Carnal Innocence (Page 22)

A storm was moving in. The evening was cooling as it approached, and for the first time in days a real breeze ruffled leaves and brought the sweet scent of rain to the air. Dusk came early as the sun hid behind rough pewter clouds. In the west, heat lightning popped and fizzled.

Even knowing the storm might be a nasty one, knocking down power lines and swelling riverbanks, the delta sighed with relief.

Darleen Fuller Talbot left her mother's in a foul temper. Happy had smiled and cuddled Scooter even as she'd raked Darleen to the bone over Billy T. Her father was no better, she thought as she slammed her car door shut. All he could do was shake his head and leave the room. Darleen had suffered through twenty minutes of listening to her mother ramble on about how Junior was a decent man who hadn't deserved to be betrayed in his own home.

Well, it was her home, too, and her signature on the mortage. She pouted, wiping away angry tears before she started the car. Nobody gave any thought to that. No, it was poor Junior this, and poor Junior that. Nobody cared that poor Junior was treating her worse than the dirt you brushed under the rug.

Was it any wonder she was beginning to miss Billy T. to distraction? Her own husband wouldn't even sleep in the same bed with her anymore. Not that he'd done much but sleep in it, even before the trouble started. But now she was going to bed every night as dry and frustrated as an old maiden aunt.

She was going to fix that, all right. As the first fat drops of rain splattered the windshield, she set her chin. Happy would have recognized the look, and though it might have surprised Darleen, would have wholeheartedly approved.

Scooter was going to stay with his grandma overnight. And she was going to see to it that her husband did her duty by her.

If things didn't turn around soon, she might as well become one of those papist nuns and go live in a convent.

Going without was making her jumpy, Darleen thought, switching on the wipers as the rain began to batter her car. Junior had interrupted Billy T. before he'd come close to finishing her off. By her calculations, Darleen had been celibate for more than a week.

It wasn't healthy.

That's why she was so nervous and irritable, she was sure. For days she'd had the edgy feeling someone was watching her. It was more than the smug looks she'd been getting from some of the town biddies as the story made the rounds. It was more like someone was keeping a bead on her. And there were the phone calls, too. The calls when nobody was there after you picked up.

Probably Junior keeping tabs on her, she thought. He probably had one of his buddies watching the house, too, in case Billy T. came around.

As if Billy T. would speak to her now.

It didn't seem fair that she lost her boyfriend, her husband, and had to listen to her mother's lectures all because she'd wanted to have a little fun.

She skidded on the wet road, and slowed to a crawl.

She wasn't going to put up with it anymore. Crying hadn't worked, and she'd cried buckets. Keeping the house nice and putting a hot meal on the table every night hadn't done much good either. Junior just ate whatever she put in front of him and went off to play with Scooter.

Tonight he was going to play with his wife.

She knew just how to set the stage. There was that new nightgown she'd mail-ordered-for Billy T.'s benefit, but that didn't matter. She'd spent the best part of the afternoon in the Style Rite getting her hair washed and set. She'd even suffered through having Betty Pruett wax her eyebrows and the little fuzz over her top lip.

All that was left was to set the stage.

She had that bayberry-scented candle left over from Christmas, a Randy Travis album, and a bottle of cold duck. Junior got positively romantic after a couple of glasses of cold duck.

Once she got him back in bed, he'd forget all about Billy T. and his manly pride. She'd be his devoted wife. And if she ever took on a boyfriend again, she'd be a damn sight more careful.

She almost didn't hit the brakes in time. The curtain of rain obscured the road so that she didn't see the car sitting across it until it was nearly too late. Her tires slipped and skidded. She gave a quick squeal as she fishtailed sideways. When the bumpers barely kissed, she sat back, one hand over her speeding heart.

"Goddamn." She squinted through the windshield but could see no one, just the abandoned car stretched diagonally across the road. "Well, isn't this just fine and dandy." Shakily, she pushed open her door and stepped out into the storm. Instantly her hair was plastered over her eyes so that she had to scrape it back. "Twenty-two seventy-five shot to hell!" she shouted to the rain. "Chrissakes, how'm I supposed to get my husband back if I go home looking like a drowned cat?"

