Carnal Innocence Chapter Thirty

The pretty little gun seemed like a joke now. Beside the long-bladed knife, it was more of an annoyance, something to be swatted away like a fly. But Caroline made no move toward it. All of her attention, and all of her fear, was focused on the slick gleam of silver.

’’Josie, you can't protect Dwayne this way.’’

’’You don't believe me.’’ Josie nearly laughed. There was a part of her, the part she had no longer been able to control, that capered with glee. ’’Who would? No one even considered a woman-least of all our fine special agent. Look for someone who hates women, I told him. But he didn't understand. You and I know that no one can hate the way a woman can hate.’’

A jolt shook Caroline as the fireworks rocketed and boomed. ’’Why would you?’’

’’I have reasons. I have plenty of reasons.’’ She moved closer until she was framed in the terrace doorway. Her eyes were as brilliant as the lights that studded the sky behind her. ’’I had to protect the family. I had to protect myself. Just as I will now. But it's different with you, Caroline. I won't enjoy it with you because I like you, I respect you. And I know how much it's going to hurt Tucker. Don't,’’ she said as Caroline edged away. ’’I don't want to have to shoot you, but I will. No one will hear.’’

No, no one would hear. She could scream-just as Edda Lou had screamed-and no one would notice. The derringer was pointed at her throat. A tiny bullet, she thought. A small death.

’’I don't want you to suffer,’’ Josie told her. ’’Not like the others. You're not like the others.’’

Think, Caroline ordered herself. She had to think. The key to this was family, if she could only find a way to use it. ’’Tucker and Dwayne will suffer, Josie.’’

’’I know. I'll make it up to them.’’ Her eyes shifted for a moment as gold lights flashed, bloomed, and faded in the sky. ’’Isn't that a pretty sight? The Longstreets have had fireworks here at Sweetwater for more than a hundred years. That means something. I remember Daddy carrying me on his shoulders so I could get closer to the sky. I was his firecracker, he'd say. And Mama would just watch, and say nothing. She didn't want me, you know.’’

’’Talk to me, Josie.’’ How much longer could the fireworks go on? How much longer before Tucker or someone came to look for them? ’’Tell me, Josie, so I can understand why you had to do it.’’

’’I can talk to you. There's time. It'll be easier if you see. Maybe easier for both of us.’’ She took a long, deep breath. ’’Austin Hatinger was my father.’’ Her lips twisted at the shock on Caroline's face. ’’That's right, that Bible-thumping, snake-mean bastard was my blood father. He raped my mother, and while he was raping her, he planted me inside her. She didn't want me, but when she found she was pregnant she had to go through with it.’’

’’How can you be sure?’’

’’She was sure. I heard her talking to Delia in the kitchen. Delia knew. Only Delia.’’ Satisfied with the knife, Josie slipped the derringer into her pocket. ’’She hadn't told Daddy. I guess she was afraid to. And she would have wanted to protect him, and the family, and Sweetwater. So she had me, and she tolerated me, and she watched me to see how much like him I'd be.’’

’’Josie.’’

’’I was a grown woman when I found out. She lied to me all my life. My beautiful mother, that great lady, the woman I wanted to be like more than anything, was just a liar.’’

’’She was only trying to keep you from being hurt.’’

’’She hated me.’’ The words ripped out of her as she slashed the air with the knife. ’’Every time she looked at me she'd see the way I was conceived. In the dirt, planted in the dirt while she cried for help. And wouldn't she have to ask herself how much was her own doing? Why did she go there? Did she really care so much about Austin and his pitiful wife?’’

’’You can't blame your mother, Josie.’’

’’I can blame her for giving me a lie to live with. For looking at me out of the corner of her eye and thinking I was less than her, or any other woman. She said to Delia, that day, that maybe I wasn't meant to be happy, to have a home of my own and a family because of my blood. My tainted blood.’’

She spat out the words while outside the sky rocked with color.

