Carnal Innocence (Page 2)

Summer, that vicious green bitch, flexed her sweaty muscles and flattened Innocence, Mississippi. It didn't take much. Even before the War Between the States, Innocence had been nothing but a dusty fly-speck on the map. Though the soil was good for farming-if a man could stand the watery heat, the floods, and the capricious droughts-Innocence wasn't destined to prosper.

When the railroad tracks were laid, they had stretched far enough to the north and west to tease Innocence with those long, echoing whistles of pace and progress without bringing either home. The interstate, dug through the delta nearly a century after the tracks, veered away, linking Memphis to Jackson, and leaving Innocence in the dust.

It had no battlefields, no natural wonders to draw in tourists with cameras and cash. No hotel to pamper them, only a small, painfully neat rooming house run by the Koonses. Sweetwater, its single antebellum plantation, was privately owned by the Longstreets, as it had been for two hundred years. It wasn't open to the public, had the public been interested.

Sweetwater had been written up once in Southern Homes. But that had been in the eighties, when Madeline Longstreet was alive. Now that she and her tosspot, skinflint of a husband were both gone, the house was owned and inhabited by their three children. Together, they pretty nearly owned the town, but they didn't do much about it.

It could be said-and was-that the three Longstreet heirs had inherited all of their family's wild good looks and none of their ambition. It was hard to resent them, if the people in that sleepy delta town had churned up the energy for resentment. Along with dark hair, golden eyes, and good bones, the Longstreets could charm a coon out of a tree quicker than you could spit.

Nobody blamed Dwayne overmuch for following in his daddy's alcoholic footsteps. And if he crashed up his car from time to time, or wrecked a few tables in McGreedy's Tavern, he always made smooth amends when he was sober. Through as years went on, he was sober less and less. Everyone said it might have been different if he hadn't flunked out of the fancy prep school he'd been shipped off to. Or if he'd inherited his father's touch with the land, along with the old man's taste for sour mash.

Others, less kind, claimed that money could keep him in his fancy house and in his fancy cars, but it couldn't buy him a backbone.

When Dwayne had gotten Sissy Koons in trouble back in '84, he'd married her without a grumble. And when, two kids and numerous bottles of sour mash later, Sissy had demanded a divorce, he'd ended the marriage just as amiably. No hard feelings-no feelings at all-and Sissy had run off to Nashville with the kids to live with a shoe salesman who wanted to be the next Waylon Jennings.

Josie Longstreet, the only daughter and youngest child, had been married twice in her thirty-one years. Both unions had been short-lived but had provided the people of Innocence with endless grist for the gossip mill. She regretted both experiences in the same way a woman might regret finding her first gray hairs. There was some anger, some bitterness, some fear. Then it was all covered over. Out of sight, out of mind.

A woman didn't intend to go gray any more than a woman intended to divorce once she'd said "till death do us part." But things happened. As Josie was fond of saying philosophically to Crystal, her bosom friend and owner of the Style Rite Beauty Emporium, she liked to make up for these two errors in judgment by testing out all the men from Innocence to the Tennessee border.

Josie knew there were some tight-lipped old biddies who liked to whisper behind their hands that Josie Longstreet was no better than she had to be. But there were men who smiled into the dark and knew she was a hell of a lot better than that.

Tucker Longstreet enjoyed women, perhaps not with the abandon his baby sister enjoyed men, but he'd had his share. He was known to tip back a glass, too-though not with the unquenchable thirst of his older brother.

For Tucker, life was a long, lazy road. He didn't mind walking it as long as he could do so at his own pace. He was affable about detours, providing he could negotiate back to his chosen destination. So far he'd avoided a trip to the altar-his siblings' experiences having given him a mild distaste for it. He much preferred walking his road unencumbered.

He was easygoing and well-liked by most. The fact that he'd been born rich might have stuck in a few craws, but he didn't flaunt it much. And he had a boundless generosity that endeared him to people. A man knew if he needed a loan, he could call on old Tuck. The money would be there, without any of the sticky smugness that made it hard to take. Of course, there would always be some who muttered that it was easy for a man to lend money when he had more than enough. But that didn't change the color of the bills.

