Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Rachel awoke and opened her eyes, her heart skipping a beat before she remembered where she was. She smiled at the warm weight next to her, and the soft breathing that tickled her chest. Mattie had one arm wrapped possessively around her, her hand splayed across Rachel's hip. It was sweet torture and she sighed blissfully, inhaling Mattie's scent and soaking in her closeness.
Her eyes and her body told her it was near dawn, as the palest light drifted into the room, casting deep shadows in the corners and overhead rafters. The ceiling sloped upward from the wall at an angle, giving the room an interesting shape. The room smelled vaguely of the ocean breeze and old warm wood, and the space had a cozy homey feel. She could just detect several crates tucked into the nooks and crannies above them, and wondered what it must be like to have a lifetime of things stored away in a house you owned and shared with someone you loved.
She hoped to have a personal answer to that question someday.
Now that they were together, her mind drifted logically to what they would do next, at least once the Adam question was settled, one way or the other. They couldn't get married, not in the conventional sense, and she found herself wondering what she could do to make her intentions clear to Mattie. Her heart was in this for life. Most men gave their fiancιs a ring when they proposed to them, and she wondered if Mattie would want one, and how they would go about explaining it to people, especially if Adam were in prison.
It might be easier if they ran away and started over somewhere. They could just say Mattie was a widow and the ring was from her marriage. Then again, if Adam went to prison and they stayed in Galveston, maybe she could get Mattie a new ring to replace the one Adam had given her. She frowned, realizing she didn't like the idea of Mattie wearing Adam's ring, and she found her hand wandering down beneath the covers to capture the hand against her hip, drawing it up and studying it curiously.
Her brows hiked up as a quirky grin involuntarily graced her lips.
The ring was gone.
Mattie stirred at the contact and made a few little mewling noises before she yawned, her hazel eyes blinking open. "Good morning." She looked first at Rachel's face and then at their hands, which were linked in mid-air between her face and Rachel's neck. "Something wrong?"
"Where's your wedding ring?" Rachel twined their fingers and rested their hands against her chest.
"I took it off last night when I washed my face, and tied it up in a hanky and tucked it in a pocket in my carpet bag." Her eyes looked down as a chilled tremor ran through her body. "I figured I have to stay indoors away from other people, so it won't matter if I don't have it on. I " She paused, drawing a breath into a suddenly-tight chest. " couldn't bear to wear it any more. It doesn't mean what it's supposed to mean."
She looked back up, catching Rachel in an unguarded moment, her steel blue eyes regarding Mattie's hand thoughtfully. She could see the wheels turning in Rachel's head and waited patiently, knowing her lover was working out something. Finally, those eyes turned and fell on her, and in that moment Mattie saw something new there -- a bone deep love. Not that she hadn't seen love in Rachel's eyes before. She wouldn't be sharing a bed with her if she hadn't. But this was something more, a combination of love, vulnerability, and a quiet resolve. She searched for a word in her head and was lost as to name it, but it was almost overwhelming in its intensity. She forced herself to hold Rachel's gaze, their eyes communicating things too complex for speech.
Finally, Rachel took Mattie's hand and brushed her lips across her ring finger. "Well then " Rachel swallowed hard, and Mattie could feel her heartbeat pick up at a rapid pace. " maybe sometime we need to get you a new one." Her lashes lowered. "That is, if you wanted one." She looked back up, and along with that bone-deep love was wide-open earnest hope. Mattie knew Rachel's heart hung by a thread. It was hers. She could leave it hanging to fall, or she could pluck it to keep and treasure like the gift it was.
She pulled at their clasped hands and held them tightly to her own chest. With her other hand, she reached out, cupping Rachel's face, her thumb gently caressing a downy cheek, then tracing full lips. "I can't think of anything I could want more." She felt those lips curve up into a smile, felt Rachel's heartbeat slow, and watched the relief as it flooded her lovely features. She knew her own smile matched Rachel's, and that they were speaking of something much greater than a ring.
Rachel pulled Mattie's head down, kissing it, then moved to pepper her face with more tiny kisses, before finding her lips. It was sweet, and she took her time, tasting Mattie as they moved together. She felt Mattie's hands at her back, warm and firm, and she nuzzled thick red waves. "I'll love you forever, Mattie."
Mattie smiled, the slightest hint of sadness reflected in her eyes. "Can you make him go away, just a little bit?" She trailed her fingertips along Rachel's lower back, coaxing her closer and conveying her intentions. "I'll let you know if I need to stop."
"Are you certain?" Rachel noted Mattie's shy but certain nod of confirmation, and felt her hold tighten against Rachel's back, as one hand slid around and lightly rubbed Rachel's belly. She kissed Mattie soundly and pulled back, studying her concerned eyes. "You just make sure and do that, alright?"
Mattie smiled and nodded, feeling nimble fingers work to untie the laces of her nightgown, then felt a warm hand brush against her skin, dancing across her chest and over the curve of her breasts. Full lips kissed along her jaw line and up to her ear, and whispered comforting words as Rachel brushed against her, and her lips moved lower, nibbling at her skin and making her forget the three days prior, if only for a little while.
She found Mattie's breast, brushing her thumb across it, then following with her lips, her own body reacting to the little noises of pleasure so close in her ear. Her hand wandered down Mattie's waist, around her hip, and behind her knee, pulling her leg up and closer around Rachel. Her own breathing was quite uneven, and she had to keep reminding herself to take it slow, that this was about Mattie, and making her feel safe and loved.
Rachel shifted, her hand teasing up Mattie's inner thigh. "If I I want so much are you alright if ?" She felt Mattie's hand on top of hers, guiding her, and she smiled before kissing her again. The smile turned to concern as she pulled back from the kiss, her fingers gently stroking soft skin at the apex of Mattie's hip as she spoke. "I know he hurt you." It was a question as much as a statement, as she gazed intently into Mattie's eyes, her own desire rising at the honest open passion she saw there, Mattie's hazel orbs warmed almost to gold in the early morning light.
"I know you'll be careful with me." Mattie felt the strong clenching in her belly, every fiber of her body wanting Rachel's touch. "Touch me," she whispered, as she guided Rachel the rest of the way and stayed with her, her hand resting softly on Rachel's forearm. She thought fuzzily that it was an interesting combination of sensations, feeling Rachel's forearm muscles contracting and relaxing, and at the same time feeling the thrills and heat as Rachel very gently took her passion to a higher level.
And then all thought vanished and she simply felt Rachel, her touch and the love that flowed from it, and the shudders that rolled through her over and over again, pounding through her body like the waves against the shore. She heard a cry and realized it was her own voice, and she held on, her fingers in a vise around Rachel's wrist, her body pressed tightly into Rachel's. Gradually she became aware of quiet soothing whispers in her ear and Rachel's hand, now stroking her hair as she was rocked in a safe embrace.
She mulled that over and vaguely wondered if it were strange that her first thought after making love was to think of how safe she felt
"Are you alright?" Rachel's voice rasped almost inside her ear, rumbling across her skin and making her shiver pleasantly all over again.
"If I were anymore alright I'd be floating, I think. Thank you. You made me forget for a little while." Mattie smiled and ran her hand lightly up and down Rachel's side and over the curve of her hip. She could feel the coiled tension in her muscles, just under the skin. She placed her palm against Rachel's stomach and felt it ripple at her touch. "I do believe, though, that you could be more 'alright' than you are presently, Miz Travis." She trailed her hand slowly up, cupping Rachel's breast and hearing her breath catch.
"I " Rachel's words were cut off as Mattie claimed her in a heart-felt kiss, and her touches moved down, tickling her navel before moving lower. She rolled slowly to her back, feeling Mattie settle partly next to her, partly on top of her, and her hands found Mattie's waist, hitching her up and settling her into a more comfortable position.
Their eyes met and locked, sharing their emotions as Mattie touched her, tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence, remembering things they had shared, things she had stored away, and what it felt like to see Rachel in the throes of passion -- what it felt like to be the one to give that pleasure to her. It was empowering, and humbling, knowing she held another person's heart and soul. "I'll be careful with you too, Rachel."
She felt the first tremors as Rachel responded to her, and she dipped her head, kissing her soundly, as the sun rose on a very different day than the one before.
After a quick wash-up in the water closet, both women made their way down to the kitchen, where wonderfully tantalizing scents wafted up the stairs, causing both their stomachs to growl in appreciation. "Good morning," Betsy called out pleasantly, as she heard their footsteps creak on the last few steps down. "I've cooked up a batch of griddle cakes and a mess of bacon, so I hope you're both hungry." She turned and gestured toward the table, which was already set with four place settings of the same pattern as the dishes they had eaten from the night before. "Have a seat, Betsy will be in from the stable in short order."
"Oh." Rachel strode toward the back door. "I'll go see if I can help her out."
"Naw." Betsy stopped her with a hand on Rachel's arm. "We've only the two horses. No cows or chickens or such. We get our milk and eggs from one of our neighbors a few doors down. We trade. I make their baked goods, bread, and such. Works out for all of us. He's a widower with two children, who has little time to cook, and we don't have the time nor energy to care for much livestock anymore."
"Well I should help out somehow." Rachel almost pouted, feeling badly that they'd stolen their time together earlier, and missed early morning chores. She smiled, a tiny smile. Truly, she didn't feel all that badly. It had been a much-needed reconnection of hearts and souls that had seen far too much pain in the past week.
Betsy eyed her with a mischievous grin. "Oh, I'll be more than willing to take you up on that offer when I need the garden weeded. My back can't take the bending and stooping like it used to, and poor Angel's usually plumb tuckered out after her day at the mill."
