Carnal Innocence (Page 28)

"There's coffee on the stove, Tuck." Burke yawned over his bowl of raisin bran. "I don't believe I've seen you up and around this early in twenty years."

"I wanted to catch you before you went into your office."

"My office." Burke's lips twisted into a grimace as he held out his morning mug so that Tucker could top it up with hot coffee. "Don't you mean Burns's office? My butt hasn't felt the seat of my own chair in three days."

"Is he getting anywhere, or is he just blowing smoke?"

"He's generated more paperwork than the Bank of England. Faxes, Federal Express packages, conference calls to Washington, D.C. We got us a bulletin board with pictures of all the victims tacked to it. Vital statistics, time and place of death. He's got stuff referenced and cross-referenced till your head spins."

Tucker sat down. "You're not telling me anything, Burke."

Burke met Tucker's gaze. "There's not much I'm free to tell you. We've got a list of suspects."

Nodding, Tucker took a sip of coffee. "Am I still on it?"

"You've got an alibi for Edda Lou." Burke took a spoonful of cereal, hesitated, then set it down again. "I guess you know Burns has taken a real dislike to you. He doesn't think much of your sister saying you were up playing cards with her half the night."

"I'm not too worried about that."

"You should be." Burke broke off when he heard someone moving around in the living room. A moment later the Looney Tunes theme warbled from the television. "Eight o'clock," he said with a smile. "That kid's got it down to a science." He picked up his coffee. "I'll tell you this, Tuck. Burns would like nothing better than to hang this whole thing around your neck. He won't do anything that's not straight and legal, but if he can find a way to reel you in, it would give him a lot of pleasure."

"What we got here's a personality clash," Tucker said with a thin smile. "They got a time of death on Darleen yet?"

"Teddy's putting it at between nine p.m. and midnight."

"Since I was with Caroline from about nine on, the night Darleen was killed, that ought to ease me out of the running."

"With a series of murders like this, it's not just a matter of motive and opportunity. He's got a head doctor who worked up a psychiatric profile. We're looking for someone with a grudge against women-especially women who might be a bit free with their favors. Someone who knew each victim well enough to get them alone."

Burke's flakes were getting soggy. He scooped them up more for fuel than enjoyment. "Darleen's a puzzle," he went on. "Maybe it was just chance that he came across her on the road that way. Could have been impulse. But chance and impulse don't follow the pattern."

Tucker let that settle for a minute. There was a pattern, he mused, but he didn't think anybody had put all the lines and checks together just yet. "I want to get back to that psychiatric stuff. You've got somebody with a grudge against women-maybe because they hated their mama, or some woman let them down along the way."

"That's the idea."

"Before Darleen, you'd pretty well settled on Austin."

"He fit the profile," Burke agreed. "And after he went after Caroline with a buck knife, it looked rock solid."

"But unless Austin came back from the dead, he couldn't have killed Darleen." Tucker shifted in his chair. "What do you think about heredity, Burke? About blood and genes and bad seeds?"

"Anybody with kids thinks about it some. Anybody with parents, I should say," he added, and shoved his bowl aside. "I spent a lot of years wondering if I'd make all the wrong moves the way my father did, push myself into corners or let myself get pushed there, like him."

"I'm sorry. I should have thought before I asked."

"No, it was a long time ago. Almost twenty years now. It's better to look to your own kids. That one out there." He pointed a spoon toward the living room, where his youngest watched Bugs outwit Elmer Fudd. "He looks like me. I got pictures of myself at his age, and it's almost spooky how much he looks like me."

"Vernon favors his daddy," Tucker said. He waited while Burke set his spoon aside. "It can go deeper than coloring and the shape of a nose, Burke. It can go to personality and tendencies, gestures, habits. I've had reason to think on this because of my own family." It was something he didn't like to talk about, not even with Burke. "Dwayne's got the same sickness that killed our father. Maybe he's got a better disposition, but it's there, rooted inside. All I have to do is look in the mirror, or at Dwayne and Josie, and I see our mother. She's stamped right on our faces. And she had a love of books, poetry especially. I got that, too. I didn't ask for it, it's just there."