Unlike his father, Beau, Tucker didn't compound the interest daily or lock in his desk drawer a little leather book filled with the names of the people who owed him. Who would keep owing him until they plowed themselves under instead of their fields. Tucker kept the interest to a reasonable ten percent. The names and figures were all inside his clever and often underestimated mind.

In any case, he didn't do it for the money. Tucker rarely did anything for money. He did it first because it was effortless, and second because inside his rangy and agreeably lazy body beat a generous and sometimes guilty heart.

He'd done nothing to earn his good fortune, which made it the simplest thing in the world to squander it away. Tucker's feelings on this ranged from yawning acceptance to an occasional tug of social conscience.

Whenever the conscience tugged too hard, he would stretch himself out in the rope hammock in the shade of the spreading live oak, tip a hat down over his eyes, and sip a cold one until the discomfort passed.

Which was exactly what he was doing when Delia Duncan, the Longstreets' housekeeper of thirty-some years, stuck her round head out of a second-floor window.

"Tucker Longstreet!"

Hoping for the best, Tucker kept his eyes shut and let the hammock sway. He was balancing a bottle of Dixie beer on his flat, naked belly, one hand linked loosely around the glass.

"Tucker Longstreet!" Delia's booming voice sent birds scattering up from the branches of the tree. Tucker considered that a shame, as he'd enjoyed dreaming to their piping song and the droning counterpoint of the bees courting the gardenias. "I'm talking to you, boy."

With a sigh, Tucker opened his eyes. Through the loose weave of his planter's hat, the sun streamed white and hot. It was true that he paid Delia's salary, but when a woman had diapered your bottom as well as walloped it, you were never in authority over her. Reluctantly, Tucker tipped the hat back and squinted in the direction of her voice.

She was leaning out, all right, her flaming red hair peeking out from the kerchief she'd tied around it. Her broad, heavily rouged face was set in the stern, disapproving lines Tucker had learned to respect. Three strings of bright beads slapped against the sill.

He smiled, the innocent, crafty smile of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Yes'm?"

"You said you'd drive into town and bring me back a sack of rice and a case of Coca-Cola."

"Well, now..." Tucker rubbed the still-cool bottle over his torso before bringing it to his lips for a long swallow. "I guess I did, Delia. Figured I'd ride in once it cooled off some."

"Get your lazy ass up and fetch it now. Else there'll be an empty plate on the table at dinner tonight."

"Too damn hot to eat," he mumbled under his breath, but Delia had ears like a rabbit.

"What is that, boy?"

"I said I'm going." Graceful as a dancer, he slid out of the hammock, polishing off the Dixie as he went. When he grinned up at her, the hat tipped rakishly on his sweat-curled hair, and the light of the devil in those golden eyes, Delia softened. She had to force herself to keep her mouth pursed and stern.

"You're going to root to that hammock one day. See if you don't. A body'd think you were ailing the way you'd rather lie on your back than stand on your feet."

"Lots more a man can do lying down than nap, Delia."

She betrayed herself with a loud, lusty laugh. "Just make sure you don't do so much you end up getting hauled to the altar with someone like that slut Sissy, who snagged my Dwayne."

He grinned again. "No, ma'am."

"And bring me back some of my toilet water. It's on sale down at Larsson's."

"Toss me down my wallet and keys, then."

Her head withdrew, then popped out a moment later just before she flung both objects down at him. Tucker snagged them out of the air with a deft flick of the wrist that reminded Delia the boy wasn't as slow as he pretended to be.

"Put your shirt on-and tuck it in," Delia ordered, as she would have had he been ten.

Tucker lifted it from the hammock, shrugging into it as he walked around the front of the house, where a dozen Doric columns rose from the covered porch to the lacy ironwork of the second-story terrace. His skin was clinging to the cotton before he reached his car.

He folded himself into his Porsche-an impulse buy of six months before that he'd yet to grow tired of. He weighed the comfort of air-conditioning against the excitement of wind slapping his face, and opted to leave the top down.