"I can help with that," Mattie offered, without thinking.
"No." Rachel and Betsy answered in unison, and Rachel sat down next to her at the table, taking her hand and stroking the back of it with her thumb. "Remember, we can't risk you stepping outside at all, Mattie, not even one step on the back porch. If anyone sees you at all, it could spoil all our plans."
"I forgot." Mattie looked down at her lap, fiddling with a pretty linen napkin, folding it over in half. She knew she had to stay indoors, and the thought of seeing neither sun nor surf for a month was almost more than she could bear. She dredged up her best smile and looked back up. "To be with you is worth any sacrifice." She smiled, watching its mirror on Rachel's face.
"Well, aren't you two a couple of regular love birds?" Betsy chuckled and turned back to the stove, flipping over golden-brown griddlecakes that bubbled up around the edges, popping and releasing a wonderfully nutty sweet scent.
Mattie blushed and looked back down, and felt a gentle touch to her hair as Rachel pushed it back from her face. She hadn't taken the time to braid it or put it up yet, and it hung in thick red waves down her back and over her shoulders, her heavy fringe of bangs hiding the scattering of freckles across her forehead. She wore a pale lavender shirtwaist and matching skirt, and as her blush began to fade, the lavender color complimented her milky pale skin perfectly.
"Don't be ashamed, child." Betsy brought a rasher of bacon to the table and set it down next to a cold pitcher of milk, sweat running down the thick crockery and dampening the napkin it sat on. "In our home, behind our doors, you don't have to hide how you feel about one another. It was the first rule Angel and I made when we bought this place. Out there when we're about town, we may be the widows Sanders and McKenzie, but behind our doors, we are like any other married couple, and we don't need a piece of paper to tell us how much we care for one another."
"It's so different from how I was raised," Mattie commented softly, auburn lashes blinking shyly over her hazel eyes. "Before I met Rachel, I'd never heard of two women being together."
"Imagine our confusion when Angel and I first discovered our feelings for one another." Betsy stacked the griddle cakes on a platter and covered them with a napkin to keep them warm, then joined the younger women at the table. She brought a pot of tea and poured up three cups, quietly pushing the sugar bowl toward her guests. "Thirty-five years ago in Atlanta, where we come from, there was absolutely no one like us that we knew of. We had no one to talk to at all." She smiled and turned as Angel opened the back door and stepped inside, wiping the soles of her boots on a thick rug before she sat down next to Betsy, kissing her on the cheek as she did so.
"Good morning," she nodded at Rachel and Mattie. "Did y'all sleep well up there? It has been a very long time since we've had any guests stay up there. Most times we just put people up in one of the rooms on the second floor."
"I thought y'all might enjoy having the entire third floor loft to call your own," Betsy chimed in, "it's offers more privacy than our other guest room."
"Thank you," Mattie and Rachel answered at the same time, then turned and laughed at each other.
"We slept very well, thank you," Rachel continued. "We are both more grateful than we can say for y'all taking us in, especially on such short notice."
"You listen to me," Angel's features darkened. "When I heard what that bastard had done." She looked at Mattie, her eyes spotting the fading bruise around one eye. "We had to do something."
"If we hadn't taken y'all in, my Angel was about to go after him with a pitchfork," Betsy patted her enraged lover on the arm.
"I've got a Bowie knife with his name on it," Rachel's own anger flared all over again, and she felt a comforting squeeze to her leg under the table.
"So, y'all are from Atlanta?" Mattie changed the subject.
"Originally, yes," Betsy answered, and Mattie could detect the remains of her softer Southern drawl, now tempered by a Texas twang. "I was eighteen and engaged to be married to my beau, as soon as he came home from the War of Northern Aggression. He was a private in the Confederate army. Angel, she was already a war widow at the tender age of twenty-two. We both volunteered as best we could in the ladies' social circle. I darned a good number of stockings for the soldiers, and Angel helped doctors treat any injured that came home."
"So you met during the war?" Rachel had older uncles who had fought and survived to tell tales at family gatherings. "Those were some hard times, especially in Atlanta, from what I hear. Were y'all living there when the Yankees burned it down?"
"The burning of Atlanta was the single greatest miracle of our lives." The twinkle returned to Angel's eyes as she forgot her rage at Adam. "As far as our families know, Betsy and I died during that siege."
Mattie's mouth flew open in shock. "I don't understand." Rachel took her hand and squeezed it, then dished up griddle cakes to all four women as they listened to Angel and Betsy's story.
"We met about a year before Atlanta fell," Angel continued. "I already knew I had an attraction to women in general. My marriage was what I was supposed to do, in those times. When I got word my husband had been killed at Gettysburg, a part of me was sad, of course, but a part of me was relieved. I'd done my duty by society, and didn't ever have to remarry if I didn't want to. I could play the grieving widow for the rest of my life if I so chose."
"She never counted on meeting me," Betsy smiled charmingly. "And I most certainly never figured to fall for a woman." She reached up and patted Angel's arm again, keeping her hand there as she spoke. "It took us a while to figure out why we wanted to spend so much time together, and why we almost always seemed to snuggle up like two peas in a pod whenever we had some private time to talk."
"I finally got up the courage to talk to Betsy about my feelings," Angel blushed, something Mattie found endearing in the older woman. "I had to kiss her." The blush deepened. "I was simply going to die if I didn't, and I figured I'd best make sure it would be well-received first, so I gathered up my wits and told her I was in love with her."
Betsy laughed softly. "Once she said it, all my feelings suddenly made sense. For the first time, I understood why I looked forward to receiving little letters from her much more than I did mail call from the front lines of the war. If I received a letter from her and my beau on the same day, I always read Angel's first." She gazed at Angel with warm affection as she talked. "I kissed her first."
"And I fainted." Angel laughed aloud. "Good thing we were in a hay-filled barn at the time. I woke up to her pressing a cold rag to my forehead. After that, we spent as much time together as we could, and began to talk about running away together."
"When the Yankees invaded and the town began to burn, Angel showed up on my doorstep." Her eyes took on a faraway look. "She took my hand and said 'now is the time.' I knew what she meant, and it took me all of ten minutes to pack a carpetbag. We snuck down an alley and disappeared in the chaos. We camped out in the countryside for a few nights and finally managed to hop a boat that took us around Florida and along the Gulf Coastline. Spent a few months in N'Orleans and then came to Texas when we heard of jobs for women in the mill here."
"We never went back." Angel's expression was an odd mixture of joy and wistfulness. "Never looked back. No one from back then knows we're still alive today, far as I know. I managed to get a hold of the Atlanta newspaper right before we boarded that boat, and read our names among the civilian casualties."
"Ever since then, we've been the widows Sanders and McKenzie," Betsy finished the story. "Most folks from around here don't know much about our past, other than thinking we're a couple of war widows, which is halfway true, since Angel is."
Rachel and Mattie exchanged solemn glances. Rachel had already severed ties with everyone in her family except her brother, and she knew Mattie was prepared to do the same if she had to. Rachel swallowed and looked across the table at their hosts. "Do you have any regrets?"
"No." Both women answered without hesitation, and Angel continued, "You ladies are about to embark on the adventure of your young lives. If you love each other as much as you appear to, you'll find that no sacrifice is too great to be together. You may have to lie and deceive folks in public, and that's a sad fact of our existence. But few married couples share the kind of love we share, and I'll wager few have had to work as hard or give up as much to be together as we have. It makes the love all the sweeter."
"And I've never doubted her love for me," Betsy added. "No one would go through what we have to be together, unless they truly loved one another."
Mattie peered thoughtfully at Rachel, just as the taller woman looked over at her with a new wonder and respect in her eyes. She smiled gently and saw Mattie's eyes warm as they fell on her face. They understood all too well, already, what Betsy spoke of.
Angel cleared her throat, breaking their gaze. "How about I give you a ride to the docks this morning? They're close to the mill."
"I'd appreciate that," Rachel hastily finished up her breakfast and stood. "I'll put my bicycle in the back of your wagon, in case we need to come back ho . back here at different times."
"You can call it 'home' for as long as you stay here," Betsy caught Rachel's stumble of words.
"Thank you." She turned, and took Mattie's hands. "You don't need me to take another day off?"
"No." She squeezed Rachel's hands in reassurance. "You've already missed two days on account of me. I'll be fine here. I'm sure Betsy has some more stories to tell, and I can help her clean up from breakfast and prepare a nice supper for y'all tonight."
"You two go on," Betsy shooed at Rachel and Angel, blushing as Angel snagged her in a bear hug. "Oomph." She let out a breath as the much taller woman released her. "I've got some fresh vegetables Mattie and I can chop up, and make a nice pot of stew for tonight. We'll manage to stay busy, so don't you worry. The day will fly by and you'll be back here before you know it."
"I look forward to it." Rachel ducked her head and pecked Mattie on the cheek. "I love you," she whispered ever so quietly into a pink-tinged ear. She winked and turned, following Angel out the back door.
Two thoughtful pairs of eyes followed them from the window, until the wagon pulled out of sight. Betsy turned and regarded Mattie. "How about we clean up these dishes, and then I've got some mending to do. I'll brew another pot of tea and tell you more about Atlanta and the war."
"I'd like that very much." Mattie smiled shyly, and moved to the sink, retrieving an extra apron and tying it around her waist.