"I won't argue that. Marvella's got a way of tilting her head the same way, the same angle as Susie does.

And she's got Susie's stubborn streak-'I want it and I'll find a way to get it.' We pass things on, good and bad, whether we aim to or not."

"Vernon's not gentle with his wife, any more than Austin was gentle with his."

"What brought this on, Tucker?"

"You heard about the ruckus at the carnival last night?"

"That young Cy bloodied his brother's nose? Marvella and Bobby Lee were there. Nobody thought it was a shame."

"Vernon's not a popular man. His daddy wasn't either. They've got the same look about them, in the eyes, Burke." Tucker kicked back in the chair to stretch his legs. "My mama bought me this picture book once. A Bible stories book. I remember this one picture. It was of Isaiah or Ezekiel or somebody. One of those prophets who strolled off into the wasteland for forty days to fast and meet the Lord? This was supposed to be a picture of him after he came back spouting prophesies and speaking in tongues. Whatever the hell they did when they'd cooked their brains in the desert. He had this look in his eyes, this wild, rolling look like a weasel gets when he smells chicken feathers. I always wondered why the Lord chose to speak through crazy people. I expect it was because they wouldn't question whatever voice they heard inside their head. Seems to me they might hear something else inside there, too. Something not so full of light and good will."

Saying nothing, Burke rose to pour more coffee. Burns had said something about voices. About how some serial killers claim to have been told what to do and how to do it. The Son of Sam had claimed his neighbor's dog had ordered him to kill.

For himself, Burke didn't go in for the mystical. He figured David Berkowitz had juggled psychiatry against the law to cop an insanity plea. But Tucker's theory made him uneasy.

"Are you trying to tell me you think Vernon hears voices?"

"I don't know what's inside his head, but I know what I saw in his eyes last night. The same thing I saw in Austin's when he was choking me and calling me by my father's name. That prophet look. If he could have broken Cy in two, he would've done it. And I'd stake Sweetwater against the fact that he'd have considered it holy work."

"I don't know that he had more than a passing acquaintance with any of the victims other than Edda Lou."

"This is Innocence. Nobody gets through their life without knowing what there is to know about everybody else. What's that saying about the apple not falling far from the tree? If Austin had it in him to kill, his son might have the same."

"I'll talk to him."

Satisfied, Tucker nodded. When the phone rang, they both ignored it. From upstairs, Susie answered it on the second ring. "You're going to be at Sweetwater tonight, for the fireworks?"

"Unless I want my wife and kids to leave me."

"Carl, too?"

"No reason for him to stay in town when everybody'll be out at your place. Why?"

Tucker moved his shoulders restlessly. "A lot of people, a lot of noise and confusion. I'm worried, especially about Josie and Caroline. I'd feel better knowing you and Carl are close."

"Burke." Susie came in. She was still in her robe, smelling of her shower with carnation-scented soap. Studying her, Burke thought she looked no more than twenty.

"Was that the office?" he asked her.

"No, it was Delia." She laid her hand over Tucker's. "Matthew Burns had Dwayne brought in for questioning."

If he hadn't been so infuriated, Tucker would have been amused. The idea of Dwayne, soft-hearted, bleary-eyed Dwayne, as a murder suspect was certainly laughable. The fact that his brother had been yanked out of bed and driven into town to be questioned by some smug-faced FBI agent was not.

Struggling with his temper, Tucker walked into the sheriff's office with Burke. He wouldn't lose it, he promised himself. It would suit Burns too well to kick him out. Instead, he flipped his brother a cigarette, then lighted one for himself.

"You getting an early start today, Burns," Tucker said mildly. "Guess you forgot today's a national holiday."

"I'm aware of the date." Burns stretched his legs behind Burke's desk and kept his hands folded on top. "I'm also aware that you have a parade scheduled for noon. My business won't interfere with your town's celebrations. Sheriff, I'm told you'll be blocking off the main drag by ten."

