Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Two weeks passed without incident. Mattie carried on with Adam as if nothing were different, but inside, she knew it was. She found herself studying him at odd moments, looking over a book, pretending to read the text while she was actually trying to read her husband. He was a stranger. He always had been, she realized, but now it was pronounced. The information she gained from Rachel, along with the documents and photographs in the desk drawer had forever changed the way she would look at him.
She hinted at a desire to go home to see her family, mostly to see what he would say. He grew even more abrupt and cold than usual, and stated he was much to busy with his work to plan such a long journey any time in the foreseeable future. When she asked if she could travel home without him, she watched his jaw line twitch, the anger readily evident, and steeled herself for a blow that never came. Instead, he told her it was too dangerous, and there was to be no further discussion on the matter.
She spent one Sunday with Rachel, going over their second reading lesson. They talked little of serious things on that day, choosing instead to concentrate on the lesson and a long walk on the beach, which ended with wading in the shallow surf. There was a lot of easy laughter and light conversation between them -- nothing important, but she reflected it was nice to have a friend she could talk to and simply have fun with. Lord knew she hadn't had a whole lot of fun in her lifetime, and Rachel brought out the little child in Mattie. It felt wonderful, digging in the sand, running barefoot on the beach, picking up shells, and tossing breadcrumbs to the seagulls.
At the end of the weekend, Rachel declared the water was almost warm enough to start swimming lessons. Unfortunately, Adam chose the following weekend to stay on the island. While he was gone from home most of the day on both Saturday and Sunday, the possibility he could return at any moment precluded Mattie and Rachel's usual Sunday afternoon visit.
Now it was Tuesday, and she found herself anxious to see Rachel again. The brunette had been out on a fishing boat most of the time, so even a quick run by the tailor shop during the noon hour was logistically impossible. Adam had picked Mattie up every evening from the shop, so there was no time to sneak away and visit Rachel at the boarding house.
She missed her friend with an ache like nothing she had experienced before.
She busied herself at the shop, working on Rachel's shirt order, along with the rest of the orders she had to fill. They were very busy, and there were still more wedding clothes to sew for several customers, all of whom had planned traditional June weddings. A number of the young men who would be graduating from school at the end of the term had become engaged.
Many of the girls who came in to be fitted for wedding dresses would not finish school, as their fiancιs would, and Mattie had to bite her tongue to keep from advising them to finish up anyway, even after their weddings. She herself had never graduated, although she had studied lessons on her own after she married Adam, and she had an education equivalent to a complete course of schooling. She just didn't have a diploma to prove it.
On Tuesday evening, she decided to tell Adam she needed to get to the shop early, to work on her backed-up workload. The ruse went over like a charm, and at dawn on Wednesday, Adam dropped her off at the tailor shop. She waved at him and let herself in, then waited until he was gone, watching out the window through the curtains. Even after he was out of sight, she waited another quarter hour just to be safe, then sharpened a tablet pencil with a small pocket knife, before composing a note to Mr. Vaughan, telling him she had been in, but had an errand to run and would be back later.
She took off for the docks, moving from the main street to the side street, lest Adam come driving back through town for some reason and see her. It was about a half mile away, a short pleasant walk in the early morning breeze. The sun was creeping over the edge of the sea, painting the water in vivid golden and rose-hued ripples, and she thought about buying some of the pastels she had seen in the general store, and capturing the scene in color rather than in charcoal or pencil.
As she approached the docks, she realized she had no idea how to find Rachel, even if she were there somewhere. She walked across the short bridge that led to the longer row of docks, which was lined with boats of all kinds. Her shoes clicked lightly on the weathered wood and the bridge swayed slightly with her motion. At the end of the bridge stood a large muscular man, with a dark beard and hair, his chest already bare in the warm morning air. He held a clipboard, which he was reviewing intently.
"Excuse me, sir." Mattie stopped a few feet short of him, peering up from under her cream-colored straw hat. "Might you tell me if Rachel Travis is working today, and where I might find her?"
"You have business with her?" The man eyed her skeptically, her long skirt and fine clothing completely out of place for her surroundings.
"I she I've been trying to reach her regarding an order she placed at the tailor's shop in town." Mattie shifted her weight uneasily, from one foot to the other. "If I might speak with her very briefly, please?"
"Very well." He pointed to his left. "Next to last fishing boat near the end down that way. Better hurry. They're about to pull out for the day."
"Thank you, sir." Mattie scurried along the rough walkway, picking up her skirts and moving as fast as she could without actually running. She reached the appointed boat and slowed down, taking in the sight of her friend.
Rachel was halfway up the mast, working some knots out of thick rope, her back turned. She was standing on some iron rungs, tied off to the pole with more heavy rope. She wore light tan trousers, clunky black work boots, and a short-sleeved undershirt. Her long-sleeved shirt was tied around her waist and she was covered in sweat, her hair in a long braid down her back. A bare trickle of smoke curled up over her head, indicating she was smoking a cigar.
Mattie laughed quietly and moved to the edge of the boat, still standing on the dock. She cleared her throat, unsure of how to address her friend in front of the older gentleman who was at the front of the boat, and a younger man who was off to the side, working with something in a bucket. "Excuse me, Ms. Travis?" Her voice sounded strange to her own ears.
Rachel's arms stopped in mid-motion, and she turned, looking over her shoulder. "Mattie?" she stammered through lips that clenched carefully around her cigar. She quickly untied herself and shimmied down the mast, her biceps bulging nicely with her efforts. When she hit the deck, she trotted over and stood across from Mattie. "Oh." She removed the cigar and dropped it to the deck, crushing it out with her foot. "S'cuse my manners." She grinned broadly. "How are you?"
"I'm fine, thank you. And you?" Mattie tilted her head up, moving so that Rachel's head blocked the sun from shining into her eyes. She watched a frown replace her friend's smile. "Rachel?"
Rachel jumped the railing and landed precisely in front of Mattie, while long fingers reached out, brushing against Mattie's cheek. She felt the fingers brush a bit harder and she reached up, closing her hand over them. "What's wrong?"
"Oh." Rachel appeared conflicted. "You have a bit of a dark smudge on your cheek. I thought it was that is I " She looked down, kicking the toe of her boot lightly against a lose board in embarrassment.
"You thought what?" Mattie reached up with her free hand, rubbing the spot and looking at her fingers, realizing the smudge was probably from the pencil she had used to write her note to Mr. Vaughan. "It's pencil, Rachel, not a bruise."
Pained eyes peered uncertainly at her. "Sorry. I shouldn't be so quick to assume."
"I'm glad you care, Rachel. You could easily have been right," she whispered softly, then squeezed the hand she still held, and released it. "Anyway, I came down here to tell you that your shirt order will be ready for final fitting on Friday, if you can manage to come by and try them on for any last-minute alterations."
"I might not be able to Friday, but you work Saturdays, correct?" Rachel gestured around the boat. "Shrimping has been very good, and we may be out for the rest of the week. Mr. Gentry has been able to sell a load every evening on the docks when we return, and the more we catch, the more wages Billy and I make."
"Saturday would be fine." Mattie idly looked around the tidy boat. She noticed surreptitious glances from both Mr. Gentry and Billy, Billy's eyes lingering on her a bit longer than necessary. "I'm glad for your good fortune. Adam should be going to Houston this weekend, if you'd like to "
"I'd love to," Rachel interrupted. "I've missed you, Mattie."
"I've missed you too." She glanced at the sun and the sky, which was blue, all traces of dawn gone. "Well, I suppose I should get back to the shop, and let you finish whatever it is you're doing to get ready to fish."
"I'll see you Saturday afternoon, then." Rachel resisted the urge to give Mattie a hug. She felt somewhat shy for some reason, and chalked it up to their ten-day separation.
"I look forward to it." Mattie smiled and turned, making her way back down the dock.
Rachel grasped the railing and vaulted back onto the deck. Billy moved to her side, watching Mattie go. "Lovely young lady."
"Yes, she is," she drawled slowly, amused at Billy's obvious interest. "That was my tailor, Mrs. Madeleine Crockett."
"She's married?" Billy's voice was more than a little disappointed.
"Yes." The drawl took on an amused tone, as Rachel went back to the mast and began her climb up.
Billy started to walk back across the deck, to begin work with some shrimping nets, but stopped in mid-stride, looking up at Rachel incredulously. "You have a tailor?"
"I do now." She grinned mysteriously, giving him a playful wink. "Come on Billy, can't a girl want to improve her appearance? I figured some hand-made clothing might help things along."
"I suppose." He scratched his head in confusion. Rachel was always dressed neatly, shirt tucked in, shoes buffed, and hair either braided or pinned up. He had simply never thought of her as caring about her looks. He shrugged and started unrolling the nets.
