Copyright 2004 By Texbardtexbard@yahoo.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
The house was silent inside as Mattie turned the front door knob and stepped into the parlor. Her footsteps sounded unusually loud on the polished wood floors. There wasn't anything different about her home from any other Friday evening. Adam was gone and that should have been enough to make her glad of the blessed silence.
Instead, she felt inexplicably lonely. She had felt lonely before. Entertaining Adam's business associates could invoke loneliness, even if she was standing in the middle of a crowded room. His colleagues were polite acquaintances, but none of them were her friends, not even the men's wives. She half-suspected they went away and gossiped about her and their humble home. She didn't particularly care, unless Adam felt that as well and blamed her for it, somehow.
Now that she was beginning to understand what true friendship was, she realized that she had been lonely most of her life. She just hadn't known it. Beyond that, she found herself loath to be in Adam's company anymore than she had to be. That he didn't respect her, much less love her, was becoming painfully evident, and that hurt.
Her solitary silence made her mind turn toward things that were difficult to acknowledge or deal with. Rachel was always kind to her, and interested in her, and seemed to care about her well-being. Her own husband, however
"How on Earth did I end up with you, Adam Crockett?" She spied a small oval-framed photo of her husband on the bookshelves, and studied it as if for the first time. His almost-black hair was straight and neatly-trimmed, and he had a tidy moustache. His eyes were dark and bordered on beady. He wasn't a large man, and was actually only a few inches taller than Mattie's own 5'6" height. From outward appearance alone, he was attractive. He certainly wasn't unpleasant to look at, at any rate. Unless you know him.
Next to the photo was a framed copy of their wedding invitation -- 'Madeleine Elizabeth Burnet' was to wed 'Adam David Crockett.' She snorted softly. "We're married alright, but I don't think we count as a family." Family members were supposed to love and support each other, weren't they? "We sure don't do that, now do we?"
She set the invitation aside and picked up the third and last photo, one of her in her wedding gown. They had rolled her hair in pin curls, the night before, creating a mass of springy ringlets. Part of it was wound in a bun at the back of her head while the rest spilled down her back. On her head was a simple wreath of small white flowers. Her dress was beautiful, of cream-colored brushed silk, but much too grown-up for the extremely youthful girl wearing it. The high neck, fitted sleeves and bodice seemed harsh and too form-fitting for what was, at the time, her still-growing body. It had buttoned up the front with close to a hundred tiny pearl buttons, and lace appropriately adorned it in front and at the cuffs.
The girl in the photo was all wide-eyed innocence. Or perhaps terrified might have been the more correct assessment. She remembered putting on that dress and posing for the picture, the morning of her wedding. "Fourteen years old. What were my parents thinking?" If she'd known what the future held, she would have gone running for the Mexican border.
Up until the wedding, Adam had always been formal and polite with her. He had no choice, given that they had always been accompanied by a chaperone, most often her mother or a part-time nanny who had cared for her and Caroline since they were infants. She tried to remember if there had been any clue of the kind of person he would turn out to be.
She still remembered the first time he hit her. It was a little over a week after their wedding. Adam had been at his job at the bank when she decided to go calling on one of her school friends, Ida Ramsey. She had been longing for some simple girl talk, and just to get out of the house. Time flew by and before she realized it, it was past time for Adam to get off work.
Thinking little of it, she had taken her time going back home, stopping at the market for a few things and even going by the post office to check for mail. He was livid when she got home and chastised her severely, not only for not leaving a note, but also for not having his supper ready when he got home. She raised her voice and it happened so fast, it made her head spin. He had just done it -- drew back his arm and back-handed her across the face, giving her a nosebleed.
They had both been shocked, and she had retreated to the back porch to get away from him. It took him an hour to come and apologize to her. That was when he mandated she should not go out by herself anymore. She never truly raised her voice to him again, but it didn't matter. He had hit, shoved, and otherwise attacked her physically more times since then than she could count. It had gotten worse since they moved to Galveston, and she had no idea why. She had almost given up on ever being able to please him.
He was always gruff with her, unless they were in bed. Even that there was no love there, only Adam's physical pleasure. She had read a few books. It was supposed to be lovely. She couldn't imagine why or how.
Her mind wandered to a locked drawer in a narrow oak writing desk that sat against the wall in their bedroom. She had assumed it held important papers Adam kept locked up against thieves. Now she wondered. Before she knew it, she was at the desk, tugging experimentally at the tiny brass drawer handle. Sure enough, it didn't budge.
Now where would he keep the key? She rolled back the desk top and sifted through some papers, digging into a few pigeonholes and searching through some small drawers underneath them. To one side was an inkwell, an abacus, and a small crock that held several writing pens. She picked up the crock and removed the pens before turning it upside down. Out fell a shiny brass key. Idiot. If I found it, surely thieves would.
With no further thought, she unlocked the drawer and opened it. And sat down in the rolling desk chair in shock. On top of some papers were several photographs of partially-clad women, most with bared breasts and a few who were almost completely nude. She studied the photographs slowly, not recognizing any of the women. Beneath the photographs was a strange magazine, poorly bound and poorly type-set. She picked it up curiously and thumbed through it. It had no illustration, but appeared to contain stories of an explicit nature. My goodness.
She placed the pictures and magazine on the desk top and riffled through some loose papers, most of which appeared to be bank statements. Mixed in she saw several bills from hotels in Houston, presumably the ones where Adam stayed when he was on business. Mixed in among the bills were several blank shipping statement forms. As she neared the bottom, she found some smaller printed notices regarding several gambling tournaments. Upon closer inspection, she realized that all of them had taken place in Houston on the weekends.
She was tempted to put them in chronological order, but was afraid Adam would know she had been in the drawer if anything was out of place. A cursory review showed her enough to know that the tournaments had occurred at least once a month since they had lived in Galveston. She wondered how he found time or energy to conduct business during the day in Houston, then attend the tournaments at night.
In the bottom of the drawer were a few brown envelopes, which she opened, one by one. The first one contained some notices of debts which appeared to be owed to some of the gambling houses that hosted the tournaments. The contents of the last envelope took her breath away, and she had to review it twice before her heart stopped racing.
It contained some court documents from El Paso, and several letters to Adam from his father. From what she could gather, Adam had been accused or possibly caught pilfering money from the bank where he worked, his father's bank. It appeared that bank examiners had brought him up on formal charges, which had been dismissed. Another set of court documents seemed to be regarding separate charges brought against Adam by some casinos just outside El Paso. The letters from his father indicated that he had told Adam to leave El Paso, and had given him a thousand dollars cash to use for both moving and setting himself up somewhere else.