"That's right."

"I'd like my car moved where I'll be able to get in and out of town as necessary." Taking out his keys, he set them on the edge of the desk.

Carl saw the flare in Burke's eyes and stepped forward. "I'll move it on down to Magnolia." Jingling the keys in his hand, he stopped by Tucker. "I'm sorry, Tuck. I had orders to bring him in."

"It's all right, Carl. It shouldn't take long to straighten this out. Heard your girl's going to be twirling today."

"She's been practicing day and night. Her grand-pappy bought one of those video recorders so he can shoot her whole routine as she marches."

"I'm sure that's fascinating, Deputy," Burns put in, "but we have business to conduct here." His gaze shifted to Tucker. "Official business."

"I'll be sure to watch for her myself, Carl," Tucker said. He waited until the deputy went out before taking another drag. "Dwayne, did they read you your rights?"

"Mr. Longstreet isn't under arrest. Yet," Burns interrupted. "He's merely being questioned."

"He's got a right to a lawyer, doesn't he?"

"Naturally." Burns spread his hands. "If you're concerned that your rights might be abused, Mr. Longstreet, or that you may incriminate yourself, please feel free to call your attorney. We'll be happy to wait."

"I'd just as soon get it done." Dwayne looked miserably at Tucker. "Sure could use some coffee, though, and a bottle of aspirin."

"We'll fix you up." Burke patted his shoulder as he walked into the bathroom.

"This is official business, Longstreet." Burns inclined his head in dismissal. "You have no place here."

"Burke deputized me." Tucker's lips spread in a slow smile. Though Burke paused, lifting his brows as he came back in with the aspirin, he said nothing to contradict the statement. "He can always use some extra help on the Fourth."

"That's the truth," Burke commented as he shook tablets from the plastic bottle. "And seeing as my youngest has a birthday today on top of it, I'd be obliged if we could get things moving."

"Very well." Burns punched in his recorder. "Mr. Longstreet, you reside at the property known as Sweetwater, in the county of Bolivar, Mississippi?"

"That's right." Dwayne accepted the mug of coffee and the aspirin. "The Longstreets have been at Sweetwater nearly two hundred years."

"Yes." History and family legacies didn't interest Burns. "You live there with your brother and your sister."

"And Delia. She's been housekeeper at Sweetwater for more than thirty years. And right now Cousin Lulu's visiting." Dwayne singed his tongue with the hot coffee, but the aspirin went down. "She's a cousin on my mama's side. No telling how long she'll stay. Cousin Lulu's been coming and going as she pleases as long as anyone can remember. I recollect once-"

"If you'll save the home-boy routine," Burns said, "I'd like to finish before the brass bands and batons."

Dwayne caught Tucker's grin and shrugged. "Just answering your question. Oh, and we've got Cy and Caroline with us now, too. That what you want to know?"

"Your marital status?"

"I'm divorced. Two years come October. That's when the papers came through, wasn't it, Tucker?"

"That's right."

"And your ex-wife now lives where?"

"Up in Nashville. Rosebank Avenue. She's got a nice little house there, close enough to school that the boys can walk."

"And she is the former Adalaide Koons?"

"Sissy," Dwayne corrected him. "Her little brother never could say Adalaide, so she was Sissy."

"And Mrs. Longstreet was pregnant with your first son when you married?"

Dwayne frowned into his coffee. "I don't see that it's any of your business, but it's no secret, I guess."

"You married her to give the child a name."

"We got married 'cause we figured it was best."

With a murmur of agreement, Burns steepled his hands. "And shortly after the birth of your second child, you wife left you."

Dwayne drained his coffee. Over the rim, his bloodshot eyes hardened. "That's no secret either."

"You'll agree it was an unpleasant scene?" Burns shifted forward to read some notes. "Your wife locked you out of the house after a violent argument-I believe you'd been drinking heavily-and threw your belongings out of an upstairs window. She then took your children to Nashville, where she took up residence with a shoe salesman who moonlighted as a musician."

