way to my customers." Crystal was fired up now. "Why, she's got hair like a Brillo pad, and if I've told her once, I've told her a thousand times, she's got to have a professional tend to it or else it'll start falling right out of her head." She sniffed. "Hope it does."

Josie smiled and waved the note in front of Crystal's nose. Glaring, Crystal snatched it.

"Just look at her," Crystal continued. "Sitting there putting on lipstick while that baby smears ice cream all over itself."

Casually, Josie turned her head. She started to remark that Darleen would look better herself, smeared with a little cherry vanilla. The glint of the gold case on the tube of lipstick stopped her.

"Now, isn't that funny," she murmured.


"Nothing. I'll be right back, Crystal." Josie rose, and trailing a finger over the back of the booths, strolled up to Darleen. "Hey, Darleen. This baby of yours sure is getting big."

"He's eight months now." Surprised and flattered that Josie had come over, Darleen set the lipstick aside to wipe ineffectually at Scooter's face with a paper napkin. Infuriated by the interruption, he howled. Josie eyed the lipstick case while Darleen and the baby fussed at each other.

It wasn't a mistake, she thought. No indeedy. She'd bought that lipstick in Jackson, at the Elizabeth Arden counter. That gold case had caught her eye, and that particular shade of red.

Hers was missing, too. And had been since... since the night she'd gotten plowed-in more ways than one-in the embalming room of Palmer's with Teddy Rubenstein. She'd come home, Josie remembered, and had dropped her purse getting out of the car. Everything had spilled out.

And the next day Tucker had wrecked his car because somebody'd poked holes in some lines.

"That's a pretty lipstick you've got there, Darleen. Looks good on you."

Josie's eyes had taken on a hard, hunting edge, but Darleen heard only the compliment. "Red lipstick's sexy, I think. A man likes to see a woman's lips coming."

"I like red myself, and I never saw that shade before. Where'd you get it?"

"Oh." Darleen flushed a little, but was flattered enough to pick up the case and turn it around in the light. "It was a present."

Josie's grin was fiercely jovial. "My, I do love presents. Don't you?"

She turned without waiting for an answer and strode out past a baffled Crystal.

Fifteen minutes later Tucker, who was resting after three hard-fought games of Parcheesi, had his peace disturbed when Josie shook him awake and poured out her story.

Blinking against the last slants of sunlight, he tried to get his mushy brain around it.

"Just slow down, Jose, for chrissake. I'm not even awake yet."

"Then wake up, goddammit." She gave him a shove that nearly tilted him out of the hammock. "I'm telling you Billy T. Bonny's the one who messed with your car, and I want to know what you're going to do about it."

"You're telling me he used lipstick to poke holes in my hydraulic and brake lines?"

"No, you peabrain." She took a breath and went through the whole business again.

"Honey, just because Darleen had the same color lipstick as you-"

"Tucker." Patience wasn't one of Josie's virtues, and she punched him, hard. "A woman knows her own lipstick when she sees it."

He rubbed his arm, willing to concede the point. "You could've dropped it anyplace."

"I did not drop it anyplace, I dropped it right over there in the drive. I used it the night I went out with Teddy, and I didn't have it the next morning. Or my mother-of-pearl fold-up mirror either." Fury flared in her eyes. "The bitch's probably got that, too."

With a sigh, Tucker rose. It wasn't likely he'd be able to get in another nap. He wasn't mad yet, only because it all seemed a little farfetched.

"Where are you going?"

"I'll go pass this along to Burke."

Josie slapped her hands on her hips. "Daddy'd have gone and stuck a rifle barrel up Billy T.'s ass."

Tucker turned, and though his face remained calm, his eyes weren't. "I'm not Daddy, Josie."

She was sorry immediately and rushed over to throw her arms around him. "Honey, that was awful of me. I didn't mean it, either. It just makes me so mad, that's all."

"I know." He gave her a squeeze. "Let me handle it my own way." He drew back to kiss her. "Next time I'm in Jackson, I'll buy you a new lipstick."

"Ruthless Red."

"You just go on in and relax now. I'm going to take your car."

"Okay. Tuck?" When he turned back, she was smiling again. "Maybe Junior'll shoot his nuts off."