One of the few things Tucker did fast was drive. Gravel spat under the tires as he slammed into first and streaked down the long, meandering lane. He swung around the circle where his mother had planted a bounty of peonies, hibiscus, and flashy red geraniums. Old magnolia trees flanked the lane, and their scent was heavy and pleasing. He flicked by the bone-white granite marker where his great-great-uncle Tyrone had been thrown from a bad-tempered horse and had broken his sixteen-year-old neck.

The marker had been set by Tyron's grieving parents to honor his passing. It also served as a reminder that if Tyrone hadn't chosen to test himself on that mean-spirited mare, he wouldn't have broken his stubborn neck, and his younger brother, Tucker's great-great grandfather, wouldn't have inherited Sweetwater and passed it down.

Tucker could have found himself living in a condo in Jackson.

He was never sure whether to be sorry or grateful when he passed that sad old piece of stone.

Out through the high, wide gates and onto the macadam was the scent of tar going soft in the sun, of still water from the bayou behind the screen of trees. And the trees themselves, with their high, green smell that told him, though the calendar claimed summer was still a week away, the delta knew better.

He reached for sunglasses first, sliding them onto his face before he chose a cassette at random and punched it into its slot. Tucker was a great lover of fifties music, so there was nothing in the car recorded after 1962. Jerry Lee Lewis shot out, and the Killer's whiskey-soaked voice and desperate piano celebrated the fact that there was a whole lot of shakin' going on.

As the speedometer swung toward eighty, Tucker added his own excellent tenor. His fingers drummed up and down on the steering wheel, looking like piano keys.

Barreling over a rise, he had to swing wide to the left to avoid ramming into the back side of a natty BMW. He tooted his horn, not in warning but in greeting as he skidded around the elegant maroon fender. He didn't slack his speed, but a glance in his rearview mirror showed him the Beemer was stopped, half in and half out of the lane leading back to Edith McNair's house.

As Jerry Lee switched into his raw-throated "Breathless," Tucker gave a passing thought to the car and driver. Miss Edith had passed on about two months before-around the same time that a second mutilated body had been discovered floating in the water down at Spook Hollow.

That had been sometime in April, and a search party had been whipped up to look for Francie Alice Logan, who'd been missing for two days. Tucker's jaw clenched when he remembered what it had been like, trudging through the bayou, carrying a Ruger Red Label and hoping to hell he didn't shoot off his own foot, or find anything.

But they'd found her, and he'd had the bad luck to be with Burke Truesdale when they did.

It wasn't easy to think about what the water and the fish had done to sassy old Francie, the pretty little redhead he'd flirted with, dated a time or two, and had debated sleeping with.

His stomach clenched and he bumped up the volume on Jerry Lee. He wasn't thinking about Francie. Couldn't. He'd been thinking about Miss Edith, and that was better. She'd lived to be nearly ninety and had passed on quietly in her sleep.

Tucker recalled that she'd left her house, a tidy two-story built during the Reconstruction, to some Yankee relative.

Since Tucker knew that no one within fifty miles of Innocence owned a BMW, he concluded that the Yankee had decided to come down and take a peek at his inheritance.

He dismissed the northern invasion from his thoughts, took out a cigarette, and after breaking a thumbnail-length piece from the tip, lighted it.

Half a mile back, Caroline Waverly gripped the wheel of her car and waited for her heart to slide back down her throat.

Idiot! Crazy bastard! Careless jerk!

She forced herself to lift her trembling foot off the brake and tap the gas until the car was all the way into the narrow, overgrown lane.

Inches, she thought. He'd missed hitting her by inches! Then he'd had the gall to blast his horn at her. She wished he'd stopped. Oh, she wished he'd stopped so she could have given that homicidal jackass a piece of her mind.

She'd have felt better then, having vented her temper. She was getting damn good at venting since Dr. Palamo had told her that the ulcer and the headaches were a direct result of repressing her feelings. And of chronically overworking, of course.

Well, she was doing something about both. Caroline unpried her sweaty hands from the wheel and wiped them against her slacks. She was taking a nice, long, peaceful sabbatical here in Nowhere, Mississippi. After a few months-if she didn't die of this vicious heat-she'd be ready to prepare for her spring tour.

As for repressing her feelings, she was done with that. Her final, ugly blowout with Luis had been so liberating, so gloriously uninhibited, she almost wished she could go back to Baltimore and do it again.