She thought that over, decided it might work to her advantage on the sympathy scale. But if she wanted Junior to fuss and pet because she'd got caught in the rain, she had to get home first. Hands on hips, she kicked the tire of the car blocking the road.

"How the hell's anybody supposed to get around that?" The prospect of turning around and going back to her mother's was so daunting, she ignored the rain and walked around the car to find a solution.

She was looking through the window, hoping to see keys in the ignition, when she heard the sound behind her. Her heart leapt into her throat, then settled again when she recognized the familiar form coming through the rain.

"Thought this was your car," she shouted. "These roads are so wet, I nearly plowed right through. Junior'd have skinned me alive if I'd've wrecked this car."

"I'll save him the trouble."

Darleen never saw the tire iron that smashed over her head.

The power flickered on and off before finally wheezing out during a particularly robust clap of thunder. Caroline had prepared by setting emergency candles and oil lamps in every room.

She didn't mind the dark, or the storm. In fact, she relished them. She was hoping the phone lines would go as well so that she could stop having to answer the sympathetic and curious calls that had hounded her throughout the day. But if the power stayed off through the night, she didn't want to have to stumble blindly through the house, taking a chance on meeting Austin Hatinger's grinning ghost.

She watched the rain and the wind from the cover of the porch while Useless cowered inside, whimpering. It was a powerful show. With barely a tree to stop it, the wind roared across the flats and rattled shingles, jiggled windows, hooted through grass.

She didn't know whether this violent a rain was good or bad for the crops, though she was certain she'd be told all about it when she drove into town. For now, it was enough just to watch, to be awed, to know there was a dry, candlelit house behind her, waiting to offer sanctuary.

Shelter, she corrected herself, and smiled. What would the good doctor Palamo have to say about her use of the word sanctuary? A reflex reaction, she decided. She was no longer running or hiding. For the first time in her life she was just living.

Or trying to.

She'd certainly hidden from Tucker that morning. She'd accepted sex but turned away intimacy. Because she'd needed to prove she was alive, and had been afraid to feel.

Surprised by the chill, she rubbed her arms. It had been enough for both of them. He had wanted her, she had wanted him. It wasn't worth worrying about.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep gulp of air. There was a trace of ozone from the last spear of lightning. Exhilarating. The puppy yelped at the ensuing blast of thunder, and she laughed.

"All right, Useless, I'll save you."

She found him in the parlor with his nose peeking out from the skirt of the couch. Murmuring to him, she gathered him up and walked him like a baby while he shivered.

"It won't last long. Storms never do. They just come along to shake us up and make us appreciate the quiet times. How about some music, huh? I feel like music." She set him in a chair, then picked up her violin. "Passionate, I think." She ran the bow experimentally across the strings, pausing to tune by ear. "Passionate to match the mood."

She started with Tchaikovsky, flowed into a movement from Beethoven's Ninth, then tried out one of the tunes Jim had taught her before ending with her own rousing interpretation of "Lady Madonna."

Dusk had fallen into full dark when she stopped. The knock on the door had her jumping, but it sent Useless streaking out of the room, up the stairs, and under her bed.

"Maybe I should send him into combat training." After setting the violin aside, she walked out in the hall. Tucker stared back at her through the screen.

She found her competent hands suddenly restless and linked them together to keep them still. "It's a rough night to be out."

"I know."

"Aren't you going to come in?"

"Not yet."

She stepped closer. His hair was dripping. It reminded her how he'd looked after his shower that morning. "How long have you been out there?"

"I drove up right before you went from that longhair music into 'Salty Dog.' That was 'Salty Dog,' wasn't it?"

Her smile came and went quickly. "Jim taught me. We're exchanging techniques."

"I heard about that. Toby's real pleased. He's looking into getting the boy a second-hand fiddle."

