by Nann Dunne
"I don't want to hear one more word about the money. I have enough to help out." Sarah set a bag of food on the table in the small kitchen. She cocked her head at Leah, who was sitting in a rocker between the table and the cylindrical coal stove. After three days of rest, Leah's swollen face was returning to near-normal size, but the bruising looked worse in its healing stages than when it was first inflicted. "Besides," Sarah continued, "I eat more than you two put together."
This earned a small snicker from the plump blonde. "Just wait till my jaw stops hurting. I'll put you to shame."
Sarah surprised both of them by leaning down and kissing Leah's cheek. With a blush moving up her face, she quickly emptied the bag of food, putting the bread into the breadbox and the fresh green beans and potatoes on the counter next to the sink. The eggs, cheese, and small ham went into the icebox. She left the chocolate cookies on the table for a treat when Amy came home from school.
Leah spoke softly. "You know, it ain't . . . it isn't . . . a sin to care about people."
Sarah meticulously folded and creased the empty bag and put it in a drawer before flopping into a chair. "No," she said, and her lip curled, "it's only a sin if a woman falls in love with another woman."
"You saying you're in love with me?" Leah fluttered her eyelids and grinned as well as her sore mouth would permit.
Sarah returned a sad smile. "I wish it was you." Then her face darkened. "Instead of that no-good bitch who handed me over to those fucking animals." Leah blinked, and Sarah's face reddened again. "I apologize for using rough language in your home. I just get so angry-"
Leah waved a hand. "My home is your home, Sarah. It's not like I never heard those words before, just not from you." She hesitated for a moment, and her brows drew together. "Are you really sure you're in love? It's not just a passing fancy?"
Sarah sighed and rubbed her hand across the back of her neck. "I've asked myself that question a hundred times. Maybe a thousand." She grinned wryly. "I wondered if maybe I fell for Faith because she was the first woman I ever had any desire for. So I've spent more than a year checking out every woman I came in contact with, asking myself why I loved Faith and not one of these other women. I even caught on that some were flirting with me, and I sat with a few for an evening or two, talking. But that didn't work. I couldn't imagine kissing one, let alone them kissing me." She took a deep breath. "But as soon as my lips touched Faith's-" Emotion forced Sarah's voice to a whisper. "I never wanted to stop."
Leah's eyes widened. "You kissed her?"
Sarah nodded and Leah waited, her expression begging for an explanation. At last, Sarah regained her voice and the whole story fell from her lips. She began with Faith's arrival as Phillip's fiancée and ended with the scene in the downstairs hallway and her subsequent flight. Tears of frustration filled her eyes as she finished.
Although Leah had to be aching in every part of her body, she pushed up from the rocking chair and moved to sit at the table, in a chair next to the distraught woman. She reached for one of Sarah's long hands and enclosed it in her own. "I know this is tearing your guts out, and I'm very, very sorry that things happened the way they did."
Sarah bent her head and plowed the fingers of her other hand through her hair. "What the hell can I do?" she muttered, not expecting an answer.
Her head flew up when Leah's voice stated with some force, "Go back after her."
"Go back?" Sarah pulled her hand from Leah's, jumped to her feet, and strode to the door, still with a slight limp. Her fingers closed on the handle, and then she stopped. Her shoulders slumped, and she leaned her head against the door's dark wood. "I can't do that."
"But why not?"
After a moment, Sarah turned around and came back to the table. She settled into the same chair and seemed to take great interest in a dark whorl in the grain of the tabletop. She rubbed it several times with her fingers, then stopped and turned toward Leah. "I just can't force her to make a decision between me and Phillip. That's up to her."
"But you left." Leah shrugged and lifted her hands. "You don't even know what decision she might have made."
Sarah scrunched lower in the chair and hugged her arms around her body. "Why would she choose me? Phillip's a loving, generous man, and handsome too. He'll provide her with a decent home and be a good father for Benjamin. He has his own successful business. She'll be set for life." She gasped her next words out like prods to an open wound. "What can I offer her? A woman with a scarred face and a damaged body and soul? A life where people point at us and whisper behind our backs? At Benjamin too?" She shook her head. "Faith would be a fool to choose me."
They sat silent for several minutes, the only sound the heavy breathing of a tormented woman. At last, Leah stirred. "Sarah . . ." The dark head lifted and turned toward the speaker. "Suppose you were Faith, and you were in love with Sarah Coulter. What would you do?"
Sarah puffed a small snort, and her head went back down. "I'd marry Phillip, because I had promised myself to him."
The side of Leah's mouth curled up. "That shouldn't surprise me, I guess. You have too damn much integrity for your own good." Then another thought occurred to her. "The question is, though, how much integrity does Faith have? Would she come with you instead of staying with Phillip?"
