Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Mattie sat in a chair next to the bed, pushing fried chicken and mashed potatoes around her plate. Lillie dozed quietly in a chair on the other side of the night table, having already finished her supper. The doctor had come by and given Rachel a headache powder, which had brought some relief to her throbbing head. She was sleeping soundly, with one hand resting lightly on Mattie's leg. Occasionally, her eyelids fluttered and she made little whimpering noises that reminded Mattie of a newborn puppy. It was cute enough to make her smile, despite the circumstances.
There was nothing to do but think. About her life. About Adam. About a friendship that admittedly had become the most important relationship in her life, if she were honest with herself. Of course Adam knew nothing of the depth of that friendship, and she was determined to guard it for all it was worth. Assuming he believed her story about Rachel being merely a client, she saw no reason why the friendship couldn't go on.
They would just have to be more careful about being seen together in public, that was all.
She studied Lillie, taking in tightly curled platinum ringlets, the low-cut neckline of her blouse, her womanly curves, and the slight hint of rouge at her cheeks. No respectable woman wore rouge, at least not in the circle of women in which Mattie grew up.
Yet Lillie seemed genuinely concerned for Rachel's well being, and had even broken down and cried after they first found her. It was obvious the two women must be very good friends. Mattie puzzled that over, trying to figure out how a tomboy like Rachel had come to befriend a prostitute. She frowned, wondering just how well Lillie might know Adam. Shrugging slightly, she decided that perhaps Rachel and Lillie were drawn together by the simple fact that in some ways they were both outcasts. As for Adam, she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know. There would be plenty of time to ask questions later, if she got brave enough.
She planned to have a talk with Rachel about working at the saloon, just as soon as her friend was up to it. She knew Adam well enough to know that if he'd been frequenting the establishment for this long, he wasn't going to stop, and she feared for Rachel's safety if she kept working there. She wondered just how much Rachel earned there, and thought about what kinds of jobs might be available as alternatives. She wasn't sure it was her place to question Rachel on her line of work, but the overwhelming sense of dread in her heart was winning out over manners that told her to mind her own business.
Her mind turned back to Adam's questions about Rachel. He kept calling her "unnatural," and repeatedly asked if Rachel had touched her inappropriately. She couldn't imagine what he meant by all of that. She thought about her times with Rachel, and laughed quietly to herself. "If anything, I seem to be the one always touching her," she whispered softly, and shook her head in wan amusement. Even now, she had one hand lying protectively over the one curled over her thigh, and realized she had been unconsciously stroking the back of it with her thumb.
Carefully, she moved aside and stood up, intent on taking their eating utensils down the hall to wash them. As Rachel's hand lost contact with her, the brunette frowned and grumbled quietly, her lips moving in incoherent displeasure. Lillie woke up and cocked her head to one side, watching in fascination. "I do believe you've become her security blanket, sugar. Here." She stood, stretching her neck from side to side. "I'll go wash those out. You stay here. She seems to need you." She winked and disappeared out the door with the dishes.
"Mmmmpphh." Rachel mumbled again and her eyes opened slowly in dazed confusion. "Time?"
"Almost sunset." Mattie dipped a rag in a basin of water and wiped Rachel's very warm forehead. "You still have a fever."
"I'm cold." The tiny hairs on her forearms prickled up as goose bumps raced across her skin. She felt Mattie tucking the blanket securely under her chin, and smiled at the gesture. She snuggled down into the mattress and cried out as a pain shot across her torso from her broken rib.
"Shhhh." Mattie smoothed her hair back. Heat was radiating from Rachel's skin, and Mattie frowned in concern. "Open your eyes for me, as wide as you can."
Rachel complied, despite the discomfort of the sunlight streaming in from the setting sun. She watched mutely as Mattie leaned close, her hazel eyes quietly appraising something. "What's wrong?"
"You're eyes are dull." She sat down on the edge of the bed. "Dr. Miller thinks you have a touch of the fever and ague. I'm going to go downstairs and get you some warm ginger milk. He left some quinine too, so I need to get you a dose of that."
"Don't leave me." Rachel's hand came out from under the covers, shaking as she clutched feebly at her skirt.
"I'll only be a minute, I promise." Impulsively, Mattie bent over and kissed her forehead, then hurried out the door and down the stairs. True to her word she reappeared a short time later, to find Lillie back in the room and sponging Rachel's face with the damp rag.
"I declare I don't know when I've seen someone have worse luck," she clucked over her friend. "How you managed to catch the chills and get the tarnation beaten out of you all in one day is beyond me."
"Maybe I made God very angry." Rachel smiled weakly, trying to suppress another chill. She failed and her entire body shook while her teeth chattered very briefly.
"Nonsense. God loves you, Rachel. Here." Mattie moved closer and Lillie automatically stepped aside. "I need you to drink up this milk. You'll like it." She smiled.
