by Nann Dunne
Sarah stood in the kitchen, looking out the window. She blew into her coffee cup then took a careful sip of the scalding brew. A heavy rain shrouded the afternoon into a gloomy grayness and draped tiny, rapid rivulets against the glass with a soft tinging sound. "This storm certainly came up in a hurry. I barely had time to get Drummer into the barn. Looks like someone tipped a river over out there." She turned around and walked back to the table, where Leah sat with a newspaper, occasionally resting her finger under a word as she read it. Amy was at the table too, putting together a wooden puzzle of a colorful parrot. A fire in the cooking fireplace kept the room warm and cozy.
The child looked up and smiled as Sarah approached. "Aunt Sarah, what kind of bird is this?" She held up the box cover with the puzzle picture displayed on it.
"That's a parrot. Those birds live in a different country far, far away from here. Some of them can be taught to talk."
Amy giggled. "Birds can't talk."
"Ah, but these birds can. They don't talk back and forth like we do, but at least they can learn a few words. Maybe I can find one for you some day. Would you like that?"
Amy's head jerked up and down in enthusiastic nods. "I surely would."
Sarah touched the top of Amy's head as she passed by her. "I'll keep an eye out for one."
"Hey, Sarah, how do you say this word?" Leah's finger had stopped, and she had her head resting on her other hand, propped up by an elbow on the table. She spelled the word aloud, "P-o-i-g-n-a-n-t."
Sarah stopped next to her. "That's a tricky one. The 'g-n' combination in this particular word tells us that the 'g' is silent, but it gives the 'n' an 'n-y' sound. Want to give it a try?"
Leah scratched her head. "Poy-nee-ant."
"Close," Sarah said. "But the 'y' doesn't sound like one at the end of a word. It sounds like one at the beginning of a word, like 'yellow.' She reached past Leah's shoulder and put her thumb over the last three letters of the word, hiding them. "Say this part with the silent 'g.'"
"Poyn," Leah said.
Sarah moved her thumb. "Now say this part as though the 'y' were at the beginning of it."
"Right! Good work."
"What's it mean?"
"Oh, no, you don't," Sarah said with a laugh. "You have to look it up yourself. Where's the dictionary?"
Leah grinned. "Well, it was worth a try. Amy, will you run into the study and get the dictionary, please?" Her daughter jumped up and hurried to do her mother's bidding.
Amy returned with the book. "Don't forget, Mama, you have to use the word in a sentence before the sun goes down," she said.
"I will, sweetie." Leah glanced up at Sarah. "That was a great idea, you know. Both Amy and I are learning a lot of new words."
Sarah grinned. "With all the reading you're doing, pretty soon you'll know more words than I do." She set her empty cup in the sink. "I'm almost finished my latest story. I'll be working on it the rest of the afternoon. Send Amy after me for supper, will you?"
"Sure. We're having the leftover roast I made last night. We'll see you at suppertime." Sarah left for her studio while Leah riffled through the dictionary and Amy continued to put together her parrot puzzle.
About fifteen minutes had passed, when a loud banging on the door quickly roused Leah from her reading. She and Amy glanced at each other, then Leah went to answer the knock. When she opened the door, the force of the wind blew it inward, and she tightened her grip on the brass knob to keep the door from clattering against the wall. The struggle held her attention for a moment, then she looked out at the figure standing on the porch. "May I help you?" she asked.
Soaking wet from the downpour, the woman had both hands against her chest, holding her coat closed. Her sagging bonnet was pulled tightly about her face, and her eyes were squinted against the swirling raindrops pelting her even under the porch roof. Although Leah could barely see the woman's face, the voice she heard sounded surprised. "I . . . no . . . I think I've come to the wrong place. I'm sorry to bother you." She turned and hurried away, and Leah saw a mass of wet curls hanging down her back . . . red curls.
As the woman continued to splash toward a wagon that sat in front of their barn, Leah shouted, "Amy, get Aunt Sarah. Tell her it's an emergency!" Amy bolted from the room, already calling Sarah's name.
Seconds later, Sarah came running. "What's wrong?" She saw Leah at the door, making no attempt to close it against the wet wind blowing in.
Leah pointed outside. "A woman just stopped here. I think it's Faith."
Sarah stepped quickly to the door and peered out. She stood like a statue, her eyes glued to the figure bent against the wind and moving toward the wagon. Leah punched her arm, hard. "Go, Sarah. Bring her back. For God's sake, at least get her in out of the storm."
Sarah dashed outside, not even stopping for a coat or hat. Drenched within seconds by the torrent, she ran as fast as she could, heedless of her aching leg. With her feet sliding and splashing water from the muddy yard, she caught up to the woman before she reached the wagon. She grabbed an arm and turned the person around. It was Faith. Sarah, her heart thudding against her chest, shouted against the noise of the wind. "Faith, oh God, Faith, come into the house."
Faith put a hand up above her eyes, and Sarah stepped closer to shield her from the rain. "I can't do that." The sound of Faith's voice, even raised as it was, stirred Sarah-body and soul. Her fantasy was no longer an impossible dream. Her love was here, right here in front of her.
"Why can't you? Are you crazy? It's pouring rain, and you're soaked. Come in and get dry before you catch cold."
"Let go of me. Don't even speak to me. Ever." Jerking her arm free, Faith slammed Sarah in the chest with the palms of both hands then turned away. Sarah stumbled backward and skidded on a tuft of grass in the quagmire the yard had become. When her weak leg twisted and buckled under her, she went down. She landed flat on her back, and water splattered into the air down the length of her body. With her teeth clamped together to keep from screaming, she rolled over and pushed up onto her hands and knees.
She tried to get up, but her good leg kept slipping. Still on her hands and knees, Sarah blinked to clear her eyes of the muddy water dripping down her face. She looked over her shoulder in despair as Faith climbed onto the wagon seat and jiggled the reins. With creaking and splashing, the horse and wagon turned to leave. The rain suddenly lessened, and as the wagon passed by, Sarah could make out movement under a tarpaulin thrown in the back of it. A hand reached out and lifted the tarpaulin's edge, hiking it into a tent over a dark head.
"Benjamin!" Sarah called out and raised a hand toward him, and Benjamin waved. She saw his mouth move but couldn't hear him over the combined noise of the wind and rain and the slap of the horse's hooves in the muck. The wagon slowed and stopped. Sarah's heart leaped, but a moment later, the wagon started back up.
"Sarah!" At the faint sound of her name, Sarah looked toward the house. Leah, wearing a black slicker with a hood that shielded her head and eyes, was coming across the yard. She stopped next to Sarah, but her eyes were following the wagon that continued on its way. A moment later, she turned back to Sarah.
"Are you all right?" She frowned. "You looked like you needed help."
"Yes, I twisted my stupid leg, and it doesn't want to work yet." Sarah reached up to the hand Leah offered, and with help, she stood erect. Leah ducked under Sarah's arm, pulling it across her shoulder. "Let's get you inside. We can talk there." She wrapped an arm around Sarah's waist, and they hobbled together to the warm and dry house.
Leah got Sarah safely onto the kitchen chair nearest the fire, then peeled off the slicker and hung it on a peg near the door to dry.
"Are you all right, Aunt Sarah?" Amy was seated at the table and had just finished breaking green beans into a ceramic bowl. Sarah bit her lip and nodded.