The folksy melodies of a fiddle, harmonica, and dulcimer rose up around a happy throng of revelers, who were busy dancing and drinking mugs of homemade wine. They were gathered around several crackling bonfires on the beach near the far south end of the island. Rachel sipped at a large fruity mug, and tended a fire where a clambake was well underway.
She had been unable to make her appointment for her shirt fitting, due to being needed for an unexpected Saturday morning fishing trip on Mr. Gentry's boat. Billy had written an apologetic note for her, which she slid under the tailor shop door at dawn on Saturday morning. Now it was Saturday evening, just after sunset, and the air was starting to cool down after a rather warm day for mid-April.
She looked around. It was not the island's finest, by any stretch, but they were her friends. These were the dockworkers and factory laborers, who toiled by the sweat of their backs during the day, providing goods and services consumed by everyone in Galveston. It was comfortable. No high rollers were to be found among them -- no one who expected special treatment or service. She suspected the saloon was only half-full of its usual patrons. Those that would be there would have plenty of funds to spread around, so she had no fear that Lillie or the other ladies would suffer for lack of clients, even with half the poker players missing.
The clam bakes were held a few times each season, and this one was a celebration of a week of abundant fishing, and extra wages for everyone involved in Galveston's fishing industry. As an afterthought, in her note, she had Billy invite Mattie to the clambake, and give her directions as to what part of the beach the party was to be held. He had looked at her in silent question and she had stubbornly crossed her arms, stating that Mattie was, after all, a tailor, and qualified as a laborer. That they never invited workers outside the docks and factories was not mentioned between them, and the look became less questioning and more knowing, and she ducked her head, hiding a blush she felt burning beneath her skin.
She was certain Billy could read her affections for Mattie. Other than Lillie, he knew her best of her friends on the island, and if Lillie suspected how she felt, Billy probably did as well. He had once questioned her relationship with Lillie, and she had vaguely brushed it aside with the explanation that they were merely good friends. He never asked again, but she knew he knew that people like her didn't become friends with people like Lillie merely for the conversation. Plus, she was way too protective of Lillie.
Now, she poked a stick into the fire, digging out another round of clams that were buried in the ash. Their steamy fragrance rose through the air and made her stomach growl in anticipation. Over the fire, a pot of boiling crabs and shrimp bubbled in an enticing spicy mixture. She peered into it as well, stirring it occasionally. Billy stood beside her, holding out platters as she dished up the clams, which he then passed around to the waiting celebrants.
She shoved more raw clams into the ash, picking out some oysters as well, some she placed in the ash with the clams, and some she kept aside to eat raw. A gentle breeze stirred her hair, which she had unbraided to hang lose down her back. Her trousers legs were rolled up and she was enjoying the cool wet sand against the soles of her bare feet. Satisfied the cooking was going well, she stepped away from the fire and the group, moving closer to the water.
It was wild out there, dark waves rolling under a rising half moon and a glittering array of stars. It was a clear night, with no clouds to obscure her view. The water churned, its surface reflecting the light, marred only by white caps that broke over a sandbar partway out to sea. In daylight, she had often swum out to the sandbar, where she could stand in waist-high water, an odd sensation given it was so far from shore. She smiled and decided to set a swim to the sandbar as a goal for Mattie to attain.
Just as she thought of her friend, movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention, and she turned to spot a familiar figure making its way toward her from far down the shoreline. She waved and Mattie waved back in kind. Rachel broke into a steady trot down the packed sand, meeting Mattie well away from the party. "Hello, Mattie. I'm glad you decided to join us."
Mattie smiled at her and looked back up the sand dunes above them toward the hidden road. "Thank you for the invitation. The directions were very good. The gentleman I caught a ride from had no trouble finding it." She looked over Rachel's shoulder toward the campfires, the music drifting toward her. "Oh, my. What a big party. Are you sure I'm welcome here? I I've never been to a party on the beach. Back home, and here, almost all parties involved tea and cakes, and the closest we came to being outdoors was sitting on my mother's screened-in porch."
"You were invited as my guest." Rachel held out her arm and felt a warm hand wrap around it. "It may be a bit rougher of a crowd than you're used to, but they are all good people."
"Well of course they are," Mattie tsked at her. "They are your friends, aren't they?" Hazel eyes twinkled in the moonlight. "Whatever is cooking smells lovely."
"We're baking clams and oysters, and boiling crabs and shrimp. Part of our take from the catch this week." Rachel guided her to the nearest fire, pulling a large driftwood log closer and motioning Mattie to take a seat. "Would you like a mug of wine?"
"Yes, thank you." While Rachel retrieved her drink, Mattie looked around the area. It was indeed a rough crowd. Many of the men bore untrimmed beards and most of the people wore simple well-worn clothing, with patches at elbows and knees the rule rather than the exception. She noted that everyone seemed healthy and trim, and she assumed the work they did kept them in good condition. Many were standing in a circle around the musicians, clapping their hands while others danced to a lively jig. It seemed that no one was barred from the gathering, as wives and children were mixed in among the workers. She knew these people had little in the way of money or material possessions, yet all of them appeared to be happy and smiling, as if they hadn't a care in the world.
She envied them.
Rachel returned with not only her drink, but a plate generously heaped with an assortment of steaming seafood. A large slice of buttered cornbread graced one side of the plate, while a thick wedge of apple pie balanced it on the other side. "Do you mind sharing with me?" Rachel sat down and produced two forks. "I tried to get enough for two, and we're running low on plates."
"That would be fine." Mattie studied the plate with some trepidation. She was familiar with shrimp and crabs, but the clams and oysters were a mystery. "How do I eat those?"
"Oh." Rachel picked up a clam, breaking the shell open. "You pick out the meat inside with your fork, and here is how I prefer to eat the oysters." She chose a raw oyster, cracking the shell against the log with a rock. She slurped it down and followed it by sucking on a slice of orange. "Not everyone likes them raw. I brought cooked ones too, just in case."
Mattie felt brave, and picked up a raw oyster. "I'll do it the way you just did. If if you can help me get it open, that is." She watched Rachel grin, then heard the crack of the shell and gasped in surprise as her friend held the half-shell up to her lips. She sucked the slimy oyster flesh into her mouth. It was salty and had the oddest texture, but she decided she liked it, especially the orange slice afterward. "That was good. Can I have another one, please?"
Rachel laughed softly and complied. They became lost in conversation, sharing their meal, exchanging bites of seafood and dessert, oblivious to the curiously watching eyes all around them. Most of the people didn't know who Mattie was, save the few men who had given the tailor shop some business. Her fine skirt and shirtwaist were out of place, yet Rachel obviously knew her well. After a while, attention was turned back to the music and the food, and the women were left to talk in relative privacy.
"I can't believe you came." Rachel offered her friend a bite of apple pie, watching as full soft lips nibbled at the sweet treat. She swallowed, willing away thoughts of what she'd like to do to those lips. Their separation had made it abundantly clear to Rachel that Lillie was correct, that she did have very strong feelings for Mattie, although she couldn't characterize them as love. She'd never been in love, and wasn't sure what it was supposed to feel like. It mattered not. The golden band on Mattie's ring finger precluded anything more than friendship.
"I can't believe you invited me." Red eyelashes blinked shyly. "It means a great deal to me, Rachel. I I get lonely sometimes, especially on Saturday evenings when I see all the people in town going home to their families. Still, going home to my empty house is better than " she shook her head sadly, not completing her sentence. "What a lovely evening." She changed the subject. "I've never been walking on the beach at night."
"That can be remedied." Rachel finished off the last bite of pie and stood, giving Mattie a hand up. Without a word, she led her down to the waterline and they started walking even further south. "Watch the path of the moonlight."
Mattie followed her gaze and laughed in delight. "It's following us. How does it do that?"
"I don't know. It's a mystery." Rachel was still holding Mattie's hand. It was a new and delicious sensation, and she had a hard time concentrating on conversation. "I used to try to outrun it, but couldn't. No matter how far up or down the beach you walk, the moon path follows you."
They walked further and passed a young couple that was half-hidden behind the sand dunes. The man held the woman's face in his hands, and he was kissing her passionately. They were unaware of Mattie and Rachel's presence, and Mattie found herself watching them, in spite of her better manners. It made her gut twist with the strangest sensation, and she finally averted her eyes in embarrassment.
Rachel only watched the couple briefly, spending most of her time watching Mattie's reaction. It was an interesting combination of desire and wide-eyed innocence, and it lasted but a brief moment before her friend's face grew serious again. She felt Mattie's hand slide out of hers and travel up her arm until it settled into the crook of her elbow. Her own middle fluttered and she drew in a deep breath, then clasped her other hand over Mattie's. "Sorry," she finally spoke. "I didn't know you'd see something like that out here."
