KISS ME THAT WAY
Fifteen years ago . . .
A jangle woke Monroe Kirby. She opened her eyes to a dark shadow standing over her. “Mama?”
The figure didn’t answer. Monroe pushed up on her pillow and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. Her sleepy confusion turned into a strangling dread with the sound of a zipper being lowered.
Sam was in her room. She could make out his broad shoulders in the black T-shirt he was wearing when he and her mama had stumbled in drunk from their night on the town. His pants were peeled open, a white vee of underwear at eye level, the bulge something she understood in an abstract way.
“Monroe-girl, I’m here to tuck you in.” Sam Landry’s sugared drawl veered toward an outright slur.
She pulled the sheet higher. “N-no thanks, I’m good.”
“Ah, come on, now. I’ll play nice.” He ripped the pink candy-striped sheet out of her hands and whipped it to the footboard. She drew her legs up, trying to make herself small.
“I don’t want to play with you.” She looked from him to her open door. A long way. Could she make it by him to the bathroom? It was the only room with a lock, although not a strong one.
“Don’t lie. I’ve seen you looking at me.” He stroked her cheek with one hand while his other burrowed inside his underwear. Her head seemed to detach itself from the panicked mass of nerves that was her body.
Out. Could she get out? Could she get him out? “I think I hear Mama.”
He shifted and listened, swaying on his feet. “I don’t hear nothing.”
“Could you check? And then--”
“I knew you wanted it.” She couldn’t see his smile, but she could feel it.
As soon as he turned the corner out of her room, she sprang up. How long did she have? She closed her door and struggled to push the bureau in front of it. One hand slipped off and her shoulder struck the sharp corner. She bit off a cry. Setting her forehead against the top, she rubbed at the pins and needles pain shooting from shoulder to hand until it receded. Seconds ticked off. The tears she fought were less about pain and more about frustration and fear.
Putting all her one hundred pounds into the motion, she pushed once more, gritting her teeth. The bureau inched forward with a loud squawk of wood on wood. The small victory fueled a burst of adrenaline. Inertia was on her side. They’d learned about inertia and momentum in her eighth-grade science class just that week. She’d never thought to put the knowledge to practical use so soon.
The clomp of boots echoed in the long hallway.
Her heart shot into overdrive. Didn’t people gain superhuman strength under stress? Her hands shook and her knees felt mushy. She took a deep breath and shoved. The bureau slid a few more inches. She checked her progress. She’d only managed to move it halfway in front of her door.
The door slammed open a few inches, cracking against the bureau. A little scream escaped her throat, and she jumped backward. A rose her mother had given her after her last ballet recital, dried and pinned to the back of her door, fell to the floor, the delicate petals crumbling.
“What the hell, Monroe?” Sam’s voice retained the slur but lost the cajoling tone. “Let me in.”
She backed away, looking around for someplace to hide. But the thought of sliding under her bed or huddling in the corner of her closet seemed childish and stupid. Sam would find her, drag her out, and do the things he promised with his eyes, things she didn’t want to do with anyone, much less her mama’s boyfriend.
He slammed the door against the bureau again, shoving it back enough to get his head through the crack. It was only a matter of time before he would be able to slip inside. “Come on, girl. I told your mama I would take care of you.”
“G-go to hell.” She’d heard her mama yell that phrase enough at various men, her father included, to know it carried some weight. “I’ll scream.”
Not bothering to camouflage his anger, he slammed the door against the bureau a half-dozen times, the bangs like gunshots. Each one made her flinch. “Your mama is passed out in bed, sweet thing. Let me in. You want this.”
A warm breeze snaked through her cracked window, fluttering the curtains. The white cotton of her nightgown tickled her legs. The universe giving her a hint. She ripped the curtains open and slid the window up, the whine quieting Sam.
She looked over her shoulder, her gaze clashing with his. The moonlight streaming into the room revealed a good-looking forty-something man. His face was all over town on his insurance agency ads. A toothy, too-charming smile turned his lips, and he gestured her closer with two fingers.
