Carnal Innocence (Page 20)

Caroline came downstairs feeling hollowed-out by the aftereffects of shock and sleeping pills. She had no idea what time it was, only that the sun was strong and her house was quiet as a tomb.

It was already sultry. Even the thin cotton robe seemed too heavy and hot against her skin. She thought she'd take her coffee iced-in her car. With the air-conditioning running.

She'd killed a man.

That single raw fact had her stopping at the base of the stairs, her fist pressed against her heart like a runner catching her wind after a punishing sprint. And like a runner's, her legs went rubbery so that she sat on the landing, propping her head in her hands.

She had pumped two bullets into flesh, exchanging her life for another's. Oh, she knew it was a matter of self-defense. Even without Burke's gentle questions and quiet support, she knew that. Some circuit in Austin Hatinger's brain had snapped and caused him to turn on her.

But circumstances didn't change the result. She'd taken a life. She, whose most violent act had been throwing a champagne flute against the wall in the Hilton Hotel in Baltimore, had ripped two.45 slugs into a man she'd never even had a conversation with.

It was a big leap, she thought, rubbing her hands over her face. And maybe her legs were a little shaky after landing, but she'd discovered something else about herself.

She could live with it.

She would not search for a way to put the blame on herself. She would not agonize over how she could have avoided, prevented, or changed the outcome. That was the old Caroline's weakness, that delusion of self-importance that had made her believe she had the right, the responsibility, the power to bear all burdens-whether it was a performance, her mother's needs, a lover's deceit. Or a madman's violent death.

No, Caroline Waverly was not going to listen to that sneaky little voice that crept inside her brain to whisper about blame and fault and mistakes.

She rose, turning toward the kitchen before the scratching at the front door had her heart doing a cartwheel. Even as the scream tickled the back of her throat, she recognized Useless's whimpering. The scream died to a puff of air as she stepped forward to open the door.

Fevered with gratitude, the dog rushed in to make desperate jumps around her, his tail slicing the air in his delight and relief.

"What were you doing out there?" She bent to scratch his ears and accept his loyal licks of affection. "How'd you get outside?"

He yipped, scrambling around her legs, feet skidding in a search for traction on the polished hardwood before he dashed off to the parlor.

"Is this like a Lassie thing?" Caroline asked as she followed him. "I hope you're not taking me to where Timmy's fallen down the well or..." She trailed off, spotting Useless sitting smugly on the floor beside the sofa. And Tucker, bare-chested, bare-footed, sprawled over it.

He didn't look innocent in sleep, she noted. There was simply too much wit and wickedness in his face for that. But he did look decidedly uncomfortable. His feet hung over one end of the two-seater sofa, and his neck was crinked to accommodate the curve between cushion and arm. His arms were folded across his belly, less for dignity, Caroline decided, than for the fact that he hadn't been able to find any other space for them. Despite the awkward position and the stream of sunlight falling directly in his eyes, his chest rose and fell gently with deep, even breathing.

She'd forgotten he'd stayed, but it came flooding back to her now. How kind he'd been, how tenderly he'd held her while she'd cried out her shock. And the quiet strength he'd offered just by holding her hand while Burke questioned her.

Tucker had been the one to take her up to bed, sliding over her protests as patiently as a father guiding an overtired child. He'd sat with her while the sleeping pill had trickled through her bloodstream. And to chase away those last shadows of fear, he'd remained on the side of the bed, her hand in his, and had told her some silly story about his cousin Ham who ran a used-car dealership in Oxford.

The last thing she remembered was something about a '72 Pinto that had dropped its transmission five feet out of the lot, and a dissatisfied customer with a five-gauge.

She felt the lock on her heart snick open, and sighed.

"You're just full of surprises, aren't you, Tucker?"

Useless perked up at the name, then leapt up to bathe Tucker's face. Tucker grunted, shifted. "Okay, honey. In a minute."

Amused, Caroline stepped closer. "I hope it's worth the wait."

Tucker's lips curved as he reached out to cuddle the dog. "It's always worth..." His hand slid down the dog's back to the gleefully swinging tail. Slowly, his lashes fluttered up and he studied the furry face grinning into his. "You're not quite what I had in mind."

Undiscouraged, Useless scrambled his hind legs until he'd gained Tucker's chest. Tucker gave the dog's head an absent scratch, then closed his eyes again. "Didn't I put you out once?"

