Carnal Innocence (Page 3)

Dwayne Longstreet sat on the rock-iron bunk in one of the town's two jail cells and moaned like a wounded dog. The three aspirin he'd downed had yet to take effect, and the army of chain saws buzzing inside his head were getting mighty close to the brain.

He took his head out of his hands long enough to slurp down more of the coffee Burke had left him, then clamped it tight again, afraid it would fall off. Half hoping it would.

As always, during the first hour after waking from a toot, Dwayne despised himself. He hated knowing that he'd strolled, smiling, into the same ugly trap again.

Not the drinking. No, Dwayne liked drinking. He liked that first hot taste of whiskey when it hit the tongue, slid down the throat, settled into the belly like a long, slow kiss from a pretty woman. He liked the friendly rush that spread into his head after the second drink.

Hell, he fucking loved it.

He didn't even mind getting drunk. No, there was something to be said about that floating time after you'd knocked back five or six. When everything looked fine and funny. When you forgot your life had turned ugly on you-that you'd lost the wife and kids you'd never wanted much in the first place to some fucking shoe salesman, that you were stuck in a dusty pisshole of a town because there was no place else to go.

Yeah, he liked that floaty, forgetful time just fine. He didn't particularly care for what happened after that. When your hand kept reaching for the bottle without warning the rest of you what was coming. When you stopped tasting and kept on swallowing just because the whiskey was there and so were you.

He didn't like the fact that sometimes the drink turned him nasty, so he wanted to pick a fight, any fight. God knew he wasn't a mean-tempered man. That was his father. But sometimes, just sometimes, the whiskey turned him into Beau, and he was sorry for it.

What scared him was that there were times when he couldn't quite remember if he'd turned nasty or just passed out quietly. Whenever that happened, he was more than likely going to wake up in the cell with a hangover fit to kill.

Gingerly, knowing that the movement could change the busy loggers in his head into a swarm of angry bees, he got to his feet. The sun streaming through the bars at the window all but blinded him. Dwayne shielded his eyes with the flat of his hand as he groped his way out of the cell. Burke never locked him in.

Dwayne fumbled his way into the bathroom and whizzed out what felt like a gallon of the Wild Turkey that had filtered through his kidneys. Wishing miserably for his own bed, he splashed cold water in his face until his eyes stopped burning.

He hissed through his teeth when the door slammed in the outer office, and whimpered just a little when Josie cheerfully called his name.

"Dwayne? Are you in here? It's your own sweet sister come to bust you out."

When he stepped into the doorway to lean weakly on the jamb, Josie raised her carefully plucked brows. "My oh my. You look like something three cats had to drag in." She stepped closer, tapping a bright red nail on her bottom lip. "Honey, how do you see through all that blood in your eyes?"

"Did I..." He coughed to clear the rust out of his throat. "Did I wreck a car?"

"Not that I know of. Now, you come on along with Josie." She moved to him to take his arm. When he turned his head, she stepped back fast. "Sweet Jesus. How many men have you killed with that breath?" Clucking her tongue, she dug in her purse and pulled out a box of Tic Tacs. "Here now, honey, you chew on a couple of these." She popped them into his mouth herself. "Otherwise I'm likely to faint if you breathe on me."

"Delia's going to be real pissed," he mumbled as he let Josie guide him to the door.

"I expect she will-but when she finds out about Tucker, she'll forget all about you."

"Tucker? Oh, shit." Dwayne staggered back as the sun slammed into his eyes.

Shaking her head, Josie pulled out her sunglasses, the ones with the little rhinestones circling the lenses, and handed them to him. "Tucker's in trouble. Or Edda Lou's claiming he got her in trouble. But we'll see about that."

"Christ almighty." For a brief moment his own problems faded away. "Tuck got Edda Lou knocked up?"

Josie opened the passenger door of her car so Dwayne could pour himself in. "She made a big scene over at the Chat 'N Chew, so everybody in town's going to be watching to see if her belly bloats."

"Christ almighty."

"I'll say this." Josie started the car, and was sympathetic enough to flick off the radio. "Whether she's knocked up or not, he'd better think twice before moving that whiny slut into the house." Dwayne would have agreed wholeheartedly, but he was too busy holding his head.

Tucker knew better than to go back to the house. Delia would be on him in a New York minute. He needed some time alone, and once he drove through Sweetwater's gates, he wouldn't get any.

On impulse he swerved to the side of the road, leaving a streak of rubber on the sweaty macadam. With home still the best part of a mile away, he left his car on the grassy verge and walked into the trees.