A thousand dollars. She almost couldn't fathom it, and wondered how much was left, and if it was kept in the bank in town. She realized that she had no idea what kind of work Adam did since they had moved to the island, and quickly found herself rummaging through the other drawers. There was not a single scrap of paper related to any form of employment. She realized that didn't necessarily mean he wasn't working, but she couldn't help but wonder.
Adam? Her chest was tight with apprehension. What have you been doing since we got here? If he had indeed stolen money from his own father's bank, she could only imagine what he might be doing since being forced to make it on his own. It all made sense, because they hadn't received a single letter from anyone in Adam's family since they had moved. She also realized her own father hadn't written either, only her mother and sister.
The house felt even lonelier, and she desperately wished for someone to talk to. She thought about that and sensed that Rachel was someone she could trust. It was too much new information to absorb all at once -- the risquι photos, the magazine, the gambling notices, and the knowledge of why they had left El Paso and her family. Rachel was her friend. Surely she would be willing to listen and perhaps offer some advice.
She felt a headache at the edges of her temples, and decided a light supper, a headache powder, and an early bedtime were in order. She carefully placed the contents back in the drawer in the order she had removed them, locked it, and put the key back in the crock. She would lose herself in her work the next day, and pray for Sunday to arrive quickly.
The sun rose much too early, throwing a large block of pale light across the faded wooden floor. Rachel had forgotten to draw the curtains before going back to bed, and the sounds of the awakening island drifted through the open window. Along with the high calls of seagulls and the gentle clopping of horses' hooves, the smells of morning also floated around her, tickling her nose with the scent of the ocean breeze and bacon frying.
Mingled with those familiar aromas was the fragrance of Lillie's lilac toilet water and the mild chamomile soap the blonde used to wash her hair. They were tangled in the sheets, their arms and legs entwined, skin pressed against skin. She smiled, her eyes still closed, and gave an experimental nibble to the salty collarbone under her cheek.
"My lord, Rachel." Lillie's tired voice rasped, right next to her ear. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to charge you extra if you want to go at it again. You 'bout wore me out last night. And this morning." She rolled to her side, propping her head on an upraised hand and effectively tossing the brunette onto her back. Luminous blue eyes twinkled back at her. "Although you certainly seem to be in a much better humor than you were when you finally fell asleep. You had me worried, Rachel. I've never seen you like that."
"Oh." Rachel flung her arm across her eyes and groaned. "That. Yes. Remember my tea last week?"
"Why certainly." Lillie scooted closer, ready for any morsel of gossip her friend might throw her way. Not that she would actually go out and gossip about Rachel, she simply had little contact with the women on the island, for obvious reasons, and wasn't privy to much girl talk. "How was it? Did you have a good time?"
"I have a friend, Lil. A real friend that likes me for me." She lowered her arm. "Not that you're not my friend, but "
"No need to explain, sugar." Lillie patted a long leg encouragingly. "I understand. That's wonderful."
"Well. Yes and no." The brunette stretched and sat partway up, leaning back against a soft propped-up pillow. "She's a very nice person. Had a very hard life, I suspect. No," she corrected herself. "I know she's had a hard life. A couple of things have happened that could make being her friend extremely complicated, though."
"Such as?" Lillie shifted, all ears. "Ouch!" She reached beneath her pillow where she had slipped an arm, withdrawing a hairpin that had poked her fingertip. She studied it closely. It wasn't hers. "Well I should say so, you sly devil." She held up the telltale pin, waving it teasingly in front of Rachel's face.
High cheekbones blushed dark red. "That's not what you think." She rolled over and picked up the reader from the night table. "She's going to help me learn to read, Lil. She used the hairpins to mark some places in the book for me. See?" She held out the book for the blonde's inspection.
"Uh-huh." Lillie grinned mischievously. "But she has been in your room already."
"Come on, Lil." Rachel frowned, bordering on angry. "Mattie's married for goodness' sake."
"Oh." Lillie backed off, looking down and smoothing the sheets. "But you have feelings for her, don't you?"
"Didn't say that." Full lips puckered into a pout.
"Didn't have to." Lillie curled closer, stroking her friend's arm. "It's written all over your face when you talk about her."
Rachel groaned again and sunk back into the plump mattress. "I did not need to hear you say that. I'm doing my best to simply be a friend. She truly needs one."
"Are your feelings one of the complications?" The blonde brushed back tangled chestnut locks from Rachel's face, admiring the auburn highlights created by the incoming sunlight.
"Yes." Rachel covered her eyes with her hand and peeked through her fingers. "That and the fact that her husband is that cad who punched you last weekend."
"You can't be serious." Lillie moved closer, peering at the troubled face. "You are serious, aren't you?"
"Unfortunately, yes." She got up, walking around the room and pulling on clothing as she spoke, briefly hopping on one foot while she tugged on her stockings. "I don't know how much she knows about her own husband, Lil. I don't know what to do. If I tell her he's been calling on ladies at the saloon, it does no real good. If I don't tell her and she finds out later I know about it, it might hurt her feelings or make her lose trust in me."
"You seem to have developed a great amount of feelings for this woman in a very short period of time," Lillie commented softly. "Are you in love with her?"
"No!" Rachel pulled up her trousers with a vicious motion. "Of course not! I have the same kind of feelings for her that I have for you, is all. It's embarrassing, but I'm certainly not in love." She buttoned her suspenders to the tabs at her waistline, her fingers trembling. "Am I?" Frightened eyes begged for some reassurance.
She didn't get any.
"Darlin'," Lillie patted the mattress and crooked a finger in invitation. "Come here. I need to say something you may not want to hear."
"Alright." Rachel moved warily back to the bed, and sighed quietly as she felt Lillie's arms close around her, pulling her head down to her shoulder and stroking her hair as the blonde spoke.
"You weren't with me last night." Lillie covered Rachel's mouth as it opened in protest. "Shhhh. You hear me out, sugar. I'm not offended. Happens all the time. You must remember who I am and what I do. You were with someone else, Rachel, whether you had another face in your mind at the time or not. It was different. You were with me as someone would be with a lover -- with someone they are in love with. I think I should know the difference."
"Buh " The hand clamped over her mouth again. She let out a frustrated breath and closed her eyes, listening and enjoying the sensation of her friend's fingers combing through her hair.
"I have always hoped one day you would find someone to truly love, Rachel." She kissed the dark head. "Even if it means things between you and I would change. I am ever so sorry that you appear to be giving your heart over to someone who may not be available to you."