"I will, eh?" Her words sounded far off to her own ears, and she chalked it up to the fever. She took a tentative sip and smiled. "Ginger and honey." She smacked her lips. "More, please."
Mattie laughed softly and scooted closer, supporting her shoulders against her lap as Rachel finished the warming drink. "Feel better?" She set the cup aside.
"Some." She frowned at a slightly bitter after taste. "You mixed the quinine in there, didn't you?"
Mattie smiled almost evilly. "Yes I did. Was that so bad?"
"Not as bad as taking it straight up." Rachel shifted, arranging herself until even more of her body was in contact with Mattie's lap. "Need to sleep some more."
"Then let me " Mattie eased out from under her.
"No." Rachel pouted, a full lower lip poking out pathetically. "Warm."
Mattie sighed. "Hold on." She raised a questioning eyebrow at Lillie, who shrugged back at her. With a heavier sigh, Mattie slipped off her shoes, then stood and removed her skirt and blouse, leaving her in her full slip and chemise. "What if I take a little nap with you? Will that help you get warm?"
Steel eyes peered up at her in mute gratitude, and Rachel nodded slightly. Her ears were starting to ring faintly, a side effect of the quinine. She felt miserable, every muscle in her body crying out in pain, not only from the beating she had taken, but from clenching up from being cold. Mattie lifted the covers and slid in beside her, and Rachel immediately relaxed. She snuggled up until her head was resting on Mattie's shoulder. Within minutes she was asleep, her breathing slow and even.
"Guess I'm staying here tonight." Mattie stroked her friend's head and settled in, feeling her own eyelids grow heavy. "If you want, I can take care of her tonight. I'll have to go to work tomorrow, at least for a while, and of course be home before Adam gets back from Houston. I have a feeling she's going to need you a lot in the coming days."
Lillie thought about that, observing Rachel's quietly peaceful face. "I suppose you'll only be able to come by during the noon hour this coming week?"
"I'm going to see how much time I can get away from the tailor shop." Mattie smiled as Rachel shifted, wrapping one arm across her waist. "I might be able to stay with her during the day this week, as long as I'm back at the shop before Adam picks me up."
Lillie's eyes met Mattie's, Adam's name hanging uncomfortably between them.
"My husband." Mattie grasped for words. "Do you know him?"
"Yes." Lillie's eyes darted away from her, as she dreaded further questions.
Mattie merely nodded. She didn't need to ask. "Get some rest. I'll see you in the morning?"
"Good enough." Lillie gathered her pocketbook and managed a smile, before she left the two women for some much-needed sleep.
Mattie slowly drifted awake, her senses gradually taking in her surroundings. She was very warm, and felt a solid weight draped across much of her upper body. Her nose twitched, breathing in a scent she had come to associate with Rachel. It was a pleasantly sunny smell, with a touch of bay rum and a touch of ocean breeze, along with clean-smelling cake soap, much nicer than the harsh homemade lye soap many of the town's workers used. She opened her eyes and looked down, to see chestnut hair spread across her body, and Rachel's face, open and peaceful in sleep, resting against her upper stomach.
Her eyes studied pale pearl gray light behind the curtains, indicating the coming dawn. It was Monday, and her heart felt heavy, wondering how she was going to manage her job, taking care of Rachel, and Adam's return from Houston. She reached up, feeling her face where he struck her. The bruise had faded to nearly nothing, but the internal pain remained.
He had gone too far this time, and she felt a slow simmer underneath the surface, overpowering her usually placid acceptance of his treatment of her. It was different this time, because he had hurt someone else because of her, and the guilt of that weighed solidly on her small, if capable, shoulders. She loathed him. There was no more denying the obvious. She just wasn't sure what she could do about it.
A quiet tap at the door stirred her from dark internal musings, and she sat partway up. "Come in."
Lillie's head peered around the door before she entered the room, bearing a basket that released delicious aromas into the room -- biscuits, eggs, ham, and sweet hot tea. "How is she?" She set the basket down on the bedside table and removed her hat and gloves, hanging the hat on a peg by the door.
"Resting quietly." Mattie felt Rachel's forehead. "Still warm, but not as warm as she was last night. We probably need to get some more quinine and another headache powder into her when she wakes up."
"Hmm. Probably do." Lillie opened the checkered cloth covering the basket. "Thought you might want breakfast before you go to the tailor's."
"Thank you, Lillie." Mattie gently rolled Rachel off her, allowing one long arm to maintain contact with her legs. She watched as the tanned face first frowned, then relaxed again, as Rachel resumed even heavy breathing. "That was very kind of you." Mattie accepted a plate of food.
"Pshaw. T'weren't nothing." Lillie sat down in a chair, drawing it up next to the table. "It's the least I could do, after " she stopped, looking down and catching herself, right before making a confession she couldn't quite bring herself to speak aloud. "After you stayed here all night," she changed direction, seeing the knowledge of truth in Mattie's eyes. She knew.