’’I'd come back here after my second divorce, and she had that look in her eye. That look that blamed me for it. And she said to Delia that maybe I wasn't meant to have a home and children. Maybe it was the Lord's way of punishing her for keeping the secret, for holding the lie inside her. She was feeling poorly, had been feeling poorly for some time. When she went out to her roses, I went, too. I wanted her to tell me face-to-face. We had a terrible argument, and I left her there, standing in the roses and crying. A little later Tucker went out and found her dead. So I guess I killed her.’’

’’No. No, of course you didn't. It wasn't your fault or hers, Josie.’’

’’That doesn't change anything. I had something growing inside me. It wasn't a child-the doctors had already told me I'd never have a child. But what was growing was real, and it was hot. It started with Arnette. She wanted to get her hooks into Dwayne, just like Sissy had. She thought she could use me, and I played along. I thought about it and thought about it. I'd spend whole nights lying in bed and thinking, wondering. Mama had kept a secret by giving life. I was going to keep one by taking it.’’

There was a roar from outside as rocket after rocket shot up in the grand finale.

’’There had to be a reason, though. I wasn't an animal. It had to make sense. So I figured it would be those women who teased and strutted and lied to get men. I've had myself plenty of men,’’ Josie said with a smile. ’’But I never lied to get them.’’

’’Arnette-I thought she was your friend?’’

’’She was a slut.’’ Josie shrugged her shoulders carelessly. ’’Not that she was my first choice. I thought about Susie. I'd always figured if Burke and I could get together... Well, anyway, Susie didn't fit. She never in her life looked at another man but Burke, so killing her wouldn't have been right. It had to be right,’’ Josie murmured while iciness spread in Caroline's stomach. ’’So there was Arnette. It was so easy to get her a little drunk, drive out to Gooseneck Creek. I hit her with a rock, then I took off her clothes and tied her up. It was cold. Jesus, it was cold, but I waited until she came around. Then I pretended I was my father and she was my mother. And I did things to her until it wasn't cold anymore.

’’It was better for a while,’’ she said dreamily. ’’I felt so much better. Then it started growing in me again. So there was Francie. She was dangling for Tucker, I knew it. Then it was supposed to be Sissy, but I made a mistake there. But each time it was better. When they called in the FBI, I wanted to laugh and laugh. No one was going to look at me. Teddy even took me to the morgue so I could see Edda Lou. At first it was awful, but then I realized that I had done that. I had done it and nobody was ever going to know. It was my secret, just like Mama. And I wanted to do it again, again, while everybody was looking around. Darleen was so perfect, it was like it was meant.’’

’’You were right there with Happy when they were looking for her.’’

’’I was sorry Happy had to suffer. It seemed right that I comfort her some. Darleen isn't worth her crying over. Not one of them was worth a tear. But you are, Caro. If only you'd let it be. I was going to try to keep my promise to Dwayne and stop, since it seemed so important to him. But now I have to break that promise, at least this one last time.’’

’’This time they'll know.’’

’’Maybe. If they do, I'll take care of it. Always figured I'd have to end it one day, my own way.’’ The last of the rockets went off like machine-gun fire. ’’I won't go to jail or to one of those places they put people who do things other people don't understand.’’ She gestured with the gun. ’’Turn around now. I'll have to tie you up first. I promise I'll make it quick.’’

Tucker moved restlessly through the crowd as the colorful bombs burst overhead. He hadn't seen Caroline for the past half hour. Women. As if he didn't have enough on his mind with Dwayne and the FBI, she'd pick this time to wander off.

He shook his head at the offer of a beer, and continued to wend his way through the clutches of people.

’’It's a right good display,’’ Cousin Lulu said from her director's chair.

’’Umm-hmm.’’

’’How would you know? You've hardly looked at it.’’

To please her, he looked skyward and admired an umbrella of red, white, and blue lights. ’’Have you seen Caroline?’’

’’Lost your Yankee?’’ Lulu cackled and lit a sparkler.

’’Looks that way.’’ He raised his voice to be heard over the cheers of the crowd. ’’I haven't seen her since she finished playing a while back.’’