"It's alright." Mattie couldn't bring herself to look up. "It was beautiful, I think. Just like some of the romance novels I've read. I always wondered if people in real life could feel that way, and now I have my answer." Her voice was sad, and she felt as if she'd lost something before she ever really had it. I'll never know what it's like to be loved like that. Adam's face had never born the slightest hint of the adoration she had seen on the young man's face back on the beach. "Have you ever been in love, Rachel?"
It caught her off guard and she almost stumbled, feeling the surprisingly strong hand clasping her arm, squeeze her, steadying her. She looked down at the top of the red head, which shimmered in the moonlight. "I I don't know," she answered honestly. If she had been, it was right now, something she wasn't about to admit.
"I've never been." Mattie looked up at her earnestly. "I fear I've lost out on the chance for that kind of happiness. I suppose it's not meant to be, at least not for everyone. I think love is an ideal that only a lucky few ever get to truly experience."
Oh, Mattie. Rachel's heart ached and she drew Mattie over to another log and sat down, facing the water. It was so damned unfair that someone as young and beautiful as Mattie felt her fate was already sealed for the rest of her life. "Mattie, you're bright and beautiful. You you could have anything you want."
"I don't think so." Mattie's eyes were full of hope. She wanted to be convinced that she was wrong. "My parents didn't include love in the equation when they were selling me off to Adam. No one ever asked me how I felt about him. Truly, I felt nothing, except terror."
"It shouldn't be that way." Rachel kissed the top of her head and drew her close to her side, draping one arm around her. "If you want to be loved, you should have that in your life."
"That's very sweet. I wish I'd had you looking out for me when I was fourteen. I might have found the courage to speak up for what I wanted. Or didn't want." Mattie rested her head on the comforting shoulder and they stared wordlessly out at the Gulf of Mexico, watching the endless waves as they rolled ashore with hissing speed. Her eyes were transfixed on the water, but the rest of her senses took in more -- Rachel's scent -- the bay rum mixed with campfire smoke and ocean air. A strong heartbeat pounded against her ear and Rachel's chest rose and fell in long steady breaths. Her hand came up, idly stroking Mattie's hair, a pleasant sensation Mattie reveled in, closing her eyes at the deluge of emotion that washed over her.
She wasn't sure who looked up first, but she found herself gazing into a pair of steel eyes, that looked back at her with both concern and affection. Without thinking, she leaned forward, kissing Rachel, first on the right cheek and then the left, before she lightly brushed her lips across Rachel's, just once. She closed her eyes and rested her head back on the friendly shoulder, and felt a tremor run through the strong body that held her. "Are you cold?" She asked, without opening her eyes. She wrapped her own arm around Rachel's waist, in an effort to help her get warm.
"No. No, not at all." Rachel stopped breathing for a very long moment. It means nothing. Nothing. Her body and heart told her differently, but she kept repeating the word to herself, over and over. Many of the young women in town greeted one another with a kiss, sometimes on the cheek and sometimes with a brief peck on the lips. None of them had ever greeted her that way, but still, it was common. She wasn't sure how common it was alone on the beach in the dark, but she couldn't afford to dwell on it for fear it would only make her mad.
After a very long while, they walked back to the campfires, hand in hand, in companionable silence, and took a seat among the revelers, who were gathered around the musicians. Mattie clapped her hands and tapped her feet in time to the music, and exchanged pleasantries with several of the workers, who came up and shyly introduced themselves to her. Rachel heard neither music nor conversation. Her head was spinning, as she felt a lingering tingle on her lips, and an ache in her heart she feared would never be soothed.
Sunday dawned warm and sunny, a promising day for swimming instruction. Rachel spent the morning going over her reading lessons and doing some wash. Skipping mass had become habit, and she allowed a few moments of guilt, but only a few. Her mind was still jumbled, her body at war with logic. Sitting on the beach with Mattie had felt right comfortable. Good sense told her that what her heart wanted could never be.
She wanted to be with Mattie, just as the widows Sanders and MacKenzie were together. With a single chaste kiss, Mattie had awakened feelings and dreams in Rachel that she had never before imagined. She closed her eyes while reading, her mind adrift, remembering the brief pressure of soft lips against her own. It was the single sweetest moment of her life. She wanted more.
So did Mattie.
Mattie wanted love and romance and all the things she would never get from Adam. That much was obvious. Whether Mattie felt anything at all for Rachel beyond friendship was a great mystery. Rachel's heart sank, realizing that more than likely, Mattie had no comprehension that two women could share romantic love, and that even if Mattie did have those kinds of feelings for her, she probably didn't recognize them for what they were.
Then there was the whole maddening problem of Mattie's marriage to Adam.
She took a deep breath and forced the thoughts away, focusing instead on her meager pile of sun-dried laundry and the day ahead. It was torture to dwell on something she could not have, and she renewed her vow to maintain what was proving to be a very good friendship. The friendship itself was more than she could have hoped for, she was certain.
She could always visit Lillie, although she would never get kisses from Lillie. Her feelings for Lillie weren't the same as her feelings for Mattie, but it was more than likely the best she would get when it came to physical love, and she was grateful Lillie was in her life, both as a friend and a sometimes bed-mate.
At last it was time to leave for Mattie's house, and Rachel rolled up a spare set of clothing, just in case, and tucked it into her leather satchel with her books. She also tossed in a towel and remembered to include her own hairbrush to comb out wet hair later. As an afterthought, she included her harmonica. She didn't play it often, and hadn't played during the festivities the night before, but sometimes she enjoyed sitting on the beach and working out some of the jigs she heard played in the saloon.
The trolley ride flew by, and soon she was on Mattie's front porch, rapping on the door. The sun was almost directly overhead and there were no clouds at all. The weather was more typical of June than April, and Rachel made a mental note to go visit her friend Mr. Cline, the chief of the local weather station. He would know if it was supposed to be an extra hot summer.
At last, a very timid-looking Mattie answered the door, only her braided head poking around the sturdy oak doorframe. "I've never worn a bathing suit before." She motioned Rachel inside. "Does it look simply hideous?"
Rachel stepped inside, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the lower light. She had to smile. Mattie was wearing a typical ladies' bathing suit, a navy blue sailor-style top with elbow-length sleeves and large white collar, complete with pale blue bow tie in the middle. Along with it she wore the matching split skirt, which bore a triple row of thin white trim around the hemline. It came to her knees, revealing nicely muscled calves. "It looks very nice," she answered honestly.
"Here." Mattie waved around a pair of navy blue stockings. "I haven't put these on yet."
"No." Rachel playfully grabbed the stockings. "Don't."
Mattie blew a puff of air skyward, ruffling her own bangs. "But all the pictures in the catalogues "
" show women sitting lady-like on the beach, or wading in ankle-deep water." Rachel tweaked a pert tilted nose. "We, however, are going swimming, and these will only make it more difficult for you. Best to have your feet and toes free."
"You're certain?" Mattie was unconvinced.
"Cross my heart." Rachel set the stockings aside and sniffed the air appreciatively. "Something smells delicious."
"I made some fresh bread this morning, and baked a ham." She retrieved a picnic basket from beside the door. "I thought sandwiches on the beach might be nice. And I made some oatmeal cookies for dessert."
"You spoil me." Rachel ducked her head in embarrassment.
"And you treated me to a very nice party yesterday evening." Mattie smiled. "Now go change into your bathing suit, and let's go down to the beach."
"I'm already in my bathing suit." Blue eyes twinkled.
"You're in a long-sleeved shirt and trousers," Mattie protested.
"And underneath I have on a pair of men's swimming trunks and top, and that's what I plan to swim in." Rachel crossed her arms, but maintained her smile. "I would look ridiculous in a bathing suit."
"I think you would look very nice." Mattie handed her a checkered picnic blanket, and tucked her hand into the crook of Rachel's free elbow. "But I'm sure you'll look just as lovely in the trunks." She squeezed a forearm affectionately. "Let's go. I'm anxious to have my first swimming lesson."
With a minimum of fuss, Rachel delicately traded the light blanket for the much heavier basket, and they set out for a stretch of beach further south of Mattie's house. Rachel had selected the spot earlier in the week, a small cove with relatively shallow water that was much calmer than the straighter section of beach where Mattie lived. They tucked the basket, blanket, another bag, and Mattie's sketchpad behind a large dead log, and Mattie cautiously tiptoed down the beach and stepped into the water.
