Carnal Innocence (Page 4)

Tucker sat on the side terrace where purple clematis wound up the white wicker trellis. A hummingbird streaked behind him, iridescent wings a flashing blur as it hovered to drink deeply from one of the wide, tender blooms. Inside, Delia's Electrolux hummed busily. The sound drifted through the screened windows to mix with the drone of bees.

Underneath the glass table sprawled the aged family hound, Buster, a huddle of loose skin and old bones. Occasionally, he worked up the energy to thump his tail and look hopefully through the glass at Tucker's breakfast.

Tucker wasn't paying conscious attention to any of the morning sounds and scents. He absorbed them in the same absent way he absorbed the chilled juice, black coffee, and toast.

He was performing one of his favorite daily rituals: reading the mail.

As always, there was a stack of fashion catalogues and magazines for Josie. He tossed them one at a time onto the padded seat beside him. Each time a catalogue plopped, Buster would shift his rheumy old eyes hopefully, then mutter in canine disgust.

There was a letter for Dwayne from Nashville, addressed in Sissy's childishly correct handwriting. Tucker frowned at it a minute, held it up to the sunlight, then set it aside. He knew it wasn't a request for child support. As family bookkeeper, he made out the monthly checks himself and had sent one two weeks before.

In keeping with his filing system, he tossed bills on another chair, personal correspondence was shoved over to the other side of the coffeepot, and those letters obviously from a charitable organization or some other group sneakily begging for money were tossed in a paper sack at his side.

Tucker's way of handling them was to dig into the bag once a month, choosing two envelopes at random. Those would receive generous contributions, whether they were for the World Wildlife Fund, the American Red Cross, or the Society for the Prevention of Hangnails. In this way, Tucker felt the Longstreets were fulfilling their charitable obligations. And if certain organizations were confused when they received a check for several thousand dollars one month, and nothing for several years thereafter, he figured it was their problem.

He had problems of his own.

The simple routine of sorting the mail helped shift those problems to the back of his mind, at least for the moment. The fact was, he didn't know what his next move should be, since Edda Lou wasn't even talking to him. She'd had two days to follow up on her staggering public announcement, but was apparently playing possum. Not only hadn't she contacted him, but she wasn't answering her phone.

It was worrying-particularly since he'd had a taste of her temper and knew she could lash out with the stealth and skill of a water moccasin. Waiting for the sting made Tucker jumpy.

He piled up the 'YOU ARE A WINNER' envelopes Dwayne liked to ship off to his kids, and found the lilac-colored and -scented stationery that could only belong to one person.

"Cousin Lulu." His grin flashed and his worries drained away.

Lulu Longstreet Boyston was from the Georgia Longstreets and a cousin of Tucker's grandfather. Speculation put her age in the mid-seventies, though she had stubbornly clung to sixty-five for many years. She was spit-in-your-face rich, a dainty five foot in her sensible shoes, and crazy as a June bug.

Tucker flat out adored her. Though the letter was addressed to my longstreet cousins, he ripped it open himself. He wasn't about to wait until Dwayne and Josie wandered back from wherever they'd gone.

He read the first paragraph, written with a hot-pink felt tip, and let out a hoot.

Cousin Lulu was coming to call.

She always phrased it just that way, so you could never tell if she'd stay for dinner or settle in for a month. Tucker sincerely hoped it was the latter. He needed a distraction.

The last time she'd come to call, she'd brought along a whole crate of ice cream cakes packed in dry ice, and had worn a paper party hat with an ostrich feather poking through the pointy top. She'd kept that damn hat on for a full week, waking and sleeping, saying she was celebrating birthdays. Anybody's birthday.

Tucker licked strawberry jam from his fingers, then tossed the rest of his toast to Buster. Leaving the rest of the mail to be picked up later, he started toward the door. He was going to tell Delia to have Cousin Lulu's room ready and waiting.