She turned back to the window and punched the screen out in a fluid motion. It clattered to the roof of the covered porch.
“Aw, hell no. You get back over here and let me in. You don’t want me to hurt you, do you?” He banged the door against the bureau again.
She threw her leg over the sill. He had jammed his upper body through the crack. The look in his eyes sent her out the window, clinging to the sill. She dropped and landed on the covered porch next to the screen. The gritty black roofing tile scraped her palms and knees. She peered over the short side of the porch roof to the bushes below. Logically, she knew it couldn’t be more than fifteen feet, but all her body knew was she was getting ready to fall.
She lowered herself over, the edge of the gutter biting into her belly. The prickly leaves of the bush brushed her toes. Her arms shook with the effort, her fingers numb, her palms sweaty and stinging from cuts.
“Monroe! Where you at, girl? Come on out now. You’re being silly.” Sincerity laced his voice.
A shot of doubt stilled her, dangling over the edge, her muscles screaming. Was she being silly? He was the adult after all. But where her mama was desperate and trusting, Monroe had seen too many men come and go from their lives. Some were nicer than others, and some, like Sam, were too nice. The way he stared at her barely there breasts and skinny legs made her uncomfortable. What did she trust? Him or her instincts?
Mentally counting to three, she took a deep breath and let go. She hit the bush and pitched backward, landing on her back with her legs in the air, her nightgown bunched above her white cotton panties. Her lungs burned. Her panic had nothing to do with Sam and everything to do with the clamor of her body for oxygen.
Her lungs switched on, and she allowed herself five seconds to just breathe, in and out, in and out, until she’d stopped wheezing. Rolling over onto her hands and knees, she listened. Sam was shaking bushes on the far side of the yard where her old, rotting play set stood, one swing swaying in the warm breeze. The kind of breeze that carried the scent of the ocean even though it was a hundred miles away.
She couldn’t stay and play cat and mouse with him in the fenced-in yard. Holding her nightgown to keep it from flapping like a white flag of surrender, she scampered around the pool through the door at the back of the fence and hesitated.
She had nowhere to go. Her father was in the Caribbean with his new family, and if she showed up at Regan’s house her best friend’s parents would have questions Monroe would be too embarrassed to answer. Hearing the crack of a branch and Sam’s voice get closer, she ran into the unknown.
Cade Fournette snuck through the night under the full moon. If the Cottonbloom, Mississippi, police chief picked him up again for trespassing, he would end up in jail for sure. His last chat with Chief Thomason had not gone well. The man’s condemnation had lit a fire under Cade’s pride. A couple of insults about the sheriff’s excess weight and minuscule intelligence had resulted in a wrenched arm and bruised ribs.
Cade’s nighttime poaching activities were becoming riskier now that he was on the chief’s radar, but his family needed to eat, if not eat well. Anyway, he never emptied the nets, only took enough crayfish to make a couple of decent meals. His rabbit traps were a boon for everyone. Cottonbloom, Mississippi, took pride in its prize tomatoes and the mayor wouldn’t want a rabbit herd destroying its reputation. Really, he was doing everyone a favor. That particular argument hadn’t made a dent in the chief’s stony demeanor last time.
Cade slipped in the mud down to his metal skiff hidden in the tall reeds close to the bank. He froze in a crouch, listening. All he could hear was his own heart beating, but the hairs on his neck stood on end. Not much scared him these days, except for thoughts of getting taken away from his family and put somewhere he couldn’t protect them.
Had the police found his boat? Was the chief waiting? Should he run? No more than ten seconds passed.
“Who’s there?” a little girl’s voice called out, trembling behind the facsimile of bravery. “Leave me the h-hell alone, Sam.”
He duckwalked closer, parted the reeds, and peeked through. A figure in white huddled on the far seat of his skiff. Her knees were pulled toward her chin, her hands clenching and unclenching around the sides.