"He's talented," she said, and felt foolish. Why were they discussing Jim with the screen door between them? "The, ah, power went out."

"I know. Come outside a minute, Caroline."

She hesitated. He seemed so serious, so deliberate. "Has anything happened?"

"Not that I've heard." He pulled open the screen. "Come outside."

"All right." She stepped through, nerves jumping. "I was wondering before if this rain is good or bad. For the crops, I mean."

"I didn't come by to talk about planting, or about music, if it comes to that." He dipped his hands in his pockets, and together they watched lightning stalk the sky. "I have to ask you about this morning."

"Why don't you let me get you a beer?" She stepped back, one hand reaching for the screen. "I picked some up the other day."

"Caroline." His eyes glowed against the dark, stopping her cold. "Why didn't you let me touch you?"

"I don't know what you mean." She pushed a nervous hand through her hair. "I did let you. We made love right in there on that couch."

"You let me have you, but you didn't let me touch you. There's a difference. A great big difference."

She stiffened. The regal look she sent him nearly made him smile. "If you've come out here to criticize my performance-"

"I'm not criticizing. I'm asking." He moved toward her, but didn't reach out. "But I think you just said it. It was a performance. Maybe you needed to act out something that told you you were alive. God knows you had cause to. I'm asking you if that's all you want. I've got more, and I need to give you more. If you'll take it."

"I don't know. Not just if I want to, but if I can."

"I can leave you alone if you need to think about it. Otherwise, you only have to ask me in." He lifted a hand to her cheek. "Just ask me in, Caroline."

Not just into the house, she realized. Into her, physically, emotionally. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again he was still standing, waiting. "I'm not a good bet."

A smile softened his lips. "Hell, sugar, neither am I."

She took a deep breath, then stepped aside to open the screen. "I'd like you to come in."

He let out the air he'd been holding. The moment he was over the threshold, he turned and swept her off her feet.


"It was good enough for Rhett Butler." He kissed her into silence before starting up the steps. He might not have had Ashley to worry about, but by God, tonight she wasn't going to think of Luis. Or anyone else.

"You're wet," she told him, then rested her head on his shoulder.

"I'll give you a chance to get me out of my clothes."

She laughed. How easy it was, she thought. If you let it be. "You're so good to me."

"I can be better." He stopped in the doorway to indulge in another long, lingering kiss.

"I can't wait to see how."

"This time you'll have to wait."

Shadows and candlelight danced over the walls. Heat trapped throughout the day settled into the room like an old friend, smugly overriding the wind that whipped the old lace curtains. There was the smell of candle wax, of lavender sachet, of the rain that dampened the screens and rapped fitfully against the tin roof.

With his mouth teasing hers, he laid her on the bed. His fingertips traced lightly over her face, followed by his lips, coaxing the tension away. Then there was only the sound of the rain, of her sigh, of the grumble of thunder as the storm moved east. Her arms rose up to welcome him.

He lingered there, mouth pressed to mouth, the scrape of teeth, the sultry mating of tongues, until she was sunk deep in the peace and pleasure he offered.

There was no choice now but to feel. He was subtly, slowly, nudging her emotions to the surface. They were battering at her, making her pulse tremble, her muscles go limp, her heart stutter. A quick flash of panic had her turning her head away. He contented himself with the column of her throat. And his hands, as skillful as any musician's, began to move over her.

He soothed even as he enticed. He could feel the war between need and doubt being waged through her. He could see the same conflict in her face. Keeping his own desire at bay he patiently, even compassionately, seduced. Long, stirring kisses; lazy, languid caresses. As her body melted against his, as his name tumbled from her lips, he realized he wasn't blocking his desire at all. This was exactly what he wanted.

Their eyes met, held, as he undressed her. Naked. Vulnerable. They both understood the two words were interchangeable, and that this single act took what was happening beyond that frantic, half-dressed coupling on the couch.