Another snort. "She betrayed me. It probably wouldn't bother her to betray Phillip." Sarah sat up straighter and rested her elbows on the table. "But don't you see? I couldn't live with knowing she betrayed Phillip because of me." Sarah grabbed fistfuls of her hair and pulled. "I don't think I could even live with her, knowing she had turned me in to enemy soldiers. I'm so damned confused, I don't know what I want or who I want or where I want to be!" She dropped her hands and pounded her fists against the table. "I love her, Leah, but I hate her too. I don't see any way out of this situation. I know I can't stay around, so I'm running away."
Leah gave her a sympathetic look and patted her forearm. Silence settled in the room, as soothing as cool air on a fevered brow.
After some time had passed, Leah interrupted the interlude. "Maybe you could go west. I've heard tell there's some places out there where no one cares who or what you are, just so you don't bother anyone." Her voice became wistful. "Some of us gals at the Brass Rail talk about retiring there and finding us a decent man who don't know or don't care how we lived."
"You saying there's places that don't mind if a female like me wears trousers, smokes, drinks, and spits on the floor?" Sarah slowly grinned, a sign she had won the hard-fought battle to chain down her roiled emotions.
A giggle bubbled out of Leah. "For all I know, you might smoke and drink. But darned if I'll ever believe you'd spit on the floor."
Sarah chuckled. "I think you're right. I don't feel any need to foul my own area." She slapped a hand on the table, making Leah jump. "Leah! You and Amy come with me! Let's go west together. We can both start new lives."
For several seconds, Leah could only gape. Then her eyes lit up but just as quickly darkened. "Wha . . . uh . . . how can we? I can't afford it." Her crestfallen look told Sarah volumes.
"Listen to me. I have money from Coulter Foundry. I want to put it away for Jessica, but until I get an income established, I can use that then pay it back. Money won't be a problem."
"But I can't take your money. It's not right when I haven't earned it. Not unless you want me to-"
Sarah frowned at Leah's odd expression, then her brow cleared and she laughed out loud. "No, no, no. I'm not looking for a bed partner, thank you." She laughed again at the look of relief on Leah's face. "But I would welcome someone who takes care of all the other wifely chores. You know, cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, and so forth. I've never taken any interest in those tasks." She shrugged. "I'd rather be the provider, and I know I could be. I've been able to sell some articles and drawings for good prices, and I know I could make a living at it if I devoted more time to it."
She turned on her most charming smile. "Please, pretty please. You'll be doing me a great favor. We can go by train and put Drummer in a boxcar. I'll hire you as my housekeeper. And we both can keep Amy abreast of her schooling until we get settled. Let's go west together. Maybe Kansas or Missouri."
Leah covered her face with her hands, and her shoulders shook. When it dawned on Sarah that her friend was crying, she put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "Is that a yes?" she teased, and Leah nodded.
Sarah kissed the side of Leah's head, then jumped up and threw both arms in the air. "Wonderful!" The sadness and frustration of the earlier part of the day made this victory all the sweeter. But she quickly sobered, and her next words dropped between them, as flat and ominous as a black cloud. "First we have to stop at Cleveland . . . and look for Hager."
Sarah secured rooms for the three travelers at the Riverside Hotel, separated from the Wayfarer's Tavern by only a narrow walkway between the buildings. On her first visit to Cleveland, she had discovered the tavern was Hager's chosen drinking place, though she had been unable to track him down at the time.
This morning was the third day she had watched and waited for the ex-soldier. Dressed in men's garb and seated at a table in the corner of the saloon, she went unnoticed by the other customers as she took an occasional sip from a mug of beer. Shortly after noon, she almost dropped the mug when Hager walked through the door, took a searching look around the room, and strode to the bar, nodding at the greetings called to him by the two men he joined. The barroom was dim, but there was no mistaking him. No longer a boy, he had grown into his full height of well over six feet. She watched as one of the men he spoke with left, but the other stayed and bought him a beer.
When Hager had first entered the tavern, Sarah's breath had stopped as his glance fell on her, but his look continued past her and she could breathe again. Of course, he wouldn't recognize the scarred veteran seated at a corner table-as far as he knew, Sarah was dead. But just the sight of him jolted her. Vivid memories of the last time she had been in his presence leaped to mind, and the rage that had been born then surged within her. Grabbing the edge of the table, she struggled to stop the shaking of her hands.
She fought hard for control; she wanted to jump right in his face and confront him. But that would destroy any chance she had of making him pay for his sins against her. She had to do this quietly. Secrecy had enabled her to avoid arrest or prosecution for her retribution against Angston, and she planned to do the same this time. She forced herself to be patient and stay rooted to her chair while he had two mugs of beer with his friend. Finally, he left.