"Listen, Lillie." Mattie sipped her tea, reaching deep inside herself for wisdom. "My husband is not a nice man. He's a scoundrel, and I think we both know that. I don't understand why you do what you do, but I don't hold you responsible for Adam's behavior, at any rate. He "
"I've spent no time with him since finding out he was married to you." Lillie interrupted, picking at her food and avoiding eye contact. "I know that probably doesn't raise your esteem for me much higher, but for what it's worth, I only saw him on one occasion."
Mattie slowly digested that. Hearing it confirmed was shocking on certain levels, but knowing she wasn't sharing breakfast with one of Adam's regulars was reassuring on a completely different one. Finally, she looked up and waited until Lillie did the same. "How do you know so much about me?" She swallowed. "You knew who I was, didn't you -- when I walked into the saloon Friday night?"
"Yes, in answer to your last question." Lillie's lips hinted at a bare smile. "As to the 'how,' you're just about all Miss Rachel over there can talk about anymore." The smile widened at the surprise on Mattie's face. "I do believe you're one of the best friends she's ever had, maybe one of the only few real friends for that matter. Rachel, she has many acquaintances that think highly of her. The boys on the dock, the regulars at the saloon, half the gosh-darned town probably likes her, although she doesn't see it that way. She feels like an outsider -- a misfit. She doesn't let very many people get close enough to truly know her. You're one of the few."
"She's a very special person." Mattie stroked the sleeping head. "I do think I'd do just about anything for her, if she needed me to. I have been very lonely, for most of my life, I think. When I'm with her, I don't feel so alone anymore."
Lillie shook her head, almost imperceptibly. Mattie's face shone quietly as she spoke, and her eyes softened whenever she looked down at Rachel. It was so hard not to smack Mattie up beside the head. That she loved Rachel was painfully obvious. Equally obvious was the fact that she seemed to be completely unaware of that love.
"She is indeed a very special person." Lillie nibbled at a warm flaky biscuit. "I have a few women friends, most of them other ladies like myself. Rachel -- she's about the only one outside that circle who has befriended me without judgment."
"You two do seem very close," Mattie agreed. "How did y'all meet?"
Lillie almost choked on biscuit crumbs, coughing violently before picking up her teacup and downing most of its contents in two gulps. Gradually, she regained her composure. "We met when Rachel started working at the saloon. You might want to ask her about that, when she's up for some questioning. I do remember the first time I saw her. She was so young, and I could tell underneath her confidence she was actually terrified, walking into that saloon. She was the only woman in there besides me and my kind. Took a heap of guts, I'll tell you that much. But it's a good job. Probably pays her almost as much as she makes on a few days at the docks, leastwise on a full house evening."
"I suppose it would be difficult to give up those kind of wages," Mattie commented dejectedly, seeing her plans to talk Rachel out of the job fly out the window. "I worry about her, now that Adam knows she and I know each other. He's relentless. He'll watch her like a hawk. I don't think I could stand it if he were to hurt her again. I do believe I might have to shoot him if he did."
This time Lillie spluttered her remaining tea back into the cup. "You truly mean that?"
"A part of me does, yes." Mattie reached across the night table for her pocketbook. "Adam has no idea I own this." She withdrew a twenty-two caliber nickel-plated revolver with a rosewood handle. "Nor that I know how to use it. It only weighs seven ounces. I purchased it about six months after we were married. Used to go out behind my father's barn while Adam was at work, and practice. I can shoot a tin can off a fence post at twenty-five paces."
Two blonde eyebrows shot into Lillie's hairline. "I am starting to understand why Rachel is so taken with you. How does that old saying go -- 'wise as a serpent, gentle as a dove?' Does Rachel know about the gun?"
"No." Mattie placed it back in her pocketbook. "It never came up. I understood very early in my marriage, that I might someday truly need to defend myself." She shared a meaningful glance with Lillie. "I hope to never test that out, but if I have to, I could." Her eyes turned inward, knowing the truth. "I seriously doubt Adam has shot a gun in his entire life. He doesn't hunt and as far as I know, he doesn't own one. He grew up in polite society, despite it being West Texas. About the only time gentlemen of his class used guns was if they pulled out dueling pistols. I don't think I've seen a duel since I was a very small girl." Her nose wrinkled. "I hope never to see one again. It is a rather unpleasant business."
Lillie was silent, absorbing a side of Mattie she suddenly realized no one had seen, not even Rachel. Slowly, she smiled, wondering how her friend would react if she knew about the gun. Probably start worrying Mattie will shoot herself on accident, she chuckled to herself. Old mother hen. "I can only imagine," she finally commented.
"Well." Mattie finished her breakfast and placed the plate on the table. "I should probably go wash up and get to the tailor's. I'll talk to Mr. Vaughan this morning and explain the situation. I'll be back at the noon hour to let you know what he says." She slipped out of the bed and Rachel whimpered in response.