At the noon hour, Rachel hastily ate the dinner of ham sandwiches and pickles Betsy had packed for her, enjoying the hearty meal as opposed to the crackers and salt pork she was used to. After carefully picking off every crumb, she hopped on her bicycle, making quick time to the telegraph office. It was a rare busy day, and she waited in line behind three customers, all of whom were sending messages. She shuffled from foot to foot, her hands clasped behind her back, as the line slowly dwindled down to just one elderly man in front of her. He fumbled with a slip of paper, spelling out names and addresses a half dozen times before he felt the clerk had gotten them down correctly.
She felt her patience ebbing and mentally chastised herself, realizing that at least the man could read and spell, probably a damned sight better than she could. She smiled. That was changing, little by little. She was in the upper form readers now, and Mattie continually praised her penmanship as well. The little correction marks on her work were fewer and further between. She laughed at herself, realizing that she sort of missed them, because Mattie usually made tiny hearts next to them, to soften the blow.
Mattie constantly told her she was doing well enough for her reading to be passable in most common situations. She still had trouble with the newspaper, and she was loathe to tackle a real book, but she did notice she no longer had problems reading signs in the general store, or notices tacked up at the docks. It felt good to be able to read them for herself, without always asking Billy to tell her what they said.
"Rachel." The telegraph clerk motioned her forward as the elderly gentleman finally left the office. "Just got a message in for you not two hours ago." He handed her a thin brown envelope. "I didn't run it down to the docks because it wasn't marked as urgent."
"Thank you." Rachel took the envelope and slit it open with her Bowie knife, withdrawing a half-page message from the federal marshals. Her face fell as her eyes flitted over the fine type. The marshals would be at least a month in New Orleans before they could return to Galveston. A cryptic message told her to send word to them if "the goods" were moved.
She folded up the note and tucked it carefully into her back pocket. They had at least a month to wait. Mattie wasn't going to be very happy about that, being inside for all that time, but it couldn't be helped. It also meant Rachel was to let them know if Adam appeared to be leaving town permanently. That meant keeping an eye on him, which was going to be difficult, given her job and the fact that Adam just might shoot her on sight if he caught her snooping around his property. Not to mention they didn't need him to think of her or make any kind of connection between her and Mattie.
She smiled. Maybe saving some of her income was going to come in handy sooner rather than later. She could probably pay someone to watch him for her. Someone who would be a lot less suspicious than her. The smile grew broader. She knew just who to ask.
Feeling better about the situation, she went back outside, making it back to the docks just as the noon hour was over. She washed her face in a bucket of tepid water and moved to another one, drawing up a full dipper and gulping it down. Riding her bicycle in the noonday heat took its toll, and she could feel her undershirt sticking to her body. She looked around and decided no one was going to care if she shed her long-sleeved shirt.
She tied it around her waist and pulled a broad cool green leaf from her almost empty dinner pail, sticking it under the brim of her hat. Her hair was in a long braid, and she was wearing her lightest pair of work trousers. It was the best she could do to stay cool under the circumstances. Rivulets of sweat ran down her neck, dampening her undershirt, and trickling down her shoulders and over her biceps, making her skin feel sticky at the crook of her elbow.
She trod down the dock to a fishing boat she and Billy were repairing. The owner had gotten into shallow water and run aground, ripping a large hole in the hull. He had gotten lucky. The rudder remained intact and the hole consisted of missing boards, which were torn cleanly off. Some such accidents would have resulted in loss of the craft, but this one could be fixed.
The sound of sawing reached her ears, and she turned into the slip area where four sawhorses were set up. They had carefully measured out the lumber that morning, and now they were cutting it. It would be a two-day job. They would most likely get the fresh-cut boards nailed in place by day's end, and the next day would be spent painting the entire boat with a fresh coat of pale gray paint.
"Howdy." Billy looked up briefly, careful not to cut himself with his saw. "Any good news?"
"Nope." Rachel took up another saw and joined him on the next set of sawhorses, retrieving a clean yellow board, the thick east Texas pine smelling sickly sweet in the sweltering air. "Won't have good news until at least another month."
"Oh." Billy stopped for a moment, pushing his hat back and swiping his face with a handkerchief. "You taking some flowers home with that note?" He grinned. Billy and Lillie were the only other two people on the island besides Betsy and Angel, who knew of Rachel's living situation.
"Guess I'd best do that, eh?" She smiled sheepishly. "She doesn't get angry often, but when she does, I do believe I can see the smoke curling out of her ears. Having to wait for another whole month inside isn't going to settle well with her, I can guarantee."
"Maybe I can get Lil to pay her a visit a few times a week." His voice was hesitant. Billy had been with Lillie long enough, that she had told him of her past both with Rachel and with Adam. It had taken some getting used to, and it wasn't something he liked to think about, but it was there, and he knew it was something Mattie was also aware of.
"I think she'd appreciate that." Rachel answered. "Truly."
"Alright." He pursed his lips inward, making a decision. "I'm thinking of asking Lillie to marry me."
It was Rachel's turn to stop sawing. She looked up, studying the bowed head. "You going to stay here?"
"Tough to say." Billy finished one board and took up another one, resting the smooth clean wood across the sawhorses and finding the penciled mark where he needed to cut it. "We've not talked about it very much, but it is a fact a lot of folks know who Lillie is. Or was," he corrected himself.
Lillie had given up her regular profession and was merely tending bar, taking on the shifts Rachel had once worked. Billy was helping supplement her income, and she had moved into the boarding house since she no longer worked for the room she had at the saloon. Mr. Bullock hadn't been happy to lose her as one of his "girls," but when she explained that he would either have to let her tend bar, or else she would leave, he reluctantly agreed. She was pretty, and having her behind the bar was better than nothing.
"Folks have damned long memories sometimes." Rachel agreed with him. "Might be tough for them to accept her as just another one of the married ladies on the island. That is a fact. Bunch of nosey old biddies on this island with nothing better to do than gossip and make life miserable for anyone who doesn't fit in."
"That's what we've talked about." Billy continued to cut the board as he talked, keeping his eyes on his work, watching the sharp saw teeth grind into the hard wood. "She still gets called names sometimes when she goes to the store, and some shops still won't let her in. Makes me want to go wale on a few people, but honestly, that would only make things worse. Might be best for us if we move away after we marry. If she'll have me," he added hopefully.
"I think she will." Rachel smiled warmly. "Listen. I was thinking of buying Mattie a ring myself. If you do decide to ask her, maybe we could go looking together. I don't have the first idea of what to buy, plus it will look strange for me to buy one. Maybe I can pick one out and you can get it for me. I'm saving up for one, starting this week."
"Um." Billy paused and looked up at her. "You do know you can't marry her, don't you?" He regretted the question as soon as it left his lips.
Pained steel eyes rolled toward him, before Rachel straightened up, her chin jutting out just a little bit. "Of course I know that," she snapped. "We both know that. Know we're going to have to play-act in front of everyone for the rest of our lives. Act like we're just a couple of pitiful spinsters that no one would have." She finished cutting her board, giving the end a savage shove to free it from the part she needed to keep for repairing the boat.
Billy nibbled his lip and carefully withdrew a cigar from his shirt pocket, along with the whiskey flask from his boot. Without a word he walked around to Rachel, pausing and leaning back to sit against the sawhorse. She ignored him, retrieving another board and placing it across the horses, almost smacking him with the board in the process. He sighed and held out the cigar, watching her lips twitch with the effort of trying to remain angry.
Long fingers slowly reached out and accepted the offering. She placed it between her lips and leaned over, allowing Billy to light it for her. It was a gesture on both their parts, a reminder that despite their relationship, he had just offended a lady, however unconventional a lady she might be. She raised her eyebrows and blew the first puff of smoke directly over his shoulder, her eyes softening in the process. The ruse was over, as he next held out the flask and she took a long soothing swig of the amber whiskey, enjoying the burn as it slid down her throat and hit her belly with a warm jolt.
"I'm sorry," Billy said quietly. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"I'm sorry I snapped at you," Rachel replied. "I one of my greatest fears or regrets oh, I'm not speaking very clearly." She stopped, working the cigar over to the corner of her mouth so she could talk and smoke at the same time. "Mattie deserves the best. Especially after what she's been through. I sometimes can't believe she truly wants to be with me when she could easily have some nice handsome man to take care of her. Her life would be so much simpler."
"But she loves you." Billy took a sip of whiskey and re-capped the flask, dropping it back into his boot. He reluctantly moved back to his work and took up his saw. "The way she looks at you. Whew." He shook his head and smiled. "Most men should be so lucky. That girl is smitten with you, Rachel. She looks at you like you've done gone and hung the moon for her."
"I'd give her anything." Rachel tried to shove down her bad mood. "The one thing I can't give her is my name. Or a baby for that matter. What if she regrets that someday?"
"There are plenty of children who need a good home, Rachel." Billy looked over at her, gauging her reaction. "It wouldn't be so terribly strange for a spinster woman to take in an orphan or two."
"Hmmmm." Rachel mulled that over, thinking of the children in the orphanage. Which reminded her
"Billy, can you cover for me if I take off a little early this evening?" She peered up at the blazing sun, judging the time. She couldn't remember the last time the church bells chimed, and had no idea how much time had passed since the end of the noon hour.
"Certainly," his voice teased her. "You anxious to get home?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I am," Rachel refused to take the bait. "But I need to go ask a favor from my little friends Albert and Frank."
"What could you possibly want from two little boys?" Billy kicked a pile of sawdust aside, watching it sift between the cracks of the dock into the water below.