Leah bustled back to the table. "Amy, honey, go play for a little while. I need to help Aunt Sarah get cleaned up." She wiped the green bean ends from the table and tossed them into a waste can as Amy left.
"That was Faith, I take it? I couldn't see her face well enough to be certain." Leah barely waited for Sarah's nod. "I confess I was watching through the window. Your body hid hers, so I didn't see what happened, but I saw you fall. Then you stayed down, and she left, so I figured you could use some help. When you lifted your hand to the boy and he waved-that was a pretty poignant scene." If Sarah hadn't felt so bad, she would have grinned at Leah's use of the new word. She knew Leah was trying to lift her spirits, but her heart was in pain.
Leah grabbed one of the towels she had placed at the ready across the back of a chair and wiped Sarah's face. "You need a bath. I half filled the tub and put some water to heat for you." She nodded her head toward a large kettle hanging from a crane in the kitchen fireplace. "The fireplace is faster than the range." She had built up the fire, and flames licked at the cast-iron vessel.
"Sarah, I'm drying your face, but it keeps getting wet again." She put her arms around the seated woman's neck and pulled her close, until Sarah's head rested against her warm breast. With a sob, Sarah wound her arms around Leah's waist. Leah patted her hair and held her until the crying ended. With a final squeeze, Sarah sat back and dried her tears on the end of the towel Leah still held.
Leah's voice was tentative. "Did she hit you?"
Sarah shook her head. "No." Then she shrugged. "Not exactly." She took the towel from Leah, scrubbed it over her hair, then tossed it onto another chair. "I was trying to get her to come into the house, and she pushed me away." She moved her leg, which caused a pinch of pain. "Pushed rather forcefully, I might add. And I slipped on the wet grass." She scratched at her thigh, then an arm. The heat from the fireplace coaxed a mist from her wet clothes, and she suddenly had an attack of itching. "That bath sounds pretty good right now."
"Right." Leah grabbed a piece of cloth from a bin on the hearth and used it to protect her palms as she swung the crane away from the flames and lifted the kettle from its hook.
Sarah continued talking, shaking her head in puzzlement. "I don't understand the woman at all. She comes clear out here-I'm assuming to see me-then she slams me in the chest and takes off."
"Sarah . . ." Leah's voice trailed off as she walked into the bathroom, and Sarah heard the water splashing into the tub.
Leah brought the empty kettle back to the hearth, and Sarah prompted her. "What were you saying?"
Leah didn't answer at once. She pulled off Sarah's sodden boots and socks and walked her to the chair in the bathroom. Once there, both women worked to strip off the wet pants and underdrawers that felt plastered to Sarah's skin. "Do you need help with the tunic?"
"I can get it, but I'll need a hand stepping into the tub." Sarah pulled off the tunic and flinched when Leah's fingers touched her chest. She looked down and saw two red marks just below her collarbones.
"Faith hit you pretty hard. You've got a couple of bruises started there already."
Sarah snorted. "She's a strong woman. Knocked me the hell off my feet." In more ways than one, Sarah thought with a groan. Leah supported Sarah's weight as she stepped into the tub and settled into several inches of warm water.
Leah looked at the water, then at the mud on Sarah. "How about just washing your body. I'll put the kettle back on, and you can wash your hair in clean water."
"That sounds good." Sarah accepted the soap and washrag that Leah handed her. She dipped the washrag in the water then soaped it up and ran it over her body while Leah went back into the kitchen to refill the kettle and set it in the fireplace to heat.
When Leah returned, Sarah asked, "What did you say earlier when you brought the kettle in? I couldn't hear you."
"That's because I didn't finish. I started to say Faith knocked on the door looking for you, and I was the one who opened it. Sarah, she looked at me kind of-" Leah shrugged one shoulder. "Maybe she thinks you and I are . . . you know . . . a couple."
Sarah scoffed at the idea. "But she knew you when you both lived in Cranston."
"Exactly." Leah folded her arms, and her lips twitched. "Let's face it, she knew me as a whore."
Sarah rinsed the soap from her body as ferociously as she spoke. "But you're not a whore anymore." Finished rinsing, she stood up.
"But Faith don't . . . doesn't know that." Leah got a large towel from the closet and wrapped it under Sarah's arms, then helped her step from the tub and sit once more on the chair. "Maybe she thinks I like women."
Sarah ran a hand through her still muddy hair. "Oh, God, Leah. You're probably right." She pulled her hand away and looked at it in distaste.
Leah's gaze followed Sarah's. "I'll get your clean clothes, then we can take care of your hair," she said, "and I'm pretty sure I'm right. You should have seen the nasty look she gave me." Leah started out of the room, then turned back. "Maybe you should go explain to her."
"Like hell I will." Sarah said. "I'm not about to go running after her and get knocked on my ass again. As angry as she was, she wouldn't listen anyway."
"Sounds like she's not the only one who's angry. You two will never get together if you keep hurting each other. Someone needs to straighten this mess out."
Sarah glared at Leah, but as she calmed down, she realized the advice made sense. "You're right. We've been chasing each other around like a couple of fools. First thing tomorrow, I'm going to find her and explain about you, even if I have to hit her over her hard head."
"That's a grand idea," Leah said as she left, smiling.
Sarah sat there imagining her words to Faith and Faith's answers. In her mind, they fell together into a heated embrace and . . . She switched her position on the chair and groaned, partly from the pain as she jostled her sore leg and partly from a more exquisite sensation that shivered through her body. I can do this, she thought, I can explain everything. How hard can it be?
Faith sat in her new home and unfolded the much-creased note from Lindsay Coulter. For the hundredth time, she reread the words that seemed carved into her soul. "I know Sarah cares very much for you." Those words had led her to inquire and discover that the town was advertising for a teacher, and she had applied and been accepted. So here she was, after leaving everything she knew, ready to join the woman she loved. Only, to her dismay, she discovered Sarah had found someone else.
Or had she? Faith recognized Leah, one of the girls from the tavern in Cranston. Had Sarah's self-esteem diminished to the point she needed to pay someone to love her? Faith found that hard to believe. In their short meeting in the storm, Sarah had seemed surprised but not guilty. Maybe she really had fallen for Leah. Maybe I should have given her a chance to explain, Faith thought, then ridiculed herself. Like my temper would have listened to anything she had to say just then.
A sob tore through Faith as she refolded the note and put it away. Well, she had foolishly pinned her hopes on finding Sarah waiting for her with open arms. Her own feelings were so strong, she had assumed Sarah's were too. But it hadn't happened. If Sarah had found love with Leah, she wouldn't try to come between them.
At least she had been wise enough to secure a teaching position first, so she wasn't stranded. On the contrary, she was committed to teaching school for the year, during which she was liable to see Sarah occasionally. She would just have to avoid her and make the best of a bad situation. And try to put her heart back together. Was that even possible?
"Aaargh!" Sarah groaned from her perch on the couch.
Last night, Leah had gathered the bedclothes, and Sarah had slept in the studio, loath to attempt climbing the stairs with a sore leg. Her choice proved wise. When she awoke near dawn, threw off her covers, and attempted to sit up, the movement stirred intense pain in her leg, forcing the groan. Resting on her elbows, she looked down past the edge of her cotton nightshirt at the offending limb. Damn! It was clearly swollen.
She dropped back to her pillow and grabbed the sides of her head in frustration, her fingers splaying through her hair. Now what? Leah was an early riser too, and she might be in the kitchen. But could she hear a yell? Only one way to find out. Sarah took a deep breath and turned her head toward the open door of the studio.