With unsteady hands she pulled off his damp shirt, let her fingertips trail over his chest, down to his belly. She felt the warm glow of triumph when his muscles quivered under that hesitant touch. After one sharp breath she unsnapped his jeans, sitting up so that she could peel them over his hips and away.

Then they were kneeling in the center of the bed, the mattress groaning as it sagged, the heat pouring back as the wind died and the rain slowed to a patter. Her hands linked around his waist. His dived into her hair.

Surprise, and a flicker of fear, flashed into her eyes as he dragged her head back. The look darkened to passion as he crushed her lips with his.

This was the beast that prowled beneath his veneer of lazy affability. She could all but feel it roar through him, snapping at its leash, threatening to devour both of them in one savage gulp.

Her fingers dug into his hips, then went limp as he molded her to him. He was telling her something, but his harsh whisper was lost in the beat of her blood.

Yes, this was what he wanted. Everything he wanted. To feel her go pliant with pleasure. To taste the hot need on her mouth. To hear that soft, helpless sound she made deep in her throat as she lost herself in him. To know that she thought of nothing and no one but him.

"Caroline." He steadied himself by pressing his lips to her shoulder, letting his teeth run over that scented curve. "There's something I need to do."

"Yes." She reached for him, but he caught her wrists.

"No, not that. Not yet." With his eyes on her, he pressed her back so that his body covered hers. He nipped at her lips, tormenting rather than satisfying. "What I need to do now..." He caught her chin lightly between his teeth then gently but purposefully captured her hands. "Is drive you crazy."


"If I let you run those hands over me just now, this'll all be over much too quickly." He slid down, circling her breasts with slow, open-mouthed kisses. "There's an old southern tradition." He rolled his tongue lazily over her nipple and watched her eyes cloud over. "That if something's worth doing, it's worth taking your sweet time."

Her hands flexed desperately under his as he shifted to her other breast. "I can't."

"Sure you can, darlin'." He drew her into his mouth until she cried out, then gently released her. "I'm going to show you. After, if you decide you don't like it, we'll try again."

She writhed, her head turning restlessly on the pillow as the flood of sensation began to rise. With lips and teeth and tongue he savored. The air was too thick to breathe. She fought it into her lungs, hissed it out again through trembling lips. But even as her mind struggled against total submission, her body was betraying her. It reveled in the hot, primal glory of being taken. It shuddered and strained toward the wild release he held just out of reach.

Damp flesh slid over damp flesh as he glided down her, as much a prisoner as she. A moan dragged out of her, seductive on the sultry air. He rubbed his cheek on her belly, the anticipation of intimacy swimming in his head like fine wine. Once he would have said he knew all there was to know about pleasure. Once he would have denied that the pleasure was much different with one woman than with another.

But it was Caroline's scent teasing his senses, her sobbing breaths quickening his heartbeat, her soft, pale skin quivering under his lips.

And everything was different.

She arched and bucked when he slid his tongue over the sensitive crease of her thigh. He lingered inches away from the core of heat, torturing them both until he felt her body stiffen, freeze, then go lax.

The first ragged climax left her limp. She was floating now, weightless, no longer aware of the room or the heat, only of staggering relief. Her lips curved. Freed, her hands stroked down her own dazzled body, skimming over skin slicked with sweat until they brushed through his hair.

"I guess I liked it after all," she managed to say.

"We're not through yet." He cupped his hands under her hips, lifted them, and devoured her.

He shot her from contentment back into the storm so quickly the breath strangled in her throat. Her groping hands slid off his damp shoulders to grip desperately at the sheets. Wave after wave of titanic sensations battered her until there was only greed. His and her own. He was done with the gentle teasing, and the hands that had flowed over her like silk over velvet sought and demanded with a ruthlessness that was as arousing as it was unexpected.

There were dark pleasures here, dark secret pleasures that were born on hot summer nights. Together they thrashed over the bed, wallowing in them as freely as animals coupling in the grass.

He fought the tide back one last time, dragging her with him with hands that shook.

"Look at me." His chest heaved with each breath as he braced himself over her. "Caroline, look at me."

