Carnal Innocence (Page 23)

It seemed to be his day for soothing feelings and easing guilt. Tucker wondered how a man could get through most of his life riding just above the surface of troubled waters, then find himself neck-deep in the swirl.

Caroline's emotions still sizzled in the air. It was as if someone had tossed a live wire into those churning waters, where it would snap and spark.

He wished he had a cigarette, but the pack was upstairs, probably drenched by his wet shirt.

He looked up those shadowy stairs-not without longing for the peace and solitude of the bedroom-then back toward the kitchen, where the lamplight flickered and tension brewed.

When he went into the kitchen, she was standing at the sink, looking out the window much as she had the morning after Burns's visit. Only this time she was facing the dark.

Tucker didn't want her to face it alone. He walked up behind her, felt a wave of frustration when her shoulders stiffened at his touch.

"You know, my usual routine on finding myself with a broody woman would be to make some joke and talk her back into bed. If that didn't work, I'd find the quickest way to the door." Despite her resistance, he began to knead her rigid shoulders. "The usual doesn't seem to have much to do with you."

"I wouldn't mind a joke right now."

He laid his brow on the back of her head. Wasn't it a damn shame he couldn't think of one, he mused, or of anything except what was hurting her. "Talk to me, Caroline."

With a restless movement she switched on the tap to wash the sink clear. "There's nothing to say."

As he lifted his head, he could see the ghost of their reflection in the black window glass. He knew she could see it, too, but he wondered if she knew how fragile it was, how easily wiped away.

"When you walked downstairs a few minutes ago, I could still feel the way you'd been, lying there with me. All soft and easy. Now you're all tied up in knots. I don't like seeing you this way."

"It's nothing to do with you."

The speed with which he whirled her around surprised them both, as did the barely restrained violence in his voice. "You want to use me for sex and leave out everything else, then make it plain right now. If what went on between us upstairs was just a tussle on hot sheets for you, then say so and we'll play this your way. But it was more for me." He gave her a quick shake, as if to rattle the wall she'd thrown up between them. "Dammit, it's never been like that before."

"Don't pressure me." Eyes blazing, she shoved against his chest. "My whole life I've had to tolerate other people pressuring me. I'm done with that."

"You're not done with me. If you think you can take a few swipes and send me out the door, you're wrong. I'm sticking." To prove his point, he pressed his lips to hers in a hard, possessive kiss. "We're both going to start to get used to it."

"I don't have to get used to anything. I can say yes, or I can say no, or I can-" She broke off, squeezing her eyes shut. "Oh, why am I fighting with you? It's not you." After a deep breath she slipped away from him.

"It's not you, Tucker. It's me. Shouting at you isn't going to make it go away."

"I don't mind you shouting-much-if it makes you feel better."

She smiled, rubbing absently at her temple. "I think one of Dr. Palamo's miracle pills would do a better job of it."

"Let's try something else." Catching her hands, he drew her to a chair. "You sit here while I pour us a couple of glasses of that wine I brought you a while back Then you tell me why that phone call got you all het up."

"Het up." She sat, closing her eyes again. "That expression covers a lot of ground, doesn't it? My mother would say overwrought, but I like het up." When she opened her eyes there was the faintest hint of amusement in them. "I've been het up quite a bit over the last months. That was my mother on the phone."

"I got the drift of that." He drew the cork on the wine. "And that she was-overwrought-about what happened yesterday."

"Yes indeed. Particularly since it was a topic of conversation at a dinner party she attended. Gossip's a habit of Yankees, too-though my mother's crowd would call it socializing. But she was most particularly upset since the press has picked up the scent, and I have an important engagement pending. She's afraid the President and the Soviet Premier might not want to hear Mozart's Violin Concerto Number Five played by a woman who so recently shot someone's face off." She accepted the glass Tucker held out and offered a quick toast. "Georgia Waverly's daughter Caroline isn't supposed to attract unsavory publicity. What would the Women's League think?"

"Could be she was scared for you."