"It's not so bad," she called back behind her. Her skin quickly adjusted to the cool temperature, a strange contrast with the rather warm air. She bravely waded in as far as her knees and stopped to turn, watching Rachel remove her trousers and shirt, impatiently flipping her long braid down her back. The dark form-fitting trunks came to just above her knees and the top had short sleeves that hugged her upper arms.
Mattie studied her now, with guarded interest. She had seen Rachel's upper body in her undershirt, and had even seen her in her bloomers the weekend it rained, but the trunks left very little of her body shape to the imagination. Mattie decided her friend was very attractive, with nice curves and planes, and a fluid way of moving that was decidedly feminine, despite the more masculine exterior Rachel maintained. She had tried to sketch Rachel from memory several times, and had secretly brought the sketchpad in hope that later, after dinner and lessons, she might persuade her to pose for a live sitting.
Rachel smiled as she approached the water, the bow of her upper lip full, and her teeth even and white. Her eyes sparkled in the sunlight and the auburn highlights in her hair were readily evident, creating a nice sheen. Her face was very tanned, as were her arms, very different from Mattie's own fashionably pale features. Rachel had very nice soft skin, if she recalled, a surprise given the amount of time the taller woman spent in the sun each day. There was no evidence of the leathery texture so many of the older sailors on the island bore as a badge of honor.
"Are you ready?" Rachel moved to her side, giving her a playful splash with a flip of her hand. "Nice day for it."
"Yes." Mattie splashed back. "And yes, it is."
With a few more splashes, they were in an all-out war, Mattie running through the knee-high water, shrieking with laughter while Rachel chased behind, her own low chuckle joining in. As she ran, she continually batted the waves up with her hands and feet until Mattie was soaked, although she had yet to dunk her head under the water. At last Rachel stretched out and leaped, almost, but not quite, tackling her friend. It was more of a rough embrace, in which they ended up sitting down in water up to their chins, their arms wrapped around each other. Rachel supported her friend against the unfamiliar sensation, as the mild waves rocked them gently back and forth while they sat on their haunches, their toes digging into the sandy bottom for balance.
"How does it feel?" Rachel slicked her own bangs back off her forehead.
It felt nice, and very warm, although Mattie knew that wasn't the question being asked. "It's very different. I feel so light."
"You aren't as heavy in the water." Rachel demonstrated, moving away from her and stretching out, floating on her back. "I don't know why, or how to explain it, but the water holds up your weight. That's why we can swim and float."
"Oh." Mattie eyed her cautiously. She tried to mimic the pose, stretching out her arms, but not quite finding the courage to come off her feet.
"Here." Rachel stood back up and moved in, placing one hand on the small of Mattie's back and the other against her belly. "Let go. I won't let you sink, I promise."
Mattie's eyes locked with Rachel's for the briefest moment, then she slowly leaned back, feeling the strong hand at her back. Gaining courage, she leaned further and allowed her feet to float up, and suddenly she was stretched back in the water, with both of Rachel's arms supporting her from beneath. "Oh." Her own breathing and voice sounded loud in her water-covered ears. "That feels lovely. Like floating on a cloud."
"Floating on the waves," Rachel corrected her. "Relax. Your arms and legs are still very rigid." She watched her friend comply, and nodded in silent approval. "I'll stay right here. I want you to get used to floating for a bit, then we'll move on to something a bit more challenging."
Mattie closed her eyes, absorbing the sensation of the cool water, the rolling waves, the warm sun on her face, and Rachel's strong arms holding her up. She could feel Rachel's body heat, warming the water around them, and this close, felt the quiet rise and fall of her breathing. It was the first time she had been acutely aware of someone else's physical presence, at least in a way that was so pleasant.
She decided it must be because she was so comfortable with Rachel.
"Are you asleep?" Rachel laughed softly, nudging her in the ribs.
"No." Red lashes fluttered open. "I'm sorry. It's so very comfortable, I could fall asleep, I think."
"If you're that comfortable, it's time for the next lesson." Rachel slowly released her, not completely letting go until she was certain Mattie's feet were planted firmly on the ocean floor. "Alright." She turned so they were face to face. "Watch." She held her nose, took a deep breath, and dunked completely under the water, then came back up, tossing her head back to rearrange her braid. "Now your turn." She grinned.
"Oh my." Mattie's eyes grew very round, but she took an even deeper breath, pinched her nose between her finger and thumb, and with puffed-out cheeks, disappeared from view. She came back up abruptly, not opening her eyes until she felt a gentle tap to her shoulder.
"You can open your eyes now, you survived." Rachel stood back, crossing her arms over her chest in amusement. Her new friend was not only pretty and charming, she was turning out to be absolutely adorable as well.
"Oh my," Mattie repeated. "That was very different. I've dunked in the bathtub before, but I always felt the sides of the tub around me. That felt queer, surrounded by water and only feeling the sand under my feet."
"Now without holding your nose." Rachel smiled. "Like this. You take a deep breath, then when you go under, you can either do nothing at all, or you can blow little bubbles of air out your nose. I recommend the bubbles. It's much more pleasant than feeling water go up your nose." She demonstrated again and surfaced.
"My turn?" Mattie's voice wavered uncertainly. She took several breaths, then went under. She was fine until she forgot to blow out, and started to draw water in instead. She erupted from the water, coughing and spluttering, her nose and throat burning as she tried to gulp in air.
Rachel thumped her on the back. "That happens a lot the first few times. You'll get used to how it works, eventually. Come on, try again." She smiled encouragement, and Mattie complied.
This time she did it correctly. Rachel continued to praise her, and they spent the better part of the next hour alternating between floating on their backs, ducking under the water, and finally they progressed to belly floating, face down in the water. After a while, Rachel could tell Mattie was starting to tire out. The younger woman was floating on her back, but her skin was starting to feel cool to the touch. Rachel laughed and grabbed her arms, pulling her through the water while Mattie remained on her back.
"Rachel," she fussed. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Giving you a ride back to shore." She steered toward the log where their things were stashed. "I'm hungry. That's enough swimming lessons for one day."
"Oh, good." Mattie righted herself, and together they high-stepped through the water toward shore. "I'm hungry too. Besides, I think we have some other lessons to go over, if I recall. Didn't you progress to the third reader?"
"Yes I did." Rachel beamed proudly. "I think I like this trading we're doing."
"Trading?" Mattie peered up at her quizzically.
"Yep." They reached the log and Rachel spread the blanket out on the sand in front of it. "Swimming lessons for reading lessons."
"Me too." Mattie retrieved the picnic basket and opened it up. "Here, teacher," she teased, handing across a sandwich. "You've earned it today."
"Thank you." Rachel laughed, plopping down on the blanket and crossing her legs. They ate slowly, sharing little stories and talking about the week past. Rachel silently acknowledged that her feelings for Mattie were very real. Happily, the friendship and easy laughter they shared made those feelings much more bearable. Being in Mattie's presence was a delightful experience, and helped to ease her more serious and morose thoughts from the morning.
It was indeed turning out to be a wonderful day.
The sun was sinking lower, casting long rays of pale warm light cross their blanket, over the brown sand, and out toward the sea, gilding the waves as they rolled ashore from the east. Rachel sat on the edge of the blanket with a towel wrapped around her lower body, her long wet hair combed out and re-braided, enjoying the heat of the sun against the skin of her neck and arms. They had gone over reading lessons, swam some more, and eaten the remainder of the sandwiches for supper. Now she was facing the water, playing her harmonica, producing a combination of lively jigs and a few slower tunes she called "cowboy campfire music."
Mattie was resting against the log, her sketchpad spread across her outstretched legs, drawing Rachel in profile. She smiled, using her thumb to smudge in some shadows under her friend's cheekbones, and below her chin. Rachel had her long legs crossed, and was still wearing her swim trunks and top, and her feet were bare, as was her head. She had shunned a wide-brimmed hat, claiming she wore them all week long at work, even though she hated them.
Mattie did don a sensible straw hat, and even opened up a ruffled parasol, its handle stuck into a crack in the log, providing extra shade. Ladies didn't let their skin get tanned, and she was raised to be a lady. Rachel didn't seem to care much about being a lady, but for some reason that didn't bother Mattie at all. She liked Rachel's dark golden skin, which made her gray-blue eyes appear even paler than they probably really were.
It was her fourth drawing of the afternoon, and she was pleased that Rachel seemed willing to sit and pose for as long as she wanted her to. Her first sketch was of Rachel stretched out on her back, cat-napping after dinner. The second was a more active drawing of Rachel swimming in the shallow cove, while the third was a simple pose of the tall woman, standing in the sand dunes, hands on hips, her hair lose and whipping back behind her. Mattie paused and flipped back through the pages, studying the prior sketches. She decided she liked the fourth one best. Rachel looked quite pensive as she stared out toward the Gulf, playing her melancholy cowboy tunes, occasionally closing her eyes, working out the music to her own hearing.