Dwayne examined the cigarette Tucker had tossed him. "I guess that's about right."

"How did it make you feel, Mr. Longstreet, when the woman you had married under duress left you, taking your children, and turned to a second-rate guitar player?"

Dwayne took his time lighting the cigarette. "I guess she had to do what suited her best."

"So you were amenable to the situation?"

"I didn't try to stop her, if that's what you mean. Didn't seem like I was much good at being married anyway."

"The divorce suit she filed against you accused you of emotional cruelty, violence, erratic and unstable behavior, and stated you were a physical risk to both her and your children. Did that seem harsh?"

Dwayne dragged deep on tobacco and wished desperately for whiskey. "I expect she was feeling harsh. I can't say I did right by her, or the boys either."

"You don't have to do this, Dwayne." When his control broke, Tucker stepped forward to take his brother's arm. "You don't have to answer this fucker's questions about a marriage that's over, or your feelings about it."

Burns inclined his head. "Is there a reason your brother shouldn't confirm what I already know?"

Tucker let go of Dwayne to slap his hands on the desk. "I can't think of one. Just like I can't think of a reason I shouldn't kick your skinny butt all the way back to D.C."

"We can discuss that on our own time, Longstreet. Right now you're interfering with a federal investigation. If you persist, you'll do your complaining from one of those cells."

Tucker grabbed Burns's pinstriped tie and yanked upward. "Why don't I show you how we handle things down here in the delta?"

"Leave him alone." Dwayne stirred himself to snag Tucker's wrist.

"The hell I will."

"I said leave him alone." Dwayne stuck his face close to Tucker's. "I've got nothing to hide. This Yankee sonofabitch can ask questions from now to doomsday and that won't change. Leave him be so we can get it done."

Reluctantly, Tucker loosened his grip. "We're going to finish this, you and me."

Stone-faced, Burns straightened his tie. "It'll be a pleasure." He remained standing, turning to the bulletin board at his back. "Mr. Longstreet, were you acquainted with Arnette Gantrey?" Burns tapped a finger against the space between a photo of a smiling blond woman and a black-and-white police photo taken at Gooseneck Creek.

"I knew Arnette. We went to school together, dated a few times."

"And Francie Logan?" Burns slid his finger to the next set of photos.

"I knew Francie." Dwayne averted his eyes. "Everybody knew Francie. She grew up here. Lived in Jackson for a while, then came back after getting divorced."

"And you were acquainted with Edda Lou Hatinger?"

Dwayne forced himself to look back, but focused on the tip of Burns's finger. "Yeah. I knew Darleen, too, if that's what you're getting at."

"Did you know a woman named Barbara Kinsdale?"

"I don't think so." Dwayne's brow creased as he tried out the name in his head. "Nobody around here named Kinsdale."

"Are you quite sure?" Burns unpinned a photo from the board. "Take a look."

Dwayne picked up the photo from the desk, grateful it was a shot of a live woman. She was a pretty brunette, perhaps thirty, with straight hair sweeping slight shoulders. "I've never seen her before."

"Haven't you?" Burns picked up his notes. "Barbara Kinsdale, five foot two, a hundred three pounds, brown hair, blue eyes. Age thirty-one. Does that description sound familiar?"

"I can't say."

"You should be able to say," Burns continued. "It's almost a perfect description of your ex-wife. Mrs. Kinsdale was a cocktail waitress at the Stars and Bars Club in Nashville. Residence 3043 Eastland Avenue. That's about three blocks away from your ex-wife's home. Emmett Cotrain, your ex-wife's fiance, performed at the Stars and bars on weekends. An interesting coincidence, isn't it?"

A thin bead of sweat dripped down Dwayne's back. "I guess it is."

"It's more interesting that Mrs. Kinsdale was found floating in the Percy Priest Lake, outside of Nashville, late this spring. She was naked, her throat had been slit, and her body mutilated."

Burns tossed another photo across the desk, but in this one, Barbara Kinsdale was very dead. "Where were you on the night of May 22 of this year, Mr. Longstreet?"