Even as he swung open the door, Tucker heard the dyspeptic rattle of Austin Hatinger's pick-up. There was only one vehicle in Innocence that made that particular grunt-rattle-belch sound. After giving one brief thought to going inside and barring the doors, Tucker turned and walked out to the porch, prepared to face the music.

Not only could he hear Austin coming, he could see him, by the stream of black smoke rising up between the magnolias. With a half-hearted sigh, Tucker waited for the truck to come into view, and pulling a cigarette out of his pocket, broke off a fraction of the tip.

He was just enjoying his first drag when the truck pulled up and Austin Hatinger rolled out of it.

He was as grizzled and bulky as the old Ford, but was held together by sinew and muscle rather than bailing twine and spit. Beneath his grease-stained planter's hat, his face looked as if it had been carved out of tree bark. Deep lines flared out from his walnut-colored eyes, scored his wind-burned cheeks, and bracketed his hard, unsmiling mouth.

Not a speck of hair showed beneath the hat. Not that Austin was bald. Every month he drove into the barber shop and had his gray-flecked hair buzzed. Perhaps, Tucker sometimes thought, in memory of the four years he'd served in the Corps. Semper Fi. That was just one of the sentiments he had tattooed on his cinder-block arms. Along with it, rippling over muscle, was the American flag.

Austin-who would be the first to tell you he was a God-fearing Christian-had never gone in for such frivolities as dancing girls.

He spit a stream of Red Indian into the gravel, leaving a nasty-looking puddle of yellow. Beneath his dusty overalls and sweaty work shirt-which even in the heat Austin wore buttoned clear to the top-his chest was broad as a bull's.

Tucker noted that he hadn't brought out any of the rifles slotted into the rack in the back window of the cab. He hoped he could take that courtesy as a good omen. "Austin." He came down one step, a sign of marginal friendliness.

"Longstreet." He had a voice like a rusty nail skidding over concrete. "Where the hell is my girl?"

Since it was the last question Tucker expected, he only blinked politely. "Excuse me?"

"You godless, rutting fuck. Where the hell is my Edda Lou?"

The description was a little more along the lines of what Tucker had expected. "I haven't seen Edda Lou since day before yesterday, when she went at me in the diner." He held up a hand before Austin could speak. There was still something to be said for being part of the most powerful family in the county. "You can be as pissed as you want, Austin, and I'd expect that to be mighty damn pissed, but the fact is I slept with your daughter." He took a long, slow drag. "You probably had a pretty good idea what I was doing when I was doing it, and I don't figure you liked it much. And I don't figure I can blame you for it."

Austin 's lips peeled back from yellowed, uneven teeth. No one would have mistaken it for a smile. "I shoulda skinned your worthless hide the first time you came sniffing around her."

"Maybe, but seeing as Edda's been over twenty-one for a couple years or more, she does her own choosing." Tucker drew on the cigarette again, considered the tip, then flicked it aside. "The point is, Austin, what's done's done."

"Easy to say when you planted a bastard in my daughter's belly."

"With her full cooperation," Tucker said, slipping his hands into his pockets. "I'm going to see to it that she has everything she needs while she's carrying the baby, and there'll be no pinching on the child support."

"Big talk." Austin spat again. "Smooth talk. You've always been able to get your tongue around words real good, Tucker. Now you listen to a few. I take care of my own, and I want that girl out here, now."

Tucker merely lifted a brow. "You think Edda's here? She's not."

"Liar! Fornicator!" His grating voice rose and fell like an evangelist's with strep throat. "Your soul's black with sin."

"I can't argue about that," Tucker said as agreeably as he could, "but Edda Lou's not here. I've got no reason to lie about that, and you can take a look for yourself, but I'm telling you I haven't seen or heard from her since she made her grand announcement."

Austin considered barging into the house, and he considered just what kind of fool that would make him. He wasn't about to play the fool for a Longstreet. "She ain't here, she ain't nowhere in town. I tell you what I think, you sonofabitch, I think you talked her into going to one of those murder clinics to get rid of it."

"Edda Lou and I haven't talked about anything. If that's what she's done, she came up with it all on her own."