"Need them to keep an eye on Adam." She finished another board and stooped down to count the number completed and the number left, figuring she could finish her pile in the next hour and begin nailing them to the boat. "They're perfect. They run and play all over the beach anyway, and the orphanage is close to Adam's house." She refused to call it Mattie's house.
"Can you trust them?" Billy frowned in worry.
"I think so." Rachel considered that. "I can make it a game for them, that they are secret sheriffs or something, and no one is to know what they're doing. I've gotten them out of trouble a time or two, so I think if I ask them to keep a confidence for me, they will. They certainly don't need to know the whole story."
"Just be careful." Billy continued to frown. "I couldn't abide seeing you or Mattie get hurt."
"You know we have an alternate plan, if we need it." Rachel thought of the two carpet bags that would always stay packed sitting under the bed on the third floor, just in case. If we need to, we are prepared to leave with a moment's notice."
"I know. Selfishly, I'd like you to be here long enough to witness my marriage to Lillie." Billy grinned at her, a slight blush coloring his tanned face.
"I wouldn't dream of missing it." Rachel flashed him a genuine smile. "And neither would Mattie."
They passed the afternoon in light-hearted banter, as the summer sun beat down on the docks of Galveston.
Pale light slanted across the rippling water as Rachel walked her bicycle up the sand dunes to the beach road that would take her back to the Strand. The moon was rising over the ocean and the evening star twinkled high above them, all alone in the dusky sky. Albert and Frank followed eagerly along behind her, both boys taking generous licks at sticks of horehound candy their tall friend had given them by way of bribery. She'd promised them even greater rewards if they successfully completed the task assigned to them. Both boys had insisted on walking with her to the edge of town. Between nibbles at their candy, they chattered eagerly about their work as 'secret junior deputies,' keeping an eye on the evil man who lived in the beach house near the orphanage.
"Miss Rachel." Albert tugged at a leather suspender. "Didant a very nice lady live in that house with that man?"
Rachel drew in a breath, collecting her thoughts. She'd merely told the boys the man she wanted them to watch had done some bad things, without going into any detail. She'd also told them to be very careful, and not to talk to him or otherwise approach him, only to come find her if he appeared to be moving out of the house, or if he turned up missing. "Yessss," she slowly answered, without elaboration.
"She was sooo pretty," Frank offered, his eyes looking dreamily off into the distance. He tripped over a rock and went sprawling across the sand, just managing to save his candy stick from ruin.
Albert laughed and ran in a circle around him. "Frankie's got a sweetheart, Frankie's got a sweetheart!" He teased, trying to snatch the sugary brown candy from Frank's helpless grasp.
"Do not!" Frank got up, brushing the sand off the seat of his trousers with a dignified air. "Mine!" He grabbed the candy stick away, just as Albert's fingers closed around it. "You gots one already."
"Ha!" Albert stuck his tongue out and ran to catch up with a bemused Rachel. He looked up at her and grinned, his face covered in sticky sugar. "That lady, she was always sad."
"She was?" Rachel closed her eyes for a brief moment, acknowledging the daily fear and pain she now knew Mattie had lived with for so long.
"Yes." His face grew serious. "Sometimes she would go walking on the beach. She never smiled."
"One time we saw her sitting down on the dock and she was crying," Frank caught up with them, eyeing Albert and putting Rachel between them, possessively guarding his candy. "I gave her a pretty pink shell and she did too smile."
Rachel rewarded him with a silent tousling of his hair, her throat constricted by the lump that suddenly rose there.
"All ladies smile when you give them pretty things," Albert rolled his eyes at his friend, then tugged at Rachel's suspender again. "Did you know her?"
"I I did." Rachel decided it couldn't hurt anything, as long as she didn't go into any detail.
"Is she still sad all the time?" His big brown eyes peered soulfully up at her, making her eyes sting along with her tight throat and chest.
"Last I heard," her voice cracked, and she took a moment to clear her throat. "Last I heard," she continued, "she was very happy now." Yes, she is, she smiled a tiny smile.
"I'm glad," Albert's face lit up. "She was a nice lady. Shouldant be sad. She mended my trousers for me one time. I got caught on a log out in the water and tore them. I was afraid the sisters was going to spank me. She was out walking and saw me, and gave me a towel to wrap up in while she sewed them up."
"And she fed us cookies while we waited," Frank's face still beamed as he talked about Mattie. "She made good cookies. They tasted like butter and honey."
Rachel stopped herself from agreeing with him, having been treated to a few helpings of Mattie's sugar cookies, herself. She found herself smiling at a side of her lover she didn't know about. She spotted some wildflowers growing off to the side of the road -- an array of Indian paintbrush, buttercups, and sunflowers, and she let the idle chatter drift over her as she plucked up some of them and tucked them into her bicycle basket. In the bottom of the basket was another half-dozen sticks of the horehound candy, enough to share with Mattie, Betsy, and Angel, when she got home.
"You likes pretty things too, Miss Rachel?" Frank batted long black eyelashes shyly up at her.
"Why, yes." She grinned, thinking of how much Mattie would like the flowers, and how pretty her smile would be when she saw them. "Yes, I do."
"Truly?" Albert's face scrunched up in confusion. "You aren't like most ladies, Miss Rachel, but I guess all ladies like flowers."
The comment surprised her. She hadn't realized her attire and manner of carrying herself was something boys as young as Frank and Albert would have reason to think about. For just a moment, it took her back to Fort Worth, and a father that had abandoned her because she was different. Her face clouded over and she got lost in thought for several long minutes, recalling a few beatings when she had behaved as less than a lady.
"Miss Rachel?" Albert touched her arm softly. "Are you sad?"
She stood up taller, squaring her shoulders as they reached packed road suitable for bicycle tires. "No." She dredged up a genuine smile. "I am a fortunate woman. I have every reason in the world to be happy." It was true, and she allowed the warmth to wash over her, driving back the darkness with a love she was as certain of as she was that the sun would rise in the morning, and set each night.
"Listen." She balanced the bicycle with one hand on the saddle, and knelt down at boys-eye level. "It's getting on dark, and you boys need to get back to the orphanage before the sisters come looking for you." She gazed at them intently, waiting until she had their full attention. "The man you're watching -- I appreciate you helping me. Be careful. I mean it. Try not to draw his attention, if you can possibly help it. Don't get yourselves into any trouble."
Two pairs of solemn eyes watched her as she stood back up. "We won't, Miss Rachel." Albert answered for both of them, as a mute Frank nodded his silent agreement.
"Be good." She smiled and winked at them, then drew two sticks of peppermint candy from a hiding place deep in her shirt pocket. She handed them down, her smile matching the delighted ones on the boys' faces as they gingerly took hold of the unexpected extra treat.
"Thank you, Miss Rachel!" Albert tucked the candy in his own pocket, and took off down the road, waving as he ran away.
"Hey!" Frank fumbled with his peppermint, almost dropping it. He looked back at his rapidly disappearing friend, a torn expression on his face. He turned and hugged Rachel, his arms reaching around her at hip level. "Thank you, Miss Rachel." He looked up. "You's a pretty lady, too." He smiled bashfully, then raced away, trying to catch up with Albert.
Rachel chuckled and shook her head, then mounted the bicycle and did some racing of her own, winding through town and back into the older neighborhood streets, lined with stately Victorian homes, each yard etched with a white picket or wrought iron fence. After a short ride she reached Betsy and Angel's house, pulling up around back and propping her bicycle against a post in the shelter of the covered back porch.
She carefully took up the flowers and the package of candy, and wiped her feet on a braided-rag rug, before she opened the back door, to be greeted by the steamy rich smell of the stew Betsy had mentioned that morning. The scent of spicy pepper and meaty white fish greeted her nose, along with fresh-brewed sweet tea. Her mouth watered in appreciation and she looked around, spotting Mattie's lithe form against the far counter, where she was removing fresh-baked sugar cookies from a pan. The buttery-smell reached her, and she smiled even bigger, remembering Albert and Frank's stories.
"Howdy." She sidled up to Mattie, offering the flowers with a sweep of her arm.
"Oh!" Mattie turned, wiping her hands on her apron. Her eyes sparkled in surprise as she took the fresh green-smelling bouquet and drew it up to her nose. "How pretty." She looked up, just as Rachel reached out, wiping a smudge of flower from her freckled cheek. "Thank you."
"Pretty flowers for a pretty lady." Rachel looked around. "Where are Betsy and Angel?" She leaned in, stealing a sweet kiss, lingering against Mattie's lips for a bit.
"Mmmm." Hazel eyes fluttered open. "Angel took a loaf of bread down the street to the family they mentioned this morning, and Betsy is upstairs putting away some laundry. Supper will be ready in about half an hour."
"Good. Gives me time to clean up." Rachel looked down at her sweaty sand-dusted clothing, just as Mattie moved in for a warm hug. Her arms wrapped around Mattie in reflex, her body relaxing as Mattie molded herself against her. "I don't smell very good right now."
"I beg to differ." Mattie buried her nose into Rachel's chest, inhaling the musky wind-blown, sun-kissed scent she had come to love. "Oh." She looked up in admonishment. "You smell like the ocean." She inhaled again, greedily absorbing the salty freshness that clung to Rachel's exposed skin.
It brought on an unexpected reaction, as she found her body craving the closeness, and her cheeks turned pink at her own thoughts. It was a longing she was still getting used to, the desire to touch and be touched, and she sometimes had trouble giving herself permission to have those feelings. After all, it wasn't something one spoke of in polite company, or spoke of at all. Rachel's frank open honesty, and her ability to explain her actions when they made love, went a long way in comforting Mattie, and putting her at ease with the physical sensations and the new emotions Rachel's touch evoked in her.