"Rachel." She bent over the lightly sleeping form. "I know you're hurting a lot right now. I have to go to work, but I'll be back in a few hours, I promise." She kissed a frowning forehead and stood up, gathering up her pocketbook and a change of clothing she had gone home to collect on Saturday afternoon. "I'll see you at noon, Lillie. If y'all need me before then, go ahead and send someone over to get me."
"I will." Lillie smiled. "Have a good morning." She watched thoughtfully, as Mattie stepped into the hallway and the door closed quietly behind her. She looked over at her sleeping friend. "I hope this works out for you, Miss Rachel. Mattie is a keeper."
Rachel stirred, frowning as she tried to free her arms and legs from tangled covers. She was hot and sweating, which, she reflected in a fuzzy way, was a good thing, because it probably meant her fever had broken. "Ummpphhh." She felt a gentle touch to her forehead, as a damp cloth dabbed at her warm skin, and she immediately relaxed and opened her eyes. "Mattie?"
"I'm here." Mattie reached down, helping turn back both blanket and sheet. "We need to get you changed into a dry nightshirt." She moved to the armoire and opened a drawer, removing a well-worn blue and white striped shirt. She heard a grumble of displeasure and turned to see Rachel watching her in consternation. "You don't like this one?"
"Too warm." Rachel cleared a very dry throat. "I'd prefer a clean undershirt and bloomers." She gave a nod of approval as Mattie put the longer shirt away and located the requested garments instead. She dropped her eyes as she felt slender yet strong arms raise her up and begin to remove her clothing.
"Rachel, you don't need to be embarrassed." Mattie's expression gentled as questioning steel eyes slowly looked up at her. "Lillie and I gave you a sponge bath yesterday, although you probably don't remember it." The dark head shook affirmatively. "We thought you'd be more comfortable if you were clean."
"Th thank you." She tried not to think about Lillie and Mattie seeing her nakedness at the same time, and decided she was glad she didn't remember it, although a part of her was curious as to what Mattie's reaction might have been. She grimaced as she turned too sharply and her broken rib made its presence known. She looked down at the sturdy muslin binding around her chest just below her breasts, the ends pinned neatly in place instead of tied in lumpy knots. As she felt the clean cotton slide down her torso and settle into place, she looked back up, her eyes thoughtful. "I can do the bloomers myself."
Mattie turned her back, giving her friend some privacy. She tried not to picture what she wasn't seeing -- a feminine yet strong body, with nice muscles covered by smooth creamy skin -- pale womanly skin that had not seen sunlight. Rachel was very beautiful; there was no denying that. She realized that most of the time when she saw Rachel fully-clothed she saw her strength, most of all. Without her trousers and men's shirts, she was every bit as much a woman as Mattie was, and Mattie found herself wishing she could sketch more of her. She could almost feel the charcoal in her fingers, the slightly rough paper under her hands as she traced out the planes and curves of Rachel's body.
"I'm going to be bruised for a while, I think." Rachel lifted up her undershirt just enough to reveal blue and purple mottled skin that stretched from the top of her bloomers waistband to the bottom of her bandages. She watched Mattie turn, and saw the guilty pain on her face. "This is not your fault, Mattie."
"He beat you up because of me." Mattie moved to the bedside and dropped to her knees until their faces were on a level. She lifted one of Rachel's hands and brushed her lips across her knuckles. She looked up and watched Rachel swallow, an unreadable expression in her eyes. "I don't even understand why he did it. He he kept saying you were 'unnatural' and wanted to know if you had touched me in an unseemly manner. I don't understand what he meant." She searched Rachel's face for answers, but Rachel looked away, her eyes studying the bubbled wallpaper, its edges curling in places that were once glued flat.
"I don't expect you would understand." She released a long breath, her mind a jumble of medication and fear. If they were to be friends, Mattie needed to know exactly whom she was befriending. "How could you understand?" she whispered softly.
Impulsively, Rachel drew Mattie's head forward, kissing her just above her thick fringe of bangs. She drew back, her hand still cupping Mattie's cheek. "I feel weak as a newborn kitten, and my ears are ringing with the quinine." She paused, licking her lips nervously. "I promise you, Mattie, when I am feeling more myself, I'll explain everything to you -- what he meant." She closed her eyes and her head dropped again, but her thumb kept up a slow gently stroking of Mattie's soft skin. "Then you can decide for yourself if you want to be around the likes of me. I might not be worth the risk."
Mattie reached out, her fingers lightly trailing through Rachel's hair, careful to avoid the stitches at her hairline. "I have already decided."
Slowly, the dark head lifted, revealing two large blue-gray eyes, brimming with unshed tears. Without a word, she crawled in bed, scooting behind Rachel and pulling the longer body against her, rocking her as she made soft shushing noises. She felt warm wetness against the skin of her neck and simply held Rachel while she cried. "I can't think of anything that is worth more than your friendship, Rachel."