He'd forgotten just how fast the big man could move. Before the last word was out of his mouth, Austin had leapt forward, grabbing him by the shirt and lifting him clean off the steps.

"Don't you talk that way about my girl. She was a God-fearing Christian before she got hooked up with you. Look at you, nothing but a lazy, rutting pig living in your big, fine house with your drunk of a brother and whore of a sister." Fine spit sprayed Tucker's face as Austin's skin turned a mottled, angry red. "You'll rot in hell, the lot of you, just like your sin-soaked father."

As a matter of course, Tucker preferred to talk, charm, or run his way out of confrontations. But there was always a point, no matter how he tried to prevent it, when pride and temper kicked in.

He plowed a fist into Austin's midsection, surprising the older man enough to make him loosen his grip. "You listen to me, you sanctimonious bastard, you're dealing with me, not my family. Just me. I told you once I'll do right by Edda Lou, and I'm not telling you again. If you think I was the first one to get her on her back, then you're crazier than I figured." He was getting himself worked up, and knew better. But the embarrassment, the annoyance, and the insult outweighed caution. "And don't think being lazy means stupid. I know damn well what she's trying to do. If the pair of you think that screams and threats are going to have me dancing down the aisle, then think again."

The muscles in Austin's jaw quivered. "So, she's good enough to fuck but not good enough to marry."

"That says it plain enough."

Tucker was quick enough to duck the first swing, but not the second. Austin's ham-sized fist shot into his gut, stealing his breath and doubling him over. He took a rain of blows on the face and neck before he managed to find the wind to defend himself.

He tasted blood, smelled it. The fact that it was his own sent a ripe, dazzling fury pouring through him. He didn't feel the pain when his knuckles rammed into Austin's chin, but the power of the punch sang up his arm.

It felt good. Damn good.

A part of him continued to think with a silver-edged clarity. He had to stay on his feet. He would never match Austin for size or strength, and had to depend on agility and quickness. If he was brought down, and managed to get up again, he'd likely do so with broken bones and a bloody pulp for a face.

He took one just beneath the ear and heard the archangels sing.

Fists thudded against bone. Blood and sweat flew out in a grisly spray. As they grappled, lips peeled back in animal snarls, Tucker realized it wasn't simply his pride he was defending, it was his life. There was a dull gleam of madness in Austin's eyes that spoke more clearly than hard grunts or sneering curses. The sight of it had a snake of panic curling in Tucker's gut.

His worst fears were realized when Austin came at him, head down, bulldozer body behind it. He let out a long triumphant cry as Tucker's feet skidded on the gravel and he went flying backward into the peonies.

His wind was gone. He could hear the pathetic wheeze of air struggling to get down his throat and into his lungs. But he still had his fury, and he had fear. When he started to scrabble up, Austin fell on him, one beefy hand closing over Tucker's throat, the other pummeling his kidneys.

Even as he levered a hand under Austin's chin, frantically struggling to pry the head up and away, his vision dimmed. All he could see were those eyes, bright now with the pleasure of the kill, blank with madness.

"Send you to Satan," Austin chanted. "Send you to Satan. Should've killed you before, Beau. Should've done it."

Feeling his life passing, Tucker went for the eyes.

Austin threw back his head and howled like a wounded cur. When his hand slipped off Tucker's throat, Tucker sucked air in big greedy gulps that burned and revived.

"You crazy sonofabitch, I'm not my father." He choked, gagged, and managed to haul himself to his hands and knees. He was terrified he would toss his breakfast into the crushed peonies. "Get the hell off my land."

He turned his head and felt a moment's thrill of satisfaction at seeing Austin's bloodied face. He'd given as good as he'd got-and a man couldn't ask for more. Unless it was a cool shower, an ice pack, and a bottle of aspirin. He started to sit back on his heels. Quick as a snake, Austin's hand darted out for one of the heavy stones that circled the peonies.

"Good Christ" was all Tucker could manage as Austin levered the stone over his head.

The shotgun blast had them both jolting. Pellets skimmed through the peonies.