Sarah stood and sauntered out the door behind him. He had paused at the edge of the boardwalk, next to the narrow street that ran between the tavern and the hotel. As the tavern door swung shut behind Sarah, Hagar stepped down and turned into the alley. Sarah followed right behind him and glanced about to make sure no one else was in the vicinity. She drew her pistol as she approached him. Without a horse to hide him on, as she had done with Angston, she couldn't just knock him out in broad daylight. She'd have to hold a gun on him and march him away from this built-up area.
"Stop!" she said, pitching her voice lower. "I have a gun. Put your hands up and turn around." Hager halted, put his hands shoulder high, and turned around as ordered. Face-to-face with those eyes that looked just like Jessica's, Sarah battled to keep her resolve strong.
Hager blinked, then spoke quietly. "I'm terrible sorry for what we done to you. I been sorry every day since it happened. You got a right to shoot me. Go ahead."
A whisper of warning hissed through Sarah's mind. He knows who I am. And he's not even surprised I'm alive. Something's wrong. Her intuition proved correct when she heard a harsh voice behind her.
"Yeah, go ahead and shoot the mealy-mouthed worm. I can take care of you by myself now that he's helped me find you." Sergeant Angston's words froze Sarah for a moment, and she cursed herself for being trapped so easily.
Slowly, she slipped her pistol back into its holster, raised her hands, and turned toward Angston. He was wearing his uniform, and his scarred face and slash of white hair gave her some grim satisfaction. "I should have killed you when I had the chance," she said, with words so steeped with hate her voice sounded warped.
Angston brayed an ugly laugh and rubbed his hand across his scars. "You know how many times I said the same about you?" He lifted his chin toward Hager. "This piece of shit let you live. It's only fitting he should be the cause of finding you."
Sarah had to keep him talking. Maybe he would make a mistake, and she could get out of this mess. Her throat had tightened up, and she had to force the words through. "And how did you manage that?"
Angston grunted. "Took him a long time, but he finally wrote to headquarters to get a copy of his discharge papers. When I found out where he was, I went after him. Showed him what you done to me." Angston's expression turned sly. "I told him we needed to capture you and turn you in, before you did the same to him." He tapped the scarred side of his forehead. "Or killed him. I figured you'd be looking for him here. His hometown's on record. It was just a matter of time."
Hager's voice sounded behind her. "We been watching for you. We saw you go into the hotel yesterday and into the tavern today. So I went in, then left, and we waited for you to make your move." As he talked, Sarah took a cautious step sideways, keeping her hands raised. She half-turned so she could see both men, but kept most of her attention on Angston, the more dangerous one. Though Hager had also drawn a gun.
Hager switched his gaze from Sarah to Angston. His voice sounded shaky, and even his gun hand was wavering. "Let's take her to the sheriff and get this over with."
"Not so fast," Angston answered. He licked his lips and leered at Sarah. "I had a pretty good ride the last time we took this bitch. I'm hankering to give her another try."
"No!" The word exploded from Hager's lips. "We shouldn't of hurt her last time, and we sure ain't going to do it again." His hand, still unsteady, pointed his pistol toward Angston.
"You no good coward." Angston's gun swung toward Hager and fire blasted from its barrel a fraction of a second before Hager fired at him. When Angston's gun swerved away from her, Sarah dove to the side. She pulled her gun, thumbed the hammer, and fired at Angston. The shot caught him directly in the chest, toppling him like a tree in a tornado. She twisted in the dirt and swung back toward Hager. He lay sprawled on his back, unmoving, his gun dropped in the dirt.
Sarah stood and walked over to Angston. She pushed him with her booted toe, but he didn't react. She kicked his gun away from where it lay near him, and holstered her own gun. She went to Hager and knelt beside him. People were making tentative steps into the alley, drawn by the gunfire. Hager's eyes fluttered, and pain twisted his features. Sarah sat down, reached an arm beneath his shoulders, and pulled his head onto her lap. Someone's hand clasped her shoulder, but she ignored its owner.
The blood rushing from Hager's stomach told her no one could help him; he was dying. He wrapped his fingers in her shirt sleeve and pulled, so she leaned closer. "Forgive me," he whispered. "I was too young . . . and too weak . . . to stand up . . . to him."
Sarah remembered that Hager had been reluctant, and Angston had threatened to kill him. Hager must have been the one who untied her and draped her tunic over her body. She looked into his familiar blue eyes-duplicates of Jessie's-and the fingers of rage enclosing her heart loosened. She no longer hated this young man; she almost felt sorry for him. He had fathered a child he would never see. She bent close until her lips were next to his ear, and she whispered to him, "You have a beautiful daughter."
Hager's eyes widened. He blinked several times, and his expression of pain cleared. "I'm honored, ma'am," he said quite clearly. Then he closed his eyes and died.