Long arms reached around, clutching more tightly around Mattie's gingham dress. Oblivious to the pull in her ribs and the pain in her battered body, she held on, releasing what seemed to be a lifetime of loneliness. It didn't matter if she ever had any more from Mattie than what she had at that moment. It was enough. More than enough.
She gradually allowed more sober thoughts, wondering if the friendship so freely offered her would stand against her coming confessions. It simply must, she reasoned, half-hoping, half-willing it to be so. It will. Carefully, she pushed up until they were sitting side by side. "Sorry." She swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. "Don't know what came over me. Must be the fever." She laughed feebly and felt a handkerchief pressed into her hand. She dabbed at her eyes and nose. "I must be a sight."
Mattie's eyes drifted affectionately over her. "That you are." She felt another kiss to her head, and rested her face against Rachel's shoulder. "Whatever you need to say to me, it can keep until you're ready." She felt a squeeze to her hand, as long fingers interlaced with her own.
They sat together in comfortable silence, each lost in her own thoughts. Mattie reluctantly sat up taller and withdrew a small silver pocket watch from her skirt pocket. "Unfortunately, I must get back to the tailor's. Adam should be getting off the train at 5:00 p.m. straight up, and sometimes he comes to pick me up before he goes home."
"Is it still Monday?" Rachel's brows knitted with the effort of trying to piece together the periods of consciousness she could remember.
"Yes." Mattie gathered her pocketbook and gloves. "I've been here since the noon hour. Mr. Vaughan has agreed to let me go each day at the noon hour until you're back on your feet again. Lillie will be by to fetch you some supper each evening, soon after I leave, and she will stay nights until noon each day." She held up a hand against the beginnings of protest. "Tell me you're able to get food, and bathe, and change clothing for yourself." She place a fist on her hip and tapped her foot expectantly.
Rachel's mouth closed abruptly, her arguments quickly forgotten. "Thank you," she mumbled. "I I'm not used to counting on other folks to take care of me." Another thought occurred to her, and her eyes grew wide with fear. "Do you trust Mr. Vaughan?"
"He has promised not to say anything to Adam about our arrangement." Mattie's eyes twinkled. "I do believe he took a liking to you when you joined us for the noon hour."
"They are very kind people." The Vaughans had offered her several refills to a mug of sweetened tea until she was no longer thirsty from the dock work, and had shared a slice of freshly baked lemon cake with her for dessert. When she left to go back to the docks, Mrs. Vaughan had packed her up two more slices of the cake, and had patted her on the arm as she left.
"Yes, they are." Mattie stood over her, and felt a tug at her skirt.
"You be careful." Blue eyes flashed in anger.
"I will, but I'd best be going if I'm to keep him from suspecting where I've been all afternoon." She squeezed the hand that clutched at her skirt and turned, pausing in the doorway. "Lillie should be here shortly."
"I'll be fine until she is. I'll see you at noon tomorrow." She watched Mattie wave a gloved hand at her, then felt her heart grow heavy as she heard the door click shut. She curled up on her uninjured side and drew the handkerchief up, inhaling the scent of Mattie's toilet water. She smiled and closed the soft cotton into her fist, tucking it under her chin before she closed her eyes.
Lillie found her that way thirty minutes later, her chest rising and falling evenly in sleep, as a tiny smile twitched at her lips. She placed the basket of supper on the table and pulled up a chair, retrieving some stockings and darning needles from a bag. "Sweet dreams, Miss Rachel."
It was very late -- well past dark. The tide has risen and the gentle sound of waves lapping against the shore lulled Mattie into a brief sense of peace. Adam had yet to arrive home. It wasn't entirely unusual for him to take a late train out of Houston on Monday, but given their parting, she was a bit surprised he hadn't come home earlier, if only to check up on her.
She had ridden the trolley home, and consumed a cold supper of a ham sandwich and fresh orange slices. Her mind was a jumble of thoughts, and she wandered aimlessly about the small house, picking up items and studying them, thinking about everything that had happened in one short weekend. She thought about Lillie, and admitted to herself that despite who Lillie was, and even despite the fact that she apparently had been with Adam once, she grudgingly found herself liking the vivacious blonde. Lillie had a no-nonsense approach toward Rachel and life in general, it seemed, and she had managed to make Mattie laugh a few times even in the middle of bleak circumstances.
Lillie seemed very dedicated to Rachel and yet Mattie frowned and went out on the front porch, taking a seat on the top step. She gathered in her skirts and wrapped her arms around her legs, hugging herself against a slight chill in the air. It felt good after the unusually hot days they had been having. Looking out at the vastness of the Gulf of Mexico, she felt very small and very much alone.
Her thoughts turned back toward Lillie and Rachel. They had been friends for a long time, she had learned, yet Lillie seemed to defer to Mattie when it came to caring for Rachel. She found that to be odd. Surely Lillie and Rachel were closer than she and Rachel. They had been friends longer, correct? Yet she recalled Rachel telling her that she had never had a friend like Mattie before. It made her feel warm all over, and drove back some of the chill.