The paralyzing heat lessened by a few stingy degrees once he was under the shelter of green leaves and dripping moss. Still, he wasn't looking to cool his skin, but his mind.

For one moment back at the diner, for one hot, hazy-red moment, he'd wanted to grab Edda Lou by the throat and squeeze every last accusing breath out of her.

He didn't care for the impulse, or for the fact that he'd taken an instant's sheer pleasure from the image. Half of what she'd said had been lies. But that meant half of what she'd said had been the truth.

He shoved a low-hanging branch aside, ducked, and made his way through the heavy summer growth to the water. A heron, startled at the intrusion, folded up her long, graceful legs and glided off deeper into the bayou. Tucker kept an eye out for snakes as he settled down on a log.

Taking his time, he pulled out a cigarette, pinched a miserly bit from the tip, then lighted it.

He'd always liked the water-not so much the pound and thrust of the ocean, but the still darkness of shady ponds, the murmur of streams, the steady pulse of the river. Even as a boy he'd been drawn to it, using the excuse of fishing to sit and think, or sit and doze, listening to the plop of frogs and the monotonous drone of cicadas.

He'd had only childish problems to face then. Whether he was going to get skinned for that D in geography, how to finesse a new bike for Christmas. And later, whether he should ask Arnette or Carolanne to the Valentine's Day dance.

As you got older, problems swelled. He remembered grieving for his father when the old man went and got himself killed in that Cessna traveling down to Jackson. But that had been nothing, nothing at all compared to the sharp, stunning misery he'd felt when he found his mother crumpled in her garden, already too close to death for any doctor to fix her seizured heart.

He'd come here often then, to ease himself past the misery. And eventually, like all things, it had faded. Except at the odd moments when he'd glance out a window, half expecting to see her-face shaded by that big straw hat with the chiffon scarf trailing-clipping overblown roses.

Madeline Longstreet would not have approved of Edda Lou. She would, naturally, have found her coarse, cheap, and cunning. And, Tucker thought as he slowly drew in and expelled smoke, would have expressed her disapproval by that excruciating politeness any true southern lady could hone to a razor-edged weapon.

His mother had been a true southern lady.

Edda Lou, on the other hand, was a fine piece of work. Physically speaking. Big-breasted, wide-hipped, with skin she kept dewy by slathering on Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion every morning and night of her life. She had an eager, hardworking mouth, willing hands, and by God, he'd enjoyed her.

He hadn't loved her, nor had he claimed to. Tucker considered promises of love a cheap tool for persuading a woman into bed. He'd shown her a good time, in bed and out. He wasn't a man to stop the courtship process once a woman had spread her legs.

But the minute she'd started hinting about marriage, he'd taken a long step back. First he'd given her a cooling-off period, taking her out maybe twice in a two-week period and cutting off sex completely. He'd told her flat out that he had no intention of getting married. But he'd seen by the smug look in her eye she hadn't believed him. So he'd broken it off. She'd been tearful but civilized. Tucker saw now that she'd believed she'd be able to reel him back.

Tucker also had no doubt now that she'd heard he'd been seen with someone else.

All of that mattered. And none of it mattered. If Edda Lou was pregnant, he was pretty sure that despite precautions-he was the one who'd made her so. Now he had to figure out what to do about it.

He was surprised Austin Hatinger hadn't already come looking for him with his shotgun loaded. Austin wasn't the most understanding of men, and he'd never been fond of the Longstreets. The fact was, he hated them, and had ever since Madeline LaRue had chosen Beau Longstreet, ending forever Austin's blind dream of marrying her himself.

Since then Austin had turned into one mean, hardbitten son of a bitch. It was common knowledge that he slapped his wife around when the mood was on him. He used the same thumping discipline with each of his five children-the oldest of which, A.J., was now serving time in Jackson for grand theft auto.

Austin had spent a few nights behind bars himself. Assault, assault and battery, disorderly conduct-usually carried out while spouting scripture or calling on the Lord. Tucker figured it was only a matter of time before Austin came after him with that shotgun or those ham-sized fists.

He'd just have to deal with it.

Just as he'd have to deal with his responsibility to Edda Lou. Responsibility was what it was, and he'd be damned if he'd marry responsibility. She might have been skilled in bed, but she couldn't keep up her end of a conversation with a hydraulic jack. And, he'd discovered, she was as small-brained and cunning as a she-fox. That was one thing he wasn't about to face over breakfast every morning for the rest of his life.

He'd do what he could, and what was right. There was money, and there was his time. That much he could give. And maybe, once the worst of the anger wore off, he'd feel affection for the child, if not for the mother.