’’Plays right well.’’ Lulu wrote her name in the air with the sparkler. ’’Guess she'll be going along soon to play for the crowned heads of Europe.’’

’’Something like that.’’ With his hands in his pockets, he scanned faces. ’’I don't see how you can find anybody out here in the dark.’’

’’Ain't going to find her here anyway.’’ Lulu pouted a moment when her sparkler fizzled out. She wanted to wait until things quieted down before she set off her pocketful of firecrackers. ’’I saw her heading for the house around twilight.’’

’’Why would she-oh, probably wanted to put her violin away. But she should have been back.’’ He turned to study the white ghost of the house in the distance. He'd always thought the best way to figure a woman was not to figure at all. ’’I'll go take a look.’’

’’You'll miss the finale.’’

’’I'll be back.’’

He started off at a lope, annoyed at having to hurry. For the life of him he couldn't figure out why she'd be holed up in the house. It nagged at him that maybe he'd pressured her into playing. She could be upset, or the whole business might have brought on one of those headaches. On an oath he quickened his pace and nearly ran over Dwayne.

’’Jesus Christ, what're you doing sitting back here in the dark?’’

’’I don't know what to do.’’ Dwayne kept his head pressed to his knees and rocked. ’’I have to clear my mind and figure out what to do.’’

’’I said I was going to take care of it. Burns is just blowing hot air.’’

’’I could say I did it,’’ Dwayne mumbled. ’’That might be the best way for everyone.’’

’’Goddammit.’’ Tucker reached down to shake Dwayne's shoulder. ’’Don't start that shit on me now. We'll talk about it later when I've got time. I've got to go up and see if Caroline's in the house. Come on with me. It'll be better if you don't talk to anybody tonight.’’

’’I told her I wouldn't.’’ Dwayne dragged himself to his feet. ’’But something's got to be done, Tuck. Something's got to be done.’’

’’Sure it does.’’ Resigned, Tucker put his arm around Dwayne and took his weight. ’’We'll do it, too. I know all about it.’’

’’You know?’’ Dwayne staggered to a halt that had Tucker cursing and pulling. ’’She said you didn't. When I said that we had to tell you, she said not to.’’

’’Tell me what?’’

’’About the knife. Daddy's old buck. I saw it under the seat of her car. Christ, Tuck, how could she do it? How could she do all those things? What's going to happen to her now?’’

Tucker felt his blood slow. He felt it slow and stop until it seemed to hum in his veins. ’’What the hell are you talking about?’’

’’Josie. Oh, Jesus, Josie.’’ Dwayne began to weep as the weight of it pounded at him. ’’She killed them, Tuck. She killed them all. I don't know how I can live with turning my own sister over to the law.’’

Slowly, Tucker backed up, leaving Dwayne swaying. ’’You're out of your f*king mind.’’

’’We have to do it. I know we have to. Chrissakes, she meant it to be Sissy.’’

’’Shut up.’’ With rage and fear blinding him, Tucker plowed his fist into Dwayne's face. ’’You're drunk, and stupid. If I hear you say another word, I'll-’’

’’Mr. Tucker.’’ Eyes wide, Cy stood on the verge of the driveway. He'd heard, heard all that they said, but he didn't know what to believe.

’’What the hell are you doing there?’’ Tucker demanded. ’’Why aren't you down watching the fireworks?’’

’’I-you said as I should keep close to her.’’ Cy's insides were shaking with the kind of fear he hadn't known he could feel again. ’’She went on in, but she told me to stay outside. She said I shouldn't come upstairs.’’

’’Caroline?’’ Tucker said blankly.

The blow had shocked Dwayne back to reality. As Cy's words sunk in, he grabbed Tucker by the shirt. ’’Josie. She took the knife with her. She took the knife and went into the house.’’

Tucker's breath came in pants. He wanted to fight, wanted to fight out the horror that was settling inside him. But even as he balled his fists, he saw the truth, in Dwayne's eyes. ’’Let go of me.’’ With a strength born of fear he shoved Dwayne back to his knees. ’’Caroline's in the house.’’