"I missed you today." She nuzzled Rachel's chest, planting a quick kiss on the tanned skin there. "Let me go draw you a bath."
"You don't have to do that, Mattie." Rachel gestured around the room. "Here, you've been working hard all day, cooking up such a delicious-smelling meal for us. I can draw my own bath."
"I'd like to do that for you. Please?" Mattie straightened her collar, then adjusted the suspenders at her shoulders. "You can go up to the third floor and get a fresh change of clothes, and I'll have the tub filled by the time you get back down there. I'll wash your hair for you." She smiled charmingly.
"How can I refuse an offer such as that?" Rachel tilted her head, finding Mattie's lips again, then took her by the hand and led her upstairs.
A while later, she lay back in the tub, her eyes closed, as Mattie's fingers ran through her chestnut locks. Mattie hummed happily, and reached down absently with one hand to stroke Rachel's face for a moment, before she resumed the task of working out the wind-blown snarls in Rachel's freshly washed hair. Rachel relaxed into the touch, and reflected that she was, indeed, a most fortunate woman.
Three weeks passed as Galvestonians drifted into late summer. Drought had settled over much of the country, yet despite lack of rain, the plains sates experienced a record grain harvest, and the cotton crop was also healthier than farmers had dared hope for. Rachel and Angel worked long hours, leaving before dawn each morning and arriving home well after dark. The heat took its toll on both women, suppressing their appetites even as it drained them of much-needed strength. Both women lost weight, the pounds melting off their bodies in sweat and heavy labor.
Rachel felt sorry for Angel, who was trapped indoors all day in the mill, or sometimes the cotton warehouses, where the air was heavy and stagnant, with no breeze to provide relief. At least Rachel was outdoors, near the water and the welcome ocean breeze, which wicked some of the sweat from her body, as she unloaded railcars and transferred stores to freighters, during the port city's busiest time of the year. Harvest was on, and the work would be steady for the next few months, as the bounty arrived daily via train from the west and the north.
The workers managed to smile, even as they suffered, their pockets lined with extra wages, with the promise of steady work and more wages to come. Merchants in town were also happy, as their shops bustled with townspeople, who were comfortable enough to splurge a little beyond making their usual necessary purchases. Rachel had made several stops in the general store on the way home in the evenings, buying small items for Mattie, whom she knew was growing weary of being cooped up inside in the heat.
Mattie and Betsy had become fast friends, sharing the household chores and finding spare time to sit down each afternoon over lemonade and cookies. Lillie had dropped by to visit a few times, but mostly, the afternoons found just Mattie and Betsy sitting in twin rocking chairs in the parlor. Sometimes they read aloud to each other, sometimes they sewed, and often they sat and idled the afternoon away as Betsy shared any interesting talk she heard in town. Mattie had become comfortable enough with the older woman to hesitantly ask questions about her relationship with Angel, how they coped with being "different," and what their life together had been like.
Rachel saw a difference in her lover, despite Mattie's restlessness at being indoors. Mattie was thriving, and slowly losing the haunted fearful look that Rachel had often seen in her eyes before they had arranged for her to "go away." The younger woman had even put on a little weight, her ribs less prominent, and her belly no longer so concave. They had heard little of Adam during the weeks since Mattie left him, and the boys reported nothing out of the ordinary on the couple of occasions Rachel had ridden down to talk with them. Adam, it seemed had settled into the heat-induced doldrums from which the rest of the islanders suffered.
About the only thing Mattie seemed worried about was Rachel. Each evening she fretted as Rachel removed her sweat-soaked clothing. Her exposed skin had tanned to a deep red-brown, making her eyes appear almost silver. Mattie could count Rachel's ribs, and they joked half-heartedly that they had somehow traded appetites. While Mattie eagerly cleaned her plate in the evenings, both Rachel and Angel picked at their food, too weary to do much more than bathe and fall bonelessly into bed.
Despite her tiredness and lack of desire for food, Rachel found her appetite for Mattie healthier than ever, as the two women slowly became comfortable with each other, and the physical aspect of their relationship. She pondered that, realizing that most women, as far as she knew, were not as open or eager about lovemaking as she was. Such things were not discussed, and they were taught from an early age that they were to be demure and lady-like, suffering their husbands' attentions as their wifely duty. She chuckled, realizing that she owed Lillie a world of debt in that regard. The free-spirited woman had taught Rachel to never be ashamed or afraid of her desires.
What stamina she lacked at night, she made up for on wakening, as the mornings became sweet times of gentle exploration, peppered with a good measure of laughter and quiet talk. It was time they guarded jealously, reconnecting with each other on several levels, and sharing their dreams for the future. After a discreet conversation with Angel, the two women struck a deal, whereby Rachel took care of the horses in the evenings, while Angel drew morning duty. The arrangement came with a price, as Rachel suffered more than a few nudges and winks on the mornings she and Mattie arrived late downstairs for breakfast. Late being a relative term, given the hours they were keeping at their jobs.
They still had no firm plans for the future, and realized that until they knew Adam's fate, they couldn't bring themselves to consider leaving the island. The more they talked about it, the more they wanted to build their life together right where it had begun, in a town and among people they had both come to love. The ocean and island living had settled in their blood, and neither woman relished the thought of life back on the mainland.
Rachel had started saving money for a house, a topic they often discussed. They loved Angel and Betsy's old Victorian home, although they realized they probably couldn't afford something so lavish starting out. More often, their talk turned to a smaller house, most likely only a few rooms, and probably closer to the center of the island. Beachfront property was harder to come by, more expensive, and the houses were mostly built up on stilts, so were pricier. Mattie and Adam had suffered a few scares in their ground level home, on rare nights when the tide rose higher than usual. They had been spared flooding, but Adam suspected the house had probably flooded, more than once, and that was why the owner, who had moved to Houston, was leasing it out.
Angel and Betsy insisted they could stay with them for as long as they wanted, and urged them to take their time in making decisions. All four women had come to enjoy each others' company, and had fallen into a comfortable routine, each of them going about their household duties almost without thought. Both of the older women enjoyed having help around the house and the barn, and the two younger women greatly loved hearing never-ending tales from Betsy and Angel's past.
As the weeks wore on, Mattie grew more introspective. She felt at times happier than a lark, and others, sad and unsettled. More and more, she allowed herself to fully believe she was free, but it was difficult at times to feel completely free when she couldn't leave the house. It was so hot, and although she loved their third-floor loft, it was the warmest room in the house. It never completely cooled down until late at night, often well after they had gone to bed.
She felt sticky all the time, and found herself bathing every afternoon during the hottest part of the day, allowing the cool water to soothe her flushed damp skin. The heat made her light-headed at times, and Betsy finally convinced her there was no point in wearing a petticoat indoors, and that she hadn't worn one around the house in years. Down to only her dress, chemise, and bloomers, she felt some relief, and fervently wished she could always go without her petticoats during the summer.
In a further act of liberation, she shucked her shoes, following Betsy's barefoot example. She got a good deal of teasing from Rachel in the evenings, as the bottoms of her feet were a dark shade of gray by the end of the day, but along with the teasing, she usually got a nice foot-washing, a little extra pampering Rachel bestowed upon her in exchange for the long hours she was forced to be away from Mattie. Rachel felt terribly guilty about leaving Mattie for so long, even though Mattie assured her she understood.
One evening, Rachel came home, bearing a package, and a mischievous gleam in her eye. She smiled at Betsy and Rachel and took Mattie by the hand, hurrying her up the stairs. "How are you feeling?" Mattie had looked tired for a few days, and had been a little cranky, something Rachel chalked up to the never-ending heat.
"Fine." Mattie eyed the package. "What's that?" Rachel's eager smile was catching, and her own lips turned up into a grin, playfully snatching at the brown paper and twine.
"A surprise." Rachel held it out of reach, doing a little dance before she relented and held it out. "Here. Open it up."
Mattie took it and sat down on the bed, untying the twine and opening up the paper to reveal "men's trousers?" She held up a small pair of canvas work trousers, and a long-sleeved white shirt, along with a pair of stockings, a pair of boots, and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. Before she could catch herself, her face fell. "Um " She looked up, not sure what to say.
"Go on, try them on." Rachel grinned, her eyes sparkling in the lamplight.
"Why?" Mattie was at a loss, as she stood and slowly began to unbutton her shirtwaist. She smiled as Rachel moved in to help her, playfully stealing a kiss in the process.
"You'll see." She helped Mattie undress, and showed her how to tuck in the shirt just so, and how to fasten the suspenders that were tucked in the fold of the trousers. She'd forgotten an undershirt, and dug through her own clothing finding one that was a little snug for her, while a little big for Mattie, but would do. Once Mattie was dressed, Rachel picked up her box of hairpins from the dressing table, tucking her long braid up into a tight coil on top of her head and pinning it in place. She topped her head off with the cowboy hat and smiled.
"I look like a young boy." Mattie studied the loose-fitting clothing with a critical eye. None of her womanly curves were in evidence, and the only sign she was a woman was her slender neck and her delicate facial bone structure, along with her smooth milky skin. She watched as Rachel stepped in behind her, pulling up her shirt collar until it hid most of her neck.
"Precisely." Rachel gave her suspenders a tug. "It's almost full dark out, new moon tonight, but if we're going to go riding down to the beach, we'd best have you disguised, don't you think?"