"I've got another full barrel, you bastard," Delia said from the porch. "And it's aiming right at your useless dick. You put that stone back where you got it, and mighty quick, 'cause my finger's dripping sweat."

The madness was fading. Tucker could actually see it drain out of Austin's eyes, to be replaced by a violent but somehow saner anger.

"It probably won't kill you," Delia said conversationally. She was standing on the edge of the porch, the 30-30 resting comfortably on her shoulder, her eye at the sight and a grim smile on her face. "You might have another twenty years to pee in a plastic bag."

Austin dropped the stone. The sickening thud it made when it hit the mulch had Tucker's stomach lurching. " 'For judgment I am come,' " Austin quoted. "He's going to pay for what he did to my girl."

"Paying's just what he'll do," Delia said. "If that girl's carrying what's his, Tucker'll see to it. But I ain't as gullible as the boy, Austin, and we're going to see what's what before he signs any papers or writes any checks."

Fists clenched at his side, Austin rose. "You saying my girl's lying?"

Delia kept the shotgun sighted mid-body. "I'm saying Edda Lou's never been any better than she had to be, and I ain't saying I blame her for it. Now, you get the hell off this land, and if you're smart, you get that girl to Doc Shays and have him see if she's breeding. We'll talk this through, civilized. Or you can come ahead and I'll blow you apart."

Austin 's impotent hands clenched and unclenched. Blood ran unheeded down his cheeks like tears. "I'll be back." He spat again as he turned to Tucker. "And next time there won't be no woman 'round to protect you."

He strode back to his pick-up, gunned around the circle of flowers, and rattled down the drive. Black smoke belched in his wake.

Tucker sat in the ruined flower bed and dropped his head on his knees. He wasn't getting up yet-no, not just yet. He'd sit a spell on the mangled blooms.

Letting out a long breath, Delia lowered the gun. Carefully, she propped it against the rail, then walked down, stepping over the border stones until she could reach Tucker. He looked up, the beginnings of thanks on his tongue. She smacked the side of his head hard enough to make his ears ring.

"Christ, Delia."

"That's for thinking with your glands." She smacked him again. "And that's for bringing that Bible-thumping maniac around my house." And another flat-handed slap on the top of his head. "And that's for ruining your mama's flowers." With a satisfied nod she folded her arms over her chest. "Now, when you get your legs out from under you, you come back into the kitchen and I'll clean you up."

Tucker wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and looked down absently at the smear of blood. "Yes'm."

Because she figured her hands were about steady now, she tipped a finger under his chin. "Going to have a shiner," she predicted. "But it looked to me like he was going to have a pair of 'em. You didn't do too bad."

"Guess not." Gingerly he got to his knees again. Breathing shallowly, he inched his way to his feet. It felt as if he'd been trampled by a herd of runaway horses. "I'll do what I can with the flowers later."

"See that you do." She slipped an arm around his waist, and taking his weight, helped him inside.

Though he didn't much care to get himself riled up on Edda Lou's behalf, Tucker couldn't quite get past the niggling sense of worry in his gut. He told himself to let crazy Austin worry about his crazy daughter-who'd more than likely gone to ground for a few days to avoid her daddy's wrath and to stir up Tucker's guilt. But he couldn't forget what it had been like to find sweet little Francie floating, those bloodless wounds gaping all over her fish-white skin.

So he stuck on a pair of sunglasses to conceal the worst of the sunburst bruise on his left eye and, downing two of the painkillers Josie took for menstrual cramps, set out to town.

The sun beat down mercilessly, making him wish he'd just crawled off to bed with an ice pack and a long whiskey. That was what he was going to do once he talked to Burke.

With any luck Edda Lou would be behind the counter at Larsson's selling tobacco and Popsicles and bags of charcoal for barbecues.

But he could see plainly through the wide front window as he drove past, and it was young, gawky Kirk Larsson at the main counter, not Edda Lou.