He began to run, hurtling toward Sweetwater, chased by the roar of the crowd and the cold breath of terror.

’’I won't make it easy for you, Josie.’’ She wasn't afraid of the gun, wouldn't let herself be afraid. But she had a deep primal fear of that sharp length of steel. ’’You know it has to stop. No matter what you feel, no matter what your mother did, you can't fix it by killing.’’

’’I wanted to be like her, but people always said I was like my father. They were right.’’ Her voice took on a curious, almost musical calm. ’’They didn't know how right-and they won't. It's my secret, Caroline. I'll kill you to protect it.’’

’’I know. And after you do, Dwayne and Tucker will suffer for it. Dwayne because he'll know, and it'll eat him alive. Tucker because he has feelings for me. And because you love them, you'll suffer, too.’’

’’There's no choice here. Now, turn around, Caroline. Turn around or it'll be so much worse.’’

With the last echoes of celebration ringing in her ears, she started to turn. She didn't dare close her eyes, didn't dare, but she offered one quick and fervent prayer. When her body was three-quarters turned from Josie, Caroline threw out a hand to smash the lamp to the floor. Blessing the dark, she tucked up her legs and rolled across the bed.

’’It won't matter.’’ Excitement sharpened Josie's voice. Now there was a hunt, and with a hunt there was hunger. ’’It'll only be easier for me now. I won't have to look at you, and I can think of you like the others.’’

Her feet whispered across the carpet as Caroline hunched beside the bed and strained to see. If she could only get to the door. If she could only get quickly and soundlessly to the door.

’’I like the dark.’’ Holding her breath, Caroline inched away from the bed, feeling her way with her fingers.

’’I never minded hunting in the dark. Daddy used to say I had cat eyes. And I can hear your heart beat.’’ Quick as a snake, she pounced on the spot where Caroline had crouched only seconds before.

Caroline bit her lip to hold back a scream. As she tasted blood she forced herself not to move. Her eyes were adjusting, and in the pale moonlight she could see Josie's silhouette, and the edge of the death she held in her hand. Only a turn of her head, and they would be face-to-face.

And she did turn it, slowly. The moonlight glinted in her eyes. Her lips curved. Caroline remembered how Austin had looked when he had loomed over her filled with murder and madness.

’’It won't take long,’’ Josie promised as she lifted the blade.

In a last plunge to cheat death, Caroline rolled away. The blade caught the skirt of her dress, pinning it to the floor. On a cry of terror, she ripped it free and stumbled to her feet. She raced toward the doorway, waiting to hear the whistle of steel through the air, the heat of the blade as it cut into her back. The light in the hall flashed on, blindingly bright after the dark.

’’Caroline!’’ Tucker pounded down the hall, grabbing her as she fell through the doorway. ’’You're all right? Tell me you're all right.’’ He dragged her close, and holding her there, stared at his sister. She had the knife in her hand, and in her eyes was a wildness that gripped him with horror. ’’Josie. In the name of God, Josie, what have you done?’’ The wildness faded as her eyes filled. ’’I couldn't help it.’’ As tears spilled onto her cheeks, she turned and ran to the terrace.

’’Don't let her go. Tucker, you can't let her go.’’ He saw his brother hesitate at the top of the steps. ’’Take care of her,’’ he said to Dwayne, and pushed Caroline toward him before he raced after Josie. He called her name. Some of the revelers who were heading home stopped at the shouts and looked up, with much the same curiosity and expectation with which they'd watched the fireworks. Tucker sped along the terrace, dragging open doors, switching on lights. When he tugged on the doors that led into their parents'bedroom, he found them locked.

’’Josie.’’ After a few frantic yanks, he pounded on the door. ’’Josie, open up. I want you to let me in. You know I can break it down if I have to.’’

He laid his brow against the glass and tried to reason out what his mind simply couldn't grasp. His sister was inside. And his sister was mad.