He’d seen her around Cottonbloom a time or two, although he couldn’t recall her name, if he ever knew it. She was his sister’s age or thereabouts, but with the attitude of a Mississippi deb. One of those girls who were bred to know their place in the world and with a glance would recognize he wasn’t part of it. What the hell was she doing out on the river?
Self-preservation had been his constant companion the last few years. Best all around if she didn’t see him. Then, there’d be no one to squeal to later. No one would believe a Louisiana swamp rat over a well-to-do ’Sip. He eased the reeds back together and took a step back, his boot squelching in mud.
“Don’t come any closer. I-I have a gun.” Any hint of bravado was gone from her voice. She sounded straight up terrified. He looked through the reeds again. She was half out of her seat, the skiff rocking slightly in the shallow water. The girl reminded Cade of a rabbit, half-trapped and ready to gnaw its foot off to escape.
What if Tally needed help and he wasn’t around? He looked up to the moon and mouthed a curse. The wave of protectiveness had him pulling off his ball cap and rising out of his crouch, his hands in front of him. Although he didn’t see any sign she actually had a gun, this was Mississippi.
“It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you, girl. Name’s Cade Fournette.”
“D-don’t come any closer or I’ll . . .” She looked around her feet.
“I don’t keep any sort of weapons in my boat. Unless you want to hit me upside the head with a paddle.”
“This is your boat? I’ m sorry. Do you need it?” The girl looked torn about what to do. Politely give up her hiding place or hunker back down.
A huffing laugh escaped him. “We can share for a while if you want. I have a sister named Tallulah. You two look about an age. What . . . Thirteen or so?”
“Yes.” The girl nodded like a bobblehead but still looked ready to throw herself over the side in a bid for escape.
“She loves to come out on the river with me. Sometimes I even let her drive the boat.” Lies. Tally hated the river. Said it reminded her of too many sad things. He tried on a smile.
Unlike Cade, the girl was used to trusting people. Her shoulders rounded with a shuddery sigh, and she plopped back onto the seat. Her hair appeared almost white in the moonlight, her features delicate, and when she tucked her hair behind ears that stuck out a little her face took on an elfish quality, cute and innocent.
He hauled himself onto the opposite seat, folding his legs into a modified crisscross-applesauce. He’d learned when to be big brother, father, uncle, or friend. This girl needed a big brother.
“What’s your name?”
“Kirby. Monroe Kirby.”
“Are you an international spy like . . . Bond, James Bond?” His joke was silly, but it worked. A giggle spurted out of her.
“What’re you doing out here so late, Monroe?”
“What are you doing out here so late?”
He barely managed to keep his reaction contained to a quirk of his lips. He was glad that whatever had happened, the girl retained some spunk. The river that divided Mississippi from Louisiana also divided the town of Cottonbloom. At one time the town had been united, but for the past fifty years the sides faced off across the river like two sentinels on guard. And Cade, being a Louisiana swamp rat, shouldn’t be this far upriver.
“I asked first. Who is Sam and why are you scared of him?”
She tensed again, fear masking her face. Her knees and legs were scraped, her bare feet streaked brown with mud, her hands scratched and dirty. Her ruffled white nightgown looked childish—she was in eighth grade if she and Tally were the same age—but her finger- and toenails were painted hot pink.
“You can trust me. I promise,” he said softly.
A chorus of bullfrogs filled the silence. She didn’t flinch away from his gaze as some people did. Something passed between them, something almost electric that put Cade on alert. Not attraction—he wasn’t a pervert—but a sort-of understanding he couldn’t explain.
As if a door unlocked, words poured from her. Not just about what had happened that night, but about her mother’s descent into alcoholism, her parents’ divorce, her shame. The more she told him, the angrier he became. It seemed things on the Mississippi side of Cottonbloom weren’t always brighter than on the Louisiana side. Bigger houses, more money, same problems.