"IS not available to me," the brunette mumbled against soft skin. "And I still am not convinced that I am in love." She sat up, feeling a stubborn self-protective streak rise. "She is a friend, Lillie, and she needs me to be the same to her. I don't think she has many people in her life she can count on. Certainly not that skunk of a husband she managed to marry. Was practically forced to marry, from what she's told me."
"Does she love him?" Lillie sat up, gathering her own clothing and standing in the middle of the room, bathed in a pool of sunlight and dust particles. She looked down at her naked body and delicately closed the curtains.
"I don't know." The brunette drew up her knee and wrapped clasped fingers around it. "I don't think so."
"Then there's hope." The blonde finished dressing and ruffled the wavy head.
"Lillie." Rachel's voice rose in utter frustration. "I am NOT in love with her, and there could not be any hope, even if I WERE to be in love with her. She's married. I am trying very hard to remember that, and you are NOT helping things."
"Rachel." Lillie sat back down on the edge of the bed. "Does he hit her like he hit me?" Her voice was very gentle.
"I think so, yes," her words choked out, her chest feeling heavy with emotion. "And it just about kills me every time I think about it."
"Do you honestly believe she is better off married to a man like that than she would be if she left him?" The blonde was treading on dangerous ground, and she knew it. Divorce was a dirty little word that wasn't often spoken, much less put into action by most women, even in the most dire of circumstances. She happened to run in a small circle of more liberal women, many of them prostitutes like herself. Some of them had gained the courage to leave abusive husbands. Her profession was not glamorous. It wasn't even legal. But some of the women she worked with chose illegal independence over daily and nightly beatings from men who would probably end up killing them if they stayed with them. "These things only escalate, Rachel. I've seen it. Heard about it "
"I don't believe that's my choice to make," the brunette replied bitterly.
"Maybe not, but Mattie may not realize she has any choices." Lillie patted her leg. "A true friend might help her see what she may not be able to see for herself." She stood, picking up her pocket book. "Just something for you to think about." Moving to the door, she paused. "When do you see her again?"
"Tomorrow," Rachel mumbled listlessly.
"Come by and see me this week, sugar." She opened the door. "Let me know how you're doing."
"Alright." The brunette stood and sidled up to her, giving her a hug. "Thank you, Lil. Let me walk you out. I need to grab some breakfast and then I think a long walk on the beach might be a good idea."
"I think so too." They stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind them.
Rachel turned her face upward toward the early morning sun, closing her eyes and allowing the warmth to wash over her like an old familiar friend. She wondered how she had made it through the first fifteen years of her life with no ocean nearby, no seagulls, no sugar-fine sand dunes, and no bright rosy unobscured sunrises, nothing between her and the sun but miles of infinite rolling waves. Of course she hadn't watched the sunrise on this particular morning, but there had been many mornings when she slipped out of bed in the pre-dawn hours and somehow found herself on the beach, waiting to be the first one to greet the bright pulsing orb as it burst over the horizon.
She had helped Lillie sneak out the back door of the boarding house. It would have done no good for the blonde to be caught there, whether she had been with Rachel or one of the men who lived in the long wooden-planked building. The owner did not approve of prostitution, and more than one renter had been quietly asked to leave when caught bringing ladies of the evening on premises.
Once Lillie was safely on her way home, the brunette had quickly downed a plate of bacon, eggs, biscuits, and gravy, and several cups of bitter coffee, trying to clear her head of her troubled thoughts. It did no good so she went ahead with her plans for a stroll on the beach. The walk itself had soothed her nerves somewhat, although she chose a different area than her usual spot just down from Mattie's house. For some reason, she didn't want her new friend to come out and see her there, and it was still a little too early for Mattie to have already left for work.
She examined her feelings for the redhead and got distracted for a moment thinking about the hair itself. It was a rich bright red that caught the sun and shimmered with coppery highlights all along its length. She hadn't realized how long it was until Mattie asked her to braid it. It fell to the younger woman's waist in thick heavy waves that begged to be touched, and it was so soft, and it smelled so good.
Rachel groaned in frustration and buried her face in her hands, scrubbing her eyes and banging her forehead quietly against her upraised knees. "I have got to stop thinking like that." A pale brown sand crab crept along the wet beach directly in front of her, stopping to examine her bare toes. "Well I do," she insisted, peering down at the small creature and watching carefully in the event it decided to use its pinchers as part of the examination. Finding nothing interesting or tasty, the crab skittered on its way, searching for some morsel of breakfast.
She watched as it took a detour back into the water. "Life is so simple for you, isn't it?" she called after the crab as it disappeared from sight. A part of her wished she could also just dive into the waves and hide. It would be so much easier than digging down to find reserves of strength she might need for an unknown period of time. A very long time she feared, if she wanted to be Mattie's friend. "I don't know if I can do this."
Rachel rarely felt lonely. Truth be told, she was almost always around other people, either working at the docks, dining at the boarding house, and especially when she was at the saloon, whether working or joining one of the card games. About the only times she was alone were by choice, either to sleep, or times like the present, when she needed time to think. She had never felt lonelier.
She had many friends -- Lillie, Billy of course, as well as other co-workers and fellow boarders she was friendly with. But of all of them, Lillie was the only one she felt close to, and their relationship was certainly not a normal one by society's standards. She thought about the widows Sanders and McKenzie, and wondered how they had met, and where they had found the courage to both live together and hide the nature of their relationship from other people. She wondered if it was worth it, and if they ever felt alone in the world, as she did.
"Probably not," she muttered at a busy sand piper. The tiny bird paused in its fluttered wanderings, tilting its head and studying her with curious black eyes. "At least they have each other." The bird hopped across the sand toward a few others of its kind. "You probably have kinfolk too," she envied the bird as it scampered around the sand with the other sand pipers. "I don't have anyone but Lillie, and I have to pay her to get what I need from her." She suddenly felt very pathetic and just a little bit ashamed. She knew Lillie was her friend, and that was a part of their relationship she didn't have to purchase.
Her thoughts turned back to Mattie, and how best to support her new friend. Mattie knew she knew about her husband hitting her, yet the redhead hadn't distanced herself, despite the mutual shared unspoken secret. In fact, Mattie had gone out of her way to seek Rachel out and deliver her mended shirt, when she could have simply allowed Rachel to retrieve it herself during the workweek. Perhaps it would be best to tell Mattie about Adam. If there was one thing Rachel had learned all too painfully well during her short life, it was that the truth always seemed to come out, eventually.