"Leah!" She waited a moment then tried taking an even greater breath. "Leah!" She heard movement coming toward her and sighed with relief.
Leah came dashing into the studio, drying her hands on her apron. "What's wrong?"
"I can't move my damn leg. Do you remember where the crutches are?"
"Sure, they're in the bathroom closet," Leah said as she hurried out. She soon returned and handed one crutch to Sarah. "Let me help you up, then I'll give you this one." She set the crutch against the couch, leaned down, and Sarah put an arm around her shoulders. Using one crutch and a boost from Leah, Sarah got upright and Leah gave her the second crutch.
Sarah's expression darkened. "I hoped I was finished with these blasted things."
Leah gave a spurt of laughter. "I'm glad I kept them when you wanted to toss them out." She stepped back and took a good look at the leg. "It's swollen a lot. Should I take you to the doctor?"
Sarah's look was scathing. "Right. Jostling this leg around in the back of a wagon sounds like something I'd love to do." After taking two tentative steps, she was right back into the rhythm of walking with crutches. "This has happened a couple of times before. The leg will be fine in a few days."
"What about Faith? You can't go after her today."
"Maybe I can. Should I let a little pain stop me?" Sarah tried to wiggle her foot, but gasped. "Who am I kidding? This leg isn't going anywhere, by wagon or by horseback. Does it seem to you the Fates are trying to keep us from getting together?"
Leah stepped toward the doorway. "Come get something to eat. I just took fresh cornbread out of the oven. Things always look better on a full stomach."
"I think it's going to be awhile before this situation looks better, full stomach or not." Sarah said on the way to the kitchen. "I hope she stays in town a couple of days until I can see her."
"Maybe you should write her a note."
"No." Sarah sighed. "I'm certain this will take a face-to-face explanation." Shivering, she welcomed the warmth of the kitchen and chose a chair near the fire. She sat at the table and propped the crutches beside her then raised a hand to her brow, surprised at the sweat oozing along her hairline. She wiped her hand on the nightshirt. "Damn it, Leah, this leg is pretty bad. Looks like I'll be off my feet for a couple of days."
"Well, when I go to town tomorrow to do the marketing, I'll see what I can find out about Faith." Leah fixed a plate for Sarah and set it in front of her. "Until then, you just remember to stay off that leg and give it a chance to get better. Time is a great healer."
Sarah nodded acquiescence even as Leah's words took on another meaning. Time hasn't healed me yet, she thought. But the possibilities are looking better.
Leah returned from the marketing on Monday with welcome news. She set down the bags of groceries and hurried into the living room, where Sarah was lying on the couch. Settling into the chair opposite her, Leah brimmed with excitement. "I asked around, and it seems like your Faith is the new school teacher."
"I'll be damned."
"Yep, and she has her own house, right on the school property."
Sarah pushed herself into a sitting position and closed her eyes while a smidgen of hope danced in her mind. "That means I'll have plenty of time to convince her that you and I aren't lovers."
"But that's not the only problem you have."
Sarah's eyes popped open. "I know. We seem to feel a connection, but I'm not even sure she'll love me once she gets to know me better. At least now we'll have a chance to find out."
"Or you might not love her." Sarah opened her mouth to protest, but Leah held up a hand. "Do you really think you can just forget that she turned you in to the Union? You've suffered a whole lot from that, and I know you, Sarah. Honor means a lot to you. What Faith did wasn't honorable. I'm not sure you can put that behind you."
With a shrug, Sarah smoothed her fingers against the quilt that covered her legs. She had wrestled with this question over and over, until eventually, she had reached an explanation for Faith's actions that she could accept. "She thought she was doing the best thing for me. If she would just admit that she did it and apologize, I could forgive her. But she insisted she never said a word, though her expression told me differently. We need to work that out."
"Be careful with your heart, honey. I don't want you to be hurting."
"I'm already hurting. I need to shake some sense into that stubborn woman." She looked at Leah. "What's that sly little smile for?"
"So far, you haven't done too good with physical action."
Sarah grabbed the edge of a pillow and tossed it at Leah, who easily caught it and threw it back on the couch. "At any rate, I'm not going to be happy until this situation is settled."
"Well, you have a happier situation to deal with right now." Leah stood up as she fetched a telegram from her skirt pocket. "At least, I think it's happier." She handed the telegram to Sarah. "It's addressed to both of us. I hope you don't mind that I opened it. I thought it must be urgent." Leah drew a surprised glance from Sarah when she said, "I even answered it."
The telegram was from Phillip. Stegner seen in Brighton. Lindsay, Jessica, and I arriving Wiley Creek Sunday noon by train.
Brighton was about thirty miles away; Wiley Creek only five. "Here? They're coming here?" Sarah's face lit up. "How wonderful!" Then she looked a bit shocked. "Tuesday, that's tomorrow." Before Leah could react, Sarah threw back the quilt and swung her legs to the floor, wincing a little. Her leg was still tender, but not swollen. "We need to get the house ready."
"Sarah, relax. The house is always 'ready.' I'll just have to make up the beds. Phillip can stay in one of the bedrooms in the main house, and Lindsay and Jessica can stay in your wing. How does that sound?"
"Oh, Leah, that's perfect." She thought a moment. "Phillip might go straight to Brighton, since it's on the railroad line. But at least he can stay here, if he needs to. Thank you for taking care of it. And for answering the telegram. Now if you'll start filling my belly with some food, maybe I'll be strong enough to meet the train tomorrow."
"Food's no problem. I just baked a ham. We can have it today, and still have some for tomorrow. Sarah," she said, "Phillip must be happy to get some news about Stegner. I hope it works out this time."
"Me too." Sarah's face turned somber. "Stegner better hope Phillip sees him before I do."
"You let Phillip worry about Stegner. Right now, you need to concentrate on getting your leg better so you can enjoy the company that's coming."
"Hey, you're getting downright bossy, there. A regular termagant." She swung a hand at Leah's rear, but the laughing woman jumped out of her reach.
"A termagant? You know I'll look that up, and if it means what I think it means, you're in trouble, woman."
Sarah tried to look ferocious. "Watch those threats. I won't be weak forever, you know."
"That's right. Guess I better take advantage of bossing you around while I can." She waggled a finger at Sarah. "So, stay here and I'll bring you a platter." She left, and Sarah grabbed a crutch and limped toward the bathroom.
I'm so happy they're coming, she thought. And wait until I tell Lindsay about Faith!
Lindsay clapped her hands. "Faith is here? No wonder I couldn't find out about Redfire for you. I was late sending a message to her, and it wasn't answered. She must have been on her way here. How wonderful!" A light danced in Lindsay's blue eyes. "Are things all right between you?" The two women were sitting on the couch in Sarah's studio, and Jessica, not at all shy, was climbing over and around her Aunt Sarah, grabbing pieces of long hair.
"No, but at least we're within hailing distance of each other." Sarah ducked as Jessica tried to loop some hair around her aunt's neck. "We have a few issues to settle, if we can." She explained Faith's unexpected arrival at the house, her probable misconception about Leah, and how she knocked Sarah down. "The misunderstanding about Leah is the first hurdle to get over."
She rescued her hair from Jessica's hands, pulled the squirmy child onto her knee, and bounced her up and down. "Tell me how you happened to come here with Phillip?" As suspected, Phillip had gone straight on to Brighton.