The hand on her shoulder patted her, and Sarah gazed up into Leah's worried eyes. "Are you all right?" the blonde asked. When Sarah nodded, Leah sighed. "I heard shots and looked out the window. I nearly fainted when I saw you lying on the ground. Thank God, you moved right away." Sarah reached up and touched Leah's hand. Leah craned her neck to get a better look at Hager. "Not a bad-looking man."
Several bystanders moved Hager from Sarah's lap, and she stood up. "No, and not really bad at heart either. A different kind of casualty of the war." She looked toward Angston, but the spot was empty. She tensed as her heart chilled. Her hand dropped to her gun.
Leah saw her reaction and stopped her arm. "It's all right," she said. "Angston's dead. Some folks carried his body away. You can rest easy now." She looked carefully at Sarah. "Actually, he did you a favor."
"Really? Could have fooled me."
As she saw the sheriff approaching, Leah stepped a little closer and lowered her voice. "He kept you from killing your baby's father."
Sarah's head jerked back and her lips tightened into a firm line. Then she nodded. "You're right. I put one over on the bastard again. Hope he sees that from hell." She turned as the sheriff reached them.
Sheriff Ziegler introduced himself and wrote Sarah's "Bren Cordell" name and her West Virginia address in his notebook, then stuck it in his shirt pocket. "Can you tell me what happened here?" he asked.
"Sure." Sarah said. She looked up and saw Amy with her face plastered to their hotel room window on the second floor. She waved and then nudged Leah in the side and pointed up. "Amy's watching. Maybe you should get back there and tell her everything's all right." Leah waved too, then hurried off to join her daughter.
"Well, Sheriff," Sarah began, "The soldier who was lying there," she said and pointed to where Angston had been, "pulled a gun on me and Mr. Hager. Hager and I pulled ours too, and everyone fired. The soldier killed Hager, and I killed the soldier."
"Any idea what caused it?"
"Seems he and Hager had some kind of falling out. I just happened to be here at the wrong time."
"I knew Hager. He got married recently, and his wife's with child." Ziegler sighed. "Going to be hard to tell her about this."
"Too bad." Sarah did feel a twinge of pity for the woman.
The sheriff stared at Sarah, searching her face. "That soldier had scars on his face just like yours." He tipped his chin toward her. "And a blaze of white hair."
Sarah shrugged. "I got shot in the war. Guess he did too. And a lot more soldiers besides."
Ziegler looked thoughtful. He took off his round, black hat and wiped the sweatband with a forefinger. "Any connection between the two of you?"
"None to speak of," Sarah said.
He nodded and replaced the hat. "Guess that's all for now." He tapped his thumb against the notebook sticking from his pocket. "If I need you, I'll contact you." He walked away from Sarah, and she headed toward the hotel.
Any connection between the two of us? Never again. I'm free of that son of a bitch forever. Free of them all, Sarah thought as she rolled her shoulders to relieve her stress. Then a thought that she didn't want to acknowledge popped up . . . and though she struggled to resist it, the words seared themselves in blood-red letters on her brain. There will always be a connection between Hager and me.
Sarah, Leah, and Amy settled in a six-bedroom house built by an architect who had the misfortune to die from being thrown from a horse shortly after completing his home. The large home sat on thirty acres of ground just outside of the small town of Bonneforte, Missouri, several miles from Cape Girardeau, a bustling city on the western banks of the Mississippi River. After the trio had traveled as far as Pilot Knob by train, Sarah purchased a horse and wagon and they piled it with Leah's belongings, tied Drummer's reins to the back, and made their way the rest of the distance to the first town that caught their fancy.
The house suited both women. It wasn't too large for one woman to care for, but at the same time, it afforded plenty of room to spread out. One huge, glassed-in room, located in a separate wing on the southern end of the house, swayed Sarah into buying-light and airy, it served perfectly for her writing and drawing studio. Although connected to the main part of the house, the studio wing had its own staircase to Sarah's upstairs bedroom. The kitchen won Leah over. It offered the newest range and icebox, and she announced that she had never had a kitchen that contained so many cupboards.
All the rooms were large. The women had converted the only downstairs bedroom to a combination library and household-business office they shared. Leah's and Amy's bedrooms were upstairs in the central part of the house. Amy seemed fascinated with hers, which she proclaimed was bigger than all the rooms of their old apartment put together.
A second wing, with a large room downstairs and two more bedrooms above, went off the northern side of the house. That remained closed at the moment, since they had no need for it.
In the main house, an entry foyer had its own closet plus doors that opened onto the drawing room and the halls to the two wings. A straight staircase led to the upper floor. The women agreed that a dining room, which sat next to the kitchen, could be used for Amy to play and do her homework in as they didn't expect to be using it for quite a while, if ever, for a dining room. Its only furnishings were a table, four chairs, a credenza, and a couch. In spite of Leah's objections, Sarah had already begun to fill it with toys . . . and books.