"Could be. Oh, to give her her due, she wouldn't want anything to happen to me. She does love me, in her way. It's just that her way is so difficult to live up to." She sipped her wine, and it was cold and tart and bracing. "She's always wanted the best for me-her idea of the best. I've spent my entire life trying to give her that. Then I had to take a hard look and admit that I couldn't give her that anymore."

"People get comfortable with the way things are." He sat beside her, with the oil lamp flickering on the table between them. "It might take her a while longer to accept that you've changed the rules."

"Or she might never accept it. That's something else I have to understand." Cradling the glass in both hands, Caroline looked around the room. The old refrigerator thudded, then began its whining hum. Rain was dripping musically from the gutter.

Worn linoleum and faded curtains, she thought. The lamplight was kind to the room, as it would have been to a tired woman. Caroline found that incredibly comforting.

"I love this place," she murmured. "Despite everything that's happened, I feel right here. And I need..."


"I need to belong somewhere. I need the simplicity, the continuity."

"That doesn't sound like something you should apologize for."

So he'd heard it, she thought with a grim little smile. It was still there, that habitual tone of apology whenever she took something for herself.

"No, it's not. I'm working on that. You see, she'd never understand what I'm saying to you, what I'm feeling. And she certainly can't understand what I need."

"Then I guess it comes down to pleasing her, or pleasing yourself."

"I've come to that conclusion myself. But it's difficult, when pleasing myself alienates her so completely. She grew up in this house, Tucker. She's ashamed of that. She's ashamed that her father chopped cotton for a living and that her mother canned jellies. Ashamed of where she came from, and of the two people who gave her life, and did the best they could to make that life a good one."

"That's something for her to deal with, not you."

"But it's because of that shame that I'm here at all.

It connects us. I guess that's what families do, and you don't really have any choice about your link in the chain."

"Maybe not, but you can choose what comes after you."

"And what comes after is still bound with what came before. She never gave me a chance to know my grandparents. They did without a lot of things so that she could go to college in Philadelphia. I didn't hear that from my mother," she added, and there was bitter regret in her voice. "I heard it from Happy Fuller. My grandmother took in laundry, sewing, did what the ladies call fancy work to sell. All to scrape together pennies for tuition. They didn't have to pay it long, which was a blessing, I suppose. She met my father during the first semester. He's often told me how he'd tried to weasel out of the blind date his roommate had hooked him into. And how, the moment he set eyes on my mother, he fell in love. Do you ever picture your parents that way? On their first date, falling in love?"

"My father set his sights on Mama when she was barely twelve years old. She made him wait six years."

"Mine moved quicker. They were married before my mother finished her first year of college. The Waverlys were an old, established family in Philadelphia. My father was already destined for corporate law. I know it must have been difficult for her, trying to fit into that niche of society. But for as long as I can remember, she's been more of a snob than any of the Waverlys. A house in the best part of town, clothes from the most exclusive designers, the proper vacations at the proper resorts in the proper season."

"Most people tend to overcompensate when they've got something to prove."

"Oh, she had a lot to prove. And in short order, she produced a child to help her prove it. I had a nanny to deal with the messier aspects of child rearing, but Mother took care of decorum, behavior, attitudes. She used to send for me, and I'd go into her sitting room. It always smelled of hothouse roses and Chanel. She would instruct me, patiently, on what was expected of a Waverly."

Tucker reached out to touch her hair. "What was expected of a Waverly?"


"That's a tough one. Being a Longstreet, my daddy just expected me to 'be a man.' 'Course, that was in big, tall capital letters, and his ideas and mine veered apart after a while. He didn't use the parlor either," Tucker remembered. "The woodshed was his style."

"Oh, Mother never raised a hand to me. She didn't have to. It was her idea that I take up the violin. She thought it was classy. I should be grateful for that," Caroline said with a sigh. "But then, it wasn't enough that I play well. I had to be the best. Fortunately for me, I had talent. A prodigy, they called me. By the time I was ten that word made me cringe. She picked out my music, my instructors, my recital clothes-the same way she picked out my friends. Then I began to tour, just sporadically at first, because of my age. There were tutors, and the touring increased. By the time I was sixteen, the path had been set. For nearly twelve more years I kept to it."

"Did you want to?"