Her words sunk in, and Mattie spun around, wrapping her arms around Rachel's neck. "The beach? Truly?" She squealed with delight, as Rachel picked her up and twirled around in a circle, making her dizzy.
"Truly." She smiled and held up a key. "I've got a small men's bathing suit out in the wagon, and this is the key to the Pagoda Bath House. We are going to walk on the beach, play in the water, and shower the salt and sand off afterward. You ready to go?"
"I've been ready for days!" Mattie kissed her on the cheek and gazed at herself in the mirror again. "You're sure it's safe?"
"It's a tad bit risky, I reckon, but I talked it over with Angel, and she thinks it should be safe enough. The boys told me Adam left for Houston this morning, and Billy saw him riding through town toward the train depot." She saw the relief in Mattie's eyes. "If we run into anyone, talk in a deep voice if you have to talk at all. You're Betsy's nephew visiting from up in Dallas. It's late enough, we shouldn't see anyone out, but it's good to have a story, just in case."
"Yes ma'am." Mattie gave the deeper voice a try and burst into helpless giggles. "What's my name?"
"Hmmm." Rachel tapped her chin. "How about Matthew? It's close enough to your real name."
"Matthew it is, then." She took Rachel's hand, then dropped it. "Guess you wouldn't be holding Matthew's hand, would you?"
Rachel's eyes roamed appreciatively over Mattie. "My dear, there are many things I shouldn't do with Matthew, but will most likely try anyway before the night is over."
Mattie blushed, a dark pink dusting of her cheeks, and shyly tucked her hand in Rachel's and allowed herself to be led down the stairs and through the kitchen, where Betsy draped a picnic basket over Rachel's free arm. "You two love birds go on, now, and have a good time, spooning out on the beach."
Angel saw them to the door. She stood on the porch and studied the dark sky, as they made their way across the back yard to the barn. "Go on around the house. The team is hitched up and ready to go."
"Thank you." Rachel turned and waved at her. "I appreciate it."
"Me too." Mattie blew her a kiss, and followed Rachel around the corner toward a much-needed outing.
The breeze on her face was heavenly, as the horses pranced along the beach road toward the bathhouse. They passed only a few other buggies, and two or three individuals on foot, but otherwise were alone on the long stretch of road. The tall coarse marsh grass rustled against the buggy spokes, and the mixed sand and shell road crunched in pleasant familiarity under the wide wood wheels. Mattie kept one hand tucked into Rachel's crooked elbow, while she held the hat on her head with the other.
Rachel road along in companionable silence, basking in the glow that practically emanated from Mattie's face as she drank in the fresh air and the warm summer night. Finally, they reached the bathhouse, which was deserted at the late hour. Rachel hopped down and ran around, grasping Mattie around the waist and swinging her down to the ground. As her feet hit the ground, a wave of dizziness made her lose her balance, and Mattie grabbed Rachel's shoulders, barely keeping from falling down.
"Whoah!" She took several deep breaths, clearing her spinning head.
"Sorry." Rachel saw the blood leave her face, even in the darkness. "Did I swing you down too quickly?"
"No." Mattie laughed, her voice shaky. "Guess I'm just not used to being outdoors. Too much clean air all at once." She smiled and took Rachel's hand. "Come with me. I want to walk on the beach for as long as we can, and get my feet wet."
"Alright." Rachel led the horses over to a hitching post and tied them securely, leaving them both with feedbags to keep them occupied. She took Mattie's hand again, and they swung their joined arms as they walked through the loose sand on the upper beach, then reached the packed wet sand near the shoreline. They removed their boots, leaving them tucked behind a large piece of driftwood, and rolled up their trousers legs.
With a giant smile on her face, Mattie walked out until the rolling surf licked at her toes, then covered her legs to just above her ankles. It felt deliciously cool and refreshing, and she laughed in giddy happiness. Rachel chuckled along with her. "Darlin', it's a good thing we're alone on this here beach, because that laugh would never pass for a man."
"Oh." Mattie's smile disappeared. Much as she was enjoying herself, she knew they were taking a pretty big risk. "I'll try to be more quiet."
Rachel felt the change of mood, and silently kicked herself. Just what she needs, for you to put a damper on the best time she's probably had in weeks. "No." She sidled up to Mattie, then slipped in behind her, wrapping her arms around her and pulling her close until her back was pressed against Rachel's front. "Laugh all you want to, Mattie. There's no one around to hear except me, and it's like music to my ears." She ducked her head, nibbling at Mattie's neck. "Does my heart good. I want to hear you laughing and see your beautiful smile for the rest of our lives." A few more nibbles. "I love you, Mattie."
"I love you too." Mattie snuggled up against her and looked up at the shining stars. There was no moon, only an inky blanket covered in thousands of white twinkling lights. It was one of the most beautiful sights her starving eyes had seen, and they suddenly stung with unexpected tears. She blinked, closing them, and feeling Rachel continue to kiss her neck, then her collarbone, then finally felt her nuzzle her hair as she removed the hat. "Feels so nice, being here with you."
"Likewise." Rachel slowed down, resting her chin on Mattie's head and releasing a sigh of contentment.
"Look." Mattie pointed up. "That one looks kind of red."
"Which one?" Rachel peered upward, trying to follow her gaze. She felt Mattie take one of her hands and lift it, as their joined hands pointed toward a large star.
"There." Mattie directed both their pointed fingers. "Near the center of the sky. See?"
"Oh. Yes I do." Half her attention was on the slightly pink-tinted star, the other half on the overwhelming headiness of Mattie's scent and her breathing. She could feel it, almost as if it were inside her instead of next to her. It was intoxicating and she drew in great lungfuls, imprinting Mattie on her heart all over again. It was something she could neither talk about nor explain, but it was almost as if she were feeling her initial attraction to Mattie all over again, her body reacting in ways she could barely control. It went beyond the physical, a desire to merge with Mattie, and to pull her inside, with a fierce wave of protectiveness overriding all of it. She knew, in that moment, she would do anything for Mattie -- jump in front of a trolley car, dive into a raging river, climb any mountain, if it would keep Mattie safe. She had no idea where the emotions came from, and shook her head, trying to re-gain her equilibrium.
"Are you feeling alright?" Mattie turned in her arms, touching Rachel's forehead.
"Yes." Rachel removed Mattie's hand, kissing it in the process. Before she could think, Mattie moved in, gently tasting her lips, and she was lost all over again in a kiss that she felt from her lips all the way to her toes, with lots of nice tingling sensations in between. "I think I need to cool off a little." She pulled back, her body reeling from the contact. "Want to go for a swim?"
"That would be divine." Mattie cocked her head as Rachel began unbuttoning her shirt, sliding it down her tanned arms along with he suspenders, revealing her ribbed undershirt beneath it. "Oughtn't you to get our bathing suits from the buggy first?"
A playful smile tugged at Rachel's lips, as her thoughts turned to a vision of Mattie without her swimsuit. She shook it off and patted her lover on the arm. "Alright. I'll be back in a second." She retrieved the suits and made her way back toward Mattie, unbuttoning her trousers as she walked, and allowing them to drop to the sand, leaving her in her drawers, as she drew her undershirt over her head. "Care to join me?"
Mattie's mouth went dry at the sight of the strong body before her. "I might need some help with all this manly clothing." She smiled as Rachel quickly stepped up to the task, helping her out of the shirt and trousers, and picking up their discarded garments, folding them carefully and taking them up to stow them next to their boots. Mattie's body reacted so quickly it made her head spin all over again, as Rachel came walking back down to her, her lean leg and torso muscles shifting and sliding under her skin as she moved. It was a powerful body, one that felt more solid against her than anything else in Mattie's relatively short life ever had. In Rachel's arms, she could feel a hundred different emotions in the span of minutes -- safety, love, and desire beyond anything she had ever imagined.
Rachel drew closer, not quite smiling, taking in the visible tiny shivers from her partner, as Mattie's eyes raked over her like hot shimmering coals. Her own body reacted to Mattie with a powerful surge of pure desire. Yes, a swim was definitely in order, because the sand and the salt water were certainly not the best places for what she was sure would happen if they didn't get in the cool water, and soon.
"We can't not here." Mattie felt long arms wrap around her and gasped as their bodies made contact, warm skin against warm skin.
"I know." Rachel kissed her lightly, then released her and helped her into her bathing suit, then donned her own. She guided Mattie down to the water with a hand on the small of her back, her skin warm against her fingertips through the cottony bathing suit. As they reached the water, a large wave rolled ashore, crashing over them and breaking above their knees, almost making them lose their balance. They both laughed and held on to each other until it rolled back out, then they continued on until they were in waist-deep water.
"Best not go out much further. Too dark to see any sharks, but we're probably safe enough here." She smiled, watching Mattie's eyes dance as they looked up at her. The salt water worked its magic, cooling her skin and tempering her desire, taking it down to a more manageable level.
They held on to each other in timeless wonder, their bodies pressed tightly together as the water broke around them. It felt wonderful, reconnecting in a love of the purest kind, giving everything, and asking nothing in return. It was enough, sharing the closeness out there, under the laughing stars, in the ocean that had become home and mother to both of them.
They had no idea how long they stood there, the spell gradually breaking as they pulled apart slightly. "How about that walk on the beach?" Rachel pushed a lock of hair out of Mattie's eyes, tucking it back with one of the hairpins that held the rest up on top of her head.
"I've been dreaming of walking on the beach with you." Mattie smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling up.
Hand in hand, they walked almost a half-mile down, next to the edge of the water, before they turned back around toward the bathhouse. They talked very little, their hearts communicating well enough without words.