A long, roofed porch with two sets of wicker tables and chairs ran across the width of the main house and spanned the front of each wing. The house sat almost exactly in the middle of one acre of cleared ground and a neat lawn dotted with trees surrounded it and distanced it from the dirt road that ran in front of the property. Most of their other thirty acres was wooded, and after a quarter-mile of flat ground, the forest lifted slowly toward the Ozark Plateau.
"Enjoying the view?" Sarah had finished working for the day, and she sat down next to Leah at one of the porch tables. Amy was playing with her dolls at the table farther down the porch.
Leah glanced sideways at her friend and smiled. "Isn't it unbelievable? I didn't know the outdoors could be so beautiful." She pointed. "Look, you can see an eagle flying over there."
Sarah smiled at the childlike wonder in her voice. "I'm so happy you came with me and got a chance to see all this."
"I'm the one who's happy. Thanks to you, Amy has a chance at a real life, and with you teaching me how to speak and act like a lady, so do I. I'll never be able to repay you."
"You repay me just by being here. You've helped me get through some mighty rough times. And a lot of so-called ladies would have turned their noses up at me." A small grin lifted the corners of Sarah's lips. "Besides, I haven't had to do a lick of housework in the three months we've been here. You're taking great care of the place, and that suits me just fine." She patted her stomach. "You're even a great cook."
Leah sparkled at the compliment. "Thank you, Sarah. I really appreciate it." She shook her head. "Not that you eat much. You don't relax enough to give your appetite a chance. I'd hoped with Angston and Hager dead you'd stop driving yourself. But no, now you pour that energy into working too hard. Why can't you take it easy?"
Sarah stared down at her hands, studying them intently. She kept looking at them as she answered. "You know, Leah, on the surface of things, I should be pretty satisfied with my life right now. I have a good friend, a beautiful home, and work that I thoroughly enjoy. And I'm happy about all that." She took a deep breath and let it out. It was almost a sigh.
"But?" Leah's question furrowed Sarah's brow.
"But I'm not satisfied." Sarah jerked to her feet and strode to the porch rail. Wrapping her arm around a post supporting the roof, she leaned against it and stared out over the grounds. Because of the bend in the river, the house had a full view of the hills from the front porch and also to the side. Every sight of the breathtaking vista pulled at Sarah's artistic soul, but the yearning she felt overshadowed that.
She grimaced. "You know, for years, I never cared a whit about love and its entanglements. I scoffed at women who did. Any hint of sexual desire was foreign territory to me. Then . . ."
"Then you met Faith."
"Then I met Faith." Sarah could feel the muscles of her face tightening, trying to squeeze away the pain she felt at every mention of the woman's name.
"Sarah, you need to find out whether she married Phillip. You won't be happy until you do."
Sarah hit the roof post with her fist. "And just how will knowing that she married Phillip make me happy?"
"You're not sure she married him. But even if she did, you wouldn't be any worse off than you are now. And if she didn't, she doesn't even know how to contact you. Just think, she could be pining after you the same as you are after her."
A bitter bark of a laugh erupted from Sarah. "And maybe she's never given me a second thought. I'm probably daydreaming like a lovesick idiot. Why would a vital, beautiful woman like her want a broken-down soldier like me, scarred and ugly?"
"Sarah-Bren Coulter, I'm ashamed of you!" Leah got up and went to the railing. Sarah jumped when Leah punched her on the arm. "You act more like a yellow belly than a bluebelly. Your scars don't make you ugly. You're a handsome woman, and if I liked women, I'd be after you like a bear after honey." Leah raised her voice and spoke so firmly, even Amy turned to look. "So don't be using that as an excuse. Stop hanging out here feeling sorry for yourself, and go take charge of your life."
Sarah's mouth hung open for a moment, before she could get her thoughts together. Then sarcasm dripped from her lips. "So what made you so smart all of a sudden?"
Leah poked Sarah's shoulder. "You did. You made me decide to take charge of my life. I was scared to leave everything I knew and come out here, but you gave me the courage to do that, and it's turned out better than I ever dreamed. Now it's up to you to practice what you preach." She reached for Sarah's arm and gave it a shake. "Go home, Sarah. Go home and find some answers. You won't stand a chance at happiness until you do."
Sarah stared deeply into Leah's eyes. She knew her friend spoke the truth. Sarah had spent these past months trying to deny her feelings. She tried to pretend she had never met Faith; she had never fallen in love with her; Faith had never promised to marry Phillip. She even kept reminding herself that Faith had betrayed her. But nothing had worked. Sarah was miserable. She hated going to bed alone and waking alone. Her dreams were full of Faith, and her body ached for her touch, while her mind taunted her that Phillip was taking her place.