The past-and Luis with his clever tongue, brilliant talent, and roving eye definitely belonged to the past-was safely behind her. The future, at least until she'd recovered her nerves and her health, wasn't of much interest. For the first time in her life, Caroline Waverly, child prodigy, dedicated musician, and emotional sap, was going to live only for the sweet, sweet present.

And here, at long last, she was going to make a home. Her way. No more backing away from problems. No more cowed agreeing to her mother's demands and expectations. No more struggling to be the reflection of everyone else's desires.

She was moving in, taking hold. And by the end of the summer, she intended to know exactly who Caroline Waverly was.

Feeling better, she replaced her hands on the wheel and eased the car down the lane. She had a vague recollection of skipping down it once, on some long-ago visit to her grandparents. It had been a short visit, of course-Caroline's mother had done everything possible to cut off her own country roots. But Caroline remembered her grandfather, a big, red-faced man who'd taken her fishing one still morning. And her girlish reluctance to bait a hook until her grandfather had told her that old worm was just waiting to catch himself a big fat fish.

Her trembling thrill when her line had jerked, and the sense of awe and accomplishment when they'd carried three husky catfish back home.

Her grandmother, a wiry stick of a woman with steel-gray hair, had fried up the catch in a heavy black skillet. Though Caroline's mother had refused to taste a bite, Caroline herself had eaten hungrily, a frail, tow-headed six-year-old with long, slender fingers and big green eyes.

When the house came into view, she smiled. It hadn't changed much. The paint was flaking off the shutters and the grass was ankle-high, but it was still a trim two-story house with a covered porch made for sitting and a stone chimney that leaned just slightly to the left.

She felt her eyes sting and blinked at the tears. Foolish to feel sad. Her grandparents had lived long, contented lives. Foolish to feel guilty. When her grandfather died two years before, Caroline had been in Madrid, in the middle of a concert tour, and swamped by obligations. It simply hadn't been possible to make the trip back for his funeral.

And she'd tried, really tried, to tempt her grandmother to the city, where Caroline could have flown easily between tour dates for a visit.

But Edith hadn't budged; she'd laughed at the notion of leaving the house where she'd come as a new bride some seventy years before, the house where her children had been born and raised, the house where she'd lived her whole life.

And when she died, Caroline had been in a Toronto hospital, recovering from exhaustion. She hadn't known her grandmother was gone until a week after the funeral.

So it was foolish to feel guilt.

But as she sat in her car, with the air-conditioning blowing gently on her face, she was swamped with the emotion.

"I'm sorry," she said aloud to the ghosts. "I'm so sorry I wasn't here. That I was never here."

On a sigh, she combed a hand through her sleek cap of honey-blond hair. It did no good to sit in the car and brood. She needed to take in her things, go through the house, settle herself. The place was hers now, and she meant to keep it.

When she opened the car door, the heat stole the oxygen from her lungs. Gasping against its force, she lifted her violin case from the backseat. She was already wilting when she carried the instrument and a heavy box of sheet music to the porch.

It took three more trips to the car-lugging suitcases, two bags of groceries which she'd stopped to pick up in a little market thirty miles north, and finally, her reel-to-reel tape recorder-before she was done.

Once she had all her possessions lined up, she took out the keys. Each one was tagged: front door, back door, root cellar, strongbox, Ford pick-up. They jangled together like musical notes as Caroline selected the front-door key.

The door squeaked, as old doors should, and opened on the dim dust of disuse.

She took up the violin first. It was certainly more important than any of the groceries.

A little lost, and for the first time lonely, she walked inside.

The hallway led straight back to where she knew the kitchen would be. To the left, stairs climbed, hooking to a right angle after the third tread. The banister was dark, sturdy oak, layered now with a fine cloak of dust.

There was a table just beneath the stairs, where a heavy black dial phone sat beside an empty vase. Caroline laid down her case on it and got busy.

She carried groceries back to the kitchen with its yellow walls and white, glass-fronted cabinets. Because the house was oven-hot, she put them away first, relieved that the refrigerator was sparkling clean.