She nodded to herself, knowing it was probably the right thing to do. How to broach the subject would be the more difficult part. "And how on Earth am I going to get her thinking about the possibility that she can leave him?" Would she be crossing a line she would regret? "And what the heck choices does she have?"
The brunette stood and stretched, retrieving her boots and wiggling her toes in the pleasantly-cool wet sand, walking closer to the water until just the edge of the waves washed over her feet as they rushed up onto the shore. Mattie probably earned less at the tailor's shop than Rachel did on the docks, and Rachel was living as best she could, which was admittedly meager. "Except Mattie isn't supporting her brother through university." The brunette was also slowly building a nest egg for herself, and had been considering opening a bank account with the funds she had managed to sock away.
Mattie had a nice house, and fine clothing, and every comfort one could hope for, in Rachel's eyes. Every comfort except perhaps to feel safe in her own home, the brunette acknowledged. What kind of choices could she get Mattie to think about in light of all the conveniences the redhead already had? Like she'd want to come get herself a room at the boarding house, the brunette snorted softly.
The people living in the boarding house lived there either because it was convenient, or because they couldn't afford the finer things in life. Rachel herself was working toward having those things -- a home and horses, maybe even one of those new-fangled automobiles and perhaps a phonograph. She could dream, couldn't she?
No, she couldn't picture Mattie leaving Adam without leaving Galveston itself. The scandal might be too much. She found herself selfishly wanting her friend to stay on the island. Or maybe I could go somewhere with her. It wasn't like she was tied to Galveston. A part of her absurdly wanted to somehow find a way to take care of Mattie herself, to provide her new friend with everything she could ever want, including security.
She remembered Mattie's pensive drawn features when she spoke of her husband. She mulled that over, mentally comparing it to the bright sunny smile and child-like laughter the redhead had exhibited while playing on the beach the prior Sunday. She wondered what life must be like for Mattie, inside that house, when Adam was home. Did he talk to her at all, just about everyday things? Was he pleasant most of the time, and just sometimes lost his temper? Did he comprehend at all what a delightful and kind person his wife was, or how lucky he was to be married to her? Her blood boiled, as she pushed aside thoughts of their physical relationship. That he could both strike her and touch her in love with the same hands was inconceivable, and made her slightly sick to her stomach to contemplate.
"I can't think about that." She forcefully kicked a large shell down the beach, strode up to it, and kicked it again. She continued to mutter angrily under her breath, and when she reached the shell again, she bent over, picked it up, and heaved it savagely into the waves. She flung a piece of driftwood after it, for good measure, then plopped down in the sand again, crossed her legs, and buried her face in her hands in utter frustration. "What am I going to do?"
She looked up at gathering clouds, collecting her thoughts. "Help me?" she whispered softly. "I know I don't deserve your help, but she does." Her throat worked painfully, as she tried to swallow a lump. "Even if it means I get nothing in return, help me figure out how to help her."
Somewhere past the horizon, where she couldn't see, the waves churned, and the echo of distant thunder made its way back to her ears. By the time she completed the long walk home, the clouds were weeping as a spring storm rolled over the island. For a long while, she paced restlessly in front of her solitary window, watching the rain fall, before finally settling down to go over her reading lesson.
Sunday dawned in a gray overcast mix of clouds, rain, and thunder. Rachel rolled out of bed and stretched, moving to the window and yawning until her jaw popped. She ran her fingers through her hair and stretched again, feeling her muscles slowly come to life. Her hair she drew her fingers up and sniffed and her hands reeked of cigar smoke and her throat felt scratchy. She smiled.
It had been worth it.
Her Saturday night poker game had been a complete success. She won several hands, taking hard-earned funds from some of the island's biggest risk-takers. Luckily none of her co-workers had been a part of the gaming, easing her conscience just a tad. She had indeed counted cards and it had paid off in a most literal sense.
It was an unbelievable sum to win in one evening, and she had pulled it off beautifully. It would cover her lodging for the next month and buy new boots for her brother in Austin. His latest letter, as read to her by Billy, bemoaned the thin soles of his only pair. She'd won in a big way, just in the nick of time. Her winnings were tucked away in her armoire, literally stuffed into a sock underneath the rest of her clothing.
Deciding to skip mass, she grabbed a clean shirt and trousers and stepped lightly down the hallway, practically dancing at her good fortune. The bath was especially pleasant as she washed the soap through her hair twice to remove the offensive smoky odor. She didn't want to put Mattie off during their time together.
Her thoughts turned pensive and she shook her head, forcing them down. Mattie didn't need her to be so morose. She found herself somewhat nervous, wondering where conversation would lead, and if she would find an appropriate way to discuss Adam with Mattie. If not well she vowed to at least do her best to make the afternoon enjoyable.
With a splash of bay rum and a quick breakfast, she was out the front door, her book carefully tucked inside an old leather satchel. Her umbrella was useless against the driving downpour. The showers blew sideways, quickly drenching her clothing. Her boots were covered in sandy muck and her hair was plastered against her head. She toyed with riding her bicycle, but knew the heavy rain would blind her, not to mention the perils of the puddles, mud, and more disgusting much she might have to ride through on slick tires. It wasn't safe. She caught the trolley, spending some of her hard-earned funds, finding herself quite alone on the rattling car.
"You must have something very important to attend to, to be out in this mess, young lady." The driver, an older gentleman she recognized from around town, tipped his hat as she hopped down from the trolley steps, wrinkling her nose as she barely avoided a landing in a cesspool.
"Yes." She smiled, retrieving her satchel. "Yes, I sure do." She watched him drive away, then turned, face into the wind, toward Mattie's house. She was almost oblivious to the weather, her heart soaring at the thought of seeing her friend, even if they did have some rather grave matters to discuss.
If we discuss them.
She detoured toward the beach for the rest of the short walk. The waves were wild and at least twice as high as usual, the sea awash in fierce-looking whitecaps. No boats were out, and the sea fowl were nowhere to be seen, most likely holed up further inland. The water washed up far onto shore in swirling hissing foam. She trudged along through the rain-flattened dunes, avoiding walking in the water itself. Not that it really mattered. Her boots were a mess, and as tightly-sealed as the boots were, she could feel her stockings squishing around her toes.