"You know how Phillip's always been half obsessed with capturing Stegner. He had copies of your sketch printed, and he's been mailing one to every post office and sheriff's office that exists, I think. He sends a pile out every month. Last week, he got a letter from someone who claims to have seen the man in Brighton. He came over to tell us about it, and Scott noticed that the area was close to your place." She kept talking while her sister-in-law got up and tucked Jessica under one arm, giving her a tickle to keep her from yelling. Sarah gathered some paper and crayon sticks and got the child busy on the floor with them. At last, Jessica quieted down.
"As soon as I heard that, I asked if he would care if I came to visit you-that is, if Phillip wouldn't mind the company. They both said all right, and here I am!" She stopped a second for a breath. "Scott and a babysitter can do a good job of taking care of the children, but I wanted to bring Jessie to see you, Sarah. You should be around each other more."
Sarah frowned. "I'm not so sure about that. You're her mother now; I have no claim on her." And, she thought, the more I see her, the more attached I'm getting. Maybe partly because I'm learning to accept that her natural father wasn't such a terrible man, in spite of the sordid circumstances.
Both women gazed toward the youngster. "She even looks a little like you," Sarah remarked.
"Yes, the black hair and blue eyes are a match," Lindsay said, "but once beyond her coloring, she's Sarah-Bren Coulter through and through. And I'm glad she is."
Sarah's eyes widened. "You're glad?"
Lindsay reached over and squeezed Sarah's forearm. "Yes, glad. You're one of the boldest, bravest women I know, and if Jessie inherits only a snippet of your character, I'll be happy."
Sarah's lips took on an ironic tilt. "I don't feel very bold and brave."
Lindsay's tone was scolding. "You've lost some belief in yourself. You need someone to help you regain it." When Sarah's eyebrows rose, a small grin tugged at Lindsay's mouth. "Who knows, maybe Faith is the one who can do that."
"Lindsay, if they gave out prizes for persistence, you'd be the number-one winner."
Lindsay squeezed Sarah's forearm once more then let go. "You are going to talk to her aren't you?"
"She told me not to speak to her ever again. I know she said it in anger, but I don't know how long that anger might last. Anyway, I plan to watch for a likely opportunity." She rubbed the back of her neck. "I wanted to dash right after her and take my chances, but my leg prevented that. Now I need to rebuild my courage." She touched Lindsay's arm with a fist. "I'll try to remember how bold and brave I am."
Lindsay chuckled. "I think I might just have an idea about how to approach her."
Just then Leah knocked lightly on the doorjamb and stuck her head through the opening. "Dinner's ready."
"We'll be right there." Sarah turned toward Lindsay. "I'm anxious to hear your idea. But we better wait until after dinner." She stood and walked over to Jessica. "Come on, Jessie. Let's go eat." She reached down, and when Jessica raised her arms, Sarah's heart felt squeezed. She picked her child up and held her close. It reminded Lindsay of when they were all at Red Oaks Manor.
"Sarah," Lindsay said, "you really should keep in touch with Mother and Father Coulter. They're always asking for news of you, and I haven't felt free to tell them much. I think that's up to you."
"Oh, God, Lindsay. Let's take care of one problem at a time, all right? The less Mother knows about me, the better I feel." Sarah snorted. "The better she'll feel too, I'm sure."
"Maybe so, but she is your mother."
"And," Sarah said, "she came through for me when I needed her. But we both know she'll never accept that I love a woman. I'm just not going to tell her unless it becomes absolutely necessary. I'm sure she'll be happier that way. Unless you want to tell her."
"Oh, no!" Lindsay managed a small laugh. "But you do realize it's possible Scott might say something."
"Well," Sarah said as she walked toward the kitchen, "I can't live my life to suit Mother and Scott." She shrugged. "They'll just have to get used to that." Then her tone softened a little. "But I will write to them and fill them in on everything else." She looked back at Lindsay, who was following her. "After I settle things with Faith."
"That sounds good. I'm anxious to see if my idea works."
"I'm anxious to hear it," Sarah said drily. "I hope it's a good one."
Sarah could see that Lindsay was enjoying keeping her in suspense. Her sister-in-law's grin was downright ornery. "We'll find out."
Phillip slapped the dust from his hat then replaced it on his head. His gaze roved Brighton's main street, and when he spied the word "Sheriff" painted in gold on a window, he headed there. He pushed through the brown wooden door in the entryway next to the window and entered an office. The man behind the desk wore a star on his chest, and a gold plate on a wooden stand proclaimed his name.
"Sheriff Staumon?" When the man nodded, Phillip reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out the poster with Stegner's picture on it. He laid it on the desk. "I heard this man has been seen around here. Do you know him?"
The sheriff studied the picture and handed it back to Phillip. "Can't say as I do. He blew up a munitions train?"
"Yes. Hundreds of soldiers were killed and maimed." Phillip tugged up his pant leg. "Including me. I've been searching for him for several years."
"Lots of soldiers did terrible things in the war. Can't punish them all," the sheriff said in a reasonable tone.
"This man wasn't a soldier. He was a civilian working for the company that was shipping the munitions. He was one of the people responsible for its safe arrival." Phillip hesitated, then continued. "I grew up with him. As did a lot of the men who were killed."
"Just what is it you want me to do?" the sheriff asked.
"I want to take him back to West Virginia for trial. I'm hoping you'll arrest him and let one of your men take him back there. I'll go along too."
"West Virginia? That's the new state that broke off from Virginia, right?"
"Yes. In 1863 it became a Union state."
The sheriff stood up and limped from behind the desk. He grinned and tugged on his pant leg. "I lost a foot in the Union cause. Let's take a walk up to the tavern and have a drink together. We can talk there about finding this traitor."
The two men strolled up the board walkway to the Gateway Tavern, and Staumon held the door for Phillip to enter then followed him in. Having come into the darkened atmosphere from the sunny street, Phillip couldn't see very clearly. He heard a curse and some quick shuffling as dim bodies scattered. He tripped over someone's foot, and with the sudden shift of weight to his false leg, he stumbled. A shot sounded above the hubbub, and something burned his face as he fell to the floor. His head hit with a loud crack against the hardwood floor.
Through the haze that suddenly clouded his mind, he heard two more shots ring out, followed by a thud. All noise ceased for several moments, then voices again lifted. Rough hands turned him over, and when his blinking cleared his eyesight, he recognized Staumon. "What happened," Phillip muttered.
"Your traitor was here, at the bar," Staumon said with a bit of awe in his voice. "He saw you right away and took a shot at you." Phillip struggled to get up, and the sheriff helped him. "Looks like he only grazed your cheek."
Phillip felt a little woozy from the blow his head took. He touched his cheek then looked at the sticky blood on his fingers. Staumon caught his glance. "You were damn lucky. We'll get the doc to put a plaster on that." He took Phillip's arm to lead him away.
Phillip stood his ground. "What about Stegner?" He looked past the sheriff at several men who were bending over someone on the floor by the bar.
"You can stamp 'Paid' on that poster of yours. I put two bullets in his chest." Phillip slipped between the surrounding men who parted to let him look into the dead man's face. It really was Stegner.