He pounded again, cracking the glass and bloodying his fingers. ’’Open the goddamn door.’’ He heard a sound behind him and whirled. When he saw Burke come toward him, he shook his head. ’’Get away. Get the hell away. She's my sister.’’

’’Tuck, Cy didn't tell me what this is all about, but-’’

’’Just get the hell away!’’ On a scream of rage, Tucker threw his weight against the door. The tickle of breaking glass was lost under the blast of a single gunshot.

’’No!’’ Tucker went down to his knees. She was lying on the bed their parents had shared. Blood was spreading onto the white satin spread. ’’Oh, Josie, no.’’ Already grieving, he dragged himself up. Sitting on the bed, he gathered her into his arms and rocked.

’’I'm glad you came to see me.’’ Caroline poured coffee into two cups before she sat at her kitchen table across from Delia. ’’I wanted to talk to you, but I thought it best to wait until after the funeral.’’

’’The preacher said she was resting now.’’ Delia pressed her lips together hard, then lifted her cup. ’’I hope he's right. It's the living that suffer, Caroline. It's going to take some doing for Tucker and Dwayne to put this behind them. And the others, too. Happy and Junior, Arnette and Francie's folks.’’

’’And you.’’ Caroline reached out to take Delia's hand. ’’I know you loved her.’’

’’I did.’’ Her voice was rough with the tears she blinked away. ’’Always will, no matter what she did. There was a sickness inside her. In the end she did the only thing she knew to cure it. If she'd have hurt you-’’ Her hand shook, then steadied. ’’I thank God she didn't. Tucker wouldn't have been able to get beyond it. I came here today to tell you that, and to say that I hope you won't turn away from the brother because of the sister.’’

’’Tucker and I will settle things ourselves. Delia, I feel you have a right to know. Josie told me about her mother, about how she was conceived.’’

Under Caroline's, Delia's hand convulsed. ’’She knew?’’

’’Yes, she knew.’’

’’But how-’’

’’She found out from her mother, inadvertently. I know it must have been hard on you, and on Mrs. Longstreet, holding on to that secret.’’

’’We thought it best. She came home that day, after he hurt her. Her dress was torn and dirty, and her face was pale as spring water. And her eyes, her eyes, Caroline, were like a sleepwalker's, all dazed and dull. She went right on up and got in the tub. Kept changing the water and scrubbing and scrubbing till her skin was raw. I saw the bruises on her. I knew. I just knew. And because I knew where she'd gone, I knew who.’’

’’You don't have to talk about it,’’ Caroline said, but Delia shook her head.

’’I wanted to go over and take a whip to him myself, but I couldn't leave her. I held her while she sat in the water, and she cried and cried and cried. When she'd cried out, she said we weren't to tell Mr. Beau, nor anybody else. She was afraid the two of them would kill each other, and I expect she was right. There was nothing I could say to her that could get the idea out of her head that she was responsible. It was always Mr. Beau for her, Caroline. She was a pretty girl, and young, and she saw a bit of Austin now and again. But she never promised to marry him. That was an idea he got fixed in that hateful brain of his.’’

’’He had no right to do what he did, Delia. No one could think otherwise.’’

’’She did.’’ She sniffled and wiped a tear away with her knuckle. ’’Not that he had the right, but that somehow she'd pushed him to it. Then she found out she was carrying, and Mr. Beau had been up in Richmond the whole two weeks during her fertile time, so she had to figure Austin had gotten her pregnant. There was no question of telling anybody then. She didn't want the child hurt. She did her best to forget, but she worried. And when Josie would go off wild, she worried more. She had her mama's looks, Josie did, just like her brothers. But I guess, because we knew, we could see something of him in her.’’

So could she, Caroline thought, but said nothing.

’’She wasn't to know. Not ever. But since she did, I wish she'd come to me so I could have told her how her mother tried to protect her.’’ Delia sighed and dabbed at her eyes. Then she went very still. ’’But she knew. Lord help us, she knew. Is that why she... Oh, my baby, my poor baby.’’