She topped a low rise and Mattie's clapboard house came into view. She took it in, truly noticing it for the first time. It was painted a fresh pearly gray and had white and blue shutters and trim. The roof was formed of even machine-made shingles, and a cheerful white picket fence bordered the part of the yard that faced the water. Behind the house was a well-built barn, which looked big enough to hold half a dozen animals. The barn was painted in the same pale gray as the house, the barn door painted to match the blue and white trim of the house. A crushed-shell driveway curved up beside the house and back to the barn door, then went around the other side of the house and out toward the road that led to town.
Rachel stopped for a minute, just taking it all in. It looked like a much happier place than she knew it to be. A clothesline ran between two posts in the side yard, and several palm trees ringed the house. The yard was typical of the island -- a mix of tough thick marshy grass and weeds, although a small rock, shell, and driftwood garden graced what was once a flowerbed next to the front porch.
Just as she began walking again, the front door flew open and Mattie stepped out, hands on hips as she stood under the shelter of the covered porch. "Rachel!?" She moved to the end, closer to the brunette. "I can't believe you came all the way out here in this weather. Hurry up! Get in here so we can get you dried off. Don't you own a Mackintosh?"
"I own an oil slicker, which I left on my friend David's boat, along with my rubber boots." Rachel flashed a cheerful grin and closed the distance, removing her muddy boots at the bottom step before ducking under cover. "Figured the company would be worth it." She pushed back rain-drenched hair from her eyes, unsure if she was too wet to go inside or not. "I would have gotten bored sitting in my room anyway."
"Well come on in." Mattie shooed her into the parlor with a gentle push. "Stay put." The redhead disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a large towel, which Rachel mutely took and began to dry off. "We can hang your clothes up by the fireplace. I lit it earlier, there was a bit of a chill in the air when I woke up this morning. Come on. You can undress in the bedroom." She stopped, measuring the long frame with an educated eye. "I can probably find a pair of Adam's trousers and a shirt that will fit you. Maybe. I think you may actually be a few inches taller than him."
Rachel felt panic rise up in her gut at the thought of wearing Adam's clothing. "No, no. It's alright. I think my undershirt and drawers are dry enough, if you don't mind me wearing just those until my clothes are dry. If you have a sheet or a quilt or something "
"Alright." Puzzled red brows drew together. "I have a sheet, but truly, I just did laundry a day or so ago. Adam has plenty of clean shirts to spare "
"No. A sheet will be fine." She followed her friend into the bedroom, trying to study it without staring at anything too much. A plump featherbed on a curved wrought iron frame was against one wall, the bed covered in a patchwork wedding-ring pattern quilt. Twin oak night tables sat on either side of the bed, each electric cut-glass lamps. A large armoire was on one side of the room and a matching dressing table sat across from it. Against the fourth wall was a low writing desk, beneath a window that looked out toward the barn. Light sheer curtains framed the window, which was closed against the rain. An oval braided rag rug covered the floor at the foot of the bed.
Mattie knelt down next to the armoire and opened a lower drawer, retrieving a sheet. She stood and smoothed down her pale blue skirt. "Here." She held out the sheet. "I'll leave you to undress. Bring your shirt and trousers out when you're ready and I'll hang them up to dry." She shook her head in mild amusement and left the room.
Rachel looked around again, drawing in the scent of fresh clean linens and the soap Mattie must have used to bathe with, along with the strong smell of the rain and ocean which hung over everything. She moved closer to the dressing table and peered into the mirror, avoiding looking at the bed or thinking of what might go on there. "Well, I am a sight, aren't I?" She looked like a drowned thing, her thick hair drenched and completely straight, hanging down her back and sticking to the sides of her face. "Shoulda put it up and worn a hat."
She shrugged out of her stockings, shirt, and trousers, and turned a complete circle in the mirror, making sure she was indeed decent in only her underclothing. The plain white muslin drawers, her only nod to feminine clothing, came down to just below her knees, and her ribbed short-sleeved undershirt bore a three-button placket in front. Her lower legs were markedly paler than her tanned arms and face, a product of working on the docks in long trousers and shirtsleeves. She looked very much like the working class person she was, and she found herself feeling ashamed of that fact for the first time in her life.
Her eyes fell on her leather satchel, which she had set down on the desk. "That's going to change, Rachel Travis," she scolded herself in the mirror. "You're going to learn to read, and then you're going to go make something of yourself." She looked at her eyes and nose, re-memorizing what they looked like. She didn't spend much time dwelling on her appearance, but now she sat down on the padded bench in front of the dressing table, taking a long look at herself. She wondered if people, in general, found her attractive.
A rustling of skirts behind her made her turn around, to find Mattie standing in the doorway watching her. "Oh." Rachel blushed. "I was just thinking about combing out my hair." She stood, picking up her wet clothing. "Didn't bring a comb or brush with me."
"You can use one of mine." Mattie nodded toward the table top and an ivory-backed hairbrush and matching comb. "I can help you comb it out. Come on out and sit by the fire." She picked up the sheet and turned on her heels, pausing in the doorway, where she turned back to Rachel, who stood rooted in place. "Well, come on." She crooked a finger and smiled.
Rachel's feet moved and she followed, finding herself drawn down onto a stool in front of the fire. She felt soft light cotton settle around her shoulders, as Mattie draped her with the sheet, and pressed a warm cup of tea into her hands. "Thank you." She inhaled the sweet steaming tea and looked up in surprised gratitude, watching as Mattie hung her clothes on short pegs that were nailed into the mantle.
Mattie went back into the bedroom and came out with the satchel and her comb. "Is your book in here?" She placed the satchel at Rachel's feet, watching her nod affirmatively. "I'll start combing out your hair. Why don't you start reading for me? I can see the pages over your shoulder. The sooner we finish lessons, the sooner we can play."
"Alright." But Rachel simply sat there, not moving to pick up her book, absorbing something new and different.
"Rachel?" Mattie paused in her attention to her friend's hair. "Is something wrong?"
"No." She shifted, her eyes shining warmly at Mattie. "It's just I was sitting here, trying to remember the last time anyone took care of me when I came in from the rain. I can't " She shook her head, at a loss for the right words. "I'm sure, when I was a very little girl anyway it was always my job to take care of the others." She sipped her tea and looked back up. "Thank you. It's nice."
"It's nothing." Mattie blushed.
"No. It means a lot." Rachel's hand came up, capturing Mattie's wrist in mid-motion, squeezing it before she released it. "Nice to know someone cares." She turned back around to give Mattie access to her hair, soaking in something that was different from physical lust. This was warm and more subdued. It was something a part of her could easily settle down into if she allowed it.