He hoped there'd be affection rather than this sick feeling in his gut.

Tucker scrubbed his hands over his face and wished Edda Lou would just disappear. That she would pay for that ugly scene in the diner where she'd made him look worse than he was. If he could just think of a way, he'd...

He heard a rustle in the leaves and swung toward it. If Edda Lou had followed him, she was going to find him not only ready to fight, but eager.

When Caroline stepped into the clearing, she muffled a scream. There, in the shady spot where she'd once fished with her grandfather, was a man, golden eyes hard as agate, fists clenched, mouth pulled back dangerously in something between a snarl and a sneer.

She looked around desperately for a weapon, then realized she'd have to depend on herself.

"What are you doing here?"

Tucker shucked off the tough shell as quickly as he might have peeled off his shirt.

"Just watching the water." He flashed her a quick, self-deprecating smile that was supposed to signal he was harmless. "I didn't expect to run across anyone."

The taut and ready stance had relaxed into idleness. But Caroline was not convinced he was harmless. His voice was smooth, with that lazy drawl that could so easily be mocking. Though his eyes were smiling at her, there was such melting sexuality in them that she was ready to run if he so much as leaned toward her.

"Who are you?"

"Tucker Longstreet, ma'am. I live just down the road. I'm trespassing." Again that "don't worry about a thing" smile. "Sorry if I gave you a turn. Miss Edith didn't mind if I wandered in here to sit, so I didn't think to stop by the house and ask. You are Caroline Waverly?"

"Yes." She found her own stiff answer rude in the face of his country manners. To soften it, she smiled, but didn't lose that reserved, tensed stance. "You startled me, Mr. Longstreet."

"Oh, just make that Tucker." Smiling, he took her measure. A tad too thin, he thought, but she had a face as pale and elegant as the cameo his mama had worn on a black velvet ribbon. Usually he preferred long hair on a woman, but the short style suited her graceful neck and huge eyes. He tucked his thumbs in his pockets. "We're neighbors, after all. We tend to be friendly 'round Innocence."

This one, she thought, could charm the bark off a tree. She'd known another like him. And whether the words were delivered in a southern drawl or a Spanish lilt, they were deadly.

She nodded-regally, he thought.

"I was just taking a look around the property," she continued. "I didn't expect to come across anyone."

"It's a pretty spot. You settling in all right? If you need anything, all you have to do is holler."

"I appreciate that, but I think I can manage. I've been here only an hour or so."

"I know. I passed you coming in, on my way to town."

She started to come up with another bland response, then her eyes narrowed. "In a red Porsche?"

This time his grin was slow and wide and devastating. "She's a beauty, huh?"

It was Caroline who stepped forward, eyes hot. "You irresponsible idiot, you must have been doing ninety."

She'd gone from being fragile and lovely to downright beautiful with that flush of heat in her cheeks. Tucker kept his thumbs in his pockets. He'd always figured if you couldn't avoid a woman's temper, you might as well enjoy it.

"Nope. As I recollect, I was just coming up on eighty. Now, she'll do a hundred and twenty in a good straightaway, but-"

"You almost hit me."

He seemed to consider the possibility, then shook his head. "No, I had plenty of time to swing around. Probably looked closer from your point of view, though. I sure am sorry for giving you a scare twice in the same day." But the glitter in his eyes had nothing to do with apology. "Mostly I try to have a different effect on a pretty woman."

If there was one thing Caroline's mother had pounded into her head, it was dignity. She caught herself before she could sputter. "You have no business being on the road at all. I should report you to the police."

All that Yankee indignation tickled him. "Well, you can do that all right, ma'am. You call into town and ask for Burke. That's Burke Truesdale. He's the sheriff."

"And your cousin, no doubt," she said between her teeth.

"No, ma'am, though his baby sister did marry a second cousin of mine." If she assumed he was a southern rube, he'd oblige. "They moved across the river into Arkansas. My cousin? That's Billy Earl LaRue. He's on my mama's side. He and Meggie-that's Burke's baby sister-they run one of those storage places. You know, where people store furniture or cars or whatever by the month? Doing right well, too."

"I'm delighted to hear it."

"That's neighborly of you." His smile was as slow and easy as the water beside him. "You be sure to tell Burke I said hey when you talk to him."

Though he was taller by several inches, Caroline managed to look down her nose at him. "I think we both know it would do very little good. Now, I'll thank you to get off my property, Mr. Longstreet. And if you want to sit and watch the water again, find someplace else to do it."

She turned and had taken two steps before Tucker's voice-and dammit, it was mocking-called out to her. "Miz Waverly? Welcome to Innocence. Y'all have a nice day now, you hear?"