"Oh, Jesus." Dwayne shut his eyes. The body hadn't been covered in the police shot, but had been laid out, gray and tortured, for the cold camera lens.

"I should tell you that my information places you in Nashville from the twenty-first to the twenty-third."

"I took my boys to the zoo." Dwayne rubbed shaking hands over his eyes. It did look like Sissy. God almighty, especially dead it looked like Sissy. "I took them to the zoo and to a pizza parlor. They stayed with me at the hotel."

"On the night of the twenty-second you were seen in the hotel bar at approximately ten-thirty. Your children weren't with you."

"They were asleep. I left them in the room and went down and had a drink. Couple drinks," he said with a sigh. "Sissy'd been on me about doing more for them, and wanting a bigger house once she and the guy she was with got married. I didn't have more than two drinks because I didn't want to forget the boys were asleep upstairs."

"And didn't you call your wife from the bar just before midnight?" Burns continued. "You argued with her, threatened her."

"I called her. I was sitting there in the room while the boys slept. My boys. It didn't seem right that I was to help her buy a new house so she could live in it with another man my sons would think of as a father." Pale, shaken, Dwayne looked over at Tucker. "It wasn't the money."

"It was the humiliation," Burns suggested. "The humiliation at the hands of a woman. She'd already made you a laughingstock by locking you out of your own house, leaving you for another man. Now she was demanding more money so she could live a better life with that man."

"I didn't care who she lived with. It just didn't seem right-"

"No, it didn't seem right," Burns agreed. "So you told her there'd be no more money, and that you'd take her to court if she didn't watch her step. That you'd pay her back."

"I don't know what I said exactly."

"She does. Oh, despite your estrangement, she's loyal enough to add that you were always full of bluster when you'd been drinking. She didn't take anything you said seriously, and went back to listen to the next set at the bar. Even stayed on after it closed, since she didn't have the boys to get home to. But Barbara Kinsdale left about two. She walked out into a deserted parking lot. A dark parking lot, where she was knocked unconscious and dragged to a waiting car. She was driven to the lake and slaughtered."

Burns waited a beat. "Do you own a knife, Mr. Longstreet? A long-bladed hunting knife?"

"This is crazy." Dwayne dropped his hands into his lap. "I didn't kill anybody."

"Where were you on the night of June thirtieth, between nine p.m. and midnight?"

"For chrissakes." He stumbled to his feet. "Burke, for chrissakes."

"I think he should have a lawyer." Strain had etched lines around Burke's mouth when he turned to Burns. "I don't think he should answer any more questions without a lawyer."

Well satisfied, Burns spread his hands. "That's his right, of course."

"I was just driving around," Dwayne blurted out. "It was raining and I didn't want to go home. I had a flask in the car and I just drove around."

"And on the night of June twelfth?" Burns asked, working back to the night of Edda Lou's murder.

"I don't know. How the fuck is a man supposed to remember where he is every night of the year?"

"Don't say anything else." Tucker stepped forward to take both of Dwayne's arms. "Don't say anything. You hear me?"

"Tucker, I didn't-you know I didn't."

"I know. Be quiet." He turned to stand between Burns and his brother. "Are you bringing charges?"

The holiday weekend had bogged down his paper-work. Not everyone was as dedicated to justice as Matthew Burns. "I'll have a warrant within twenty-four hours."

"Fine. In the meantime you can fuck yourself. Let's get you home, Dwayne."

"Mr. Longstreet," Burns rose with a nod to each brother. "I'd advise that neither of you think of leaving the area. The federal government has a very long arm."

"I need a drink."

"You need to keep a clear head," Tucker contradicted him, and punched Josie's car up to seventy. "You stay clear of the bottle, Dwayne." He took his eyes off the road long enough to shoot his brother a warning. "Until we get this mess straightened out, you stay clear. I mean it."