"He wanted back in."

Tucker's eyes opened again, and pushing Useless's face out of his, he focused on Caroline. The sleepy look was gone quickly, she noted, and understood she was being carefully measured.


"Good morning." When he shifted his hip, she accepted the invitation and sat. "I'm sorry we woke you."

"I figured on getting up sometime today anyway." He reached up to stroke a fingertip down her cheek. "How you doing?"

"I'm all right. Really. I want to thank you for sticking around."

He winced a little as he straightened his neck. "I can sleep anywhere."

"So I see." Touched, she brushed the hair off his brow. "It was sweet of you, Tucker. I'm grateful."

"I'm supposed to say I was just being neighborly." He caught her hand when she started to draw it back. "But the fact is you had me worried sick. You didn't have a lick of color when you finally went off to sleep."

"I'm steadier now." She wished she'd checked the mirror to see if she looked steadier. "You could have used the spare bed upstairs."

"I thought about it." But when he'd checked on her-for the fourth or fifth time during the night-he'd also thought about slipping into bed with her. Just to hold her, just to keep her close and satisfy himself that she was safe. That had shaken him enough that he'd needed to have the full story laid out between them. Now he needed the simplicity of closeness.

"Come here."

She hesitated, then gave in to the urge to curl up beside him. With her head pillowed against his shoulder and the dog stretched across their legs, she sighed.

"I'm glad you're here."

"I'm sorry I wasn't quicker."

"No, Tucker."

He brushed his lips over her head. "I gotta get this out, Caroline. It gave me some hard hours through the night. He wouldn't have come after you if it weren't for me. It was me he wanted, and me who put you in the middle."

She laid a hand over his heart, wondering if she'd ever felt more comforted, more safe. "I used to think that way about things. That I was at the center, and whenever anything went wrong, I was to blame for it. It's an indulgent kind of arrogance, I think. The kind that carves holes in you that you have to fill up with pills and therapy. Don't change on me, Tucker. I'm starting to find your day-to-day way of looking at things appealing."

"It scared me." When his arms tightened around her, she curved into him to give comfort as well as take it. "Nothing's ever scared me more than hearing those shots and knowing I was too far away."

"I've been scared before, so many times. As horrible as this is, it's really the first time I've done anything about my fear." Her hand fisted, and she slowly, deliberately, relaxed it again. "I'm not glad it happened, Tucker, and I guess I'll always remember what it was like to pull that trigger. But I can deal with it."

He stared at dust motes dancing in a sunbeam. There were things he'd never forget either. Like the numb terror of racing over a fallow field with shots echoing in his head. Like the glassy-eyed shock on her face when she'd walked by him to carry the limp dog into the house.

"I'm no hero, Caroline. Christ knows, I don't want to be one, but I'm going to see to it that nothing bad happens to you again."

She smiled. "That's a broad and daring ambition," she began, and tilted her head back to look at him. There was no answering smile in his eyes, and when he took her chin, his fingers were tense.

"You're important to me." He said the words slowly, as if explaining them to himself. "Nobody's ever been as important, and that's hard."

The air was clogging in her lungs, the way it often did when she stood on a darkened stage, the moment before the spotlight found her. "I know. I guess it's hard for both of us."

He saw the shadow of fear in her eyes, though she kept them steady and level on his. And because she was important, because everything about her had suddenly become vitally important, he struggled to lighten his tone.

"It sure is a new one for me." His tensed fingers relaxed to stroke her jaw. "Here I am all wrapped up in a woman and I haven't even managed to get her clothes off yet. This gets around, my reputation's going to suffer."

"Why don't you try it now?"

His finger froze on her cheek. "What's that?"

"I said, why don't you try it now." With her eyes still full of fears and needs and doubts, she lifted her lips to his.

He felt himself sink into her, and that, too, was a change. That slow, lovely drift into sweetness. There was no hot punch of lust that he had always accepted so easily. Instead, there was a gentle shift of sensation, as subtle as a sky lightening toward dawn.

As her body yielded against his, as her breathy sigh slipped intimately from her mouth to his, he understood that she was offering him more than passion. She was giving him her trust. It humbled him. It disturbed him. She was not the kind of woman to offer anything to a man casually. And he-he had always taken whatever a woman chose to give with an easy grin and no backward looks.