’’Don't.’’ Caroline cupped Delia's hand between both of her own and leaned close to comfort. There was much that had been said in that shadowy bedroom that would remain there. In the dark. ’’She was ill, Delia. That's all we know. They're all dead now-Josie, her parents, Austin. There's no one to blame. I think because of the living, because of the ones we love, the secret should be buried with them.’’

Struggling for control, Delia nodded. ’’Maybe Josie'll rest easier that way.’’

’’Maybe we all will.’’

She'd hoped he would come. Caroline had wanted to give him time, but it had been a week since Josie's funeral, and she'd hardly seen him. Never alone.

Innocence was doing its best to lick its wounds and go on. From Susie, Caroline had learned that Tucker had been to see the family members of each victim. What had been said behind those closed doors remained private, but she hoped it had brought a kind of healing.

The summer was passing. The delta had a short respite from the heat when the temperatures dropped to the eighties. It wouldn't last, but she'd learned to appreciate each moment.

After hooking the pup's bright red collar to his leash, she started down the lane. The flowers her grandmother had planted years before were thriving. It took only a little care and patience.

Useless tugged at his leash and she quickened her pace. Perhaps they would walk all the way down to Sweetwater. Perhaps it was time to try.

She turned at the end of her lane and saw Tucker's car almost instantly. It looked as snazzy and arrogant as it had the first time she'd seen it barreling toward her. The sight of it made her smile. A heart wasn't as easily healed as mangled metal, but it could be done. With care and patience.

With a cluck of her tongue she pulled Useless back onto the lawn. She knew where to find Tucker.

He was fond of water, of still, quiet water. He hadn't been sure he could sit here again. Coming back had been a kind of test. But the deep green shade and the dark, placid pond were working their magic. Contentment was still out of reach, but he'd gotten a grip on acceptance.

The dog raced out of the bush, barking, and plopped his forelegs on Tucker's knees.

’’Hey there, boy. Hey, fella. You're getting some size on you, aren't you?’’

’’I believe you're trespassing,’’ Caroline said as she moved into the clearing.

Tucker offered a halfhearted smile as he scratched the dog's ears. ’’Your grandmother let me come and sit here a spell from time to time.’’

’’Well then.’’ She sat on the log beside him. ’’I wouldn't want to break tradition.’’ She watched the dog lick Tucker's hands and wrists. ’’He's missed you. So have I.’’

’’I've been... hard to be around lately.’’ He tossed a twig for the dog to chase. ’’Heat's let up,’’ he said lamely.

’’I noticed.’’

’’I expect it'll be back before long.’’

She linked her hands in her lap. ’’I expect.’’

He stared at the water awhile longer, then went on staring at it when he spoke again. ’’Caroline, we haven't talked about that night.’’

’’And we don't have to.’’

He shook his head as she reached for his hand, and stood to move away. ’’She was my sister.’’ His voice was strained, and as he continued to study the water, Caroline saw how tired he looked. She wondered if she'd ever see that carefree grin again, and hoped.

’’She was ill, Tucker.’’

’’I'm trying to see that. The same as if she'd had cancer. I loved her, Caroline. I love her now, too. And it's hard, remembering her, and how full of life and spit she was. It's hard, remembering all those graves she's responsible for. But it's hardest, closing my eyes and seeing you running out of that room, and Josie just behind you, with a knife in her hand.’’

’’I can't tell you it'll go away, not for either of us. But I've learned not to look back.’’

He bent down for a pebble and tossed it into the water. ’’I wasn't sure you'd want to see me.’’

’’You should have been.’’ She rose, as agitated as the pup who ran in circles with a twig in his mouth. ’’You started this between us, Tucker. You wouldn't let it alone. You wouldn't listen when I said I didn't want to be involved.’’

He threw another stone. ’’I guess that's true. I've been wondering if it wouldn't be best if I just let you go on your way, pick up where you were before I got messed up in your life.’’

She watched the pebble plop and shoot out its spreading ripples. Sometimes you accomplished more by stirring things up, she decided, than by letting them run smooth.