The fact that he would ask made her smile. No one else ever had. "Whenever I began to think I had a choice, she would be there. In person, by phone, in a letter. It was almost as if she could sense that little seed of rebellion beginning to take root. She'd just nip it off. I'd let her."


"I wanted her to love me." Her eyes filled, but she blinked the tears away. "And I was afraid she didn't. I was sure she wouldn't if I wasn't perfect." Ashamed, she brushed at a tear that had crept through her defenses. "That sounds pathetic."

"No." He wiped the tear away himself. "It only sounds sad, for your mother."

She took a shaky breath, like a swimmer struggling toward shore. "About three years ago I met Luis in London. He was the most brilliant maestro I've ever worked with. He was young, thirty-two when I met him, and he'd built a flashy reputation in Europe. He conducted an orchestra the way a matador dominates a bull ring. Decisive, arrogant, sexual. He was physically stunning, and magnetic."

"I get the picture."

She laughed a little. "I was twenty-five. I'd never been with a man."

Tucker had started to drink, but set the glass down. "You'd never..."

"Rolled in the hay?" The stunned expression on his face had her lips quirking. But the smile didn't last. "No. When I was growing up, my mother kept me on a very short leash, and I didn't have the nerve to strain against it very often. When I required an escort to some affair, she chose him. You could say that her taste and mine didn't mesh. I wasn't particularly interested in the men she found suitable."

"That's why you like me." He leaned over to give her a kiss. "I'd turn her hair white."

"Actually, I never thought about it. Another first for me." Pleased with the idea, she tapped her wineglass against his. "Later, when I began to tour by myself, my schedule was rugged, and I was... the term's repressed."

He thought about the woman who'd just tumbled over the bed with him. "Uh-huh."

She hadn't realized sarcasm could be soothing. "My sexuality was tied up in my music. I certainly didn't believe I was the kind of woman who'd just fall into bed with the first attractive man who crooked his finger my way." She reached for the wine bottle. "Within thirty-six hours of my first rehearsal with Luis, he proved me wrong."

She shrugged and drank. "He overwhelmed me. Flowers, soulful looks, desperate promises of undying love. He couldn't exist without me. His life had been meaningless before I'd come into it. He gave me the works. I should add that my mother adored him. He came from Spanish aristocracy."

"Suitable," Tucker said.

"Oh, eminently. When I had to leave London for Paris, he phoned me every day, sent small, charming gifts, gorgeous flowers. He rushed to Berlin to join me for a weekend. It continued that way for more than a year, and if I heard rumors that he was romancing some actress or cuddling with a socialite, I ignored it. I thought it was vicious gossip. Oh, maybe I suspected something, but if I so much as hinted to him that I'd heard something, he flew into a rage at my unwarranted jealousy, my possessiveness, my lack of self-esteem. And my work kept me occupied. I'd just signed a contract for a brutal six-month tour."

She lasped into silence, thinking back. The airports, hotels, rehearsals, performances. The flu she'd picked up in Sydney and hadn't shaken off until Tokyo. The strained conversations with Luis. The promises, the disappointments. And the news clipping someone had left on her dressing room table. With the picture of Luis embracing a gorgeous French actress.

"There's no point in going into every miserable detail, but the tour was relentless, my relationship with Luis began to unravel, and my confidence-my personal confidence-hit the skids. Luis and I ended things with an ugly scene full of accusations and tears. His accusations, my tears. At that point in my life I hadn't learned to fight well."

Tucker laid a hand over hers. "Then you learned fast."

"Once I make up my mind, I'm a quick study. Too bad it took me nearly twenty-eight years to make up my mind. When Luis and I parted ways, I wanted to take some time off, but I'd already been committed to all these guest appearances and a special for cable TV. My health..." It was difficult to admit it, even now. No matter how illogical it was, she was still embarrassed by the illness. "Well, it deteriorated. And I-"

"Wait. What do you mean deteriorated?"

Uncomfortable, she shifted and began to toy with the stem of her glass. "Headaches. I was used to having headaches, but they became more chronic and severe. I lost some weight. My appetite suffered because nothing seemed to settle well. Insomnia, and the resulting fatigue."