Her eyes fluttered open, the irises dark as midnight.

"This is more." He lowered his mouth to hers and the words were muffled against her lips as he plunged into her. "This is more."

Spent, she lay drowsing, content with Tucker's weight. There were a few aches beginning to make themselves known, but even that made her smile. She'd always considered herself an adequate lover-though at the end Luis had certainly disagreed-but she'd never felt quite so smug before.

She gave a little sigh and stretched. With a grunt, Tucker rolled to reverse positions. "Better?" he asked when she lay on top of him, her head on his chest.

"It was fine before." She smiled again. "Just fine." Another sigh and she opened heavy eyes. After a moment's bafflement she realized they were sprawled over the foot of the bed. "How did we get down here?"

"Dexterity. Give me a few minutes and we can work our way up to the other end."

"Hmm." She pressed her lips to his chest. "The rain stopped. Only it's even hotter than before."

"We might have had something to do with that."

Caroline roused herself to lift her head. "You know what I want?"

"Honey, once I get my energy back, I'll do my best to give you anything you want."

"I'll remember that. But..." She lowered her mouth to his. "What I want right now, what I really need right now, is ice cream." She grinned down at him. "Want some ice cream, Tucker?"

"I might be able to choke some down. Now that you mention it." He had an amusing little fantasy about licking Strawberry Surprise off some interesting parts of her anatomy. "You going to bring it up here?"

"That was my plan." After indulging in another kiss, she slid out of bed to root in the closet for her robe. "One scoop or two?"

His teeth flashed as she crossed the robe over her breasts. "I'm a two-scoop man myself. Want some help?"

"I think I can manage."

"Good." He tucked his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. Caroline walked out, certain he'd take advantage of the lull with a nap.

In the kitchen she scooped up ice cream by lamplight. It occurred to her that this was a moment that would cling in her memory. The sultry kitchen, the smell of rain and lamp oil, the strong, healthy afterglow of loving. Spooning up ice cream to be eaten in bed.

She was humming to herself as she carried the bowls back down the hall. Even the shrill interruption of the phone couldn't dampen her mood. She set down one bowl and, cocking the receiver between her shoulder and ear, dug into the other with her spoon.


"Caroline. Thank goodness."

The spoon stopped on its way to her lips. Caroline dropped it back in the bowl and put the bowl on the table. Apparently there was one thing that could dampen her mood. Her mother's voice.

"Hello, Mother."

"I've been trying to reach you for over an hour. They had trouble with the lines. Which is no surprise, considering the kind of service down there."

"We had a storm. How are you? And Dad?"

"We're both fine. Your father's on a quick trip to New York, but I had several engagements and couldn't accompany him."

Georgia Waverly spoke quickly, without a trace of the delta she'd worked so hard to rid from her voice and her heart.

"It's you I'm worried about," she continued, and Caroline could imagine her at her rosewood desk in the immaculate and tasteful sitting room, checking off her daughter's name on one of her innumerable lists.

Order flowers. Attend charity luncheon. Worry about Caroline.

The image brought a nasty tug of guilt.

"There's nothing to worry about."

"Nothing! I was attending a dinner party at the Fulbrights this evening, and I had to hear from Carter that my daughter was attacked!"

"I wasn't hurt," Caroline said quickly.

"I know that," Georgia snapped back, testy at the interruption. "Carter explained everything, which is more than you bothered to do. I told you all along you had no business going down there, but you refused to listen. Now I'm told-and by the way, I don't appreciate hearing about all of this over my soup!-that you're embroiled in some kind of murder investigation."

"I'm sorry." Caroline closed her eyes. Apologies became the bill of fare when she dealt with her mother. "It all happened so fast. And it's over."

A movement on the stairs had her glancing up. She saw Tucker and wearily turned away.

"Carter made it quite clear that's simply not true. You know he owns the local NBC affliliate here in Philadelphia. He said the story was already running, and that several news crews were flying down to cover it at the scene. Naturally, when your name was leaked, it became hot news."