Mattie worked at the thick wavy locks, combing them into order and working out wind and rain induced snarls before she braided the mass of hair. "Here, hold onto this." She handed the end of the braid to Rachel and picked up a small box from a table across the room. "Here." She offered the box, taking the braid back so Rachel would have both hands free. "For you."
"What?" Puzzled features tilted toward her in question, then Rachel slowly removed a red ribbon tie and slipped the cover from the small white box. Nestled inside was a hair clip, a section of braided leather that had been died a deep dark blue, and fastened to a shiny metal clasp. "What's this for?"
"You said your birthday was at the end of the month." Mattie smiled. "You didn't tell me exactly which day, but being as next week is the last week of March, I figured it must be soon."
"It it's the 29th Thursday next." She turned the hair clasp over and over, as if she couldn't believe it was real. "Thank you," she finally said, feeling a little disjointed.
"Happy birthday," Mattie replied brightly. "Can I use it to hold your braid fast?"
"Oh." Rachel reluctantly let go of the nice-looking clasp. "Sure. Here you go."
Mattie clipped the clasp on the end of the braid and flipped it over Rachel's shoulder where she could see it. Steel eyes trailed downward, lost in thought as long fingers absently traced the twisted leather. Mattie pulled up a second stool and sat down directly across from her, touching the brunette on the knee and waiting for her to look up. "Don't tell me you've never received a birthday gift before."
Rachel looked back down at the gift, then back up. "Not that I remember, no."
"Would it be too much if I told you I made you a cake as well?" She smoothed back damp bangs, fluffing them playfully.
"I I don't know what to say." Rachel's voice was very soft. "You spoil me."
"Listen, Rachel." Mattie drew her knees up, wrapping her arms around them, her weight resting on the tips of her toes. "I haven't seen my family in several months. I haven't made any friends here, not really. Adam he anyway, I miss my sister Carrie terribly. She's about the only person I was ever able to talk to. Last Sunday, it was the best day I've had since we moved here. When I saw the rain this morning, I felt so lonely, because I was certain you wouldn't come. I enjoy spending time with you, Rachel. I think we can be good friends, at least I'd like for us to be."
Rachel's eyes stung and she blinked a few times until it passed. "I'd like that too." She smiled. "You made me a cake? Really?"
"Yes." Mattie stood up, pushing Rachel back down as she started to follow. "First though, I made us some little crab cake sandwiches for dinner. I'll bring them out here so you can keep drying by the fire."
"Alright." Thoughtful eyes watched, as Mattie disappeared into the kitchen. The day was turning out to be full of surprises, and it wasn't even noon yet.
They shared small talk over sandwiches and cake, then moved on to the reading lesson. To her relief and surprise, Rachel discovered she was much more proficient at sounding out and retaining words than she had originally believed. They were seated next to each other on Mattie's sofa. She was still wrapped in the sheet, but it had slipped down around her waist, leaving her arms free to turn pages in the reader. Each time she completed a lesson successfully, Mattie had a tendency to either pat her on the leg or touch her on the arm or shoulder, not to mention their legs were touching and her friend pressed against her each time she leaned over to provide Rachel correction. It was nice, and distracting as all get out, but she allowed herself to enjoy the innocent contact.
"You're reading complete sentences, Rachel." Mattie praised her again, the corners of her eyes crinkling in a smile. "The way you were talking, I thought we were going to have to start with the most basic lessons." She flipped to the last two pages of the reader. "Read those for me."
Rachel complied, her words hesitant but accurate. When she finished, she felt yet another squeeze to her arm. "Does that mean I read it all correctly?" She looked down at Mattie's curled fingers.
"Oh." Mattie blushed slightly, a faint hint of pink on her cheeks beneath a light dusting of freckles. "Yes." She trailed her hand down before removing it. "I think we can bypass the first reader and move to the second one. Why don't you read the first five lessons in the second reader this week, one each evening, and we can go over those next Sunday."
"Alright." Rachel was pleased that next Sunday seemed to be a given, without question.
"You've got muscular arms, did you know that?" Mattie squeezed her arm again, this time with a more studious attitude.
"Good thing," Rachel snorted softly. "Lifting bales of cotton and crates of dry goods would be awfully difficult otherwise."
"Well I would suppose so." Hazel eyes moved from her arm to the waistband of her drawers, which bore a white on white stitching of tiny flowers and stars. "I would never have guessed you had these on underneath." One finger reached out, quickly touching a stitched flower before she pulled back.
Rachel's throat went dry and she glanced at her friend, trying to read her thoughts. Mattie's face bore an open honest quizzical expression, with no trace of any other intent, romantic or otherwise. She swallowed and took a sip of tea before answering. "Didn't realize you thought about me in my drawers." It was a dangerous bit of a tease and she watched the charming blush creep up her friend's neck again.
"Oh. I " Mattie stammered. Truth be told, she hadn't thought about Rachel's drawers at all, until she saw them. She did wonder, just a little, why Rachel always wore men's clothing. She understood the need for trousers on the docks, but a part of her was curious as to what went on inside her friend's beautiful head. "I apologize. I didn't mean to insult you " she sighed in frustration, not finishing her sentence. "They just seem out of contrast with the rest of your attire."
"It's alright." Rachel laughed softly. "You're not the first person to ask me about my clothes. I've always worn men's and boy's clothing. When I was growing up, it was necessary for the work I did around the farm. It's what I'm comfortable with. And I ride my bicycle so often, a skirt would get in the way. But the plain women's drawers fit fine under my trousers, and they're shaped better for me than men's drawers are. Although you'll never catch me wearing a corset. Can't breathe in them."
"What about when you go out in the evenings?" Mattie suddenly realized she had no idea how Rachel spent her time when she wasn't working, and she remembered mention of a second job.
It was a perfect opening, Rachel shored up her courage, testing the water. "Mattie, about the only place I go, other than to the docks or to the store, is to a little place out on the far end of the island. It it's a saloon. I sometimes tend bar there." She paused, reading no judgment in the hazel eyes. She looked down at her hands clasped in her lap, and continued. If they were to truly be friends, Mattie deserved to at least know this much about her. "I play poker almost every Saturday night. For money. I gamble. And I usually drink whiskey and smoke cigars during the games." She couldn't make herself look up, but moved doggedly forward nonetheless, determined to at least gage her friend's reaction to gambling and drinking. "I don't suppose I'm the type of person you would normally choose to associate with."