This time Phillip moved when Staumon urged him toward the door. He could hardly believe that his years of searching had ended so abruptly with Stegner's death. Thank God, the sheriff had been with him, or the death could have been Phillip's instead. As he had lain dazed on the floor, Stegner could have finished him off. He shivered as he realized the close call his lack of preparedness had caused. He could imagine what Sarah would say.
A day later, the sound of a wagon brought Leah and Lindsay to the porch. "Sarah!" Leah called into the house from the doorway, "Phillip's here." Then she turned to Lindsay and put her hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry, I forgot Jessie is napping."
Lindsay tilted her head into the entryway, listening. "I don't hear anything. But Amy's there with her, reading."
Leah flashed a smile. "I think Jessie has taken Ree-Ree's place. Amy's watching over her like a little mother."
A moment later, Sarah joined them as the wagon came to a stop. Phillip stepped down, and the driver steered the horses back the way they had come.
The women rushed to greet Phillip, unable to miss that he had a deep scratch on one side of his face. He kissed each of them on the cheek, then laid his arm around Sarah's shoulders as they walked onto the porch. She smiled and tugged on his hand. "I'm surprised to see you so soon, but it's wonderful to have you here."
"I'm thrilled to be here, in more ways than one," he said. He gave her shoulders a squeeze then let go so they could fit through the doorway into the house. While the others took seats in the living room, Leah went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water for Phillip. He gave her a big smile. "Just what I needed. Traveling always parches me." He took a long swallow, then set the glass on the table next to his chair.
Sarah and Lindsay were sitting opposite him on the couch, so Leah settled in the other stuffed chair. Sarah got right to the point. "Come on, Phillip, you know we're curious as hell to hear what happened to you."
Phillip's eyebrows lifted. "Curious as hell? Does wearing pants make you talk like a man?"
Sarah's cheeks reddened. "I'll talk as I please in my own home," she said with some asperity. "And I'll wear what I please." She would have said more, but Lindsay quieted her with a pat on the arm and took up the conversation.
"Please, Phillip, do tell us what happened. Did you find Stegner?"
"Yes," he said and touched the scratch. "That's how I got this. I stopped at the sheriff's and he invited me to the nearest tavern to get a drink. I was blinded coming in out of the sun and didn't even see Stegner, but he was at the bar. I never gave a thought to what he would do when I finally caught up to him. Of course, he recognized me-I'm hard to miss." His grin was rueful. "Hard to miss with a pistol too. I wasn't even armed, and the idiot pulled a gun and shot at me."
Sarah snorted. "You went after a killer without being armed, and he shot at you? Tell us again who the idiot was."
Phillip frowned in her direction. "I knew you would have some cutting remark to say about it. You just can't resist."
Lindsay spoke quickly. "Now stop it, you two. You haven't seen each other in months, and here you are throwing barbs at each other like a couple of cantankerous youngsters. You should be ashamed of yourselves."
Sarah laughed. "You're right, Lindsay, but you're just not used to our banter. Anyway, I apologize, Phillip. What happened next?"
Phillip was chuckling too. "And I apologize to all of you. Somehow, manners don't seem to be as much in demand these days. But that's no excuse, I know." He bowed toward Lindsay. "Sarah and I will count on you to keep us civil."
He tapped his face next to the cut. "I tripped over someone's boot and staggered sideways, and that saved my life. The bullet just grazed my jaw. Lucky for me, the sheriff was right behind me, and he pulled his gun and shot Stegner dead. I say 'lucky,' because when I tripped, my head hit the floor and dazed me. I know Stegner would have fired again."
"So the bas-" Sarah stopped as her gaze flicked to Lindsay, then back to Phillip. "So Stegner's dead." Phillip nodded. Sarah's voice roughened. "I hope he lived every single moment in dread of being caught. I know I wanted to shoot him down, but dying so fast was too good for him."
"Maybe so, but that wasn't up to us." Phillip shook his head. "I didn't expect such a quick-and dangerous- resolution after finding him, but I'm glad it's finally over with."
Leah cleared her throat to speak, then looked embarrassed when everyone turned to her. "Do you think he blew up the train all by himself?"
"We'll never know that answer," Phillip said. "Even with so much ignitable gunpowder on the train, it did seem like a lot for one man to handle. But we've never had evidence that anyone else was involved. Stegner took that information to the grave. At least we got one we know was a traitor."
They sat quietly for a moment until Lindsay spoke. "Tell Sarah and Leah about Theo. That's Phillip's older brother," she explained to Leah.
A wide smile on Phillip's face lightened his demeanor. "He's getting married."
"You're not serious. Old bachelor Theo getting married?" Sarah laughed and clapped her hands against her knees. 'To anyone I know?"
"You remember Marcus Baronski who was killed in the war? Theo's marrying his widow."
"Janet Baronski is a fine-looking woman," Sarah said with definite enthusiasm.
Phillip's tone was dry. "Trust you to notice that." Then he waved a hand as if to brush the remark away.
Sarah met his eyes straight on. "I am who I am, Phillip."
Their gazes locked, and Phillip pushed his fingers through his hair. "I've accepted that, Sarah. I didn't mean anything malicious about . . ." He waved his hand again.
Lindsay's voice broke the spell that held them. "Phillip . . . I guess you should be told that Faith's here in town."
"Faith?" Phillip hesitated for a moment, then he looked toward Sarah. "Are you . . . seeing each other?"
Sarah shook her head and shrugged. "She thinks Leah's my girl friend, and she doesn't want to speak to me."
Phillip sat up straighter in the chair. "You're not going to settle for that, are you?"
Sarah frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Dammit, Sarah!" Phillip glanced toward Lindsay, but she didn't say a word. "I called off my plans to marry Faith because you two were in love, and now you're telling me that you aren't even speaking to each other? Sitting here with your tail between your legs doesn't sound like the Sarah-Bren Coulter I know. Go after the woman."
Lindsay's head had been nodding at practically every word that came out of Phillip's mouth. "That's what I told her. The old Sarah would be chasing after Faith on a white charger until she swept her off her feet."
Sarah looked from one to the other. "We know Lindsay is a matchmaker by nature, but you, Phillip, used to mind your own business . . . after a fashion."
Phillip's laugh boomed from his body. "Between you and Faith, I became convinced I was minding the wrong business, so I decided to change my ways. Now everyone is fair game for my scintillating advice." He quieted his laughter. "Seriously, Sarah, I think you should explain things to Faith. You've both been through a lot, and you deserve some happiness. Maybe you can find it together." He smiled. "Look at Theo. He's willing to take the chance. He'd want . . . he'd expect . . . you to also."
Sarah was touched by Phillip's generous heart. He was so forgiving. What a pity Scott wasn't more like him. She beamed at Phillip's last remark. "Theo always did believe in me."
Phillip leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knee. There was no mistaking the earnestness on his face. "We all believe in you, Sarah. You've always accomplished what you set out to do."
"That's true," Leah said.
"We all believe in you," Lindsay echoed.
Sarah looked at each of them, and as she did, her resolve changed from formless, molten liquid to a hardened ingot. They believed in her. She could do no less than believe in herself.
"All right," she said with a firm nod, even though her heart skipped a beat, "I can do this. Tomorrow I set Lindsay's plan into action."
"In for a penny; in for a pound," Sarah muttered. She dismounted and hitched Drummer to the rail behind the schoolhouse. After dusting off her soft yellow doeskin shirt and brown trousers, she tightened her slouch hat with a yank on the brim, then pulled a sketchbook and charcoal pencil from a saddlebag.