"Oh, Christ."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Nothing." She passed a hand through her hair. Be reasonable, she warned herself. Somehow she had to be reasonable. "I am sorry you heard about this from someone else. And I know the publicity will annoy you. I can't help the press, Mother, any more than I can help the reason for it. I'm sorry if this upsets you."

"Of course it upsets me. Wasn't it bad enough that we had to play down the scandal of you being hospitalized, dropping your summer schedule, your public estrangement from Luis?"

"Yes," Caroline said dryly. "That must have been very difficult for you. It was inconsiderate of me to collapse that way."

"Don't use that tone with me. If you hadn't let yourself become overwrought about a minor disagreement with Luis, none of it would have happened. And now this business of going down there, burying yourself in that place-"

"I'm not buried."

"Wasting your talent." Georgia plowed over Caroline's protests like a blade through soft dirt. "Humiliating yourself and your family. Do you think I've had a single restful night knowing you're there, alone, unprotected?"

Caroline began to rub at the ache in her temple. "I've been alone for years."

Georgia never heard the statement, or the wistfulness behind it.

"And now-well, you might have been raped or murdered."

"Oh, yes, and that would have been dreadful publicity."

There was a brief pause. "That was uncalled for, Caroline."

"Yes, it was." She pressed her thumb and forefinger against her eyes and repeated the usual litany. "I'm sorry. Perhaps I'm still shaken by what happened."

Are you going to ask what happened, Mother? Are you going to ask how I feel, what I need, or only how I behaved?

"I understand. And I expect you to understand my feelings as well. I insist that you come home immediately."

"I am home."

"Don't be ridiculous. You don't belong there any more than I did. I raised you better than that, Caroline. Your father and I gave you every advantage. I won't see you throw it all away over some sort of pique."

"Pique? Well, that's an interesting way of putting it, Mother. I can only say I'm sorry I can't do what you want. Or be what you want."

"I don't know how this strain of stubbornness developed, but it's very unattractive. No doubt Luis found it equally so, but he's more tolerant than I. He's terribly concerned."

"He's... are you telling me you called him? That you went against my express wishes and called him?"

"A child's wishes aren't always the same as that child's best interests. In any case, I wanted to speak to him about your White House performance in September."

Caroline pressed a hand to her stomach where the knot was tightening. "I stopped being a child the first time you pushed me out onstage. And I don't need his opinion on my performance."

"I'm not surprised by your attitude. I've come to expect this kind of ingratitude." Georgia's voice tightened. Caroline could picture her, drumming her carefully manicured nails on the polished surface of the desk. "I can only hope that when Luis contacts you you'll display better manners. You and I are both well aware that he was the best thing that could have happened to you. He understood your artistic temperament."

"He understood my pitiful naivete. I suppose it makes no difference to you that I found him boffing the flutist in his dressing room?"

"Your language is as crude as your surroundings."

"It can get cruder."

"I've had enough of this nonsense. I insist you come home. We have no more than a matter of weeks, as it is, to prepare for your appearance at the White House. And of course you gave no thought at all to your dress. I've had to find the time to consult with your designer. Now this new publicity-it's very detrimental."

So's a knife through the heart, Caroline thought. "It isn't necessary for you to take on any work," she said carefully. "I've already spoken to Frances and finalized the plans. I'll be flying into D.C. for the performance, and flying out again the next day. As for my costume, my wardrobe is more than adequate already."

"Have you lost your senses? This is one of the most important steps of your career. I've already started arranging interviews, photo sessions-"

"Then you'll have to unarrange," Caroline said briefly. "And let me assure you, Mother, that I'm alive and well. The man who attacked me is dead. I killed him myself, so I should know."


"Please give Dad my love. Good night." Delicately, she set the receiver back on the hook. She waited a full minute, wanting to be sure she could speak without screaming. "The ice cream's melted."

Picking up the bowls, she walked back into the kitchen to dump them in the sink.