"Caroline." He brushed his fingers over her cheeks, combed them through her hair. "I want you."

His heart drummed fast and hard against hers. The quiet seriousness of his statement made her smile even as his lips cruised over her face. "I know."

"No, I mean I really want you." The robe had slipped off her shoulder, and he let his lips wander to that warm, sweet curve. "I guess I've been waiting for you to give me the go-ahead since about thirty seconds after I met you."

Her body trembled and arched under his. Why were they talking? Why were there words when she wanted only to feel? "I know that, too."

"It's just that..." Her throat was so white, so smooth. It wasn't in him to resist it. "I haven't been exactly discreet when it comes to women."

She skimmed her hands over his bare back, exploring that intriguing ripple of muscle. "Tell me something I don't know."

"I don't want you to regret this." He rubbed his cheek against hers before he drew away. His eyes were dark with emotions she was afraid to consider. "I don't think I could stand it if you did."

"You're the last person I expected to complicate this."

"It surprises the hell out of me, too." His fingers curled tight in her hair. "It's not simple with you, Caroline. I figured I ought to try to explain that."

He didn't have to explain what she could see so clearly in his eyes. And seeing it had the little licks of fear leaping higher. "I don't want any explanations." Desperate, she dragged his mouth back to hers. "I'm alive. I just need to feel alive."

Her needs swallowed him, pulled him under, sucked him in. She wanted from him what he had always looked for in other women-simple, mutual pleasure. If there was a twinge of regret, he ignored it. Responding to her urgency, he tugged open her robe and feasted on flesh. She was slim and pale and soft as velvet. And if she was not just any woman, not just another woman, he blocked off those troubling thoughts and let himself take.

She streaked mindlessly into heat, gobbling up his desire like a starving woman might devour a crust of bread. Hers was only a body seeking pleasure from another body. No thoughts, she swore. No emotions. She needed the sensations, the liberation of good, cleansing sex. Her cry of release when he drove her to a hard, knife-edged orgasm left her trembling.

She could hear his harsh, strained breathing even as his hands began to slow, to gentle. He murmured something to her, and though she didn't understand the words, the sweetness of the tone had her battling back an urge to wrap herself around him and weep.

The emotions sneaking through terrified her. She wanted none of them and moved quickly, even ruthlessly, to block them off. Even as his lips whispered over hers, she was dragging his jeans down over his hips. His body went rigid as she touched him, fisted him in a hot, greedy hand. The room tilted, and while he struggled to right it again, she locked herself around him.

"Caroline. Wait."

But she was already surrounding him, already drawing him deep into that glorious velvet sheath, already urging him to match her frantic rhythm.

He was trapped in her, in his own body's demands. So he raced with her toward a release he already realized would be empty.

She lay very still, her robe rucked up under her hips. She did feel alive. Sore and swollen and trembly and alive. If only she didn't feel so hollow with it.

If only he would say something. If only he would lift his head and grin and make some silly joke to put this awkwardness behind them.

But the silence dragged on. His heartbeat slowed to normal against hers, and the silence dragged on.

He knew he was heavy, but he put off shifting his body from hers, put off the moment when he would have to face her. And himself.

Good sex, he thought. Yes, it had been good, basic sex, minus all those insidious and baffling emotions. Smart sex, he thought with some disgust. There was no reason for him to feel... used was the word, he realized, and wished he could laugh it off.

Was this why Edda Lou had been so bitter at the end? he wondered. With a sigh he opened his eyes and stared out at the empty room. No, Edda Lou hadn't cared about him. About his money, his name, his position, but not about him. Sex had been a means to an end for her.

That was something they'd had in common.

But surely there had been a woman, someone, between his first adolescent tussle and this final, soulless bout with Caroline, who had cared. Who had wanted more and settled for less. Someone who had lain in hurt silence after the storm.

His just deserts, he supposed. The first time he had wanted more, he had run up against a woman who refused to give it, or take it.

Well, he still had pride. However cold that comfort was, it was better than crawling.

He did shift then, hitching up his pants as he sat back.

"You caught me off guard, sugar." The smile curved his lips, but left his eyes flat. "Didn't give me a chance to, well, dress for the party."