Tucker pulled up in front of the sheriff's office. If he'd been alone, he would have eased himself out inch by painful inch. Whimpering. But the three old coots who always planted themselves out in front, to chew the fat, curse the weather, and hope for gossip, were in position. Straw hats covered grizzled heads, wind-burned cheeks were puffed out with chaws, and faded cotton shirts had gone limp with sweat.

"Hey there, Tucker."

"Mr. Bonny." He nodded to the first man, as was proper, seeing that Claude Bonny was the eldest of the group. All three had lived off social security for more than a decade and had staked out the awning-shaded sidewalk in front of the rooming house as their retirement heaven. "Mr. Koons. Mr. O'Hara."

Pete Koons, toothless since his forties and no fan of dentures, spat through his gums into the tin bucket his grandniece provided. "Boy, looks like you ran into a mean woman or a jealous husband."

Tucker managed a grin. There were few secrets in town, and a smart man chose his wisely. "Nope. A pissed-off papa."

Charlie O'Hara gave a wheezy chuckle. His emphysema wasn't getting any better, and he figured he'd die of it before another summer came, so he appreciated all of life's little jokes. "That Austin Hatinger?" When Tucker jerked his head to the side in acknowledgment, O'Hara wheezed again. "Bad apple. Once saw him whale into Toby March-'course Toby was a black boy, so nobody paid much mind. Must've been in sixty-nine. Stove in Toby's ribs and scarred his face."

"Sixty-eight," Bonny corrected his crony, because accuracy was important in such matters. "That was the summer we got the new tractor, so I remember. Austin said Toby'd stole a length of rope outta his shed. But that was nonsense. Toby was a good boy and never took nothing wasn't his. He come to work out on the farm with me after his ribs healed. Never had a bit of trouble outta him."

"Austin's a mean one." Koons spat again, either from need or to emphasize his point. "Went to Korea mean and came back meaner. Never did forgive your mama for marrying up when he was over there fighting slant eyes. Had his mind set on Miss Madeline, though Christ knows she never looked at him twice when he was smack in front of her." He grinned toothlessly. "You taking him on as a daddy-in-law, Tuck?"

"Not in this life. Y'all don't work too hard now."

They chuckled and wheezed appreciatively as he made the turn and pushed open Burke's door.

The sheriffs office was a steamy box of a room holding a metal army surplus desk, two swivel chairs, a scarred wooden rocker, a gun cabinet for which Burke held the keys on the heavy chain at his belt, and a shiny new Mr. Coffee, a gift from Burke's wife at Christmas. The wood floor was scattered with hard little dots of white paint from the last time the walls had been done.

Beyond the office was a closet-sized John and through the John a narrow storage room with metal shelves and just enough room for a fold-up cot. This was used if Burke or his deputy needed to watch a prisoner overnight. More often it was used if either man found himself in the domestic doghouse and needed to give his spouse a night to cool off.

Tucker had always wondered how Burke, the son of a once-prosperous planter, could be happy here, making his living processing traffic tickets, breaking up the occasional brawl, and watching out for drunks.

But Burke seemed content enough, just as he seemed content to be married for nearly seventeen years to the girl he'd gotten pregnant while they were both still in high school. He wore his badge easily and was affable enough to remain popular in Innocence, where people didn't like to be told what they couldn't do.

Tucker found him huddled over his desk, frowning over files while the ceiling fan stirred stale smoke and hot air overhead.


"Hey, Tuck. What're you..."He trailed off as he took in Tucker's swollen face. "Holy hell, boy, what did you run into?"

Tucker grimaced, the movement costing him no little discomfort. "Austin's fists."

Burke grinned. "How'd he look?"

"Delia says worse. I was too busy holding my insides where they belonged to notice."

"She probably didn't want to hurt your feelings."

Knowing the truth of that, Tuck eased himself down on the frayed seat of the swivel chair. "Probably. Still, I don't think all the blood on my shirt was mine. Hope not."

"Edda Lou?"

"Yeah." Tucker poked gentle fingers under his sunglasses to probe his bruised eye socket. "Way he sees it, I debauched a lily-white virgin who'd never seen a dick before."