She thought about her art book back at the house, a book she had ordered from Paris through a catalogue. It was for novice artists, and provided instruction on how to draw a number of animals, as well as people. It included a section on the human body, and nude sketches, and emphasized that in order to draw the clothed body, it was important to know how to draw a nude body first. Well, she mused to herself. She didn't have any nude bodies to work with, other than her own in the mirror, and couldn't quite bring herself to draw her own naked form.
She remembered Rachel's nicely-muscled upper back, at least what she saw and felt through her thin undershirt, from measuring her for her work shirts. The shirts were back at the house, and they still needed to fit them for any remaining minor alterations. She brought them home from the shop, on the off chance they had time for Rachel to try them on before she went home after their reading and swimming lessons.
At last, she finished her sketch, and held it up for Rachel's inspection. Rachel put down the harmonica and scooted across the blanket, peering down at the drawing. "Don't know why you'd want to draw me." She shook her head, feeling the color rise in her cheeks. "Surely you can find someone more interesting."
"Maybe." Mattie poked her in the ribs and laughed. "Maybe not. But you're about the only person I know who would sit all afternoon and let me draw them." She closed up the pad and tucked it back in her bag. "Thank you. I love to draw but I'm still trying to get the human form down. I don't get much opportunity to practice."
"Anytime you need a model, you just let me know." Rachel stood, brushing sand off her legs, and they began packing up their things. "You have time for me to try on the shirts when we get back to your house?"
"Yes." Mattie looked up at her, gathering the picnic blanket over one arm and slinging her bag over her shoulder.
Rachel took the heavier satchel and picnic basket, and a tiny smile played at her lips as she felt Mattie's hand slip around her arm, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "You're sure about the shirts?" She looked down, a question in her eyes. "I'd hate to be there if "
"Adam isn't due back until tomorrow afternoon," Mattie cut in, guessing at her question. "We have plenty of time."
"Oh. Alright then." Rachel stepped carefully over a dead jellyfish, steering Mattie well-clear of its venomous tentacles. "Might as well try them on now and maybe I can pick them up sometime next week."
They arrived back at the house and entered it, setting their burdens down just inside the doorway. Mattie moved around the house, switching on lamps, and putting the leftover food in the ice box. She motioned Rachel into the bedroom and pulled the shirts out from behind a changing screen where she had hung them. "Here. You can just " she turned around and stopped in mid-sentence.
Rachel was facing away from her, but had already pulled the swimming top off, exposing what was indeed a very nicely-muscled back for Mattie's view. Oh, my. So much for the changing screen. Mattie swallowed, unable to place the emotions she felt. Rachel was beautiful, the long braid hanging down her broad back to a tapered waistline. Without the longer swimming top, her shape was completely revealed in the form-fitting trunks. Rachel had a very nice body, Mattie decided, and then realized that truly, she hadn't seen very many bodies in quite this state of undress.
"Here." She handed one of the shirts over Rachel's shoulder and stepped back.
"Thank you." She pulled the sleeves over her arms and hitched her shoulders up, drawing it up and buttoning it in front, then fastening the cuffs. "How does it look?"
Mattie moved closer, picking up a pincushion from the desktop. "Looks like I might need to take the sleeves up just a tad." She tugged at a cuff that came a little too far down over Rachel's hand. "Hold on. Let me " She placed a few pins between her teeth and gathered the sleeve in her hands and folded it up a little, pinning it so that it was the correct length. "There." She moved in front of Rachel and fussed with the collar until it settled into place properly, then stood back. "Turn around in a circle for me."
Rachel complied and ended up facing her again, fidgeting a bit nervously with the button placket. "Anything else?" Her eyes twinkled faintly, and her cheeks were flushed, though whether from sunburn or not, Mattie couldn't tell.
"No. I believe that's it." She gathered up the other shirts. "No need to try the others. I made a pattern that I used for all of them, so they should all need the same alterations in the sleeves." She watched Rachel turn away from her and begin to unbutton the shirt, and without the more intense eye contact, gathered her courage. "Would you " her voice shook a little bit, and she stopped, drawing a breath to steady it. "Would you let me draw you, sitting on the edge of the bed, with your back bare?"
Rachel paused, feeling a sudden rush of blood at her temples as her heart pounded double-time. Without speaking, she sat down on the feather mattress and let the shirt fall the rest of the way down, pooling at her waist and elbows. "Like this?" she almost whispered, turning her head back over her shoulder, but keeping her eyes downcast.
"Yes." Mattie licked her lips. "Just like that. Let me go get my pad and pencil. I'll be right back." She scampered into the parlor and returned out of breath, drawing the desk chair out and sitting down at an angle where the lamp light best reflected off Rachel's back muscles. "Can you turn your head again, like you did a minute ago, so that your face is in profile?"
Rachel did so, hoping the heat she felt under her skin wasn't showing. "You want the braid down my back or in front?"
"Um " Mattie placed the sketchpad aside and stood, moving in behind her friend. "Could I take it down?"
"If you'd like." Rachel felt the tugging sensation and a pleasant tingle at her scalp, as Mattie combed the braid out with her fingers. As for Mattie, her hands were shaking. She had no idea why, nor did she have any explanation for why she was finding it difficult to breathe, or why butterflies were fluttering about in her stomach. She finished, gently arranging Rachel's hair so that part of it fell down her back, but most of it was over her shoulder in front, leaving most of her bare back still painted in the yellow lamp light. As for her own hair, she reached up, pushing damp bangs away from a suddenly-sweaty forehead.
Rachel heard the light patter of Mattie's feet as she moved across the room and sat down, then heard the faint scratching of her pencil against the rough sketch paper. It was her turn to swallow several times. True, she had already felt Mattie watching her for most of the afternoon, but had managed to find other things to distract herself, either swimming in the water, looking up at the fluffy clouds in the sky, or concentrating on playing her harmonica. Now, in the intimacy of Mattie's bedroom, sitting partially exposed, there was very little to focus on, other than her own uneven breathing, the sudden dryness of her mouth, and the pulsing of her own blood, which pounded in her ears.
Why she had agreed to this sitting, she had no easy answer. It went against her vows to push her feelings for Mattie aside. She felt Mattie's eyes on her back, almost like a light caress, and closed her own eyes, trying to sort out a myriad of emotions. Mattie had asked, and that was the simple answer as to why she was sitting there half naked before a woman she would like to be completely naked with. She thought about that, and realized there was almost nothing Mattie could ask of her, that she would refuse.
Mattie tried to hurry, and at the same time, wanted to take advantage of what might be her only opportunity to at least study the naked human form from the back. She sketched the outline of Rachel's frame, then filled in the shoulders, the indention of her spine down her back, and the nicely-toned muscles that spread out from there, over her shoulder blades and around her sides out of sight. She finished by adding the wavy thick chestnut mane of hair, wishing again that she had the pastels to work with instead of having only pencil to shade in her friend's lovely hair color.
At last she finished, and reluctantly placed the pad on the desk top. To ask for a second pose would be rude, she decided, and hoped she hadn't already pushed for more than was polite. "I'm finished, if you want to get dressed."
"Oh. Alright." Rachel pulled the shirt off, adding it to the pile of not-quite-finished ones on the bed, and knelt down next to the bed, rummaging through her satchel for her clean change of clothing. She heard Mattie retreat into the parlor, and stood, releasing a long-held breath, feeling her heartbeat slow down to something resembling normal. She finished dressing and moved to the doorway, spotting Mattie sitting on the sofa.
"I guess I should be getting back home. Hitching a ride might be difficult this late, and the trolley will have stopped running by now. I should have ridden my bicycle over." She watched Mattie's face fall and without further thought, dropped her bag and moved fluidly across the room to sit down next to her. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." Mattie looked up at her, pain evident in her eyes. "I always feel a little sad on Sunday evenings. I usually enjoy the weekends Adam is gone. I know that sounds horrid, but ."
"No." Rachel reached across, stroking her cheek. "It's alright, Mattie. Don't feel badly."
Mattie clasped her hand, holding it against her face as Rachel continued the comforting touches. "But now, I'm more sad, because I've come to enjoy our Sundays together. I I've never felt as close to anyone as I do to you. Does that sound strange?"
"No." Rachel looked down, unable to meet her gaze. "I feel the same way about you."
"Did you know ?" Mattie laughed softly. "Last night, at your clam bake, I I've never kissed anyone else on the lips, besides Adam."
Uncertain eyes looked back up, studying hazel ones. "Me neither, not since " Sarah, she finished silently. "Not since a very long time ago."