"I can't thank you enough for bringing me out tonight." Mattie broke the silence. "This night will go a long way in helping me endure the rest of this month."
"I'm sorry, Mattie. I know it's been hard on you, and you've been so brave about it all." Rachel turned, leading them up for a much-needed shower. "I wish this month were over and we had things settled."
"They'll be settled soon enough." Mattie tried to sound chipper. "It hasn't been such a hardship. It's been freedom, in most ways." Her brows knit as she carefully chose her words. "If it means getting away from him, and getting to be with you, I'd stay indoors for the next twenty years. Truly I would."
"And I'd do the same for you if I had to." Rachel was relieved to hear the light-hearted tone in Mattie's voice. "But I'm very glad, Darlin', that you won't have to put up with the current situation for twenty years. Seeing you out here tonight, you look much happier than you have in days. I don't think you were meant to sit inside knitting."
"True." Mattie giggled. "I'd much rather take my sketchpad outside. Knitting makes my neck and shoulders hurt, if I do too much of it."
They reached the bathhouse and picked up their clothing, then went inside, using Rachel's contraband key. She locked the door behind them, then located some lanterns just outside the shower area, so they could see to get cleaned up. She turned on a single spigot, as the fresh filtered water came sprinkling out. It was cool, but not as cold as the ocean water, and felt warm as it hit her skin. She beckoned to Mattie, who joined her under the steady stream.
Ever so slowly, they undressed each other, kicking aside the bathing suits as their bodies joined again. Rachel touched her forehead to Mattie's, looking down as she rubbed Mattie's belly. "So good to see you eating right. I was worried you were going to waste away."
"Couldn't help it." Mattie's stomach fluttered inside at Rachel's touch. "He kept me all in knots. I sometimes couldn't keep my meals down. Had to eat small portions to keep my stomach settled." The flutter grew as Rachel's hand slid up to just below her breast, cupping it lightly from underneath, as Rachel allowed its weight to settle in her hand, noting a slight fullness that hadn't been there before.
"You're so very beautiful, my love." Their eyes met, almost shyly, there, under the shower. Mattie reached up, stroking Rachel's face, then drawing her in for a series of tentative kisses. They explored a little further, before they reluctantly set about the task of actually bathing. After playfully soaping each other up, they stood together, allowing the clean stream of water to rinse them off.
Drying off led to another round of cuddling and kisses, ending with both of them wrapped up in a towel together, as they stood just inside the bathhouse door, out of sight of the road, but where they could once again see the stars overhead. Rachel's nostrils flared, as Mattie's distinct clean scent reached her nose, and the desire rose up strongly all over again. She turned in the towel, pulling Mattie close and kissing her almost senseless, stopping when they absolutely needed to breathe. "I think I need to get you home, and soon." She tilted Mattie's chin up, allowing her eyes to convey her intent.
Mattie swallowed. Rachel's eyes almost burned in their intensity. "Is there a blanket in the back of the wagon?"
"Unfortunately, no." Rachel smiled at the implication. "But I'd like to take my time with you, Mattie, in that nice soft bed in our loft, don't you think?"
"I think that is a heavenly idea." She kissed Rachel on the nose.
They dressed quickly, then began the much too long drive back to Betsy and Angel's house, their picnic basket quite forgotten. When they arrived back, the only light on was a single lamp in their loft window. They smiled at that, and at each other, as they put the horses in the barn, then quietly made their way up to their room.
As they fell into bed, the stars overhead continued to shine down on them through the open window, and off in the distance, the waves roared ashore.
True to Mattie's prediction, the evening outing on the beach gave her a new surge of endurance, and she tolerated her indoor existence with a somewhat cheerier outlook than she had been. She and Rachel continued to share morning spooning time, followed by Betsy's hearty breakfast, for which Mattie usually managed to help with end preparation on most mornings, while Rachel and Angel dressed for work and packed their dinners.
Mornings were reserved for chores, and she had gotten used to Betsy's schedule -- laundry on Monday, baking on Tuesday, upstairs housecleaning on Wednesday, downstairs housecleaning on Thursday, and gardening on Friday. Since she couldn't help with gardening, she spent Friday mornings in other food-preparation activities -- canning fruits and vegetables, making cookies, churning, or any other household duties that might arise. Often she mended clothing on Fridays -- sewing on buttons, patching knees in trousers, and fixing torn hems -- all the while chuckling at how quickly both Rachel and Angel could destroy perfectly good clothing.
They had given up all pretense of being productive in the afternoons, and usually shared tea and their ongoing conversation and reading sessions during that time. In an effort to keep Rachel on track with her studies, Mattie took to bringing some of the more interesting reading to bed with them, which they went over for thirty minutes or so before a very tired Rachel typically drifted off to sleep.
Mattie learned that crime stories, mysteries, and stories detailing how mechanical machinery and inventions worked usually held her lover's attention, more so than poetry and romance. Rachel's reading had progressed to better than a functional level, spurred on by her desire to understand all the longer words that were in the mechanical articles they read, and driven by an eager intelligence that had been starved for far too long by illiteracy.
Her writing was also good enough, that Rachel had begun to leave little notes for Mattie in obscure places in their loft, for her to find during the day. Most of them contained "I love you's" or "I miss you's," but others were more lengthy, just odd musings of things Rachel thought of during the day to share with her, or more rarely, love letters whereby Rachel wrote out thoughts she often had trouble expressing in speech. Mattie cherished those letters most of all, tucking them away in her carpetbag so that no matter what happened, she would have them with her.
Despite her renewed good mood, Mattie continued to fight bouts of dizziness in the heat of the day, something she did her best to hide from her housemates. The tepid baths helped, as did cool lemonade, but increasingly, she took short naps after dinner, before the afternoon time spent with Betsy. She usually awoke from her naps refreshed and ready to face the rest of the day, and justified them by the fact that truly, she was hard-pressed to fill an entire day unless she wanted to read more than she already did. With four of them in the house, chores were much lighter than they had been when she had taken care of a house all by herself.
The summer heat increased to an almost unbearable level, and the islanders flocked to the beaches at every opportunity, escaping in the refreshing waters of the Gulf. Rachel and Billy eagerly looked forward to the days when they could go out on the fishing boats, although most days were still spent unloading railcars and loading freighters with the incoming harvest. On the rare fishing days, they both brought bathing suits, and took every opportunity to go for a swim, being careful to avoid the trot lines and baited hooks hanging off the sides of the boat.
One afternoon, as Rachel sat eating her dinner on the edge of the dock, Angel came rushing down from the warehouses to find her. "If you can, you need to get home right away." She stopped, bending over slightly to catch her breath. Angel's entire blouse was drenched with sweat, and her face was a ruddy red from working indoors in the stifling cotton bays.
"What's wrong?" Rachel jumped up, her dinner tumbling into the water, attracting a flock of eager seagulls, which began diving and swooping over the surface, snatching up the spoiled sandwich and cookies. She felt Billy at her back, his hand unconsciously placed on her shoulder.
"I'm not sure." Angel stood upright, swiping her hand across her forehead. "Betsy sent one of the boys with a note that said to get you home if I could. That she'd called Dr. Mills for Mattie." She watched Rachel go pale, and paused, debating for a moment. She looked around to make sure no one else could hear her, and placed her hand on Rachel's other shoulder. "I suspect it's not life-threatening, or she would have said so. I've seen your Mattie swoon a time or two recently " she spoke the name very quietly " she's not taking to the heat real well, and this summer has been a scorcher. I should've mentioned it to you, but I figured you knew."
"No." Rachel's voice grew cool. "She hasn't said anything to me about not feeling well." Her thoughts turned inward, remembering Mattie's dizzy spell when they went for their adventure on the beach. "Damn." She shook off her initial shock. "Billy, can you cover for me?"
"Sure." He frowned in concern. "Shall I send Lil by later on?"
"No. Let me find out what's wrong first." She sighed. "I've told her to take it easy in the heat of the day. Knowing Mattie, she's gone and overdone it." She forced a smile, trying to convince herself it was nothing serious. "I'd best get going." She ran up the dock to her bicycle, leaving Angel and Billy watching her.
The ride home was a blur, her legs peddling faster than they ever had, as she automatically wound through the streets toward the neighborhood where the large Victorian house was. The closer she got, the more her guts clenched in worry, wondering if perhaps Mattie was suffering from the chills she herself had fought earlier in the summer, or perhaps had had an accident -- fallen down the stairs or something. She growled in anger at herself, trying to push down the negative thoughts. "Maybe she just had a bellyache," she groused to herself. "She's been eating as if each meal is her last one." She laughed quietly. "Don't know where that girl puts it. She's still skinny as a rail."
At last she drove the bicycle up the driveway and around the back of the house, dropping it on the lawn and taking the back steps up two at a time, tugging the door open. Dr. Mills sat in the parlor, chatting quietly with Betsy, whose lips were drawn into a thin grim line. They both looked up as Rachel entered the kitchen, her boots sounding on the hard wood floor as she rushed into the parlor.
She spotted Dr. Mills and stopped in her tracks, re-grouping. She had no idea what he knew of their living situation. The letter she had procured from his office when they planned Mattie's escape from Adam had been the work of Billy's ability to charm Dr. Mills' young female assistant out of his official stationary, and Lillie's fine forgery skills with the doctor's signature. She was certain the assistant was to alert Billy if Adam ever came nosing around the doctor's office, but the doctor himself had been excluded from their plans.