"There you go." Tucker caught himself before he made the mistake of shrugging. "Thing is, she's twenty-five, and I slept with her, not her old man."

"Happy to hear that."

Tucker's quick grin pulled at his puffy lip. "Edda Lou's ma must close her eyes and pray to Jesus every time he takes a poke at her." Then he sobered, the image of Austin pounding it to his frail-boned, miserable-eyed wife too disturbing to dwell on. "Thing is, Burke, I want to do what's right." He blew out a breath, realizing there was more than one reason he'd come into town. This was the opening for the first one. "Things worked out for you and Susie."

"Yeah." Burke drew out a pack of Chesterfield s, took one, then tossed the pack across the desk for Tucker. "We were too young and stupid to think they wouldn't." He watched as Tucker broke off a fraction of the tip. "And I loved her. Flat out loved her then. Still do." He flipped his matches to Tucker. "It hasn't been easy, with Marvella coming along before graduation, our having to live with my folks for two years before we could afford our own place. Then Susie pregnant again with Tommy." Blowing out smoke, he shook his head. "Three babies in five years."

"You could have kept your fly zipped."

Burke grinned. "So could you."

"Yeah." Tucker blew smoke between his teeth. "Well, it comes to this. I don't love Edda Lou, flat out or any other way, but I've got a responsibility. I can't marry her, Burke. Can't do it."

Burke tapped his ash into a metal ashtray that had once been blue and was now the color of smut. "I gotta say you'd be a fool if you did." He cleared his throat before venturing onto boggy ground. "Susie tells me that Edda's been bragging for weeks about how she's going to be living up in the big house with servants. Susie said she never paid it much mind, but some of the others did. Sounds to me like that girl was set on life at Sweetwater."

It was both a blow to his pride and a great relief. So it had never been him, Tucker realized. It had been the Longstreet name. But she must have figured that would get back to him sooner or later.

"I came in to tell you I haven't been able to get hold of her since that day in the diner. Austin came down on me, figuring I was hiding her there at the house. She been around town?"

Slowly, Burke crushed out his cigarette. "I can't say as I've seen her myself for a day or two."

"Probably with a girlfriend." The idea settled him. "Thing is, Burke, ever since we found Francie..."

"Yeah." Burke felt a twang inside his gut.

"You got anything on that-or Arnette?"

"Nothing." The failure had heat rising up his neck. "County sheriff's mostly in charge. I've been working with the medical examiner, and the state boys have helped, but there's nothing solid. Some woman was sliced up in Nashville last month. If they can find a connection, we'll call in the FBI."

"No shit?"

Burke merely nodded. He didn't like the idea of federal officers in his town, taking over his job, looking at him out of the corner of their city eyes and thinking he was a rube who couldn't lock up a passed-out drunk.

"It was remembering Francie that had me worrying," Tucker continued.

"I'll ask around." He rose, wanting to do so quickly. "Like you said, she's probably staying with a girlfriend for a few days, thinking that'll sweat you into a proposal."

"Yeah." Relieved that he'd passed his burden onto Burke, Tucker stood and limped to the door. "You'll let me know."

"First thing." Burke walked out with him, took a long slow look at his town. Where he'd been born and raised, where his children raced the streets and his wife shopped. Where he could raise a finger in salute to anyone and be recognized and acknowledged.

"Look at that." Tucker let out a little sigh as he watched Caroline Waverly climb out of her BMW and stroll toward Larrson's. "That's one long, cool drink of water. Makes a man thirsty just to look."

"Edith McNair's kin?"

"Yep. Ran into her the other day. Talks like a duchess and has the biggest green eyes you've ever seen."

Recognizing the signs, Burke chuckled. "You've got problems enough, son."

"It's a weakness." Tucker limped a little as he walked to his car. Changing his mind, he headed across the street. "I think I'll go buy a pack of smokes."

Burke's grin faded as he turned toward the rooming house. He remembered Francie, too. Surely Edda Lou would have stayed close by to pressure Tucker into marriage. The fact that she hadn't left a sick taste in the back of his throat.