The yard had been scraped clean of grass to save on mowing, and several picnic tables sat just beyond the bare ground. Sarah ambled in their direction and chose a table Faith would have to pass on her way home. She laid her drawing paraphernalia on the tabletop and tugged at her trouser legs to ease the leather over her knees as she sat down on the bench. One hand scratched at her chest. Too hot for this shirt, she thought. But Lindsay had insisted she wear it, said it made her amber eyes glow. Remembering, Sarah gave a mental snort. Lindsay, the matchmaker.
The afternoon was warm for September, and Sarah tipped the slouch hat back past the front of her hair to cool her forehead, unconsciously presenting an attractive picture. She opened her sketchbook and began blocking out a proposed drawing, prepared to keep busy until school let out.
At the appointed time, the schoolhouse doors opened and about fifteen children trooped out in an orderly row. As soon as their feet hit the dirt, they scattered, some running toward home and some walking off by themselves. Others gathered in twos or threes and strolled along, talking. A few untied their horses from the hitching rail, climbed on bareback, and rode off, most with an extra passenger aboard. Amy shared a ride with Elmer Grosse, an eleven-year-old who rode his horse past their house on his way to school. He stopped for her each morning and brought her home after school. Both children called and waved to Sarah as they passed her.
About fifteen minutes later, Benjamin came out, followed by Faith. As they approached, Sarah stood up next to the bench and tipped her hat, then grinned as Benjamin hailed her.
"Miss Sarah! Hello!" His whole face smiled, warming Sarah's from top to toe.
"Hello, Benjamin. I've come to walk your mother home." Faith had given a slight nod in response to Sarah's hat tipping, and she slowed for a moment, but her face remained as still as a frozen pond.
Benjamin looked puzzled as he glanced from Sarah to his mother, then back again. He raised an arm and pointed toward a log-hewn house with a small porch that sat about a hundred yards away. Sarah could see it clearly in spite of the fifteen or twenty trees growing haphazardly around it. "But we only live over there," he said. His voice lifted at the end, almost making the statement a question.
Sarah's expression sobered, and she pursed her lips and stroked her chin, as though in deep thought, before she nodded. "Yes, but you can't be too sure of being safe in these parts. A crazy buffalo or a rambunctious buck could come crashing through this very spot and hurt someone."
Benjamin recognized he was being teased, and he raised his hands with his fingers bent into claws. "Or maybe a snarly bear," he said, and his smile widened when Sarah mimicked his actions with her hands and growled.
Faith began walking toward the house, and Sarah scooped up her sketchbook and pencil with her left hand and joined Benjamin as they followed her. The boy looked up sideways. "I can protect my mother, you know." Sarah heard traces of tentative pride in his words.
With her right hand, she cuffed Benjamin's shoulder. "I'm sure you can. You're the infantry-the first and most important defense. Just think of me as the artillery-there if you need me."
"All right." He gave her what she could only interpret as a speculative look. "May I ask you something?"
May I? Sarah smiled inwardly. You can tell his mother's a schoolteacher. "Certainly. Ask away."
"Why are you wearing men's clothes?"
His mother missed a step and almost stopped walking. Benjamin glanced her way, but his eyes turned back to Sarah, awaiting her answer.
"That's a good question, Benjamin. Seeing a woman dress like a man is hard for a lot of people to understand." Sarah rubbed the back of her neck. "When I wasn't much older than you, I took to riding my horse all over the countryside near my home, sometimes staying away even overnight. For which I often got yelled at." She smiled at memories of those innocent times. "I found out in a hurry that riding in trousers beat the dickens out of riding in a dress. So I started wearing trousers. That got me some yelling at too." Her wry smile drew an answering one from the boy.
"When I moved out here, I decided I would dress the way that's most comfortable for me. And that way is to wear trousers. The rest of the world be . . . danged. Can you understand that?"
As Benjamin nodded, they reached the house and Faith opened the door and walked in.
"You and Mama never spoke to each other," Benjamin said, obviously surprised.
Sarah rubbed her neck again. "Well, your mama is a little upset with me right now. She told me not to speak to her, ever. But I think if she sees me every day, she might change her mind." Sarah winked. "I'll be by tomorrow again, all right?"
"All right, Miss Sarah. Goodbye." He went into the house and looked back with a wave before he closed the door.
"Goodbye, Benjamin." Goodbye, Faith. But Sarah felt good. Faith hadn't spoken, but she hadn't sent her away, either. And Faith had listened to the conversation between Sarah and Benjamin, as witnessed by her startlement at Benjamin's question. Yes, Sarah felt good. Lindsay's plan of having Sarah appear silently but constantly near Faith each day was off to a promising start.
The next day, Sarah accompanied Lindsay and Jessica to town for the morning, and after returning home, she spent a large part of the early afternoon working on the drawing she had started in the schoolyard. She was standing at the window, holding it up to the light, when Lindsay tapped on the doorjamb and came in. She brought a tray of oatmeal cookies with her. "You have to try some of these. They're delicious." She set the tray on the desktop.
"If I ate every delicious concoction that Leah bakes, I'd be as big as a buffalo cow." She laid the drawing tablet on the desk and sat down.
"I guess I better take them back, then." She took hold of the plate, and when Sarah's hand rushed toward it, Lindsay tried to move more quickly. But Sarah snagged a couple of cookies before Lindsay got the plate out of reach. "I thought you didn't want any," Lindsay said with a laugh.
"I didn't say that, now did I? Some things I just can't keep from wanting." She laid the cookies on the desk for later and swiveled the chair away from the desk to face her sister-in-law.
Lindsay tilted her head and her lips twitched. "Like Faith?" She set the cookies on a table that stood against one wall.
Sarah gave a small groan. She scratched the side of her head above her ear. "Lindsay, I know Faith and I need to settle some things, but I so want to kiss that woman . . ."
"Then why don't you?"
"You mean just grab her and kiss her?"
"Why not? If she feels as you do, she probably wants to kiss you too."
Sarah grimaced. "I'm not so sure. She's not even speaking to me. She'd probably knock me on my tail end again."
Lindsay laughed and clapped her hands. "Faith sounds feisty."
"She is that." A tiny smile curled one side of Sarah's lips. "That's one of the things I like about her. She doesn't let anyone push her around."
Lindsay strolled to the desk and tilted the drawing to look at it. "Oh, Sarah, this is really good. You can tell exactly who each one is. No wonder people pay good money for your drawings." She looked up. "So how is our 'walking Faith home' plan working?"
Sarah jumped up. "Thank you for reminding me! School will be out soon. I have to go." She grabbed the drawing tablet and the cookies and ran toward the door. "I'll answer your question later. It's too soon to tell yet." As she went out, she yelled back, "Tell Leah I'm headed to school, please."
"I will," Lindsay answered and waved her hands to shoo Sarah on her way.
Sarah waited again at the school, sitting at the same table, drawing on the tablet she had plucked from Drummer's saddlebag. The school day was over and most of the children had left. Sarah was intent on her work and didn't see or hear Faith and Benjamin come out of the building. Benjamin ran to the table, his large smile shining. Sarah's head jerked up when he spoke. "Hi, Miss Sarah."
"Hello, Benjamin." Sarah meant to close the tablet, but Benjamin had put his hand on it. Faith slowly approached but didn't look toward the two.