"They think I did it." Dwayne rubbed his hands over his face until he was afraid he'd scrub off a layer of skin. "They think I killed all those women, Tuck. Even the one I'd never seen before. She looked like Sissy. Christ, she did look like Sissy."

"We're going to call our lawyer," Tucker said calmly even as his knuckles whitened on the wheel. "And you're going to. keep your head clear so you can think back. Think back real carefully until you find out what you were doing, who you were with when Arnette, Francie, and Edda Lou were killed. One's all you need. One of those nights you had to be somewhere with somebody. They won't have a case then. They know it was the same person killed them all. You just have to think."

"Don't you think I want to? Don't you think I'm trying?" Teeth gritted, Dwayne pounded his fists on the dash. "Goddammit, you don't know what it's like once I start in drinking. I told you I forget things. I fucking blank out." Moaning, he dropped his head between his knees. "I blank out, Tucker. Oh, God, I don't know what I'm doing when that happens. I could've done it." Terrified, he squeezed his eyes tight. "Jesus help me, I could've killed them all and not even know."

"That's bullshit." Furious, Tucker swerved to the shoulder. Dwayne opened his runny eyes as the car jerked to a halt. He stared under the seat. Stared and stared until Tucker jerked him upright. "That's fucking bullshit and I don't want to hear any more of it." He shoved Dwayne back, pushing his livid face into his brother's pale one. "You didn't kill anybody, and you get that plain in your head right now. I got an idea who did."

Dwayne swallowed. His head was reeling along with his stomach, but he tried to grip on to that one sentence. "You know?"

"I said I have an idea. I'm going to check into it as soon as we call the lawyer and get him doing whatever the hell lawyers do." He kept his grip tight on Dwayne's shirt. "Now, you listen to me. You're not going to go home and upset Delia and Josie and everybody with talk about this. You're going to hold on to yourself, you understand me? You're going to tough this out until it's fixed. If there was one thing the old man had right in his whole miserable ass-kicking life, it was that we've got a responsibility to the family. We're going to stay whole, Dwayne."

"To the family," Dwayne repeated, and shuddered. "I won't let you down."

"All right." He let Dwayne go, then sat back a minute to calm his jittery stomach. "We'll show that Yankee bastard what Longstreets can do once they're riled. I'll call the governor. That ought to rattle Burns's cage a bit. We'll see how quick he gets his fucking warrant."

"I want to go home." Dwayne closed his eyes again when Tucker started the car. "I'll be all right when I get home."

A few minutes later they turned through the gates of Sweetwater. "You just tell them Burns asked you a bunch of stupid questions and that's that," Tucker advised. "Don't say anything about Sissy or that business in Nashville."

"I won't." Dwayne stared at the house, white and lovely and graceful as a woman in the morning sunlight.

"I'm going to figure it out, Tucker. And I'll fix it, like I used to."

"This time you let me do the fixing."

As Tucker parked by the steps, Josie came out. She was still in her robe and her hair was tousled about the shoulders. It didn't take Tucker longer than ten seconds to measure her mood as dangerous. She strutted down the steps to greet them, slapping a hairbrush against her palm.

"Looks like I'm going to have to start locking my car and taking my keys inside with me."

With a shrug, Tucker pulled her keys out and tossed them to her. "I had business in town. You were asleep."

"You'll notice, Mr. Longstreet, it's my name on the registration of this vehicle. I don't appreciate you commandeering it whenever you have the whim." She poked the brush into his chest. "It's common courtesy to ask for the use of someone else's property."

"I said you were asleep."

Fluttering her lashes, she scanned the driveway. "Mine is not the only car here."

"It was the first one I came to." He checked his temper and tried a smile. "You sure did wake up on the wrong side of the bed, darling."

She met charm with a haughty look. "I might suggest you consider getting yourself alternate transportation until that toy of yours is repaired."

"Yes, ma'am." He kissed her cheek. "You sound just like Mama."

Josie sniffed and stepped back. "What are you staring at, Dwayne?" Automatically, she fluffed at her hair, then her eyes changed. "Why, honey, you look just awful. What've you boys been up to so early?"