She rubbed the back of her neck and made a face. "You're right, I'm tearing myself apart. I'll go."
At Sarah's words, Leah clapped her hands in joy, then grabbed Sarah and squeezed her tight. "I knew you had the guts to do it. At least you'll find some answers."
Sarah returned the hug even as her thoughts made her shiver. What if the answers aren't what I want to hear?
Sarah, in dress and bonnet, arrived at the Coulter house as expected, and Lindsay threw her arms around her. "Sarah, how wonderful that you're here." She stepped back while young Prescott and Jessica hugged her too. "All right, children, you can talk with Aunt Sarah later. Pres, please take Jessie back into the study and finish your homework." After a few moans from Pres and some shooing by Lindsay, the children departed.
"Lindsay, let me freshen up and change into a clean dress, then I'll join you in the kitchen."
"I'll put the teapot on," Lindsay answered. "Then I want to hear all your news."
When Sarah came back downstairs, Lindsay poured tea, then sat near her at the table. "I'm so glad to see you, Sarah, but I can hardly believe my eyes. When last you were here, your leaving was so unexpected and unannounced we didn't know what to make of it. And we haven't heard a word from you. We didn't even know where you were."
Sarah was a little surprised that Lindsay had jumped right into this discussion. But then, it would answer some questions sooner than she had expected. "Surely you had some suspicions? I told you how I felt about Faith. Did you really think I could stay and watch her marry Phillip? The very idea distressed me."
Lindsay stirred the sugar she had just added to her teacup. "But you acted as though you had decided to accept it."
Sarah's fingers began to drum the table. "That was before she kissed me."
Lindsay gasped. She stopped stirring her tea, and her eyes seemed glued to Sarah's. "She kissed you? When? You never told me that."
"She kissed me that night, before I left, while you all were out visiting. It's a long story. But when I realized she cared about me too . . ." Sarah's eyes filled with tears, and she looked away, blinking to stem their flow. "I just couldn't stay and watch her marry Phillip. Even now, thinking about them together . . ."
Lindsay's eyes widened, and her head moved back and forth. "That's right. You don't know. But then, how could you?"
Sarah's heart leaped as her fingers stopped their drumming and clenched into fists. "Don't know what?"
Lindsay put her hands over Sarah's fists, and her voice softened. "They didn't get married. They said it was by mutual agreement, but now I suspect Faith backed out and they just wanted to hide the truth. What man would want to admit he was jilted for a woman?" Lindsay released Sarah's fists and put her hands up to her cheeks. "My goodness, Sarah. What a mess this is."
Like a starving woman waiting for food, Sarah could scarcely wait for her sister-in-law to finish talking. "Where is she? Where is Faith?"
Lindsay frowned in thought. "She lives in or near town somewhere. I heard she's teaching first grade for the new school semester." She picked up her almost forgotten tea and took a sip.
Sarah's thoughts were running wild. Then one struck her and slowed her down considerably. "How is Phillip doing?"
Lindsay sighed. "After hearing your tale, I would think not as well as he pretends." She touched Sarah's hand again. "I'm guessing he probably told Scott most of the story. I know Scott's made some disparaging remarks about your stealing away in the middle of the night and leaving everything in an uproar."
Sarah bristled. "Don't let them be laying this at my doorstep. I didn't do any speaking for Faith, and I'm not responsible for her actions."
"I know that, but I think the men might have circled their wagons, and you and Faith are the Indian attackers." Lindsay smiled wanly. "Maybe you should talk to Phillip."
"Yes, I know I have to," Sarah said without enthusiasm. "Poor Phillip. He needs to get better at picking the women he falls for."
"Maybe you should pick a woman for him."
Sarah pursed her lips for a second, but the corners tipped up anyway. "That's not funny, Lindsay."
"I know." Lindsay tried to look contrite, but couldn't stop her giggle. "You have to admit, it's rather bizarre. Not only does Phillip fall for two women who love women, but those two women love each other. That's got to be pretty rare."
A sigh escaped Sarah. "A kiss doesn't promise a lifetime commitment, Lindsay, and that's what I'm looking for. I don't know whether Faith feels the same or not. And I won't until I catch up with her." And she asks my forgiveness.
Uncannily, Lindsay seemed to tune into that feeling. "Last I heard from you, Sarah, you weren't able to forgive Faith for betraying you to the Union soldiers. Has that changed?"
Sarah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She raised one fist and tapped her knuckles against her forehead, then opened her fingers and ran them along the slight depression in the bone. Her fingertips traced the scars that wove a wrinkled blanket from her forehead nearly to her ear lobe. She screwed up her face and shrugged. "I honestly don't know. Do I love her enough to forgive and forget?" Her fingers moved to the back of her neck and stopped there. "I'm hoping my meeting with her will solidify our feelings, one way or another."