"What are you drawing?" He walked around to Sarah's side and peered at the tablet. "Mama, look at this." He glanced up, and Faith gave a small shake of her head and went on by them. Sarah gathered her belongings together and got up to follow her, while Benjamin fell into step alongside. He was unusually quiet.
"Something wrong, Benjamin?" As Sarah looked down at him, he danced out in front of her and walked backwards, studying her face.
Her insides quivered when he spoke. "Your drawing . . . it looks like some others I have." He didn't say anymore until they were almost to the house. Then he turned around and ran the last few yards. "Please stay here, Miss Sarah. I want to show you something," he called to her before following his mother into the house.
Sarah waited, knowing what was coming and pondering how to handle it.
A short time later, Benjamin came out of the house carrying a leather-bound journal. He sat down on the porch steps and motioned Sarah to sit next to him. The boy laid the book on his knees and handled it reverently, softly running his palm along the facing. The facing that bore the words, Personal Journal of Bren Cordell. Sarah's heart swelled just moments before her eyes filled with tears. Who would have guessed I'd be so sentimental, she thought. She wiped at her tears surreptitiously, but Benjamin looked up as she was in the act. His dark-brown eyes were very grave.
His gaze moved to the book in his hands. "This is what I wanted to show you. Mama just told me it's yours. Is it?" He looked back up for her answer.
With her throat too constricted to talk, Sarah nodded. He handed her the journal, and she took it. Unconsciously imitating Benjamin's movements, she ran her hand over the cover then traced a finger along the words burned there.
Benjamin watched. "I could tell your drawing looked the same as what's in there, but-" His brows furrowed as he struggled to understand. "Mr. Cordell was a soldier. A man." His eyes examined her face. "He had a beard. How could that be?"
Sarah's voice was barely above a whisper. "I wanted to fight for my country, but women weren't allowed to be in the army. So, I had to disguise myself as a man. The beard was glued on. I can show it to you someday if you like."
"You don't talk the same. When we were at your house in Fairmount, your voice was higher. Now it sounds more like Mr. Cordell's, but it's still different."
Sarah's throat had loosened a bit more, and she slipped into a drawl. "You mean Mr. Cordell spoke something like this?" When Benjamin's eyes widened and he slowly nodded, Sarah knew he had just accepted that she was, indeed, Bren Cordell.
"Did Mama know you weren't a man?"
"Not at first, but she was my nurse, so she found out soon enough." She patted Benjamin's knee. "I was in danger if anyone saw through my disguise. I begged your mother not to tell anyone. I'm sorry we couldn't let you know."
Benjamin paled. "I saw the soldiers drag you away." His hands balled into fists, and he rested them on his thighs. "I wanted to help you, but Mama said I couldn't. She said you would be all right." His gaze moved to the damaged side of Sarah's face. "Were they the ones who hurt you?"
Sarah cleared her throat. "If they had turned me in to their commanding officer, as they should have done, I would have been all right. That's what your mama thought they would do." She cleared her throat again, then heard the screen door behind her creak open and a hand offered her a glass of water. She laid the journal on the porch, took the glass, and looked up into Faith's eyes. She nodded a thank-you and drank the water down in one long draught. Afterward, she held the empty glass in her hands, twisting it around and around. "But they shot me and left me for dead. The fire from the gun's muzzle burned my face and head."
Benjamin started to cry, and Sarah set the glass down beside her and put an arm around his shoulders. "Hey, it's all right. I'm here. I'm alive." She squeezed his shoulders and touched her head against his. "Please don't cry." His tears affected Sarah profoundly. "I'll tell you what. You know something that would make me really, really happy?"
Benjamin sniffled and made a valiant effort to stem his tears, wiping his sleeves in turn across his cheeks and nose. "What?" he mumbled. Sarah couldn't hear his question, but she saw his lips move.
"Tell me where in tarnation Redfire got to."
The boy jumped as though prodded, and sunlight spread across his face, banishing the gloom. "He's here! We brought him with us! He's here!" He jumped up. "Can I go get him, Mama?"
"Yes, Benjamin." This was the first Sarah realized Faith had remained behind them after giving her the water. She stood, turned, and stepped up onto the small porch. She was two feet away from Faith, face-to-face, and the woman's nearness spread heat through Sarah with the speed of a brushfire. She reached up and took off her hat, holding it against her chest like a shield. But she didn't say a word.
Faith stood her ground, though Sarah saw a blush move from her chest and up over her face. But her voice remained flat. "You were very kind to Benjamin. I appreciate that." She turned and went back into the house. Sarah remained standing there, pulling herself together, until she heard a horse coming into the yard. She shoved her hat back on and walked down the steps.
Benjamin brought Redfire to a halt directly in front of her. The horse whinnied and hit Sarah in the chest as Benjamin slid off his bare back. She grabbed Redfire's neck and buried her face against it, unmindful of who watched as tears flowed down her face. Finally, she calmed down and lifted her head to take a good look at her beloved animal. Benjamin put the reins in her hand. "Do you want to ride him?"
Sarah didn't even bother answering. She threw herself across the horse's shoulder, swung her hips to settle onto his back, and moaned at the familiar feeling of her legs clasping Redfire's sides. At her clicking sound, Redfire bolted out of the yard and into the surrounding fields. Sarah was ecstatic as she flew across open fields and ducked among trees. All of her troubles were forgotten; a missing piece of her soul had returned. I could take you home right now and keep you forever, she thought. But she knew she wouldn't do that. She couldn't take Redfire away from Benjamin. If she did, he would lose a piece of his soul too. But Redfire was within reach, and she knew she could ride him whenever she wanted to. That would be enough . . . for now.
She took Redfire back to Benjamin, walking him partway to allow him to cool down. When she dismounted, she gave the horse another mighty hug and handed the reins back to a worried-looking boy. "Would you keep Redfire for me, please? And exercise him when he needs it?"
Benjamin's smile rivaled an upside-down rainbow. "I surely will. You come and ride him too, all right? Mr. Svenson lets us keep him in his corral, just across the way." He pointed in the direction he had come from. "We have your saddle too. And your saddlebags." He tied the reins to a porch post. "I'll get them for you."
Before Sarah could say anything, he bounded up the porch steps and into the house. Several minutes later, he came out empty-handed. "Mama just made some iced tea, and she said I should ask you to come in and have some. She has your saddlebags for you."
Benjamin hopped on Redfire as he spoke and nudged the horse to a trot. Sarah stood dumbfounded for all of five seconds, before she stepped up to the screen door and knocked. She watched Faith approach, and the nearer the redhead came, the weaker Sarah's knees got. By the time Faith opened the door, Sarah had to hang onto the doorframe to keep her balance. She removed her hat, and Faith took it and hung it on a rack standing in the near corner. "Come this way," she said and walked toward the kitchen.
Sarah literally stumbled after her, entranced by the movement of calico caused by Faith's brisk strides. Her good leg clunked against a chair and Faith looked back. "Are you all right?"
Sarah nodded her head.
In the kitchen, Faith pointed to a chair and Sarah sat and watched her pour two glasses of tea over pieces of ice already chipped from the block in the icebox. Faith sat down and looked at Sarah. She took a sip of tea before she spoke. Her voice was low but firm, and Sarah heard her plainly. "Talk to me, Sarah. Where do we stand with each other?"