It took her a moment to understand that he was talking about the lack of a condom. She made herself shrug. "I suppose this was more of a surprise party." Avoiding his eyes, she sat up and drew her robe around her. "I take the pill."

"Well then." He wanted to reach out, to smooth her touseled hair, but rose instead. "Looks like we bored that pup of yours right to sleep." He gestured to where Useless was curled under a chair, snoring. Tucker thrust his hands in his pockets. "Caroline."

"I think I'll go make some coffee." She popped off the couch as though Tucker's voice had flicked a lever. "And breakfast. I owe you breakfast."

He studied her, the way she gnawed on her bottom lip, the way her eyes, shadowed with strain, kept slipping over his shoulder. "If that's the way you want it. Mind if I grab a shower?"

"No, go ahead." She wasn't sure if her sigh was one of relief or disappointment, and covered it over with a flow of words. "Upstairs, second door on the right.

There are fresh towels on the shelf. The water takes a while to heat up."

"I'm not in a hurry," he told her, and strolled out of the room.

Washing with her soap put him in a better frame of mind. Using her toothbrush-he couldn't find a spare-left a lingering taste of her in his mouth.

Physical things. It was much more comfortable to concentrate on physical things. He'd had no business brooding over the deeper meaning of a nice, no-strings session of morning sex.

He'd shrugged his shirt over his shoulders by the time he reached the bottom landing. He caught the scents of coffee and bacon. Everyday aromas that shouldn't have had him quivering for her. He was scowling down the hallway toward the kitchen when he heard the sound of a car in the lane.

Shirt open, thumbs tucked in his pockets, he walked to the screen and watched Special Agent Matthew Burns park. They studied each other, one black-suited and silk-tied, the other unshaven and barely dressed. Animosity leapt up like a large rabid dog.

Tucker shoved open the screen door and leaned on it. "Early for visiting, isn't it?"

Burns locked his car door, pocketed the keys. "Official business." He scanned Tucker's bare chest and damp hair. The homey breakfast scents drifting outside had him thinning his lips. "The interruption is quite necessary."

"You're too later to interrupt," Tucker said placidly. "What can we do for you?"

"You take a lot of pride in this, don't you, Longstreet?"

Tucker lifted a brow. "In what?"

"In your southern-fried womanizing."

"Is that why you're here? Looking for pointers?" His smile wasn't charming this time, but wolfish. "If that's the case, it's going to take a while. You need a lot of work, Burns."

Burns's jaw clenched. The simple fact that a woman like Caroline preferred Tucker over him burned in his gut like an ulcer. "I find your... style, I suppose we'll call it, pathetic."

"If that was an insult, you're off target. I'm not looking to impress you."

"No, helpless females are more your style."

"You know"-Tucker rubbed a hand over the stubble of his chin-"I've never once in my life met a female I'd consider helpless. Caroline's not, that's for damn sure. Right now she might be a little shaky. She might need somebody to lean on until she gets her feet back under her again. She's got me as long as she wants. You'd better understand that."

"What I understand is that you have no compunction about using a woman's vulnerabilities to your own end. You're a user, Longstreet, and you've got the emotional maturity of a mushroom. Edda Lou Hatinger was just the last in a long line of your discards. As for Caroline-"

"Caroline can speak for herself." She stepped forward, laying a hand on Tucker's arm. Whether it was in support or restraint, none of them could tell. "Do you need to talk to me, Matthew?"

He struggled against a wave of black, unreasonable anger. She was wearing nothing but a robe, and the way she ranged herself beside Tucker spoke not only of preference, but of intimacy. It galled, destroying his elegant image of her. However brilliant her talent, however delicate her beauty, she had lowered herself to trollop by her choice.

"I thought it would be more comfortable for you to give me your statement here, rather than coming into town."

"Yes, it would. I appreciate it." She would have offered him coffee in the parlor, but she had no intention of leaving him and Tucker alone again. "If we could go back in the kitchen... I've just finished fixing breakfast. "

"I'd intended to get Mr. Longstreet's statement later," Burns said stiffly.

"Now you can save some time." Caroline kept a wary watch on both of them as they walked down the hall. "Would you like some eggs, Matthew?"

"Thank you, I've already eaten." He took a seat at the table, as out of place in the country kitchen as a tuxedo at a hoedown. "Coffee would be nice, if you don't mind."