"Let me get this straight." Lindsay leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her breasts. "If you come face-to-face with Faith and suddenly realize you still can't forgive her, what will you do? Run away again?"
Sarah's hand moved from her neck to grab a hank of her own hair and yank on it, pulling her head down with it. Her voice was low and full of pain. "Maybe."
Lindsay's voice became lighter, and she leaned forward. She uncrossed her arms and reached to pat Sarah's shoulder. "Let's look at the bright side. What if she falls into your arms and promises undying love?"
Sarah's head lifted slowly. "Somehow, I can't believe it will be that easy. This relationship," she said, then snorted, "if you can even call it a relationship . . . has been on a rocky road from the very beginning." She struggled to force a wry grin from the depths of her pain. "Faith did save my life. I've heard that means she's responsible for me."
Lindsay's tinkling laugh lightened Sarah's somber mood a little. "Good luck on convincing her of that."
"Yes, I'm sure I'll need it." Sarah pushed her untouched tea away. "But I'll talk to Phillip, first. He deserves at least that consideration from me."
Scott must have told Phillip that Sarah was coming home; the big man's hug was subdued, and he didn't seem surprised to see her.
"Sarah, welcome home. Let me take your coat and bonnet." He hung the clothing in the foyer closet. "Come, sit with me in the drawing room." As he escorted her there, he said, "Would you care for a sherry? Something stronger? Or tea?"
"No, thank you. I've just had something at home." For the first time in her life, Sarah felt uncomfortable around Phillip, and she supposed he felt the same. Though he looked surprisingly calm. "You're walking really well, Phillip. You barely limp at all."
"I've had a lot of practice by now." He motioned her to a stuffed chair and sat on one across from her. "I'd like to say you're looking well, Sarah, but I'd be lying. How have you been?"
Sarah decided to get right to essentials. She never had been one for social talk, and Phillip was aware of that. "You knew I was still looking for the soldiers who shot me and left me for dead?" Phillip had been told only that part of the story. He nodded. "Well, one private was killed in the war, but I finally caught up to the other two men."
"And?" Phillip prompted when she hesitated.
Phillip sucked in a breath. "You killed them?"
"The sergeant killed the private, then I killed the sergeant. It was fair, Phillip. He was aiming at me when I fired."
"So your search for vengeance is over," he stated. "Do you feel better for it?"
"We've had this discussion before, and I know you'd like me to say no. But they deserved punishment. They meant to kill me. And the law would never get them. If it hadn't been for me, they would have gotten away with their crime." Sarah wouldn't admit it to Phillip, but her vengeance had added another burden to the weight of guilt she carried from the war. So many dead at her hand. She gave her head a shake; she didn't want to think of that right now. She had other problems more pressing.
"I really never have understood your way of thinking, Sarah."
"I know, yet you've always cared about me." Sarah glanced down, and when she looked back up at Phillip, her eyes were filled with pain. "Phillip . . . I'm so very, very sorry that Faith and I hurt you. I never meant that to happen."
Phillip tensed. "I wondered if you'd have the nerve to bring that up. But then, you've seldom lacked for nerve." His voice had turned harsh. "I suppose you two had a good laugh at my expense."
Sarah's jaw dropped. "My God, Phillip. How could you think that of me? I've been in agony over the whole mess. Why on earth do you think I ran away? You're the sincerest man I know. I would never laugh at you." She ran a shaking hand back through her loose hair, which hung past her shoulders. She was letting it grow, a small concession to Leah, who had asked her not to cut it.
She leaned forward and spoke with intensity. "Faith and I met during the war. I was wounded, and she truly saved my life. I stayed at her home to recuperate, and I fell in love with her." Sarah winced at the look on Phillip's face. "I know you don't understand or approve of that, but a fact is a fact. I hadn't planned to fall in love with a woman. It just happened. I was as astonished as anyone could be. And I had no idea she felt the same. Later, even though she believed I was a Confederate soldier, she betrayed me to the Union. And I hated her for that. I loved her, but I hated her. It was all very confusing."
Phillip's facial expression was neutral, but his eyes looked interested.
"It wasn't until you brought her here, and she finally recognized me, that we discovered . . . we . . . were attracted to each other. I respected that she was engaged to you, and I left. We haven't seen each other since." Sarah put her hand over her heart. "I swear to you, on our years of friendship, I didn't know the marriage had been called off. When I came home today, Lindsay told me. Please forgive me, Phillip. Forgive us both. Neither of us could have foreseen what happened."