’’Oh, that's fine. That's just like you, isn't it? Head for the door when things get complicated with a woman.’’ She grabbed his arm and shoved him around to face her. ’’Well, I'm not like the others.’’

’’I didn't mean-’’

’’I'll tell you what you mean,’’ she tossed back, giving him a hard thump on the chest that had his mouth falling open in surprise. ’’ 'It's been nice, Caro. See you around.'Well, forget it. You're not going to stroll in and change my life, then walk away, whistling. I'm in love with you, and I want to know what you're going to do about it.’’

’’It's not that I-’’ He broke off. His eyes closed, as if on a pain, then he laid his hands on her shoulders, rested his brow against hers. ’’Oh, God, Caro.’’

’’I want you to-’’

’’Shh. Just hush a minute. I need to hold you.’’ He drew her closer, his grip tightening until she felt his muscles tremble. ’’I've needed to hold you so much these past few days. I was afraid you'd back away.’’

’’You were wrong.’’

’’I was going to try and be noble and let you go.’’ He buried his face in her hair. ’’I'm not much good at being noble.’’

’’Thank God for that.’’ Smiling, she tilted her head back. ’’You haven't answered me.’’

’’I was thinking more of kissing you.’’

’’Nope.’’ She put a hand on his chest to hold him off. ’’I want an answer. I said I loved you, and I want to know what you're going to do about it.’’

’’Well...’’ His hands slid away from her. He found the best thing to do with them was to jam them in his pockets. ’’I had it pretty well worked out before- before everything happened.’’

She shook her head. ’’There is no before. Try now.’’

’’I guess I was thinking about you going on this next tour. You do want to go?’’

’’I want to go on this one. For myself.’’

’’Yeah. I was thinking. It occurred to me that you might not object to company.’’

Her lips curved slowly. ’’I might not.’’

’’I'd like to go with you, when I could. I can't leave for weeks at a time, with Cy to look after, and Sweetwater- especially since Dwayne's going to be up in that clinic for a while- but now and then.’’

’’Here and there?’’

’’There you go. And I was thinking that when you weren't touring or playing somewhere, that you'd come back here and be with me.’’

She pursed her lips in consideration. ’’Define 'be with.'’’

He let out a deep, shaky breath. It was hard to get it out, he discovered, when he'd spent most of his life being careful to hold it in. ’’I want you to marry me, have a family with me. Here. I guess I want that more than I've ever wanted anything in my life.’’

’’You're looking a little pale, Tucker.’’

’’I guess that goes with being scared to death. And that's a hell of a thing to say after a man's just proposed marriage to you.’’

’’You're right. You're entitled to a simple yes or no.’’

’’Hold on. There's nothing simple about it.’’ Terrified, he grabbed her close again. ’’Just hold on and hear me out. I'm not saying we wouldn't have to work at things.’’

’’There's one other thing you're not saying. One very important thing.’’

He opened his mouth and closed it. The steady patience of her gaze had him trying again. ’’I love you, Caroline. Jesus.’’ He had to take a moment to be sure he had his balance. ’’I love you,’’ he said again, and it was easier. In fact, it was just fine. ’’I've never said that to a woman. I don't expect you to believe me.’’

’’I do believe you.’’ She lifted her lips to his. ’’It means more that it cost you some effort to get it out.’’

’’I s'pose it'll get easier.’’

’’I s'pose it will. Why don't we go on back to the house so you can practice?’’

’’Sounds reasonable.’’ He whistled for the pup as he slipped an arm around Caroline's waist. ’’This time you didn't answer me.’’

She laughed up at him. ’’Didn't I? How about a simple yes?’’

’’I'll take it.’’ He scooped her up as they stepped into the sunlight. ’’Did I ever tell you about one of my great-great-aunts? Might've been three greats. Her given name was Amelia. That's a nice soft name, don't you think? Anyway, she ran off and eloped with one of the McNairs back in 1857.’’

’’No, you didn't tell me.’’ Caroline hooked an arm around his neck. ’’But I'm sure you will.’’


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