She realized that at times during the weekend, she had found herself envious of Lillie and the easy banter she shared with Rachel during her lucid moments. Funny, she chuckled at herself. You would think I would hate her for having relations with my husband, but instead the only true hard feelings I had were because of her friendship with Rachel. She pondered that and recognized the jealousy for what it was -- insecurity. Mattie had no other very close friends besides Rachel, and a little part of her was afraid that maybe Rachel might not always need or want her friendship.
She and Rachel were so different from one another. She suspected the more rowdy Lillie had much more in common with her friend than she did. A part of her wondered why Rachel and she had become friends in the first place, and what had possessed her to extend that first invitation to tea. Yet the friendship worked, and there was no one she had ever been more comfortable with than Rachel. They talked easily, and their silences were comfortable. She truly felt she could tell Rachel almost anything.
Adam hated Rachel, and for what reason she hadn't a clue, other than he seemed to think she was different and that he might hurt her. She snorted softly. Rachel would never hurt her. She was almost certain of it. Yes, she was different, but Mattie found herself drawn to those differences. A vision of Rachel made her smile -- Rachel was laughing, her hair whipping wildly back in the wind as she stood in the surf with her trousers legs rolled up. Rachel lived fully in he moment, and didn't seem to worry too much about the future, or dwell upon the past. Mattie wanted so much to be like her.
The future always seemed bleak. It stretched out before her -- a life with Adam and all the uncertainty and pain that came with being married to him. She shivered, a bone-chilling sensation that came from within. There was nothing to look forward to with Adam, no matter how hard she tried to think of something. She couldn't make a move without his permission. She would always be alone with him because she had no intention of bearing his children. Her family was so far away that she wondered if she would ever see them again. She felt an overwhelming sense of despair and hugged her arms more tightly around herself.
She had no idea how much time passed, until a jaw-splitting yawn forced her to go inside and dress for bed. With a weary sigh she retrieved the pessary box and slipped into the water closet. She loved children. If she had married the right man she shook her head sadly. There was no point in thinking about it. What was done was done. She loved children too much to ever subject one to having Adam for a father. It would be sweet, to hold her own baby in her arms, to know that someone in the world loved her and needed her, but she realized those were very selfish reasons to have a child, given her circumstances.
She had almost fallen asleep when she heard Adam drive up, the buggy wheels crunching across the crushed-shell and sand driveway. She listened, her heart beating loudly in her ears, until she heard the heavy thump that signaled the barn door closing, then heard the almost undetectable sound of Adam's boots in the drive. His steps on the wooden porch made her jump, then the front door opened and she heard him drop his carpetbag in the entryway.
She shut her eyes tightly and rolled toward the wall as he came into the room and removed his clothing. He moved quietly around, opening a drawer and retrieving a nightshirt. A heavy weight settled on the mattress next to her, as he pulled back the covers and crawled up close. This was the animal that had had Rachel beaten to near death. She wanted to cringe and forced herself to remain still.
"Mattie?" He stroked her cheek and her heart clenched in fear. There would be no feigning sleep on this night.
"You're late." She mumbled, slowly rolling onto her back.
"My business in Houston went very well this weekend. I stayed later than I intended, but it was profitable." He kissed her on the cheek.
"That's good to hear." She forced herself to return his affections as his lips moved to cover her own. Inside she wanted to gag.
"I'm sorry I've left you alone so much, Mattie." His body pressed against her and the heat made her feel sick to her stomach. "Unfortunately I may be spending even more time in Houston in the next few months. The business is doing too well for me to not take advantage of a good opportunity."
She managed not to smile. The more he was gone, the more she could do whatever she wanted to do, including spending time with Rachel. "You should do what you think is best." She felt him tugging at the hem of her nightgown, and began shutting her mind off, as best she could.
"I think we should start our family, Mattie." He rubbed her belly. "Although I would have thought you would be with child by now. Maybe I haven't given you enough attention. Maybe I should remedy that during the times I am home." He pulled her gown up and rolled on top of her, pushing her bloomers down. "A baby would keep you focused on more important things, I think. Keep you home and safe. Keep you away from bad influences."
There, in the dark, she finally allowed the tears to fall. Adam would not be able to see them. At least it would be over quickly. It always was. For the first time in her life, she briefly wondered why she didn't end her life sooner rather than later. She knew she would go to hell if she committed suicide, but it couldn't possibly be worse than the hell she was already living in.
A month passed, in which Rachel's wounds slowly healed, and she began to regain her strength from the chills and fever. During the first few weeks of her illness and recovery, either Lillie or Mattie had been with her diligently, almost around the clock. She was certain she would have died if not for their care. It was the first time in her life that she could recall, when she wasn't able to be self-sufficient.