“What should I do?” She tucked her hands between her knees, the ruffles on the front of her nightgown waving in the breeze.
“Your mom is passed out?”
“This Sam fella has been sleeping over regular-like?”
She bit her bottom lip, but her chin wobbled. She nodded again.
“How about this? Let’s go up on the bank to get away from the skeeters, and I’ll clean up your scratches. When the sun comes up, I’ll see you home.”
“What about Sam?”
Innocence was fleeting, and Monroe was a kid. A kid who reminded Cade painfully of Tally, but as long as he was alive Tally would be safe. Monroe had no one.
He considered stalking to her house and de-nutting her mother’s boyfriend, but that would only scare Monroe worse and get him thrown in jail faster than a hiccup. Instead, he banked his rage, knowing it would be there when he needed it.
“I’ll handle him later. Make sure he doesn’t bother you again.”
Whether she heard the darkness in his voice or not, she didn’t ask him how he would accomplish it. She held on to that much innocence at least.
“Thank you, Cade.” She smiled, the action lighting her from the inside, turning her from cute into something beyond pretty, something like the flash of summer’s first firefly or a shooting star. Then, it was gone, and he blinked, wondering if it had been his imagination.
He tucked the first-aid kit from the skiff under his arm and helped her up the slippery bank with a hand under her knobby elbow. She sat with her back against a cottonwood tree and talked while he cleaned her knees and palms and dabbed on antiseptic. She was too young to edit herself, and by the time the first streaks of sun lit the sky he knew her favorite foods, bands, color. He also knew her dreams and goals and fears.
Shockingly, he shared a few of his secrets, too. Things he tried to protect Sawyer and Tally from. The charity Cade had been forced to accept at the food bank since his parents had been killed by a drunk driver. A different sort of shame than Monroe’s, but just as cutting. The medicine he’d stolen from the pharmacy when Tally’s cough got so bad over the winter. Even though Monroe couldn’t help him, she seemed to understand him, and in that simple act his burdens and shames were lessened.
With the branches of the tree swaying in the warm sea-infused breeze, he and Monroe watched the stars fade into predawn light. Handfuls of white bolls dotted the freshly harvested cotton field on the far side of the river. It wasn’t until pink streaked from the ground that she spoke again. “Cade, please don’t tell anyone.”
“You could go to the cops.” Even though he didn’t trust the law to treat him fairly, surely it would protect someone like her.
“I can’t. Then everyone would know.”
He wanted to tell her it wasn’t her fault, but he understood how hollow the words would sound. He’d heard enough platitudes like that to last a lifetime. “I won’t tell. And you won’t tell anyone about me, either?”
She took his hand and squeezed. “I would never.”
He’d never met a teen girl who could keep a secret, but he could only nod. They walked side by side through the grassy field, entering her yard through a narrow door in the back of her fence. Her house was enormous by his standards. The chlorine of the pool pungent but not unpleasant. He’d never played in water so blue and clean. The murky river was his swimming pool.
He wrapped a hand around her skinny upper arm, all bone and tendons and tender flesh. Heat flashed through his body at the thought of her trying to fight off a grown man. “Can you get in the house? Where’s your room?”
“Mama keeps a key under the flowerpot around front.” Monroe pointed to an open window on the second floor, the drapes swaying with the wind. “That’s my room. I think I can squeeze past my bureau.”
He stifled a curse. A miracle she hadn’t broken her neck. “Go around the front. Run straight to your room and give me a thumbs-up. Remember what I told you?”
“Jam the back of a chair under the door handle whenever Mama brings a man home.”
“Right. I know you’re tired, but you go to school today, you hear?”
“I will.” She took a step away, then whirled back and threw herself into his chest, startling him. His arms came around her automatically to return the hug. She felt as delicate as a baby bird. “Can you come back upriver sometime?”
He should say no for a multitude of reasons. No one would approve of their association for one thing. For another, getting caught would be catastrophic to his family. “Next full moon. Meet me under the cottonwood tree.”