She kept walking. And Tucker, being a prudent man, waited until he figured she was out of earshot before he started to laugh.

If he weren't up to his neck in quicksand, he'd enjoy teasing that pretty Yankee on a regular basis. Damn if she hadn't made him feel better.

Edda Lou was primed and ready. She'd been worried that she'd botched things by going on a rampage after she heard Tucker had taken that bitch Chrissy Fuller over to Greenville to dinner and the movies. But for once, it seemed, her temper had worked in her favor. That scene in the diner, and her public humiliation of Tucker, had brought him around as surely as a brass ring through his nose.

Oh, it could be that he'd try to sweet-talk her into letting him off the hook. Tucker Longstreet had the smoothest tongue in Bolivar County. But he wasn't going to waggle himself loose with it this time. She was going to have a ring on her finger and a marriage license in her hand quick as a lick. She'd wipe the smug look off every face in Innocence when she moved into the big house.

And she, Edda Lou Hatinger, who'd grown up on a dirt farm with dusty chickens squawking in the yard and the smell of pork grease forever in the kitchen, would wear fine clothes and sleep in a soft bed and drink French champagne for breakfast.

She had a fondness for Tucker, and that was the truth. But she had more room in her thirsty heart for his house, his name, and his bank account. And when she swept into Innocence, she'd do it in a long pink Caddy. There'd be no more working the register at Larsson's, no more scraping pennies together so she could keep her room at the boardinghouse instead of living at home where her daddy would as soon smack her as look at her sideways.

She'd be a Longstreet.

Weaving her fantasies, she pulled her rattletrap '75 Impala to the side of the road. She didn't question the fact that Tucker's note had asked her to meet him back at the pond. She found it sweet. Edda Lou had fallen in love-as much as her avaricious heart would allow-because Tucker was so downright romantic. He didn't grab and grope like some of those who sidled up to her at McGreedy's. He didn't always want to get right into her pants either, like most of the men she dated.

No, Tucker liked to talk. And though half the time she didn't know what in the blue blazes he was talking about, still she appreciated the courtesy.

And he was generous with presents. Bottles of perfume, bunches of posies. Once, when they'd had a spat, she'd made herself cry buckets. That had landed her a genuine silk nightie.

Once they were married, she'd have herself a whole drawerful if she wanted. And one of those American Express credit cards to buy them with.

The moon was full enough, so she didn't bother with a flashlight. She didn't want to spoil the mood. She fluffed her long blond hair, then tugged her skinny tank top down until her ripe breasts all but spilled over the edge. Her hot-pink shorts cut into her crotch a bit, but she figured the effect was worth it.

If she played her cards right, Tucker would have her out of them in no time. Just thinking of it made her damp. Nobody did it like Tucker. Why, sometimes when he was touching her, she forgot all about his money. She wanted him inside her tonight, not only for the thrill of doing it outside, but because the timing was just right. With luck her claim about being pregnant would be fact before morning.

She moved through the thick leaves, the vines, through the heady smells of wet and honeysuckle and her own perfume. Moonlight spilled onto the ground in shifting patterns. Country born and country raised, she didn't shiver at the night sounds. The plop and peep of frogs, the rustle of marsh grasses, the high song of cicadas or rude hoot from owls.

She caught the glint of yellow eyes that might have been a coon or a fox. But they vanished when she stepped closer. Some small victim squealed in the grass. Edda Lou paid no more attention to the sound of the creature's death than a New Yorker would have to the commonplace wail of a siren.

This was the place of the night hunter-the owl and the fox. She was too pragmatic a woman to consider herself as prey.

Her feet were silent on the soft ground and marshy grasses. Moonlight filtered over her, turning the skin she religiously pampered into something almost as elegant as marble. And because she was smiling, certain in her victory, there was a kind of hot beauty to her face.

"Tucker?" She used the little-girl voice that was her way of wheedling. "I'm sorry I'm late, honey."

She stopped by the pond, and though her night vision was almost as sharp as a cat's, saw nothing but water and rock and thick vegetation. Her mouth thinned, erasing the beauty. She'd purposely arrived late, wanting to keep him sweating for ten or fifteen minutes.

In a huff, she sat on the log where Tucker had sat only hours before. But she didn't feel his presence. Only annoyance that she had come running when he'd crooked his finger. And he hadn't even crooked it in person, but with a stingy little note.

Meet me at McNair Pond at midnight. We'll fix everything. I only want to be alone with you for a little while.

And wasn't that just like him? Edda Lou thought. Making her go all soft, saying how he wanted to be alone with her, then pissing her off because he was late.