Toward the end of the month she was finally up and able to walk for a few miles. Her ribs still tugged at her when she moved, and her legs felt weak, as if all the muscles were loose and flat. The doctor had determined she had no serious internal injuries, and had declared her on the road to recovery a few days before. He had cautioned her against over-exertion, and advised she take up the quinine again if the chills or fever returned. He also suggested she walk to build her strength back up.
The thought of hefting the heavy bales of cotton on the docks made her weary. Luckily she had been offered an extended position on David Gentry's fishing boat, just as soon as she was able to work again. It was Sunday afternoon, and she intended to give the fishing a try the next morning. She might need help hauling in heavier catches, but she could easily tend the lines and the nets, baiting hooks and watching for any signs of activity.
On this afternoon, she was walking out toward Mattie's house. She knew Adam was out of town, and Mattie had been by to visit her for a few hours the day before. Once her fever abated permanently, and she was able to bathe and dress herself, and make it downstairs for meals, Lillie and Mattie had looked in on her less-frequently, although she saw one of them at least once every day, and often both paid her a visit.
The day before, she had convinced Mattie to allow her to walk out to her house to visit her, and had promised that if she became too tired to walk all the way, she would catch the trolley. Secretly, she was very determined to walk the entire way. She figured if she could walk several miles, she could probably also last an entire day on the fishing boat without becoming too fatigued.
If not for pain and illness, the month past would have been downright enjoyable, she mused. She felt a transition in both her relationship with Lillie, and with Mattie. Her friendship with Lillie was strong as ever, but the physical aspect of that friendship had cooled considerably. Before, they had touched each other often, when they were alone. Now the touches were limited to hugs of greeting, and the occasional kiss on the cheek. She found her desire for Lillie's physical affections to be almost nonexistent.
At the same time, Mattie was touching her more and more frequently a pat on the leg, a playful hug, and rarely, a brief peck on the cheek or lips. And they had spent a lot of time sitting close together, going over reading lessons since there was little else she was able to do to pass the time. She was finding it more and more difficult to keep her hands off Mattie as well, often mussing her hair or curling up with her, ostensibly for comfort from her injuries and illness. In truth, it was a balm to her heart and soul, more than anything else.
They needed to talk. She had put it off as long as she could, and knew it wasn't fair to Mattie to prolong the inevitable. Her heart was heavy. The talk could very well be their last one, and she already felt herself building inner defenses in the event of rejection. On the other hand, if Mattie heard her out, and still wanted her in her life her stomach fluttered a part of her wanted to let go of her restraint, and allow their friendship to lead wherever it might.
Lillie had readily confirmed what Rachel had not allowed herself to see. 'That girl is in love with you, Rachel. Now what are you going to do about that?' Lillie's words echoed in her head with painfully solid loudness.
What, indeed, was she going to do?
There were no easy answers, and so she trudged forward, praying for the best while emotionally preparing herself for the worst. Mattie had become somewhat withdrawn in the past few weeks, and often when she first woke up, before Mattie was aware she was being watched, she caught her staring sadly out the window. However, she always seemed to perk up when Rachel talked to her, although she had yet to be forthcoming with whatever was troubling her. Rachel fervently hoped that whatever it was could be helped, and that she wasn't the source.
At last she reached Mattie's house and almost timidly knocked on the door. It opened in a few moments, and she accepted a long silent hug from her friend. "Hello, Mattie." Her eyes took in an ivory-colored ruffled blouse and navy blue skirt. "You look lovely."
"Thank you." Mattie smiled sadly up at her.
"Are you alright?" Rachel couldn't help but reach out, touching a pale cheek.
"Yes." She blinked, feeling the sting of tears trying to form. "It's nothing Adam will be home tomorrow. I've grown used to him staying over an extra day these past few weeks, and having four nights a week to myself. You must think I'm horrible. He is my husband "
Rachel's thumb delicately traced her upper lip, silencing her. She realized there was no more hesitation on her part at such actions, and that Mattie seemed almost to expect it from her. "No." She placed a kiss on Mattie's forehead. "I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better."
"We could go for a walk on the beach." Mattie tugged at Rachel's shirt collar. "Assuming you are feeling like it after walking all the way here."
"I feel much better than I thought I would. Perhaps some more fresh air will make me feel even better." She held out her arm and felt Mattie's hand slip into the crook of her elbow. "I believe I promised you I would talk to you about some things, and maybe this afternoon would be a good time to do that." Her eyes searched Mattie's face, begging for understanding.
"And I believe I promised you that there is nothing you could tell me that would change the way I feel about our friendship." Mattie squeezed her arm as they stepped onto the porch and made their way down to the sand. She let go of Rachel long enough to raise her parasol, then took hold of her arm once more, surprised when she felt the taller woman leaning on her slightly, as if for support. "If you tucker out, we can always sit and rest a spell."