"Was it the person that you were with?" Mattie blushed, not believing she had dared ask the question, and uncertain of where it had come from. "Do you miss him, very much?"
"It it's complicated, Mattie." She tried to smile, without much success. "I used to, but not so much anymore. As I said, it's been a long time."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude on your privacy." Mattie allowed Rachel's hand to fall away from her face, only to find it resting on her leg.
"It's alright. I don't mind." She squeezed Mattie's leg. "I've never talked to anyone before, about that time, is all."
"Because it hurts too much?" Mattie's voice was full of sympathy. Her romance novels told tales of the pain of unrequited love, and while she had never felt it herself, she wondered if that was what Rachel had been through, a love lost.
"Yes," Rachel released a long breath. That, at least, was the truth, though not for the reasons Mattie probably suspected. The shame of being forced to run away from home because of who she was, that was something she had never shared with anyone, at least not in full. It was painful. She and Lillie had talked enough for Lillie to know there was someone in Rachel's past, but that was as far as the conversation had gone.
"Do you feel very lonely, without him?" Mattie's hand covered Rachel's. She was dying to ask more, wondering why Rachel had had relations with someone she wasn't married to, wondering if maybe she had been betrothed to someone, and perhaps he had died before the wedding. Maybe that was why Rachel lived the life she lived, because of a broken heart. She wanted to ask, but sensed that perhaps it wasn't an appropriate subject.
"Not anymore." Rachel smiled. Not since I met you, Mattie. Her heart was longing to say the words, but she couldn't bring herself to. "Time has a way of healing things."
"I'm glad." Mattie stood, drawing Rachel up with her. "I should let you go home. I hate for you to be out in the dark, trying to hitch a ride. I wish I had the horses and carriage here, but Adam always boards them near the train station when he goes to Houston."
"I should be able to find a ride if I walk up as far as the Strand." Rachel tugged at a lock of Mattie's hair. "Don't worry about me. There is always someone out and about on the roads, no matter what time of day or night it is."
Mattie escorted her to the doorway and they stood in awkward silence, until Mattie moved closer, in her cheek-pecking ritual. She started to move away, feeling Rachel's chest rise and fall, and her tickling breath against her cheek, sweet with the scent of lemonade. Instead of moving back, she moved closer, once again lightly brushing her lips across Rachel's.
She pulled back, feeling Rachel's forehead pressed against hers, and a gentle hand at the small of her back, while another hand came up, cradling her face. Then Rachel kissed her again, a series of light pecks that made Mattie's toes curl, and her blood race. It was the same sensations she had felt while sketching Rachel in the bedroom, only the feelings were intensified.
Rachel started to pull back, and felt Mattie's arms wrap around her in a hug, the red head tucked tightly against her, Mattie's face buried into her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Mattie, I didn't mean to "
"No." Mattie looked up, pushing stray strands of hair from Rachel's eyes. "No need to apologize. That was nice." To prove her point, Mattie delivered one last kiss to a very startled Rachel, while gently shoving her out the door. "Come by the shop late in the week, and I should have your shirts finished."
"Eh?" Rachel was dazed. "Oh. Yes. Shirts. I will. Thank you for the picnic, Mattie."
"And thank you for the swimming lessons. I should know by Thursday if we can have more lessons next Sunday." She waved at Rachel, smiling, trying to hide a deluge of emotion. When Rachel had blended into the darkness, Mattie closed the door, leaning against the frame to catch her breath. She had a lot to think about.
Outside, Rachel trotted up to the road, her mind taking off in a hundred different directions. "Shirts?" she mumbled, looking up at the unanswering stars. "How can she think about shirts at a time like this?"
It had been a hard, long week on the docks, working under the incessant sun, which beat down without mercy on the miserable laborers. To make matters worse, it had rained on and off, just enough for water to pool in low-lying areas of the island. The pools were natural breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which swarmed any warm-blooded creature unfortunate enough to be outdoors, stinging away at unprotected skin. Fortunately, they didn't swarm near the Gulf, so the only time Rachel had to dodge the blood-sucking creatures was in her travels to and from work. She had become proficiently fast at out-peddling them, for the most part. Still, her forearms, neck, and forehead were peppered with maddeningly itchy bites.
Her arm and back muscles ached, much more than they usually did on Friday evening. Lying in the tub, she felt as if she'd lost a barrelful of sweat during the day. She was surrounded by lukewarm water, and was drinking greedily from a large mug of cooler water, and still her body felt parched, both inside and out. Wearily, she finished scrubbing the remaining sticky grime from her body and sat up, pulling the stopper and grabbing her towel from the hook on the wall.
This night, she indulged in something she saved only for rare occasions, a liberal dusting of toilet powder from an expensive canister -- expensive by Rachel's standards, at any rate, at fifty cents for 4 ounces. It had a slightly floral scent, not her fragrance of choice, but on truly warm humid days, it helped absorb a lingering dewiness to her skin that no towel would remove. It also helped mask the bites. She peered in the mirror and chuckled, thinking that she resembled one of Mattie's teacakes, with the white powder sprinkled over her tanned skin.
She tugged on her lightest pair of trousers and a sleeveless undershirt, and went to her room to finish dressing. She was scheduled to work the entire evening at the saloon, and realized regretfully that she would probably have made more joining a poker game than the few dollars she would earn tending the bar. The boarding house was serving up cold sandwiches and fresh oranges for supper, and she procured one of each on her way out the door.
At the end of the trolley line, she hopped off, and stood in a miserable swarm of mosquitoes before she finally flagged down a ride to the saloon. Sitting on the back of a flat-bed wagon, facing backward, her legs dangling down behind the wheels, she ate her supper in silence, staring out at the high marsh grass and the remaining rays of sunlight that spread out over the island, painting it in deep shadows. With one hand she ate, while the other constantly batted away the pesky mosquitoes. To add to her misery, each jolt of the wagon wheels in the ruts of the road reminded her acutely of her tired aching muscles, and she was grateful when the driver dropped her off a quarter mile from the saloon.
She thanked her ride and set out for the remainder of the walk to the saloon. Inside, the ceiling fans were whirring at full speed, and she looked up thankfully at the one that was installed directly over the bar area. She poured herself up a tall mug of water and began stacking clean mugs and glasses on the shelves behind the bar, removing them from a small cart the dishwasher had left at the end of the bar. Afterward, she went out back to a small storage shed and rolled a fresh keg of ale into the main room, hoisting it up on its stand, feeling her back muscles groan in protest at lifting yet more heavy weight after the countless bales of cotton she had loaded earlier in the day.
Work-weary patrons were already starting to wander in, and a look out the window revealed that the sun had set, and hopefully with the darkness would come a blessed coolness. It was much too warm to be late April. The wilted shirt collars and damp heads of the men gathering around the tables were more characteristic of July. She spun around, as someone tapped her on the back, and she grinned broadly. "Hello, Lil." She gave her friend a big hug.
"Hello yourself, stranger. We missed you last weekend. Hear y'all had a regular shindig down on the beach." Lillie affectionately mussed her hair. "Hear you kept constant company with your little red-headed friend."
Rachel felt a blush rise up her neck and into her face. She looked down and grabbed a rag from a rack, and began swiping down the bar. "Just went to a clam bake is all, Lil. Mattie didn't have anything else to do. Her skunk husband was out of town."
"Oh, yes, sugar. I'm sure every society lady on the island was green with envy, wanting to keep company with the likes of folks like us." Lillie trailed one fingernail across a very pink cheek. "You were the reason your lady friend went to the party, Rachel. I think you know that."
"Maybe." She debated, wondering how much she should share with Lillie. She decided to say nothing, at least for the time being. Her own emotions were all confused, and she wasn't sure if she could talk about them with someone else until she sorted them out for herself, first. Am I falling in love? Something was going on inside, that much was certain. She shook her head and tried to push the baffling thoughts aside for later. "Kind of a rough crowd for Mattie, but I think she had a good time."
"Of course she did, she was with you, you charming devil." Rachel said nothing, but her forehead scrunched into a frown and she renewed her efforts to clean the already well-polished bar. "Hey. Rachel. I'm just teasing you, sugar. You know that, don't you?" She grabbed Rachel's wrist, forcing her to be still. "You're going to scrub a hole clean through if you don't stop."
"I'm sorry, Lil." Troubled eyes searched Lillie's face. "It's not your fault. I'm just distracted."
"You've gone and fallen head over heels, haven't you?" Lillie's heart ached for her friend. "Have you talked to her about leaving that no-account husband of hers?"
