Summer, that vicious green bitch, flexed her sweaty muscles and flattened Innocence, Mississippi. It didn't take much. Even before the War Between the States, Innocence had been nothing but a dusty fly-speck on the map. Though the soil was good for farming--if a man could stand the watery heat, the floods, and the capricious droughts--Innocence wasn't destined to prosper.
When the railroad tracks were laid, they had stretched far enough to the north and west to tease Innocence with those long, echoing whistles of pace and progress without bringing either home. The interstate, dug through the delta nearly a century after the tracks, veered away, linking Memphis to Jackson, and leaving Innocence in the dust.
It had no battlefields, no natural wonders to draw in tourists with cameras and cash. No hotel to pamper them, only a small, painfully neat rooming house run by the Koonses. Sweetwater, its single antebellum plantation, was privately owned by the Longstreets, as it had been for two hundred years. It wasn't open to the public, had the public been interested.
Sweetwater had been written up once in Southern Homes.
But that had been in the eighties, when Madeline Longstreet was alive. Now that she and her tosspot, skinflint of a husband were both gone, the house was owned and inhabited by their three children. Together, they pretty nearly owned the town, but they didn't do much about it.
It could be said--and was--that the three Longstreet heirs had inherited all of their family's wild good looks and none of their ambition. It was hard to resent them, if the people in that sleepy delta town had churned up the energy for resentment. Along with dark hair, golden eyes, and good bones, the Longstreets could charm a coon out of a tree quicker than you could spit.
Nobody blamed Dwayne overmuch for following in his daddy's alcoholic footsteps. And if he crashed up his car from time to time, or wrecked a few tables in McGreedy's Tavern, he always made smooth amends when he was sober. Though as years went on, he was sober less and less. Everyone said it might have been different if he hadn't flunked out of the fancy prep school he'd been shipped off to. Or if he'd inherited his father's touch with the land, along with the old man's taste for sour mash.
Others, less kind, claimed that money could keep him in his fancy house and in his fancy cars, but it couldn't buy him a backbone. When Dwayne had gotten Sissy Koons in trouble back in '84, he'd married her without a grumble. And when, two kids and numerous bottles of sour mash later, Sissy had demanded a divorce, he'd ended the marriage just as amiably. No hard feelings--no feelings at all--and Sissy had run off to Nashville with the kids to live with a shoe salesman who wanted to be the next Waylon Jennings.
Josie Longstreet, the only daughter and youngest child, had been married twice in her thirty-one years. Both unions had been short-lived but had provided the people of Innocence with endless grist for the gossip mill. She regretted both experiences in the same way a woman might regret finding her first gray hairs. There was some anger, some bitterness, some fear. Then it was all covered over. Out of sight, out of mind.
A woman didn't intend to go gray any more than a woman intended to divorce once she'd said "till death do us part." But things happened. As Josie was fond of saying philosophically to Crystal, her bosom friend and owner of the Style Rite Beauty Emporium, she liked to make up for these two errors in judgment by testing out all the men from Innocence to the Tennessee border.
Josie knew there were some tight-lipped old biddies who liked to whisper behind their hands that Josie Longstreet was no better than she had to be. But there were men who smiled into the dark and knew she was a hell of a lot better than that.
Tucker Longstreet enjoyed women, perhaps not with the abandon his baby sister enjoyed men, but he'd had his share. He was known to tip back a glass, too--though not with the unquenchable thirst of his older brother.
For Tucker, life was a long, lazy road. He didn't mind walking it as long as he could do so at his own pace. He was affable about detours, providing he could negotiate back to his chosen destination. So far he'd avoided a trip to the altar--his siblings' experiences having given him a mild distaste for it. He much preferred walking his road unencumbered.
He was easygoing and well-liked by most. The fact that he'd been born rich might have stuck in a few craws, but he didn't flaunt it much. And he had a boundless generosity that endeared him to people. A man knew if he needed a loan, he could call on old Tuck. The money would be there, without any of the sticky smugness that made it hard to take. Of course, there would always be some who muttered that it was easy for a man to lend money when he had more than enough. But that didn't change the color of the bills.
Unlike his father, Beau, Tucker didn't compound the interest daily or lock in his desk drawer a little leather book filled with the names of the people who owed him. Who would keep owing him until they plowed themselves under instead of their fields. Tucker kept the interest to a reasonable ten percent. The names and figures were all inside his clever and often underestimated mind.
In any case, he didn't do it for the money. Tucker rarely did anything for money. He did it first because it was effortless, and second because inside his rangy and agreeably lazy body beat a generous and sometimes guilty heart. He'd done nothing to earn his good fortune, which made it the simplest thing in the world to squander it away. Tucker's feelings on this ranged from yawning acceptance to an occasional tug of social conscience.
Whenever the conscience tugged too hard, he would stretch himself out in the rope hammock in the shade of the spreading live oak, tip a hat down over his eyes, and sip a cold one until the discomfort passed.
Which was exactly what he was doing when Della Duncan, the Longstreet's housekeeper of thirty-some years, stuck her round head out of a second-floor window.
Hoping for the best, Tucker kept his eyes shut and let the hammock sway. He was balancing a bottle of Dixie beer on his flat, naked belly, one hand linked loosely around the glass.
"Tucker Longstreet!" Della's booming voice sent birds scattering up from the branches of the tree. Tucker considered that a shame, as he'd enjoyed dreaming to their piping song and the droning counterpoint of the bees courting the gardenias. "I'm talking to you, boy."
With a sigh, Tucker opened his eyes. Through the loose weave of his planter's hat, the sun streamed white and hot. It was true that he paid Della's salary, but when a woman had diapered your bottom as well as walloped it, you were never in authority over her. Reluctantly, Tucker tipped the hat back and squinted in the direction of her voice.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Carnal Innocence by Nora Roberts. . Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.