Caroline brought the pot to the table, setting it on an iron trivet in the shape of a rooster. Odd, she thought as she dished up bacon and eggs, until that moment she hadn't imagined herself racing through that room, snatching a gun from the counter, screaming as fists beat against the door.

She looked over now. Only the screen remained. Either Burke or Tucker had taken the broken door away, but there were still a few splinters of wood on the floor.

"You want a statement about what happened yesterday." Caroline busied herself adding cream to her coffee. "I've already given one to Burke."

"Yes, I read it."

Tucker noticed her hands were steady, but her gaze shifted back to the door several times. He lifted a hand to her shoulder for a gentle rub. "I don't know much about the law," he began, "but isn't what happened here yesterday a local problem?"

"Ordinarily. If you'd indulge me, Caroline, I'd very much appreciate your going over everything that happened." He switched on his recorder. "For my records."

It wasn't very difficult. Not when it all seemed so dreamlike and distant. She played it back, as if it were a tape in her head. He let her run it through without interruption, making only a few cursory notes on his pad.

"It's odd, don't you think, that Hatinger didn't use either of the guns he carried?" His tone was conversational as he poured a second cup of coffee. "They were both loaded, and from my information he was considered an excellent shot. When you describe your flight, from the rear porch, through this room, and out the front, it would appear that he could have fired at you at any time. But he didn't even draw a weapon."

"He had the knife," she said, and didn't notice the catch in her voice. Tucker did.

"I don't see the point in this, Burns. He'd snapped obviously. Maybe he didn't even remember he had the guns."

"Maybe." He added a miserly dab of cream to his coffee. "Would you say, Caroline, that he was aware you had a gun?" He lifted the cup, sipped, then went on without waiting for her answer. "You say you grabbed it on the run while he was still outside."

"Yes, I'd been target practicing. I always unloaded it when I'd finished. Sometimes I stuck the bullets in my pockets. I remember thinking it was a bad habit, and I should break it." She set down her fork, clattering it against her plate. The scent of eggs and bacon grease were nauseating. "I guess I'm lucky I didn't."

"You were lucky you had the presence of mind to load the gun at all."

She gave Burns a wan smile. "You could say I'm used to performing under pressure." He merely nodded. "If we recreate those last moments outside, when you turned and fired, can you hazard an opinion as to whether he realized you were armed? Did he make any move to reach for one of the guns he carried?"

"It happened very quickly."

It hadn't seemed so. It had seemed as though she'd been running through syrup. It didn't take any effort to rerun the scene, that slow-motion film of nightmares and dark fantasies. The wall of heat that made you fight for every gasping breath. The terrifying feeling that the grass had gone boggy and was sucking you down. The silver glint of the knife under the merciless sun. And that grin, that wide, hungry grin.

"I..." She pressed her lips together and bore down on the last, nasty remnants of fear. "I tried to shoot, but nothing happened. He just kept coming, holding the knife and smiling at me. Just smiling. I think I was crying or screaming or praying, I don't know, but he kept coming, and kept smiling. I had the gun out in front of me, and he was saying that I was the lamb of God, a sacrifice. That it was going to be like Edda Lou. That it had to be like Edda Lou."

"You're sure of that." Burns held his cup two inches above the saucer. "You're sure he said it had to be like Edda Lou?"

"Yes." She gave in to a shudder, then pushed her uneaten breakfast aside. "I'm not likely to forget anything he said."

"Wait a minute." Tucker put a hand on Caroline's arm, his fingers taut as wire. He'd been doing more than listening, he'd been watching. Burns looked like a man who'd just drawn to an inside straight. "You're not here getting a statement about the shooting of some escaped lunatic. That's small shit, the kind of local dirt that wouldn't interest a federal agent. You sonofabitch."

"Tucker, please."

"No." His eyes were fierce as he turned to Caroline. "Don't you see? It's about Edda Lou, about Edda Lou and the others. It doesn't have diddly to do with you, except you managed not to be the next victim."

"The next?" she began, then stopped. The blood drained from her face. "Oh, God, the knife. He didn't shoot me because-because it had to be like Edda Lou. It had to be the knife."

"Yeah, the knife." Tucker's hand slid down her arm so that she could grip it. "There are users and users, aren't there, Burns?" Tucker's voice had lost its lazy drawl, sharpening to an icy point. "You're using Caroline to help you gather evidence on Hatinger. Using her to solve your case, but you don't bother to let her know."