"No. But we've talked about so many things, Lil. I feel like she knows me almost better than anyone, 'cepting maybe you. There are some things I just can't bring myself to tell her, but she and I have become very close friends these past few weeks. She's one of the kindest, most decent people I've ever known. I I'd be happy having her as a friend for the rest of my life. As for the rest "
"Do you think she returns your affections, Rachel?" The question hung in the air for so long, she was about to move on to another, thinking it was too difficult for Rachel to talk about.
"Don't know, for certain." Rachel folded the rag over and hung it back up. "I think, maybe she does. Sad thing is, she hasn't a clue, though. She's making me crazy, Lil. Touching me all the time, hugging me, even kissing me for goodness' sake. On the lips a few times, no less."
"Talk to her, Rachel." Lillie patted her on the arm. "You're a smart girl. You'll find a way, I'm certain of it." She looked across the room, which was starting to fill up. Several card games were already underway, and the pianist was just making his way to the piano to add to the festive atmosphere. "Well, sugar, I need to go work the room, see if I can catch me a high roller." She winked at Rachel and moved away, hitching her skirts into place and smiling brightly at a table full of single young bachelors.
Rachel merely shook he head and turned to the end of the bar, where several loners were seated on bar stools, watching the crowd and waiting to order drinks. She filled several requests in quick succession, then began making her way from table to table, starting at the far end of the room. She returned to the bar after every few tables to load up trays of drinks, and within thirty minutes, had served the first round of to the decidedly-loud room. The shuffling of cards, the clinking of ale mugs, and the dull roar of male voices and laughter vibrated throughout the room, and over it all the piano player's melodies rose up through the air, bringing some much-needed cheer at the end of a hard week for the island's laborers.
She tapped her foot idly, in time to the lively music, and tried to commit a few new tunes to memory, to play later. She admitted to herself that she wanted to play them for Mattie, who had been delighted with her meager abilities on the harmonica, or at least she appeared to be, judging from her smile and her comments regarding various songs. She had picked up her shirts on Thursday and sat in the shop chatting with Mattie during the noon hour. Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan had joined them for the last half of the hour, and after a brief bit of awkwardness, she had relaxed, realizing that her presence was welcome. When she left to go back to the docks, Mattie had followed her out and told her Adam would be going out of town, and to come over on Sunday as planned.
Speak of the devil. Her mood turned foul quickly, as Adam stepped through the door, surveying the room as if he owned it. His eyes flicked over her and just as quickly dismissed her. Just as well, her eyes lingered on his back as he turned away from her and found a seat at a table full of some of the less-sophisticated poker players. She felt her anger rise. The only reason a seasoned player like Adam would join such a game was to clean up the table, taking advantage of some of the younger men who were novices, and stealing away their hard-earned wages. Bastard.
She forced her focus elsewhere, and briefly scanned the room for Lillie, who was engaged in animated conversation with one of the town's bankers. She was seated on his lap, and he had his arm wrapped loosely around her waist. From the relaxed look on his face, he was well on his way to being inebriated. He was one of Lillie's regulars, a docile sort who would treat her well and pay her even better. Good. Rachel looked back toward Adam. Lillie would be unavailable for the remainder of the evening. One less thing for me to worry about.
She went on about her duties, occasionally watching Adam, but keeping busy most of the time. The room was bursting at the seams, as almost everyone had been paid earlier in the day. Every bachelor on the island, it seemed, and a good number of the married men, had come to spread the wealth around, bidding more than usual on the card games and buying extra rounds of drinks. All of the ladies of the evening eventually disappeared, either upstairs or out the front door, and Rachel's pockets were full of extra tip funds. It was a good night.
Time passed quickly, and she was constantly busy, either wiping down the bar and mopping up spills, or filling drink orders for thirsty patrons who bellied up to the crowded bar. As she found time, she made rounds of the tables, taking more orders and gathering even more tips. At one point she discretely counted her take, and was pleased. Fifteen dollars was nothing to sneeze at, and probably more than she would have made gambling, unless she counted cards.
Late in the evening, the first keg tapped out, and she picked it up, hoisting it over her shoulder to take out back and exchange it for a full one. She stepped into the alleyway and looked up at the twinkling stars. She whistled as she set the keg down on the sandy ground, and fumbled with the latch on the storage shed, tugging at the rusty bent catch that always seemed to stick in the evening humidity. Drat it. She dug in with her heels and pushed with both palms against the unforgiving metal. Without warning, rough hands grabbed her and spun her around, pinning her against the shed door.
"What the ?" Three men held her, one at each arm and one at her legs, and as she started to try to kick, yet a fourth one moved in, helping to immobilize her completely. A large shadow stood over her, blotting out the friendly night sky, and before she had time to think or scream, a huge fist drove into her gut, forcing the air from her lungs. She made a sound, somewhere between a groan and a whimper, unable to double over, as her body desperately wanted to do. The large man worked her over, punching her several times in quick succession, and she felt a rib crack. She had no voice, no air to make a sound. Her muscles strained against her captors, and one final blow connected with her face, snapping her head backward and slamming it against the shed, causing her to see stars of a different kind. She felt warm blood trickle from her nose, and coughed violently, feeling as if she were choking.
At last, after only a few minutes, which seemed like hours, her tormentor stepped back and a lantern shone harshly in her eyes, momentarily blinding her. She fought harder, groaning, and felt a firm hand cover her mouth and nose, increasing her pain and making it almost impossible to breathe. She felt weak as a kitten, but continued to struggle, finding her voice, which was muffled against a calloused palm that stank of stale tobacco.
The lantern moved away until Adam's face came into focus, his features garish in the flickering yellow light. He grinned evilly and dug into her pockets, removing her tip money and stashing it inside his vest. Her mind scrambled, trying to comprehend what was happening. She tried to remember the last time she'd seen him sitting across the room, how many minutes had passed, and mentally cursed herself for letting her guard down. Her rattled mind grasped for reason. She knew he wasn't the one who had hit her. He wasn't tall enough, although he was obviously behind the attack. He laughed low and then his face grew still, his eyes cold as ice. "Stay away from my wife."
Her eyes grew wide and sparked with rage, but her words were unintelligible. He moved closer, his whiskey-tainted breath warm in her face. "Don't bother arguing. A young man in there was kind enough to strike up a conversation with me. Oh, and don't be angry with him. He was quite innocent in all of this. He did, however, tell me about a most delightful clam bake he attended last weekend. One thing led to another, and he described a woman you were seen with. Fit my Mattie to a T. Fortunately I always carry my beloved wife's photograph with me, and he confirmed that she was indeed the woman you were seen with. Seems my Mattie charmed everyone at your little soiree, Miss Travis. That will be the last time, I can assure you." He looked around, and found an empty ale bottle. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a train to catch."
The last thing she felt was a horrible crack against her skull, before the world turned black and her body went limp. Her captors released her and she dropped to the ground, face down in the sand. Adam knelt, feeling her throat for a pulse. "Perfect." He stood and pulled a wad of bills from a money clip, whipping out payment to each man present. "With any luck she won't wake up until we're all well out of here. I suggest you all go home now, and lay low for a few days. I'd be surprised if she presses charges. However, if she does, trust me, her kind could never win against me. Good evening, gentlemen." He tipped his hat and strode away into the shadows of the alley.
Her head felt like it was going to split open, and her body as if it had been run over by a supply wagon. The inside of her mouth tasted like cotton and blood. She tried to swallow but her throat muscles wouldn't quite work. She was too parched. Slowly, she opened one eye and immediately shut it, groaning in pain as light from the window stabbed her sensitive eyeball. "Wha what happened?" She forced out the words, realizing she wasn't alone.
"Oh sweet lord, thank goodness you're awake." Lillie's voice crooned in her ear, making her head throb all the more.
"Lil." Her lips curled into a half smile. "Would you please quit yelling in my ear?"
"Sugar, I'm not oh, never mind." She softened her voice and scooted her chair closer to the bedside. "Can you drink some water for me, Rachel?"
The eye forced itself open again, and rolled toward her would-be tormentor. "Do you have a headache powder to go with that water? Maybe a whole box of headache powders?" The eye closed again. "Better yet, just cut the head off."
"Shhhhhh." Lillie eased an arm under her shoulders and forced her to sit partway up. "Come on, Rachel. Sip some water and if that stays down I'll talk to the doctor about headache powders, I promise."
Rachel complied and opened both eyes, immediately regretting it as the room began to spin. "Can't."
"At least try." Lillie continued to support her. "Doctor Mills said you have to take it slow."
"Doctor?" The word finally registered. "Lil, I can't afford to pay a doctor, and I don't have anything I can trade."
"It's paid for," a very quiet voice answered from the corner.