Five minutes, she decided. That was all he was getting. Then she was going to drive on up the road, right through those fancy gates and up to the big house. She'd let Tucker Longstreet know that he couldn't play around with her affections.

At the whisper of sound behind her, she turned her head, prepared to flutter her lashes. The blow to the base of her skull had her tumbling facedown in the earth.

Her moan was muffled. Edda Lou heard it in her head, and her head felt as though it had been split in two by a dull rock. She tried to lift it. Oh, but it hurt, it hurt! When she started to bring her hands up to hold the ache, she found them stuck tight behind her.

The first quiver of fear pierced through the pain. Opening her eyes wide, she tried to call out. But her mouth was gagged. She could taste the cloth and the cologne that scented it. Her eyes rolled wildly as she fought to work her hands free.

She was naked, and her bare back and buttocks were scraping into bark as she wriggled against the tree. She'd been tied hand and foot to a live oak, her feet expertly cinched so that her legs were spread in a vulnerable V. Visions of rape danced hideously through her mind.

"Edda Lou. Edda Lou." The voice was low and harsh, like the scrape of metal against rock. Edda Lou's terrified eyes wheeled in their sockets as she tried to find the source.

All she saw was the water and the thick black of clustered leaves. She tried to scream and choked on the gag.

"I've had my eye on you. I wondered how soon we'd get together like this. Romantic, isn't it, being naked in the moonlight? And we're all alone, you and me. All alone. Let's have sex."

Paralyzed with terror, she watched the figure slip out of the shadows. Saw the moonlight glint on naked skin. Saw it flash for one hideous instant on the long-bladed knife.

Now it was terror and revulsion she felt as she recognized what was coming toward her. Her stomach clenched and rolled, and she tasted sickness on her tongue. But the figure came closer, gilded by a fine sheen of sweat and smelling of madness. Her pleas and prayers were smothered by the gag. Thin streams of blood ran down her back and legs as she twisted desperately against the tree. The hands were on her, squeezing, stroking. And the mouth. Hot, frightened tears slid down her cheeks as the mouth closed hungrily over her defenseless breasts. Slick with sweat, the body rubbed against hers, doing things she didn't want to believe could be done to her. Her weeping was mindless now, her body shuddering at every touch of the wet mouth, the intruding fingers, the smooth flat of the buck knife. For she had remembered what had happened to Arnette and Francie, and knew they had felt this same numb terror, felt the same sick revulsion in the last moments of their lives.

"You want it. You want it." The breathless chant rolled over the dull buzzing in Edda's brain. "Whore." The knife turned, slicing delicately, almost painlessly, down Edda Lou's arm. As the mouth closed greedily over the wound, Edda Lou slumped into a half faint.

"No, you don't." A hand slapped playfully across her face to revive her. "No sleeping on the job for whores." There was a quick, almost giggly laugh. Blood smeared the smiling lips. Edda Lou's glazed eyes opened and fixed. "Better, that's better. I want you to watch. Ready?"

"Please, please, please," her mind screamed. "Don't kill me. I won't tell, I won't tell, I won't tell."

"No!" The voice was husky with arousal, and Edda Lou smelled her own fear, her own blood, when that face leaned close to hers, with madness shining out of eyes she'd known very well. "You're not worth fucking."

One hand ripped aside the gag. Part of the pleasure, the need, was to hear that one high scream. It was cut off as the knife slashed Edda Lou's throat.

Caroline sat straight up in bed, heart thudding like a Maytag with an unbalanced load. She was clutching both hands to it, nearly ripping her thin sleep shirt in reaction.

A scream, she thought wildly while her ragged breathing echoed in the room. Who was screaming?

She was nearly out of bed and fumbling for the light when she remembered where she was and sagged back against the pillows. Not Philadelphia. Not Baltimore, or New York or Paris. She was in rural Mississippi, sleeping in the bed her grandparents had slept in.

Night sounds seemed to fill the room. Peepers, crickets, cicadas. And owls. She heard another scream, eerily like a woman's. Screech owls, they called them, she remembered now. Her grandmother had soothed her one night during that long-ago visit when the same rusty cry had awakened her.

Just an old screech owl, pumpkin pie. Don't you worry now. You're safe as a bug in a rug.

Closing her eyes, Caroline listened to the long whooo-whooo of another, better-mannered owl. Country sounds, she assured herself, and tried to ignore the creaking and settling of the old house. Soon they would seem as natural to her as the whoosh of traffic or the whine of distant sirens.

It was just as her grandmother had told her. She was safe as a bug in a rug.