"Why didn't you take care of yourself?"

"I thought I was just being indulgent. Temperamental. And I had responsibilities. People were depending on me to perform, and to perform well. I couldn't just-" She cut herself off with a short laugh. "Excuses, as the wise Dr. Palamo would say. Truth- I was hiding out. Using my work to escape. The repression wasn't just sexual. I'd been taught to behave 'properly.' To present a certain image and to live up to my potential. And, as my mother would say, feeling unwell is no reason for a lady to act unwell. It was easier to ignore the symptoms than to face them. When I was taping the TV special in New York, my mother came up. Escorted by Luis. I was so angry, so hurt, I walked off the set." She smiled a little, then the smile became a laugh. "I'd never done a thing like that in my life. Beneath the anger and hurt was this little nugget of triumph. I had taken control. I'd acted on impulse, on pure emotion, and the world hadn't come to a screeching halt. It was a very heady five minutes."

She couldn't sit any longer, simply couldn't, and pushed away from the table to roam the room.

"That was how long it took her to swirl into my dressing room and read me her version of the riot act. I was behaving like a spoiled child, an insufferable artist, a prima donna. I tried to tell her that I felt betrayed that she'd brought him along, but she just ran right over me-I was rude, foolish, ungrateful... Luis was ready to forgive me for being willful and overly sensitive and mindlessly jealous, and here I was turning up my nose. Of course, I apologized."

"For what?"

"For whatever she wanted me to apologize for," Caroline said with a wave of her hand. "After all, she wanted only the best for me. She'd seen that I had the best. She'd worked and sacrificed so that I could have a brilliant career."

"I guess your talent didn't count."

Caroline let out a deep breath, trying to expel some of the bitterness along with the air. "She can't help it, Tucker. I'm still working on accepting that, and I'm almost there. There was a time I couldn't help it either. Luis came to my hotel suite that evening. He was charming, sweet, full of regrets and explanations. It had been the strain of being without me for so long-not that that was an excuse for his unfaithfulness, he assured me. But he'd been so lonely, so vulnerable, and my doubts and questions had only added to the strain. The other women, they had only been substitutes for me."

She snatched her glass off the table. "Can you imagine a woman with a single working brain cell falling for that?"

Tucker took a chance and smiled at her. "Yeah."

She stopped, stared at him, then began to laugh. "Of course you would. And, of course I did. He was still the only man who'd ever made love to me. Maybe if I'd had a few flings myself, I wouldn't have been so ready to fall back into the pattern. Maybe if I'd had the same confidence in myself as a woman that I had as a musician, I'd have shown him the door. But I agreed to put all the mistakes behind us, to start fresh. We even talked about marriage. Oh, in a very distant, diluted sort of way. When the time was right, he would say. When things fell into place. And because he asked me, I committed to another tour."

A little surprised, she looked down at her wine. "I'm getting drunk."

"That's all right, I'll drive. Tell me the rest."

She leaned back against the counter. "Luis would be the conductor, I the featured artist. It would be grueling, of course, but we'd be together. And wasn't that the important thing? Dr. Palamo-I had just started to see him-advised against it. What I needed was rest and quiet. I had this nasty little ulcer, you see. And the headaches, insomnia, fatigue. It was all stress, and he made it quite clear that going right back on the road would only make matters worse. I didn't listen."

"He should have tossed you into a hospital and chained you to a bed."

"He'd like you." Amused, she sipped more wine.

"My mother threw a party the night before we left. She was in her element and had a grand time, hinting that it was really an engagement party. Luis responded to that with a lot of winking and hearty laughter. And off we went. As I said, Luis is a brilliant conductor, demanding, moody, but absolutely brilliant. We started in Europe, triumphant. After the first week he moved into his own suite-my insomnia made it difficult for him to get much rest."

"Slimy bastard."

"Not slimy," Caroline corrected him meticulously. "Slick. Very slick. The rest I'll go along with. On a professional level he was a tremendous asset to me. He pushed me musically. He said I was the finest artist he'd ever worked with, but I could be better. He would mold me, sculpt me."

"Why didn't he buy himself some Play-Doh?"