Phillip pushed his hands down against the brown upholstered chair arms and resettled himself. "I think I need more time, Sarah. I believe you, and I want to be big enough to forgive you, but the wound is too raw right now." Sarah heard his teeth grind together as a lost look passed across his face. "When Faith told me she was in love with you, I was hurt, yes, but I also was embarrassed." He lifted a hand and waved it around while he searched for words. "The idea of a woman being in love with another woman seemed-seems- so unnatural to me, I know I'll have trouble getting my mind around it. I'm not sure I ever can."
Sarah nodded. At least he wasn't trying to condemn her and Faith. "Well, I'm not able to apologize for that. What seems unnatural to you seems perfectly natural to me. Maybe it will help if you can just think of us as two women friends who aren't interested in men as marriage partners." She blew out a quick breath. "Heh. Listen to me. I don't know for sure whether Faith and I have any future together. But I mean to find out. Lindsay said she stayed in town. Do you know where she lives?"
"Yes, I have her address. Let me get it for you." Phillip looked grateful for the excuse to move. He rose and went to his writing desk, which sat in a corner of the drawing room. On top of the desk stood a large cabinet with glass doors that were decorated with a filigree of carved wood. After opening a door and pulling out a leather-bound address book from the top shelf, he leafed through to find the proper page. He dipped a quill pen in an ink pot, wrote the address down on a sheet of paper, and blotted it, then returned the book to its shelf and closed the door. He took the address to Sarah. "She's on the other side of town," he said as he handed the paper to her.
"Are you two still speaking?" Sarah held her breath for the answer, not really understanding why.
Phillip gave one nod. "We're civil to each other. Faith's explanation was very much like yours. She said she needed to be honest with me about her feelings for you. She offered to marry me anyway." His smile was sad and rueful at the same time. "But I couldn't hold her to that. We knew when we agreed to marry that we weren't in love with each other. We were both lonely, she was struggling to keep a home, and she felt Benjamin would be better off too." The ruefulness cleared from his smile, leaving just a little sadness. "I'm going to miss being Benjamin's stepfather. He's a great boy."
"He is," Sarah agreed. Though she wondered how he'd like her becoming the object of his mother's love. The possibility that he might not like it at all bothered her immensely.
She was amazed that another friend seemed to read her mind when Phillip said, "This . . . situation . . . between you and his mother might be difficult for him to accept."
Sarah's heart ached as she sighed. "Don't you think I've told myself that a thousand times? You see how long it took me to come back here." She slowly pounded her fist into her palm. "But I can't help loving Faith, and I can't ignore my feelings any longer. If she feels the same, we'll face that problem together and hope for the best."
Phillip sat back down. "Just between you and me, Sarah, I've suffered quite a bit over this whole predicament, but the irony of it is almost comical. I've loved you and proposed to you for years, but you never were in love with me. You never even pretended to be. Then I met a woman I became very fond of, and when I proposed to her, she accepted. But lo and behold, not only have I cared for two women who love each other, but I bring them back together again." He shook his head. "Is there something wrong with me?"
Sarah's head tilted as she surveyed him, and one brow lifted. "You just need to get me out of your system. And if finding out that I love a woman doesn't do that, then by God, you do have something wrong with you."
Phillip grinned. Not a full-force Phillip grin, but getting closer. "Ah, Sarah, you've always been an irreverent-"
"Bitch," she finished, and the two chuckled a bit.
"On that true note, I'll leave." She stood and walked toward the door, and Phillip collected her coat and bonnet. As he held the coat and Sarah put it on, she said, "I'm glad we had this talk, Phillip. Thank you for being so understanding." She turned to face him as she donned her bonnet and tied it beneath her chin. His face looked sad.
"I'm really not as understanding as I seem, but I'm working on it."
Sarah stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. "That's all I ask."
Phillip hugged her then released her. "You might find Scott a harder nut to crack. He was really upset about your leaving without any explanation. In spite of anything I say, he insists on blaming you for the marriage being cancelled."
"Hopefully, I'll leave Scott to Lindsay. I haven't the energy to argue with him right now." She thought of the green-eyed redhead who was wrapped around her heart, and Sarah wondered whether she would have sufficient energy to argue successfully with Faith. "Goodbye, Phillip." She took his hand. "I do love you, you know."
"That sounds too, too familiar," he said as he raised her hand and kissed it. "Goodbye, Sarah. Better luck to us both." He watched from the doorway as she returned to the Coulter home.
Just before entering, Sarah turned and waved, and Phillip waved back. She thought about what a basically good man her friend was. Hurting him had added another rung to the ladder of black deeds she regretted. At least this talk had eased a small portion of her guilt, but would anything ever relieve the rest of it? Why hadn't her final revenge on Angston helped? She had a niggling feeling in the back of her mind that only Faith's love could heal her.
To be continued in Part ElevenPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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