"Just some business in town," Tucker repeated before Dwayne could answer. "You'd better get yourself prettied up if you're going to the parade."

" 'Course I'm going. The Longstreets never miss a Fourth of July parade. Dwayne, you come inside and get yourself something to eat. You're green around the gills."

"He hasn't recovered from the carnival."

"Aw." Instantly solicitous, Josie took her brother's arm. "You go in and have Delia fix you up something. Cousin Lulu shouldn't have teased you into going on that Round-Up."

"I'm all right." He put his arms around her, holding her close. "Josie. It's going to be all right."

"Of course it is, honey." She patted his back. "It's a fine day for a parade, and it'll be a finer night for fireworks. Go on now, so I can paint my face." She waved him inside, but held up a hand to stop Tucker. She forgot all about being annoyed with him. "What's wrong with Dwayne?"

"They had him in for questioning this morning."

Her eyes lit. "Dwayne?"

"They'll call us all in, I imagine. It's just standard."

She began to tap the brush against her palm again. "Why, I might have to give Matthew Burns a piece of my mind."

"Let it go, Jose. It's nothing to worry about. He'll feel better once we get this holiday started."

"All right, but I'm going to keep an eye on him." She patted the keys in her pocket as she started into the house. "Next time you ask, you hear?" She passed Caroline in the doorway. "You watch out for that one, Caro. He's a scoundrel."

"I already know." Caroline stepped out on the porch, then, to please herself, turned a showy circle. The skirt of her pale blue sundress swirled out, then settled softly around her legs.

Tucker stayed on the step below and took her hands. The dress had flirty laces at the bodice and a back cut to the waist. "You sure do look a picture."

"I heard I was going on a picnic after the parade."

"That's a fact." He kissed the palm of her hand, then held it against his cheek a moment. They said you didn't know what you had until you'd lost it. Tucker thought he'd discovered something that was equally true. You didn't know what had been missing from your life until you found it. "Caroline?"

She turned her hands to link her fingers with his. "What is it?"

"I've got a lot of things to say to you." He moved up the steps until their mouths were level and the kiss could be sweet. "I sure as hell hope you're ready to hear them when I do. Right now I've got some business to see to. You mind riding to the parade with Delia? I'll meet you there."

"I could wait."

He shook his head and kissed her again. "I'd rather you went on."

"All right, then. I'll pile in with Delia and Cy and Cousin Lulu-who's going to be the hit of the day. She's wearing trousers with the Confederate flag on one leg and the American flag on the other. The flag of the Revolution, I should say."

"You can always count on Cousin Lulu."

"Tucker." Caroline cupped his face in her hands. "If you have trouble, I wish you'd share it with me."

"I will soon enough. You look just right here, Caroline. Standing on the porch with your blue dress, the door open behind you and bees buzzing in the flowers. You look just right." He wrapped his arms around her, held her there a moment while he wished the world would stay like this, pretty and peaceful and as gracious as a lovely woman dressed in blue.

"You be ready for those fireworks tonight," he told her. "And for what I want to say to you after." His arms tightened. "Caroline, I want-"

"God sakes," Lulu muttered from the doorway. "Tucker, are you going to stand around all day smooching with that Yankee? We got to get on or we won't get a decent spot to watch the parade."

"There's time yet." But Tucker released Caroline. "You keep an eye on this Yankee till I get there," he began, then his face split with a grin. "I declare, Cousin Lulu, you look good enough to run up the flagpole. Where'd you get those pants?"

"Had 'em made special." She spread her scrawny, flag-bedecked legs. "Got me a jacket to match, but it's too cursed hot to wear it." She stuck an eagle feather into her hair, where it drooped over one ear. "I'm ready to go."

"Then you'd better get." He gave Caroline a quick kiss before heading inside. "I'll send the others out. Cousin Lulu, you make sure Caroline doesn't go wandering off with some smooth talker."

Lulu snorted. "She's not about to go far."

Caroline smiled. "No, I'm not."