She chuckled. "I wish I'd asked. To give him his due, he never once stinted on his dedication to improving my performance. He did start to slide when it came to treating me like a woman. I started to feel like an instrument, something he would tune and polish and restring. I was so tired, and sick, and unsure. It annoyed the hell out of him when I'd turn up for rehearsal looking exhausted and frail. It annoyed me, too. It annoyed me to see those pitying glances from the other musicians, the road crew.

"I performed well, really well. Most of the tour is just a haze of theaters and hotel rooms, but I know I performed as well as I ever had, perhaps better than I ever will again. I picked up some sort of infection along the way and lived on antibiotics and fruit juice and music. We stopped sleeping together completely. He said I was simply not giving him my best. And he was right. Then he assured me that when the tour was over, we'd go away. So I lived on that. The end of the tour, the two of us lying on some warm beach together.

"But I didn't make it to the end of the tour. We were in Toronto, three-quarters done. I was awfully sick, and I was afraid I wouldn't get through the night's performance. I'd fainted in my dressing room. It scared me to wake up and find myself lying on the floor."

"Jesus Christ, Caroline." He started to get up, but she shook her head.

"It sounds worse than it was. I wasn't an invalid, I was just so tired. And I had one of those vicious headaches that make you want to curl up in a ball and cry. I kept thinking it was only one performance, only one, and if I went to him, if I explained, he'd understand. So I went to him, but he was also lying on his dressing room floor. Only he was lying on top of the flutist. They never even saw me," she said half to herself, then shrugged. "Just as well. I wasn't strong enough to face a confrontation. Anyway, I went on that night. A stellar performance. Three encores, standing ovations, six curtain calls. There might have been more, but when the curtain came down the last time, so did I. The next thing I remember, I was waking up in the hospital."

"Someone should have put him in the hospital."

"It wasn't him. He was just one more symptom. It was me. Me and my pitiful need to do what was expected of me. Luis hadn't made me sick. I had done it. Diagnosis-exhaustion." With a restless movement of her shoulders she walked back to the table to pour more wine, carefully shaking out the last drops. "I found that humiliating. Somehow it wouldn't have been as bad if I'd had a tumor or some rare exotic disease. They ran scads of tests, poked and prodded and scanned, but it all came down to plain old exhaustion complicated by stress. Dr. Palamo flew up to treat me himself. No 'I-told-you-so's' from him. Just competent, compassionate care. He actually booted Luis out of the room once." Tucker lifted his glass. "Here's to Dr. Palamo."

"He was good to me, good for me. If I needed to cry, he just let me cry. And when I needed to talk, he listened. He isn't a psychiatrist, and though he recommended one, I felt so comfortable talking just to him. When he felt the time was right, he had me transferred to a hospital in Philadelphia. It was really more like what they used to call a rest home. My mother told everyone I was recuperating at a villa on the Riviera. So much more sophisticated."

"Caroline, I have to tell you, I don't think I like your mother."

"That's all right, she wouldn't like you either. She did her duty, though. She came to see me three times a week. My father would call every night, even if he'd been to visit. The tour went on without me, and the press played up the collapse, and the fact that Luis was now snuggled up tight with the flutist. He did send flowers, along with romantic little notes. He didn't have any idea I'd seen him with her.

"It took about three months before I was well enough to go home. I guess I was still a little wobbly, but I felt stronger than I ever had in my life. I began to understand that I'd allowed myself to be treated like a victim. That I'd permitted the exploitation of what should have been cherished as a gift. My talent was mine, my life was mine. My feelings were mine. God, I can't tell you what an epiphany that was. When the lawyers contacted me about my grandmother, I knew what I wanted to do. What I was going to do.

"When I told my mother, she was livid. I didn't just stand up to her, Tucker, which was really all I'd hoped for. I stood in that damn, prissy sitting room of hers and I shouted, I raged, I demanded. Naturally, I apologized. Old habits die hard, but I stuck with what I needed for myself. And I headed south."

"To Innocence."