She'd been told some neighbor women had come in to wash and scrub after the funeral. Caroline could see that this country courtesy was true. Beneath the dust of two months, beyond the lacy webs that industrious spiders had woven in corners, was the faint, lingering smell of Lysol.

She walked slowly back to the front hall, her heels echoing on the hardwood. She peeked into the sitting room with its petit point cushions and big RCA console television that looked like an ancient artifact. Into the living room, where faded cabbage roses climbed the walls and "company" furniture was ghosted under dust covers. Then her grandfather's den with its case of hunting rifles and target pistols, its big easy chair, ragged at the arms.

Hefting her suitcases, she started upstairs to choose her room.

Both sentiment and practicality had her settling on her grandparents' bedroom. The heavy four-poster and wedding-ring quilt seemed to offer comfort. The cedar chest at its foot might hold secrets. The tiny violets and roses twined on the walls would soothe.

Caroline set her valises aside and walked to the narrow glass door that led to the high, open porch. From there, she could see her grandmother's roses and perennials struggling against the weeds. She could hear the lap of water against some rock or downed log behind the tangle of live oaks and Spanish moss. And in the distance, through the haze of heat, she saw the brown ribbon of water that was the powerful Mississippi.

There were birds calling, a symphony of sound through the hot air-jays and sparrows, crows and larks. And perhaps the gargled call of wild turkey.

She dreamed there for a moment, a delicately formed woman, a shade too thin, with exquisite hands and shadowed eyes.

For a moment, the view, the fragrances, the sounds, faded away. She was in her mother's sitting room, with the whispering tick of the ormulu clock, the scent of Chanel. Very soon they would be leaving for her first recital.

"We expect the best from you, Caroline." Her mother's voice was smooth and slow and left no room for comment. "We expect you to be the best. Nothing else is worth aiming for. Do you understand?"

Caroline's toes were curled nervously in her glossy Mary Janes. She was only five. "Yes, ma'am."

In the parlor now, her arms aching after two hours of practice. The sun so bright and golden outside. And she could see a robin perched in the tree. He made her giggle and pause.

"Caroline!" Her mother's voice flowed down the stairs. "You still have an hour of practice left. How do you expect to be ready for this tour if you have no discipline? Now start again."

"I'm sorry." With a sigh, Caroline lifted the violin that to her twelve-year-old shoulders was beginning to feel like a lead weight.

Backstage, fighting off the queasy nerves of opening night. And tired, so tired from the endless rehearsals, preparations, traveling. How long had she been on this treadmill now? Was she eighteen, twenty?

"Caroline, for heaven's sake, put on more blusher. You look like death." That impatient, hammering voice, taut fingers taking her chin and lifting it. "Why can't you at least show some enthusiasm? Do you know how hard your father and I have worked to get you where you are? How much we've sacrificed? And here you are, ten minutes before curtain, brooding into the mirror."

"I'm sorry."

She had always been sorry.

Lying in a hospital bed in Toronto, sick, exhausted, ashamed.

"What do you mean you've canceled the rest of the tour?" Her mother's tense, furious face looming over hers.

"I can't finish it. I'm sorry."

"Sorry! What good is sorry? You're making a shambles of your career, you've inconvenienced Luis unpardonably. I wouldn't be surprised if he broke your engagement as well as cutting you off professionally."

"He was with someone else," Caroline said weakly. "Just before curtain I saw him-in the dressing room. He was with someone else."

"That's nonsense. And if it isn't, you have no one but yourself to blame. The way you've been acting lately-walking around like a ghost, canceling interviews, refusing to attend parties. After all I've done for you, this is how you repay the debt. How do you expect me to deal with the press, with the speculation, with the mess you've left me in?"

"I don't know." It helped to close her eyes, to close them and shut it all away. "I'm sorry. I just can't do it anymore."

No, Caroline thought, opening her eyes again. She just couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't be what everyone else wanted her to be. Not now. Not ever again. Was she selfish, ungrateful, spoiled-all those hateful words her mother had hurled at her? It didn't seem to matter now. All that mattered was that she was here.

Ten miles away, Tucker Longstreet streaked into the heart of Innocence, kicking up dust and scaring the spit out of Jed Larsson's fat beagle Nuisance, who'd been resting his bones on the pad of concrete beneath the striped awning of the dry goods store.