“Thank you, Cade.” Her voice was muffled against his shirt.
“Go on, then.” He let her go and nudged her toward the house. She ran, looking over her shoulder several times. He waited until she came to her window and gave him the signal. After she’d closed her window and drapes, he stood there, nurturing his rage.
He was going to be late for work and lose out on precious wages. Not to mention the fact, he hadn’t actually gotten any poaching done. He circled to the front of the house and settled under an oak tree across the street, trying to stay hidden. Any of the snobby ’Sips along the street could call the police and accuse him of loitering.
An hour later, a man in a well-fitting suit came out the front door of Monroe’s house. Cade muttered a curse. He should have guessed Monroe’s “Sam” was in fact Sam Landry, a prominent insurance salesman with advertisements all over both sides of the river. He was good-looking in a smarmy Sears catalog model kind of way. Now Cade knew Sam’s toothy white smile and perfect hair hid a special kind of depravity.
Cade was on him before he had a chance to unlock the blue BMW in the driveway.
“What the—?” The man’s voice was more outraged than fearful.
Cade looked up and down the street. Deserted. He slid a knife out of his boot, the handle worn to fit his hand. With an arm across Sam’s chest, he set the tip at the crotch of the other man and pushed him against the car door.
“You messed with the wrong girl, Mr. Landry.”
The man’s mouth went slack, his eyes bloodshot, his pores still extruding the scent of liquor.
“Monroe is a friend of mine. You hurt her, and I’ll take it personal. Real personal. You want to go to jail for molesting a child?”
“I didn’t touch that girl.” Sam shoved at Cade’s arm, only managing to move it a couple of inches.
While Cade was only seventeen, he’d physically gained a man’s muscles and had conditioned himself to harness his fear. He couldn’t afford to back down from anyone. “Only ’cause she ran off.”
The man stopped fighting him, his voice oozing charm and good-humor. “You got it all wrong, boy. She’s trying to get me in trouble. Doesn’t want me to marry her mama. Plus, she’s got a little crush on me. Bad combination. You know how these young girls can be. Silly and impressionable.”
Monroe hadn’t seemed either to him. “I’m more inclined to believe her than you, mister. Especially considering I can still smell liquor on you.”
The man’s face tightened and his body jerked against Cade’s arm. “I know you. You’re a Louisiana swamp rat. You think the police will believe you over me?” This man was used to being in charge, used to being heard, while Cade did his business in the shadows.
“Probably not.” Cade held the man’s gaze and let the tension build in the silence. “How about I dish out swamp rat justice then? I’ll cut your shriveled little balls off and feed them to a wild hog. You’ll be singing soprano in the church choir the rest of your days.”
“You wouldn’t touch me.”
Cade bared his teeth in the mimicry of a smile. He pushed the tip of his knife through the wool fabric of the man’s suit pants, twisting and sliding the blade until a gaping foot-long hole revealed a pair of pink-and-blue-striped boxers.
Cade amped up his redneck accent. “I’d enjoy guttin’ you and throwin’ you to the gators.”
Sam’s throat worked, but no sound emerged. A man walking a high-stepping white poodle with a ridiculous pink bow came into view two houses down. Cade needed to wrap this up before the ’Sip called the law.
“Let me tell you how this is going to go down. You’re going to break it off with Monroe’s mama. You’re going to move out of this house. And if I ever see you hanging around, you and I are going to take a little trip out to the swamps. Got me?”
Sam jerked his head, his mouth twisted. Cade removed his arm, slid the knife back into his boot, and walked away in one smooth motion. In the light of day, he couldn’t traipse over others people’s property back to his boat. It would be a hot, hour-long walk back to where he’d left his truck. At best, he’d miss half his shift and half his pay. At worst, he’d get fired and come home empty-handed.
Looking over his shoulder at the grand white house, he smiled. Either way, it had been worth it.
Amazon B&N iBooks Kobo