Her brain spun, but not from the headache, as the welcome familiar voice washed over her. "Mattie?" Suddenly it all came rushing back with vivid clarity, and she sat bolt upright, ignoring the stars in her vision, the pain in her side, and the churning in her gut. "Mattie, you can't go home. Adam he auuggghh!" A sharp pain lanced through her temple and she flopped back down on the bed, forcing down a wave of nausea.
"Don't you worry about me." Mattie got up and sat cautiously down on the edge of the bed, so as not to jostle her friend. She felt the mug of water pressed into her hand as Lillie mouthed the words 'you try' to her. She nodded, the tiniest acknowledgement, and inched closer until she could look down at Rachel's face. "Here." She slipped a hand around the back of Rachel's neck. "Drink this now. It'll make you feel better."
Rachel felt the warm touch, tickling her nape hairs, and allowed herself to be lifted up, just enough that the water wouldn't spill. She sipped, slowly at first, then took a few great gulps, her dry mouth and lips welcoming the cool refreshment. She stopped in mid-swallow and carefully pushed the mug away, reaching up to touch a pale bruise on Mattie's cheek. "I'll kill him."
"You'll do no such thing." Mattie's fingers curled around the ones caressing her face. "Don't think about it right now, please, Rachel? You should concentrate on getting better."
"Be because of me." Steel eyes misted up, and her fingers moved further back, stroking silken red hair.
"Because of me." Mattie echoed her words, tracing a much darker bruise on Rachel's face, which banded her eye and blended from black to blue to purple as it covered most of her right cheek. "Because of me." A bare whisper, as she gave the slightest touch to a large lump at Rachel's right temple, along with a row of stitches at the edge of her hairline.
"I I need to " Rachel tried to sit up, only to find a gentle touch to her shoulder, holding her down.
"You don't need to go anywhere. You're safe in your own bed, and the doctor will be by later on today to re-wrap your ribs." She fluffed Rachel's bangs, riffling them through her fingers.
"Ribs?" So that's what was hurting so badly. "Broken. How many?"
"Just one." Mattie watched Rachel's face scrunch up in painful thought.
"Won't be able to work. They took my tip money too." Thought turned to fear. "I probably have enough saved to get by a month."
"Sugar," Lillie chimed in. "Don't you worry your pretty head about anything. You have a whole bunch of friends, and we will make sure you're taken care of. You're hurt pretty badly, Rachel. You've got to rest."
"How bad?" The frown returned.
"Broken rib, big knot and gash on your head, and the doctor thinks you might have some bleeding inside. You came too for a bit earlier and coughed up some blood. And you have a fever, although he thinks you might have some illness that isn't related to the injuries." Mattie clasped her hand. "We thought your nose was broken, at first, but you managed to escape that."
"Hard to believe." Rachel gingerly touched the bridge of her nose, which was very sore. "Smacked me good there." She ran her tongue along her teeth. "No teeth missing." She smiled as proof. "What day is it?"
"It's Sunday morning." Mattie answered quietly. "You missed Saturday."
"How'd I get back in my room?" She closed her eyes trying to remember, but her head hurt too much, and she whimpered as the pounding increased. "Hurts." She wrapped a hand around Mattie's leg, automatically reaching out for someone she had come to associate with comfort. "Might need to sleep again for a little while." She looked back up, one more time. "Stay?"
"Sleep now." Mattie patted the hand on her leg. "I'll be here when you wake up."
Satisfied with her answer, Rachel closed her eyes and settled back into the pillow, shifting until the pain was somewhat bearable. Mattie watched, and listened, until shallow breathing became longer deep breaths, and felt her own body relax in response. She looked over at Lillie, who sat across the room, silently observing them. "You should get some dinner."
"Yes. I guess I should." She stood up, feeling the weariness in her body from too little sleep. "I don't believe I'm welcome downstairs, so I'll slip out the back door and go across to the hotel. You want me to bring you back a plate?"
"That would be nice." Mattie reached for her pocket book on the night table, only to have her hand stopped.
"I've got it." Lillie smiled, trying to break the tenuous barrier that hung between her and a woman she had thought she'd never meet.
"Thank you," Mattie smiled back, wishing the discomfort between them were gone. She had so many unanswered questions.
"I'll be back shortly." Lillie stepped out the door, closing it quietly behind her.
Mattie sighed heavily and looked around the sparse room. It had been a very long weekend, so far. Flashes of memory flitted through her mind and she closed her eyes against a vague unsettling terror.
Adam had come home, rousing her out of bed in the middle of the night and dragging her across the room, pinning her against the wall and shouting questions that her sleepy mind didn't fully grasp right away.
One solid slap to her face had quickly brought clarity.
He continued to scream at her about Rachel, wanting to know how they met, how much time they had spent together, and if "that unnatural woman" had touched her in any unseemly way. She didn't fully understand what he meant by that, or how he knew she had befriended Rachel. He wouldn't allow her to ask questions in return, and she finally convinced him Rachel was merely a client at the tailor shop who had invited her to a party as partial payment for a work order, and that she thought it would have been rude to decline the invitation.
"You weren't home to consult, so I had to decide on my own."
He bought the story, she hoped.
"Poor judgment on your part, Mattie, but it doesn't matter now." Finally, his lips curve into an evil smile. "She won't be bothering you anymore. I made sure of that."
"What did you do to her?" Mattie's eyes were fearful, as she tried to hide the shaking in her voice.
"Taught her a lesson she won't soon forget. If she wakes up and is able to remember it." He watched her, like a cat taunting a mouse, daring her to show more than a measure of concern for a stranger.
"Where is she?" She managed to keep her words steady.
"Never you mind about that, Mattie." He picked up his carpetbag. "She's probably already back inside that whore house where she works. I'm taking the midnight train out to Houston, and I'll be back Monday night." He moved closer, until she could smell the whiskey and cigar smoke on his breath. "You're to stay in the house until I get back, except to go to the tailor's. Do you understand me?"
"Yes." Her face was impassive, her eyes cool golden hazel. "I understand perfectly."
"Good." He pecked her on the cheek -- the one he hadn't hit. "I'm glad we have that matter cleared up."
She watched him leave, counting silently in her head, her heart racing, until she was certain he was well on his way to the train station. She had never run so fast in her life, hurling down the road, seeking a ride, any ride, to the far end of the island where Rachel had said the saloon was. She finally got a ride in one of the new automobiles, thanking the driver absently when he dropped her off directly in front of the saloon.
She tore inside, gasping for breath. The place was mostly deserted at the late hour, with only a few stray workers remaining, mopping the floor and wiping down tables and the bar. A woman with blonde ringlets came down the stairs with an older gentleman, laughing giddily at something the man said. Their eyes met and the woman quickly dismissed her companion. Lillie approached her first, as if she knew her.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" A smile shone in her eyes that didn't meet her lips.
"I I'm looking for my friend. Rachel." She looked around. "I need to find her."
"Haven't seen her in a while, Miss ?"
"Mattie." She saw the recognition on Lillie's face, but had no time to worry about why the blonde prostitute seemed to know who she was. "I fear she may be in some kind of trouble."
Lillie had seen it then, the rising welt on her cheek, with just the slightest shade of blue. Without a word she took Mattie's hand and drug her across the saloon, where she gathered a handful of the workers who searched the saloon from top floor to bottom. It was Mattie who finally thought to step into the alleyway.
Her heart lurched at the dark figure curled into a little ball against the back wall of the saloon. A trail of blood pooled from Rachel's head back across the alley to the storage shed, where a shattered bottle lay on the ground, more blood glistening off it's surface in the moonlight. There was so much blood under Rachel's face. Kneeling next to her very still friend, she had at first thought Rachel was dead.
She had screamed, she thought, which brought the others running. Some of the men had gotten Rachel up into a cart, which Lillie herself drove back to the boarding house while Mattie sat in back, Rachel's head cradled in her lap.
Rachel's friend Billy had carried her up to her room, then gone running for the doctor, who came out in the wee hours of the morning to tend to her injuries. He had done all he could with Rachel being unconscious, and had left them until later on Saturday afternoon. He had been quite concerned as to how the blow to the head might affect her when she woke up.
"But you're going to be just fine." She whispered softly, brushing her thumb against the soft skin of Rachel's forearm resting against her thigh. "Because if you're not, I just might kill Adam myself."
She had missed work at the tailor shop. Had missed mass, and wasn't sure how she would cope with Adam when he returned. She had so many questions, but nothing mattered if Rachel didn't pull through. "And you will, you hear me?" She lifted a limp hand, kissing the knuckles. "I haven't learned to swim yet, Rachel Travis, and you promised you'd teach me, so you'd best get all better."
As if in answer, Rachel shifted, rolling toward her as her arm wrapped more solidly around Mattie's leg.
Continued in Chapter 5
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