Caroline Waverly would have understood the dog's distress when he opened one eye to see the shiny red car barreling straight for him and skidding to a stop a bare eighteen inches from his resting place.

With a yipe, the dog gained his feet and took himself off to safer ground.

Tucker chuckled and called to Nuisance with a click and a whistle, but the dog kept moving. Nuisance hated that red car with a passion so great he never even ventured near enough to pee on its tires.

Tucker dumped his keys in his pocket. He fully intended to get Delia's rice and Cokes and toilet water, then head back to stretch out on the hammock again-where he figured a smart man belonged on a hot, airless afternoon. But he spotted his sister's car, tilted across two parking spaces in front of the Chat 'N Chew.

It occurred to him that the drive had made him thirsty, and he could do with a tall glass of lemonade. And possibly a hunk of chilled huckleberry pie.

Later, he'd spend a lot of time regretting that small detour.

The Longstreets owned the Chat 'N Chew, just as they owed the Wash amp; Dry Laundromat, the Innocence Boarding House, the Feed and Grain, the Hunters' Friend Gun Shop, and a dozen or so rental properties. The Longstreets were wise enough-or lazy enough-to have managers for their businesses. Dwayne took a mild interest in the rental houses, cruising along to each on the first of the month to collect checks or listen to excuses, and note down a list of needed repairs.

But Tucker kept the books, whether he wanted to or not. Once when he'd bitched about it long enough, Josie had taken them over. She'd screwed them up so royally, it had taken Tucker days to set them to rights again.

He didn't mind so much, really. Bookkeeping was something you could do in the cool of the evening, with a cold drink at your elbow. His head for figures made it an annoying chore rather than a difficult one.

The Chat 'N Chew was one of Tucker's favorite places. The diner had one of those big, wide-pane windows that was forever dotted with posters announcing bake sales, school plays, and auctions.

Inside, the floor was made of linoleum tiles, yellowed with age and dusted with brown flecks that looked like fly spots. The booths were rugged red vinyl, an improvement over the ripped and tattered brown that Tucker had replaced just six months before. The red was already fading to orange.

Over the years, people had carved messages into the laminated tabletops. Sort of a Chat 'N Chew tradition. Initials were a big favorite, along with hearts and stick figures, but occasionally someone was inspired to hack in hey! or up yours! Or in the case of one grumpy individual, EAT SHIT AND DIE.

Earleen Renfrew, who managed the establishment, had been so put out by that suggestion, Tucker had been forced to borrow an electric buffer from the hardware store and smudge out the offending words.

Each booth had its own individual juke where you could turn the knob and flip over selections-still three for a quarter. Because Earleen favored country tunes, so did the juke, but Tucker had managed to sneak in a few cuts of rock or R amp; B from the fifties.

The big counter was lined with a dozen stools, all topped with the same fading red vinyl. A clear three-tiered dome held that day's offering of pies. Tucker's gaze lighted on the huckleberry with pure delight.

Exchanging waves and "heys" with a scattering of customers, he made his way through the grease- and smoke-tinged air to where his sister perched at the counter. Deep in discussion with Earleen, Josie gave her brother an absent pat on the arm and kept talking.

"And so I said to her, Justine, if you're going to marry a man like Will Shiver, all you've got to do to stay happy is buy yourself a padlock for his fly and make sure you're the only one with a key. He may wet himself now and again, but that's all he's going to do."

Earleen gave an appreciative cackle and wiped a few wet rings from the counter. "Why she'd want to marry a no-account like Will's beyond me."

"Honey, he's a regular tiger in bed." Josie winked slyly. "So they say. Hey, Tucker." She turned to give her brother a smacking kiss before wriggling her fingers in front of his face. "I just got my nails done. Hotshot Red. What do you think?"

Dutifully he examined her long scarlet nails. "Looks to me like you've just finished scratching somebody's eyes out. Gimme a lemonade and some of that huckleberry, with French vanilla on top, Earleen."

Rather pleased with Tucker's description of her nails, Josie ran them through her artfully tangled mane of black hair. "Justine would've liked to scratch mine out." Grinning, she picked up her Diet Coke and sipped through the straw. "She was over at the beauty parlor getting her roots done and flapping her hand around to show everybody this eensy speck of glass she called a diamond. Will probably won it knocking down bottles at the fair."