Mattie stood and walked to the bookcase, her back turned as she looked at the three framed photographs. "No. Not as a general rule." She slowly turned around. "My husband he drinks. Quite a lot, actually. He's worse when he does that. And, I just discovered that he gambles. At least I think he still does. I know he used to, although I didn't know about it until Friday evening. I found some things in a desk drawer. They were kind of shocking, but it answered a lot of questions I've had about my life with Adam, and who he is. He scares me when he drinks. I don't like it."
So, this is it. Rachel looked down, waiting to be dismissed from Mattie's house. Instead, she felt a gentle hand to her knee and didn't have to look up, for Mattie was kneeling in front of her at eye level. "You said you're not the type of person I would choose to associate with. Rachel, I've never had a choice at all as to whom I associate with. My choices have always been made for me. In almost everything I've done. You've been nothing but kind to me. What you've told me is a bit surprising, but I think as long as you don't come into my house smelling of whiskey I think I can deal with that part of your life."
"I would never come to your house drunk." The brunette held her indignant emotions in check, glad for acceptance in whatever form she could get it. "I can't remember the last time I got drunk. I usually only have one or two drinks at most during a poker game."
"No, no." Mattie realized she'd offended her friend. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant. If you took only one sip, and I smelled it, it would make me feel brings up some unpleasant memories, is all."
Rachel watched her own hand reach out, tilting up Mattie's chin, which was quivering. "How bad is it, Mattie?"
There was no need for explanation. She knew what Rachel was asking. Mattie blinked away a scattering of unexpected tears. She stood up abruptly and fled to the window, looking out at the steadily falling rain. "It's bad." She drew a shaky breath and it all came tumbling out. "I don't know why he married me. I can't seem to ever do anything to please him. He barely speaks to me, except to tell me what I've done wrong. He's gone all day and most weekends. When he is on the island, he stays out late. Sometimes he doesn't come home at all. What's sad, is I don't mind. I sometimes wish he'd never come back again, then I feel so guilty, because it's like wishing him dead, and I fear I'll go to hell for thinking like that."
Her back was turned and her shoulders slumped, her body shivering just the slightest bit. Before she knew what was happening, Rachel was behind her and then Mattie turned, and Rachel found herself holding on to her, stroking her hair as her friend talked. "You know you've only answered part of my question, don't you?" She felt Mattie trembling against her. "How many times has he hurt you?"
"I lost count a long time ago." She couldn't look up, so she buried her face into Rachel's neck, absorbing the warmth. She couldn't recall anyone holding her in comfort since she was a little girl, when sometimes her nanny might give her a hug if she skinned a knee. "Every morning, I wake up and wonder if he's going to hit me that day. Or push me down or throw something at me." Rachel grew still, and Mattie felt her friend quit breathing for a long moment. "Every night, if I made it through the day without displeasing him, I say a little prayer of thanks to God for sparing me that day."
"Bastard." A low hissed curse that escaped her lips without thought. "You've done nothing to deserve what he does to you."
"Whether I have or not, does it matter?" Mattie looked up, swiping her hand across her own face. "My mother told me I've made my bed and now I have to lie in it. Only I didn't make this bed. She did." Anger replaced tears. "Now I have to live with him, for the rest of my life."
She wanted to say so much, but sensed the timing was wrong. That Mattie had opened up to her as much as she had was astonishing, and Rachel chose not to prod or make any outlandish suggestions about leaving Adam, just yet. Instead, she kissed the top of Mattie's head, and drew her friend back over to the sofa. "I'm so sorry, Mattie." It was Rachel's turn to kneel, as she reached out, brushing more tears from Mattie's face. "Sit. Let me get you some more tea." She found her way into the kitchen and spied the teapot, staying warm on the stove. Quickly, she poured up a fresh cup and added two lumps of sugar and a dash of cream, just as she'd seen Mattie make for herself. As an afterthought, she sliced a small piece of cake and placed it on a saucer, and brought it back into the parlor.
Grateful hands reached out, taking the offering. Rachel watched Mattie's hands shake, and racked her brain for a distraction. She remembered a humorous story from the poker game. It was slightly risquι, but worth taking a chance, if she could get her friend to smile. "Would you like to hear a funny story?"
"Alright." Mattie was relieved for the diversion, feeling slightly embarrassed at her emotional outburst.
"One of the men I played poker with last night. He was in New York last month and saw a play. It's called 'Sappho' and it's causing quite a stir among folks. It's the most brash show to come out of Europe in a while." She shifted to the sofa, getting into the story. "Seems at the end, the man picks up the woman and takes her up some stairs, as if he's carrying her to bed. The society ladies of New York are in an uproar."
Mattie's face revealed nothing, so she continued. "Then he tells us about a book called 'Sister Carrie' that's come out at about the same time as this play. The book is about a lady of the evening. Anyway, it's been removed from publication. Between the play and the book, the man said the church leaders up in New York are convinced the country is slipping into moral decay, and that women are going to become crazed and behave wildly. Can you believe it?"
"Not hardly." Mattie didn't laugh, but grew introspective instead. "It would take a lot more than a play or a book for me to enjoy " she stopped, realizing what she was about to say, and blushed furiously. She peered shyly at Rachel, who only looked back at her in concern.
"I'm sorry, Mattie." Rachel mentally kicked herself. "That story was inappropriate. I shouldn't have told it."
"No." Mattie briefly smiled in reassurance. "My response is what was inappropriate. You're not married. I don't know if I could even explain what I was going to say, and it might embarrass you."
"I " How much do I tell her? Rachel realized Mattie seemed perfectly accepting of her, so far, despite admissions of gambling, drinking, and smoking, and the woman had heard her swear. "I probably know more about the subject than you think I do. I've been with someone. Even though I've never been married."
Oh. Mattie turned that over in her head. She had never spoken of intimate relations with anyone except her mother, and even then it was in the most cryptic of terms during their conversation after she married Adam. There had been one other conversation with an older woman of the church in El Paso, who had explained to her what a pessary was and how to use it. Other than that, she had talked about it with no one. It was taboo -- something one simply didn't discuss in polite company. Yet she wanted so desperately to talk to someone, and Rachel had admitted to non-chastity. She thought about that, and if anyone seemed safe to talk to, it was Rachel.
Mattie was quiet for so long, Rachel was certain she had finally crossed one too many lines during the short time they had known each other. "I'm not a whore, Mattie. I've only been with one person."
"Once was enough, I'll wager." Mattie's voice took on a surprisingly bitter tone.
"I didn't say that." Rachel stepped further out on a limb, guessing at Mattie's meaning. "Some women do find it enjoyable."