Sarah's sense of focus had deserted her; she was edgy, distracted. Her fingers drummed on the table. "Leah's my friend and my housekeeper. She isn't my lover," she blurted. "She never was. No one ever was." Sarah sucked in a breath, annoyed she had admitted her inexperience.
Faith hesitated as her eyes searched Sarah's. Then she nodded. "All right. I'll accept that."
"You should," Sarah said, chagrin making her a bit touchy. "I don't lie. Not like some people." Her whole body twitched when Faith jumped up and walked away from the table. But the redhead didn't leave the room. She turned back toward Sarah, with her face flushed. She crossed her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes.
"Sarah-" Faith stopped and took two deep breaths. "You act as though you're the only one who has any issues. We need to get them out in the open. You have lied to me." Sarah frowned and Faith continued. "You deceived me, and you deceived Benjamin too. We both thought you were a Confederate soldier."
"That's different," Sarah protested. "I couldn't tell you I was working for the Union. You were Rebel sympathizers. I had to protect my disguise." She raised one eyebrow, and her tone became challenging. "Would you have sheltered a Union soldier?"
"I wouldn't turn away anyone who was wounded."
"Even though your husband served the Confederacy?"
Faith stamped her foot. "I have a mind of my own!"
"Hell, you turned me in even though you thought I was a Rebel. Am I supposed to believe you would have treated a Union soldier better?"
"Stop turning this around! You lied to us. Is that why you're so determined to believe that I lied to you?"
Sarah rushed up from her chair, but she cracked her bad shin on the leg of the table and her zeal to confront Faith face-to-face turned into a loud groan as she lunged for the edge of the table to keep from falling. Faith grabbed her arm and steadied her. By the time she got Sarah settled back in the chair, both women were somewhat calmer.
Faith straightened up and stepped back. "I'd like to give a well-placed kick to that soldier who hurt your leg."
"No need." Sarah looked up at Faith, and her jaw firmed. "He's been taken care of."
Faith blinked. Her face grew pale until the freckles stood out on her cheeks like sprinkles of cinnamon. "You killed him?"
Sarah scrubbed her hand across her face before answering. She wondered why she hadn't kept her mouth shut. But why was she embarrassed to tell Faith she had killed Angston? "Yes, I killed him." When she saw Faith's chin sag, she hurried to add, "It was a fair fight, I swear." She looked off into space, and her expression hardened. "Once before, I let him live, but I should have killed him then. He hurt a lot more than just my leg."
She stood up, slowly this time, and stepped toward Faith. Her voice dropped to almost a whisper. "I'm not what you would call a forgiving person."
The rise and fall of Faith's breasts accelerated as her breath quickened. "Sarah," she said, "I think I liked you better when you weren't talk-" Sarah's mouth closed over hers and long arms encircled her, gently pulling her close. Sarah pushed her tongue against Faith's lips, and her body streamed heat as Faith sagged against her. Sarah's tongue slid into moist warmth, and Faith connected with it.
An arm went around Sarah's waist and pulled them tighter together. Sarah thought she would die of yearning. Then a hand clasped her breast, and when they both moaned, she-
Suddenly, Faith broke off and shoved her away. Sarah's heart plummeted.
Oh God, she changed her mind. She doesn't want me. She stumbled backward until a chair hit the backs of her legs and she sat down. Flustered and still breathing heavily, she didn't hear what Faith whispered.
Sarah's hand shook as she ran it over her scars. How could anyone love this face? It was too much to expect. She reached for the glass of tea, which was now lukewarm, and drank it down without stopping. Her heart lifted back into her chest when she heard Faith's next words.
"Go do your schoolwork, Benjamin, before it gets dark."
"All right, Mama." His bedroom door squeaked then closed.
Sarah sighed. "I didn't hear him come in. I thought you changed your mind. I thought you didn't-" She stopped and blinked several times, trying to cope with the painful bubble of emptiness that had expanded inside her chest.
Faith sat down opposite her, grasped her clenched hand, and rubbed her thumb across Sarah's knuckles. Then she sat back and wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. Sarah couldn't take her eyes off of her. "So where do we go from here, Sarah?" A wry grin pulled at her mouth. "Even with the problems we have, we're obviously drawn to each other."
Sarah shook her head then raised her hand and ran her fingers through the white hair above her ear. "I don't know what to do. I know . . . I want to be near you." She wasn't yet ready to say she loved Faith. "As soon as I get close to you . . ." Sarah hesitated. She was such a novice at this. She had some things that needed said, but she was worried she might drive Faith away. "I don't want what's between us to be just physical." She gazed into Faith's eyes. "I want to work toward having-making-a lifetime commitment."
"I want that too. I didn't follow you across the country just to . . . go to bed with you." Faith blushed. "I came because I couldn't get you out of my mind. No one ever affected me that way before. I want to know you . . . I need to know you. It's like half of me is always with you."
Faith looked so beautiful Sarah's whole body ached. Her lips were pink and pouty, and passion made her eyes look-Sarah searched for a word and could only think "smudged," as when she made a charcoal drawing and softened an iris with the tip of her little finger. Even Faith's hair looked a brighter, richer red, and some ringlets hung loose around her face and forehead. Sarah wanted to touch her lips to them and taste them, feel them trailing along her body.
She could have cried at her next words, but she couldn't see a way around them. "I'm in a quandary, Faith. As long as you keep insisting you didn't betray me, I don't know how I can get past it. It comes down to trust."
Faith sat staring at her for a long moment. Then she stood up. "I have to fix supper. Would you want to stay and eat with us?"
Sarah stood too. Apparently, Faith was just going to ignore what she had said about the betrayal, and she herself was reluctant to say anymore right now. What if Faith never apologized? Sarah had no idea how she would handle that. Maybe she, too, should ignore it for a while and see what happened. Could she do that?
"I thank you for the offer, but Leah's expecting me." Sarah sighed when she saw the look that went across Faith's face at mention of Leah. She stepped toward her and reached for one of the long curls hanging in front of Faith's shoulder. She brought it to her nose and inhaled its fragrance then twirled it around her finger. "Here we are, full circle. I swear to you, Leah is straight as an arrow. You can come over and ask Lindsay if you don't believe me."
"Lindsay's here?" Faith touched Sarah's fingers then squeezed them, and Sarah felt it all the way down her body. Faith turned toward the icebox and opened the door. "Maybe we could all do something together Saturday." She lifted a large ham from the icebox shelf, and Sarah took it from her and set it on the table. Faith smiled her thanks. "A picnic would be nice. Ask her about it when you get home, all right?"
"I'm sure she'll agree. When I told her you were here, she was delighted. She has Jessica with her." She hesitated. "And Phillip's here too. But he's all right with us," she hurried to add. "In fact, he encouraged me to get in touch with you."
"I'm happy to hear that. Phillip's a good man, and I feel guilty about hurting him." Faith walked through the living room to the front door, with Sarah following. The redhead lifted Sarah's slouch hat from the rack and handed it to her. They stood for a moment, just looking at each other. Finally, Faith said, "You better leave. Will I see you tomorrow?" Then she smiled. "I might need protection from those snarly bears."
Sarah nodded. "I guess I have to give you time to change your mind about apologizing. I owe you that much."
Faith's smile disappeared, and she slapped Sarah's arm. "Get out of here before we get into another argument."
Sarah put her hat on as she stepped out the door. "Goodbye." Why couldn't she be kissing Faith goodbye instead of just saying it?
Would that time ever come?
To be continued in the ConclusionPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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