Burns set his cup meticulously back in the saucer. "I'm conducting a federal investigation on a series of murders. I'm not required to make my views known to the public."

"Fuck that. You know what she's been through. Easing her mind by telling her this might be over wouldn't have cost you."

"Regulations and procedure," Burns said.

Caroline squeezed Tucker's hand before he could speak again. "I can talk for myself." She inhaled and exhaled twice, slowly. "I didn't even know Edda Lou, but I'll see her floating in the pond for the rest of my life. I've never performed a violent act in my life. Oh, I threw a champagne glass at someone once, but I missed, so it hardly counts. Yesterday I killed a man." Her hand fluttered to her stomach to press against the slow, familiar burn. "That may not seem so terrible to you, Matthew, considering your line of work and taking into account that I was saving my own life. But I killed a man. Now you come in here and ask me to bring it all back. And you don't even grant me the courtesy of the truth."

"It's simply speculation, Caroline, and for your own good..." He fumbled to a stop when her head snapped up.

"Do you know," she said slowly, "I once threatened to kill a man if he ever, ever used that particular phrase to me again. I didn't mean it literally at the time. It was just one of those typical statements people make before they realize what it's like to kill. But I should warn you not to use that phrase. It tends to set me off."

Delighted, Tucker kicked back in his chair and grinned. "She's got a hot streak. It's a pure pleasure seeing it aimed at somebody else for a change."

"I apologize if I've upset you," Burns said stiffly. "But I'm doing my job as I think best. It is not a foregone conclusion that Austin Hatinger was responsible for the three deaths in this community or the one in Nashville. However, given yesterday's incident, we are focusing our investigation on him."

"Will you be able to tell if it was his knife?" Caroline asked.

"After certain tests are completed, we should be able to determine if it was that style of knife. Off the record," Burns continued grudgingly, "I can say that Hatinger fit certain psychological points in this kind of killing. He had a deep-seated anger toward women, as evidenced by his frequent abuse of his wife. A religious mania which he may have figured absolved him of guilt, or accorded him a mission. We could speculate that his use of water to dispose of the bodies was more than an attempt to wash away evidence, but a kind of baptism.

Unfortunately, he can't be questioned about his motives. As it stands, I'll be backtracking, trying to place his whereabouts at the time of all three murders. And while he is my focus, I'll continue along other avenues of investigation."

His gaze lighted on Tucker, and Tucker merely smiled.

"Then you've got your work cut out for you, don't you, son? We wouldn't want to hold you up."

"I'll want to talk to the boy. Cy Hatinger."

Tucker's smile faded. "He's at Sweetwater."

"Well then." He rose, but couldn't resist a parting shot. "Odd how Hatinger went from gunning for you straight to Caroline, isn't it? Some people have a knack for turning bad luck onto others." He was an expert at recognizing guilt. It gave him pleasure to watch it shadow Tucker's face. "If you think of anything else that might help, Caroline, you know where to reach me. Thanks for the coffee. I can see myself out."

"Tucker," Caroline began the moment they were alone, but he shook his head and rose.

"I've got some thinking to do." He ran a hand through his hair. It was dry now, but he caught a whiff of her shampoo. Even so small a thing had his gut tightening. "Will you be all right? Want me to call Josie, or Susie, or someone?"

"No, no, I'll be fine." But she wondered if he would. "Matthew's a rigid sort of man, Tucker. That kind always sees the logic of placing blame."

"There's blame enough. Listen, I need to get back. I don't want Cy having to talk to him on his own." His hands dug into his pockets again. "He's just a kid."

"Go ahead." It would be better, she thought, to be alone. To put off talking about what had happened between them that morning. "I'll be fine, really." She lifted their plates, thinking Useless was going to breakfast like a king.

He put a hand on her shoulder as she turned to the sink. "I'm coming back."

"I know." She waited until he was at the doorway before speaking again. "Tucker. Thanks for telling Matthew I wasn't helpless. When you're used to people seeing you that way, it means a lot."

Her back was to him, her shoulders straight. He knew she was looking out to where the blood had dried on the grass.

"We're going to have to talk, you and me. About a lot of things."

When she didn't answer, he left her alone.