"I don't see how." Mattie's face grew even redder and she looked down. "I just assumed only men found it pleasurable, despite what some of those romance novels suggest. My husband obviously does. Even moreso than I thought he did. Can can I show you something? It's not very nice. You might be offended by it."
"I doubt that." Rachel's lips twisted into a quirky half-smile. "I see and hear a lot of ribald things at the saloon."
"Alright." Mattie got up and went into the bedroom, unlocking the desk drawer and retrieving the photographs of the women. She thought about the rest and left it. For some reason, the thought that her husband was a thief was more embarrassing than the thought that he might enjoy looking at pictures of naked women. She made her way back into the parlor and held out the photographs. "Adam had these hidden in a locked desk drawer. I don't know any of those women, and I don't know where he took their photographs."
Rachel slowly sifted through the half dozen pictures. She had seen some of the same photographs passed around the saloon, and recognized them as items that could be ordered through the mail. "He didn't take these. He bought them."
"You know those women?" Mattie's voice was incredulous.
"No." Rachel handed them back, glad beyond belief that she truly didn't. "I've seen some of the same photos at the saloon. They're illegal, but they can be purchased through catalogues, I believe."
"Oh." Mattie sat down, laying the photographs aside on the low table. "What sort of women would pose for them?"
"Prostitutes," Rachel offered. "They some of them do what they have to do, to survive, Mattie. They can make a nice bit of money posing for those."
"Prostitutes? Do you think Adam ?" she couldn't quite bring herself to ask, but saw something telling in Rachel's eyes, and already knew the answer.
"Yes," Rachel answered softly. "I've met Adam, Mattie. I didn't realize he was your husband until Friday evening. I've been trying and trying to figure out a way to tell you about it."
"He sees whores?" Mattie was dumb-struck. "At the saloon where you serve drinks?"
"Yes." Rachel slid back on the sofa, as far as she could from her friend, waiting to be banished from the house and Mattie's life, forever.
Mattie stood up slowly, and walked back to the window. Rachel heard the loud sigh from across the room and watched as Mattie moved to the bookshelves, picking up a frame. She couldn't see the picture from where she sat. The silence was deafening, the only noise breaking it was the gentle patter of rain hitting the shingles overhead, and the ocean's dull roar from outside. She was very close to just getting up and leaving, thinking Mattie was too angry or too hurt to speak. One arm was braced on the sofa cushion, but a single word stopped her.
She sank back down onto the plump cushion in mute shock. It was the last thing she expected. "Did you say ?"
"Good," Mattie repeated, this time more loudly. She turned around, her face a mixture of pain and confused relief. "I suspect that's why he leaves me alone most of the time. We don't love each other, you know. We never have. I think he married me for money. I certainly don't enjoy being with him in that way. The less he needs that from me, the better."
It wasn't the right time to ask what, exactly, Adam and Mattie did together, or how Adam went about it, and it certainly wasn't the right time to explain why relations between two people could be pleasurable. And she definitely didn't want to get into whom she had been with. There were too many open raw wounds exposed for one afternoon. "You aren't angry?"
"Of course I am!" Mattie spat out. "I'm angry that I'm married to a man who doesn't love me, who is a liar, a gambler, and a thief, and who sees fit to commit adultery while he's married to me who who I live in fear of every day of my life. Most of all, I'm simply angry I'm married to him at all. It's the biggest mistake of my life, and there's nothing I can do about it but live with it. So yes, I'm angry!" She fumed, pacing back and forth and muttering under her breath.
Rachel watched in silence. She wasn't about to ask what Mattie meant by calling Adam a 'thief,' and she certainly didn't want to risk this being their last get-together. She sensed that there would be plenty of opportunities to get Mattie to think about her options at a later date. "I'm sorry, Mattie." It was all she could bring herself to say.
"I am too." Mattie's demeanor softened, and she sat back down, clasping one of Rachel's hands between her own. She peered up shyly through red eyelashes. "I'm surprised you aren't mortified at everything I've said."
"Mortified?" Rachel stroked her friend's soft hair with her free hand. "I could say the same thing to you, don't you think? I believe I'm the sinner here, and I can't believe you still want anything to do with me."
"You're my friend," Mattie stated simply, then drew a surprised Rachel into a hug. "I don't care about all your sins, Rachel. I when I saw you on the beach that first time, you looked kind of sad. I felt something a kinship with you, because I know what it's like to feel sad and lonely. Yet you're so strong. You always seem to keep your sunny side up, which is what I try to do, at least most of the time." She pulled back, continuing to hold on to Rachel's hand. "You haven't let all the bad things in your life turn you into a bad person, and I want to be the same way."
Rachel tilted her head, studying Mattie's face intently. She was speechless at the complete acceptance. There was no judgment in the hazel eyes, only a warmth that reached out and wrapped itself around her heart. She knew her feelings for Mattie ran deeper than they should, but one look at the friendship she was being offered was worth it -- worth pushing aside anything that might ruin the friendship itself. She wanted Mattie in her life more than she had ever wanted anything, and she was willing to have Mattie on any terms Mattie was willing to offer. "You? A bad person?" she finally managed to squeak out. "You're the kindest person I've ever met."
"And you're the same to me." Mattie hugged her again. "I've never found anyone I could talk to the way I can talk to you. I don't know why. Maybe it's because we've both had some tough times, eh?"
"Maybe." Rachel looked past her, toward the gray rain and ocean outside. "So." She gathered in her emotions. It was enough for one day. More than enough. "We can't go for a walk on the beach, and it's growing late. Maybe I should go on home."
"But it's still raining, and your clothes are just now getting dry," Mattie protested.
"It's alright." Rachel stood and moved to the hearth, feeling her almost-dry shirt and trousers. "At least I'll be dry starting out. I can change when I get home." She removed her clothing from the mantle and retired to the bedroom to dress, then collected her book and placed it back in the satchel.
Mattie pressed a package into her hand, explaining that it was leftover cake and sandwiches she could eat for supper, then walked her to the front door. They stopped, looking at each other awkwardly for a moment. Rachel finally smiled and pulled Mattie to her in a hug, brushing her lips against a freckled cheek as they parted. "Thank you, Mattie. For the birthday gift and cake."
"You're welcome." She walked out onto the porch with her friend, watching as Rachel ducked out into the rain and started the trek toward the trolley stop on the main road. "Stay warm and dry." She waved.
Rachel waved back. "I will." Warm, at any rate, she added silently, which proved to be true. Despite the driving rain, which soaked her clothing all over again, inside she basked in the warmth of true friendship.
Continued in Chapter 4
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