Tucker's golden eyes twinkled. "Jealous, Josie?"

She stiffened up, bottom lip poking out, then her face cleared as she tossed back her head and hooted. "If I'd wanted him, I'd've had him. But outside of bed he just about bored me senseless." She stirred what was left of her soda with the straw and sent a quick flirtatious look over her shoulder at two boys lounging in a booth. They puffed up quickly, sucking in beer guts. "We've got this burden, you and I do, Tuck. About being damn near irresistible to the opposite sex."

After smiling at Earleen, he dug into his pie. "Yeah, it's our cross to bear."

Josie drummed her newly painted nails on the counter for the pleasure of hearing them click. The restlessness that had driven her to marry and divorce twice within five years had been flaring up for weeks. Nearly time to move on, she thought. A few months back in Innocence made her yearn for the excitement of anywhere else. And a few months anywhere else made her yearn for the quiet aimlessness of her hometown.

Someone had popped a quarter in a juke and Randy Travis was crooning about the miseries of love. Josie drummed her fingers in time and scowled at Tucker as he shoveled in huckleberries and ice cream.

"I don't see how you can eat like that in the middle of the day."

Tucker scooped up more pie. "I just open my mouth and swallow."

"And never gain a goddamn ounce. I have to watch every blessed thing I eat or my hips'll be as wide as Mamie Gantrey's." She stuck a finger in Tucker's ice cream and scooped up a lick. "What're you doing in town besides stuffing your face?"

"Errands for Delia. Passed a car turning into the McNair place."

"Hmmm." Josie might have given that piece of news more attention, but Burke Truesdale strolled in. She wriggled straighter in her chair, crossing long, smooth legs, and sent him a honey-dripping smile. "Hi there, Burke."

"Josie." He came over to give Tucker a thump on the back. "Tuck. What're you two up to?"

"Just passing the time," Josie said. Burke was six feet of solid muscle with a linebacker's shoulders, and a square-jawed face softened by puppy-dog eyes. Although he was Dwayne's contemporary, he was closer to Tucker in friendship, and he was one of the few men Josie had wanted and done without.

Burke rested one hip on a stool, his heavy ring of keys jangling. His sheriff's badge winked dully in the sunlight. "Too hot to do anything else." He muttered a thanks to Earleen when she set an iced tea in front of him. Burke guzzled it down without taking a breath.

Josie licked her top lip as she watched his Adam's apple bob.

"Miss Edith's kin's moving into the house," Burke announced as he set the glass aside. "Miss Caroline Waverly, some kind of fancy musician from Philadelphia." Earleen had refilled his glass, and this time he sipped slowly. "She called down to have the phone and power hooked up."

"How long's she staying?" Earleen always had her eyes and ears open for news. As proprietress of the Chat 'N Chew, it was her right and her duty.

"Didn't say. Miss Edith wasn't one to talk about her family overmuch, but I do remember hearing she had a granddaughter who traveled around with an orchestra or something."

"Must pay well," Tucker mused. "I saw her car turn into the lane fifteen minutes ago. She was driving a brand new BMW."

Burke waited until Earleen had moved away. "Tuck, I need to talk to you about Dwayne."

Though his face remained passive and friendly, Tucker's shield slid into place. "What about?"

"He got juiced up again last night, had a pushy-shovy going over at McGreedy's. I put him up in a cell for the night."

Now there was a change, a darkening of the eyes, a grimness around the mouth. "You charge him with anything?"

"Come on, Tuck." More hurt than offended, Burke shifted his feet. "He was raising hell and too drunk to drive. I figured he could use a place to sleep it off. Last time I drove him home in the middle of the night, Miss Delia was spitting mad."

"Yeah." Tucker relaxed. There were friends, there was family, and there was Burke, who was a combination of both. "Where's he now?"

"Over at the jail, nursing a hangover. I figured since you're here, you could haul him home. We can get his car back later on."