"By way of Baltimore. I knew Luis was there, doing some guest-conducting. I called ahead, so he'd be expecting me. Oh, he was thrilled, delighted. When I got to his suite, he had an intimate dinner set up. I threw a glass of champagne at him, then I really cut loose. It felt wonderful. He was incensed enough to follow me out into the hall when I left. The man in the room across the hall-I never did get his name-came out and saw Luis trying to drag me back into the room. He decked him." With her eyes half closed, she pantomimed a right jab. "One shot to that perfectly chiseled jaw, and Luis was down for the count."

"Buy that man a drink."

"That would have been proper, I suppose, but I was still revving on instinct. I did something else I'd never done in my life. I grabbed him-a complete stranger-and kissed him full on the lips. Then I walked away."

"And how did you feel?"

"Free." With a sigh she sat again. There was no trace of the headache, she realized. Her stomach wasn't knotted, her muscles weren't tense. "I still have moments, like with that phone call, when I lose that feeling. You don't dump all your baggage at once. But I know I'm never going back to the way I was."

"Good." He lifted her hand to kiss her knuckles. "I like the way you are now."

"So do I, mostly." Her glass had sweated a ring on the table. Caroline traced patterns in the moisture. "I may never heal the rift with my mother, and that's hard. But I've found something here."

"Peace and quiet?" he said, and made her smile.

"Right. There's nothing like a few murders to calm things down. Roots," she said, glancing up. "I know that sounds silly since I spent only a few days here as a child. But shallow roots are better than none."

"They aren't shallow. Things grow fast and deep in the delta. Even when people leave, they can't pull those roots out."

"My mother did."

"No, she only sprouted them in you. Caroline." He said her name softly and reached out to frame her face in his hands. "I hate what you went through. No, look at me," he insisted when she dropped her gaze. "Part of you still wants to be ashamed of it. And you don't want me or anybody feeling sorry for you. But I've never made a habit of repressing my feelings, so you'll have to take them as they come. I don't like thinking about you being hurt or sick or unhappy, but if all those things brought you here-right here where we're sitting-I can't be too sorry."

Here, right here, she thought, and smiled. "Neither can I."

She looked so fragile. Those fine bones, that pale skin. Fragile, until you saw what was in her eyes. There were depths there, he realized, strengths she hadn't even begun to tap. And he very much wanted to be around while she continued her self-discovery.

"There are some things I want to tell you. I'm not sure how."

She brought her hands to his wrists. "Maybe, when I'm feeling more settled, I'd like to hear them. Right now I think it might be better to let things stay as they are."

He'd always been patient, he reminded himself. But it was hard to be patient when you felt as though you were standing on a narrow ledge with the ground crumbling from under your feet. "All right." He leaned forward to touch his lips to hers. "Let me stay with you tonight."

Her lips curved under his. "I thought you'd never ask." She rose, taking his hands in hers. "Didn't you mention that if I didn't like it your way, we'd try again?"

"You didn't like it?"

"Well... I'm not quite sure. Maybe if you showed me again, I'd be able to form a more definite opinion."

"Seems fair." He eyed the kitchen table and grinned. "Why don't we start right here?" He unknotted the belt of her robe. "And we can work our way-shit."

The phone rang, and Caroline dropped her head on his shoulder. "I'd say don't answer it, but she'll just keep calling."

"I'll answer it."

"No, I-"

He caught her hands before she could tie her robe again. "Let me answer it. If I can't charm her into cutting loose for the night, you can take over."

She hesitated, then decided there was some sense in the idea. "Why not?"

He gave her a brief kiss. "Clear the table," he called over his shoulder, and made her laugh.

"Grandma," Caroline murmured as she picked up the rooster trivet, "I hope you won't be shocked." She took the empty glasses and bottle to the sink and decided her grandmother might have liked the idea of love in her kitchen.

"That was quick," she said when she heard Tucker come back in. "I've never known her to give up so easily. What did you..." The words died as she turned and saw his face. "What is it? What's happened?"

"It wasn't your mother, it was Burke." He walked to her, putting his arms around her as much to brace himself as Caroline. "Darleen Talbot's missing." He stared at their reflections again, in the shadowed window. Through a glass darkly, he thought, and shut his eyes. "We'll start the search at first light."