"Hello, Miss Travis." Dr. Mills stood and shook her hand. "I'd heard you were boarding here these days. What brings you home in the middle of the day?"
Rachel just managed to keep her expression neutral, watching Betsy fret and mouth an 'I'm so sorry' behind the doctor's back. "I forgot my dinner pail." She looked around, as if she were searching for it. "Heard you talking and thought I'd stop in and say hello."
"Well, I was just leaving." He stooped down, retrieving his medical satchel.
It was all Rachel could do not to blurt out a half dozen questions. She remained silent, her eyes pleading with Betsy to say something, anything, to clue her in as to what was wrong, and what Dr. Mills already knew about their circumstances. She released a relieved breath as Betsy nodded her understanding and turned to the doctor. "Thank you so much for coming by, Dr. Mills. Mattie was just paying me a visit and fell ill suddenly. I was afraid to let her go home without you examining her first. Was afraid she'd collapse out on the road or fall off the trolley."
"Well, it's to be expected, given the circumstances." He smiled slightly. "Nothing she won't recover from, eventually."
Rachel's guts unclenched and she turned toward the stairs. "I believe I'll go up and change into a fresh shirt before I go back to the docks." She forced herself to keep her speech normal and steady. Betsy's deep frown made her stomach twist back into a knot and she frowned back in question, getting the slightest shake of a finger in answer.
"Good-day to you, Miss Travis," Dr. Mills tipped his hat as Betsy escorted him to the front door.
"Good-day to you, too." Rachel took a few steps up until she was out of sight, and sat down on the stairs, waiting. It took all her willpower to not bolt up to see Mattie, but Betsy's wordless admonition had been clear. If Rachel had learned anything, she had learned not to ignore the warnings of a riled southern lady, and Betsy looked like she was close to exploding.
In a minute that seemed like an hour, Betsy returned and found her on the stairs. She sat down just below Rachel, patting her on the knee. "I need to talk to you before you go up there."
"Alright, but can you please hurry? Is she alright? Hurt? What's wrong?" Rachel felt Betsy's hand clench around her leg, holding her down. She huffed in frustration, burying her face in her hands.
"Do you love her?" The question brought Rachel's head snapping up.
"Of course I love her. What kind of a question is that?" Her eyes flashed in indignant anger.
"A dead serious one, missy." Betsy's tone held her in place as effectively as her hand ever could. "Because you are going to need every ounce of that love when you get to the top of those stairs, and I swear by all I am, I will slap you into the next county if you turn out to not be the kind of woman I think you are."
"What?" Rachel felt like throwing up. "Is she disfigured or something? I love her for her. It doesn't "
"No." Betsy released her grip. "Get on up there. She needs you. Don't you dare forget that."
"Of course not." Rachel leaped up, practically flying to the second floor and up the next set of stairs to the loft. "Mattie?"
She stepped carefully into the room, surprised when her eyes fell on an empty bed. She moved in further, to find Mattie sitting on the sofa, her legs curled up under her, looking out the window. The curtains were parted just enough for Mattie to see out, but no one could see in. Two things became readily apparent. Mattie was dressed in her traveling clothing, and her carpetbag was stuffed full, sitting at the foot of the bed. "You going somewhere?"
Mattie turned, her eyes so swollen from crying that they were puffed slits.
Rachel rushed to her side. "Sweetheart, what's wrong?" She felt Mattie's forehead, which was clammy, despite the heat. "You should be lying down if you're sick."
"I've been throwing up my breakfast every morning," Mattie began.
"Well that would explain why you're eating like a horse but not gaining weight, at least not much." Rachel tried for levity, which failed miserably.
"I'm going back to Adam." Mattie shuddered, just saying his name. "I I knew Betsy sent for you. I told her I could just come talk to you later."
"Whoa. Hold on." Rachel felt another wave of nausea, pushing it aside. Her ears rang as fear rose up. At the same time, her heart clenched up so tightly she thought she would keel over from the ache in her chest. No. She can't leave. We're so close. "Can you start from the beginning, please? Why did Betsy call the doctor?"
"I fainted." Mattie indicated a bruise on her forehead. "Was out quite a while. When I came to, I told her about being sick almost every day. And I think I've fainted a couple of other times when I was alone up here."
"Why didn't you tell me?" Rachel took one of her hands, squeezing it lightly.
"Figured it was the heat." She looked down, feeling her eyes sting all over again. Her head ached from crying, and her nose was so stopped up she could barely breathe through it. "It's not the heat." She looked up. "Strange, how God manages to punish us for even the smallest of sins."
"What?" The change of direction made Rachel's head spin.
"Seems my lie to Adam wasn't a lie after all." She searched Rachel's face, hoping she wouldn't have to spell out the obvious. "I guess I wasn't meant to escape him."
The truth hit home, slamming Rachel in the gut like a sledgehammer. She gulped in air, trying to remain calm. "You're pregnant?"
"With his child." Mattie shook as fresh tears trickled down her cheeks. "I love you so much, Rachel. I wanted a life with you more than anything. I'm sorry."
"No." Rachel scooted closer. "Don't you be sorry, you didn't do anything wrong."
"I lied to him. Or I thought I was lying at the time." Mattie wailed. "And now I'm carrying his child in punishment."
"Not his child!" Rachel's voice rose in anger. She saw the fear in Mattie's eyes and tempered her voice. She reached out, stroking Mattie's blotched face. "Not his child," she whispered. "Do you still want a life with me?"
"With all my heart." Mattie broke into outright sobs, and felt Rachel pull her close, kissing her on the head. "All our plans are ruined. We almost got away with it, too."
"Hold on." Rachel stood, moving to the dressing table and opening a drawer to retrieve a small velvet-covered box. She quickly made her way back to Mattie, dropping to her knees in front of her. "Spend your life with me, Mattie." She held out the box, her hands visibly shaking.
Mattie sniffed and grasped it, brushing a fingertip over the navy blue material. "So soft." She cocked her head in question and opened it, revealing a gold ring, with a large white pearl setting in the center, and flanked on each side by two smaller triangular diamonds. "Oh." Her voice grew quiet. "It's beautiful." She looked up, her face a study in anguish. "I can't take it from you, though, not now."
"Do you want it?" Rachel persisted, taking Mattie's hand and curling it into a fist around the ring, her own hand encasing Mattie's.
"Yes." Mattie's voice quivered. "But "
"My child." Rachel made the only decision her heart would allow her to. "I'll love it like my own, if you'll allow me to."
"But " Two fingers pressed against Mattie's lips, silencing her.
"Maybe this is a blessing," Rachel swallowed. "What's the one thing I can't give you?"
"A baby," Mattie mumbled, as Rachel removed her fingers. "Can you love it if it looks like him?"
"I can love any child who is a part of you, Mattie." Rachel took her hand and kissed it. "Besides, I have dark hair, not too different a color from his. Might not be so bad."
Mattie watched as Rachel took the ring from her palm and slipped it on her left ring finger. It was a perfect fit. "I love it." Her eyes shone with renewed hope. "I love you."
"Then don't go back to him." Rachel moved back up to the sofa, pulling Mattie to her side. "Stay with me and be my family." She placed one hand on Mattie's belly. "Both of you."
"Alright." Mattie turned in her arms, cupping Rachel's cheek and drawing her in for a kiss, which ended in a long silent hug. Somehow, in a sea of overwhelming fear, Rachel had thrown her a lifeline, pulling her ashore just in the nick of time.
"Agghhh." Rachel jumped up. "What about Dr. Mills? What does he know?" She began pacing back and forth. "I need to go catch him and talk to him."
"No." Mattie stood, drawing her back to the sofa. "He doesn't know I've been gone, at least he didn't seem to. He truly thought I was just here for afternoon tea with Betsy. When he he told me I was with child, I asked him not to tell Adam if he sees him. Told him I want to tell him myself, first. He agreed."
"That should buy us a little time." The color returned to Rachel's face. "Still .he'll probably eventually see Adam and congratulate him, don't you think?"
"Most likely, but Adam thinks Dr. Mills already knows. The only problem is if Dr. Mills mentions seeing me recently. Otherwise I'm hoping Adam will think it's just belated congratulations." She nibbled her lower lip. "Those marshals should be here any day now, shouldn't they?"
"Yes." Rachel closed her eyes, thinking and counting days in her head. "Last message from them said they were on their way, and would be here by the end of this week, I believe."
"So we wait for them?"
"As long as we can, but with everything that's happened, we need to be doubly prepared to leave at a moment's notice." She nodded toward the carpetbag. "Might as well leave that packed if you can."
"I'll double check your bag, too." Mattie's face grew sober. "Make sure you have everything you might need."
"It's been ready ever since we moved in here." Rachel sat back on the sofa, smiling as Mattie curled up next to her, in the curve of her arm.
"I'm quite terrified," Mattie confessed, looking up at Rachel and tugging at her shirt collar. "A baby is something I never counted on."
"I'm certain I shall be terrified as well," Rachel smiled and kissed her cheek, "as soon as my mind comes back from wherever it disappeared to." She tightened her grip as her voice gentled. "I promise you, Mattie, whatever happens, wherever we end up, you and this baby have all my love, and all that I am, for as long as we live."
"And I pledge my life and my love to you," Mattie kissed her again and closed her eyes, resting her head on Rachel's chest, listening to her steady heartbeat. They might not ever be allowed to have a proper wedding, but there, in that loft, in the most unexpected time, they had sealed their love with pledges as heartfelt as any marriage vows.
Continued in Chapter 11
Return to the Academy