"Much obliged." His quiet words masked the raw disappointment in his gut. Dwayne had been on the wagon nearly two weeks this time. Once he'd fallen, Tucker knew, it would be a long, slippery climb back on. Tucker stood, pulling out his wallet. When the door slammed open behind him, rattling glasses on the back shelves, he glanced around. He saw Edda Lou Hatinger and knew he was in trouble.

"Belly-crawling bastard," she spat out, and launched herself at him. If Burke hadn't retained the same reflexes that had made him a star receiver in high school, Tucker might have had his face sheared off.

"Hey, hey," Burke said helplessly while Edda Lou fought like a bobcat.

"You think you can toss me off just like that?"

"Edda Lou." From experience, Tucker kept his voice low and calm. "Take a deep breath. You're going to hurt yourself."

Her small teeth bared in a snarl. "I'm going to hurt you, you fucking weasel."

With reluctance, Burke slipped into his sheriff's mode. "Girl, you pull yourself together or I'll have to take you over to the jail. Your daddy wouldn't be happy about that either.

She hissed through her teeth. "I won't lay a hand on the sonofabitch." When Burke's grip loosened, she slipped free, dusting herself off.

"If you want to talk about this-" Tucker began.

"We're going to talk about it, all right. Here and now." She swung in a circle while customers either stared or pretended not to. Colorful plastic bracelets clicked on her arms. Perspiration gave a sheen to her face and neck. "Y'all listen up, you hear? I got something to say to Mr. Bigshot Longstreet."

"Edda Lou-" Tucker took a chance and touched her arm. She swung out backhanded and knocked his teeth together.

"No." Wiping his mouth, he waved Burke away. "Let her get it out."

"I'll get it out, all right. You said you loved me."

"I never did that." That Tucker could be sure of. Even in the throes of passion he was careful with words. Especially in the throes of passion.

"You made me think you did," she shouted at him. The powdery spray she was wearing was overwhelmed by the hot sweat of temper and combined in a sickly-sweet aroma that reminded Tucker of something freshly dead. "You wheedled your way into bed with me. You said I was the woman you'd been waiting for. You said..." Tears began to mix with the sweat on her face, turning her mascara into wet clumps under her eyes. "You said we were going to get married."

"Oh no." Tucker's temper, which he preferred not to have riled, began to stir. "That was your idea, honey. And I told you flat out it wasn't going to happen."

"What's a girl to think when you come whistling up, bringing flowers and buying fancy wine? You said you cared about me more than anybody else."

"I did care." And he had. He always did.

"You don't care about nothing or nobody, only Tucker Longstreet." She pushed her face into his, spit flying. Seeing her like this, all the sweetness and flutters gone, he wondered how he could have cared. And he hated the fact that some of the boys who'd been lounging over their sodas were elbowing each other's ribs and chuckling.

"Then you're better off without me, aren't you?" He dropped two bills on the counter.

"You think you're going to get off that easy?" Her hand clamped like iron on his arm. He could feel her muscles quiver. "You think you can toss me off like you did all the others?" She'd be damned if he would-not when she'd hinted marriage to all her girlfriends. Not when she'd gone all the way into Greenville to moon over the wedding gowns. She knew-she knew half the town would already be smirking about it. "You've got an obligation to me. You made promises."

"Name one." His temper building, he pried a clutching hand from his arm.

"I'm pregnant." It burst out of her on a flood of desperation. She had the satisfaction of hearing a mutter pass from booth to booth, and of watching Tucker pale.

"What did you say?"

Her lips curved then, in a hard, merciless smile. "You heard me, Tuck. Now you'd better decide what you're going to do about it."

Tossing up her head, she spun around and stormed out. Tucker waited for his stomach to slide back down from his throat.

"Oops," Josie said, grinning broadly at the goggle-eyed diners. But her hand went down to take her brother's. "Ten bucks says she's lying."

Still reeling, Tucker stared at her. "What?"

"I say she's no more pregnant than you are. Oldest female trick in the book, Tucker. Don't get your dick caught in it."

He needed to think, and he wanted to be alone to do it. "You get Dwayne over at the jail, will you? And pick up Delia's stuff."

"Why don't we-"

But he was already walking out. Josie sighed, thinking the shit was going to hit the fan. He hadn't told her what Delia wanted.