She was settling in just fine, Caroline told herself as she walked across the heat-baked lawn toward the trees. The ladies she'd met in Larsson's that afternoon had been more curious than she was used to, but they'd also been friendly and warm. It was nice to know if she got lonely, she could drive into town for company.

She'd particularly liked Susie Truesdale, who'd stopped in to buy a birthday card for her sister in Natchez, and had stayed for twenty minutes.

Of course, that Longstreet man had come in as well, to flirt with the women and dispense southern-fried charm. His dark glasses hadn't disguised the fact that he'd been fighting. When questioned about it, he'd milked sympathy from every female in the store.

His type always did, she thought. If Luis had gotten a hangnail, women were ready to donate blood.

Thank God she was through with him, with men, with everything about them. It had been pathetically easy for her to rebuff Tucker's smooth charm.

"Miz Caroline" he'd called her, she remembered with a thin smile. She was quite sure his eyes had been laughing behind those dark lenses.

A pity about his hands though, she thought as she ducked under hanging moss. They were really quite beautiful, long-fingered, wide-palmed. It had been a shame to see the knuckles skinned and bruised.

Annoyed, she shook off the sympathy. The moment he'd strolled out-limping slightly-the women had begun to buzz about him and someone named Edda Lou. Caroline took a deep breath of the verdant smell of heat and green, and smiled to herself.

It looked like our slippery-smooth Mr. Longstreet had gotten himself into a nasty little mess. His girlfriend was pregnant and screaming for marriage. And, according to the local gossip, her father was the type who'd be more than willing to load up the shotgun. Trailing a finger over a branch, she began to scent the water. Lord, she was a long way from Philadelphia. How could she have known it would be so peaceful and so entertaining to listen to the chatter about the town lothario?

She'd enjoyed her half-hour visit to town, the ladies' talk about children, recipes, men. Sex. She laughed a little. Apparently, North or South, when women got together, sex was a favored topic. But down here they were so frank about it. Who was sleeping with whom, and who wasn't.

Must be the heat, she thought, and sat down on the log to watch the water and listen to the music of early evening.

She was glad she'd come to Innocence. Every day she could feel herself healing. The quiet, the vicious sun that baked all of the energy out of you, the simple beauty of water shaded by moss-hung trees. She was even getting used to the night noises, and that blacker-than-night country darkness.

The previous night she had slept for eight hours straight, the first time in weeks. And she'd awakened without that plaguing headache. It was working, the solitude, the serenity of small-town and rural rituals.

The roots she'd never been allowed to plant, the roots her mother would have furiously denied existed, had begun to take hold. Nothing and no one was going to pull them free again.

She might even try her hand at fishing. The idea made her laugh and wonder if she still had a taste for catfish. She shifted and picked up a pebble to toss in the water. It made such a satisfying plop that she picked up another, and another, watching the ripples spread. Spotting a flat-sided stone by the verge of the water, she rose to pry it up. It would be fun to try to skip it. That, too, was an old, almost forgotten image. Her grandfather standing here, just here, and trying to teach her how to skip the rock over the water.

Pleased with the memory, she bent, curled her fingers around it. Odd, she had the most ridiculous sensation of being watched. Stared at. Even as the first shiver worked down her spine, she caught something white out of the corner of her eye.

She turned, looked. And froze. Even the scream turned to ice in her throat.

She was being stared at, though the eyes that watched saw nothing. There was only a face, bobbing above the rippling surface of dark water, with a hideous mop of long blond hair that had tangled and caught in the roots of an old tree.

Her breath hitched, coming through her lips in small, terrified whimpers as she stumbled back. But she couldn't take her eyes off that face, the way the water lapped at the chin, the way a shaft of sunlight beamed off those flat, lifeless eyes.

It wasn't until she managed to throw her hands over her face, blocking the image, that she was able to draw the air to scream. The sound echoed through the bayou, bouncing off the dark water and sending birds streaking from the trees.