"Alright." Rachel felt the fear welling up inside and quickly decided to ride it, as the words slowly began to spill out. "A while back, I confessed to you that I had been in a physical relationship with someone, even though I've never married. I wasn't completely honest with you about that."
"Oh." Mattie's brows furrowed. "Have you been with more than one man?"
"No." Rachel nibbled her lower lip. "I let you believe something that I probably shouldn't have. Not that I lied to you, per se, but that I did not correct you. I have been with no man."
"I don't understand." Mattie looked up at her, watching Rachel's throat muscles work as she swallowed and looked out to sea.
"I was with a woman." She felt Mattie almost stop, before resuming their pace.
"Now I truly don't understand." Mattie continued to watch her friend in profile. "That is impossible."
"No." Another swallow. "It is quite possible, I assure you."
"But women don't have " she found herself blushing and couldn't finish her sentence.
"Not necessary." Rachel knew exactly where her friend's thoughts had wandered. "Mattie, you have said enough for me to understand that you don't enjoy being with Adam, in that way. Am I correct in assuming you have never found it pleasurable?"
"That would be true." The blush turned bright crimson and Mattie looked down, wishing she could crawl into one of the sand crab holes that peppered the beach.
Rachel saw the red head duck down, and her free hand involuntarily reached across, tilting Mattie's face up as she stopped and turned to face her. "You could never say anything that would repel me, Mattie. Please don't be ashamed, and I'll try to do the same. It is very important to me that we talk about this. It isn't fair to you for me to hide this part of myself from you."
"I I'll try." Mattie tugged at her hand. "Shall we go sit on that log over there?"
"That is a good idea." She allowed herself to be led to the log, where she sat down in tired relief, drawing slightly apart from Mattie. Rachel looked down, studying her own hands before she tucked them between her knees. She continued to look down as she spoke. "There are ways that women can touch each other things they can do together that are every bit as pleasurable as what a man and a woman can do together. Men can do those same things to women, if they wish to bring them pleasure in a physical relationship."
"I can't fathom enjoying it with Adam." Mattie dug the toe of her shoe into the sand and set her parasol aside. "So what you're saying to me, I truly can't fathom. Nothing Adam has ever done to me has brought me pleasure. It it is painful, more than anything else."
Rachel felt the anger rise. Bastard. She pushed the emotions deep down inside. It wasn't the time or place. "It shouldn't be, if he's doing it correctly."
"What is there to do?" Mattie felt the heat rising up her neck, and was certain her face quite matched her hair. She wanted to curl up into herself, and she hunched over, speaking slowly and softly. "He comes to me late at night, usually when he arrives home from Houston. He kisses me a few times, then pushes my nightgown up and my bloomers down, and does his business. I can't see that there is anything that would make me enjoy that."
Rachel released an angry puff of air. "I'm sorry, Mattie. There are ways he could touch you, that would make you more ready for him. Is that truly all he does?"
"Yes." She finally looked up. "I wouldn't want it to last any longer than it already does. I lay there and pray for him to hurry and finish as it is."
There were, Rachel reflected suddenly in her anger, much worse things than having to hide her desire for women from most of the world. "Could you discuss it with him?" She already knew the answer, and at the same time, couldn't believe she was actually offering some advice in this area, if Mattie wanted it.
"No!" Mattie stood abruptly, and began pacing the sand in front of them, gesturing wildly with her arms as she spoke. "I can't talk to him about anything. I can't do anything without asking him first. He watches everything I do. I can't even discuss breakfast with him without the possibility of him hitting me if he isn't satisfied with what I serve him. Do you honestly think I could ever ever talk to him about things a lady isn't supposed to mention?!"
She dissolved into tears, and felt long arms close around her, a solid warm body rocking her gently as she was drawn back to the log. "I'm sorry." She sniffled and sat down. "You are supposed to be talking to me about you."
"No." Rachel stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "No. Your life is just as important. I'm so sorry he hurts you."
"I've grown used to it, for the most part." She sniffed again and accepted a handkerchief, which magically appeared from Rachel's pocket. "Thank you." She pulled her emotions in and leaned against Rachel's shoulder, more comfortable without eye contact, but with the warm connection she felt as Rachel's arm slid around her waist. "Please continue."
"When Adam called me 'unnatural,' he is guessing, correctly, that I am drawn to women in the way that most women are drawn to men. I have known this about myself for a very long time. It's why I had to leave home. My father caught me with another girl. We hadn't actually done anything but kiss, but if he had not caught us when he did, we would have. That was when he decided to either send me to a convent or have me married off. So you see, I had no other choice but to leave home. Either of his choices would have made me more unhappy than I can possibly imagine." As unhappy as you are, I suspect, Mattie, she added silently.
"So who ?" Mattie stopped. "I'm sorry. It is none of my business."
"Lillie." The silence that followed was so long and deafening, she assumed she had just driven the last nail in the coffin of their friendship. "I pay her, just like any other customer." Her cheeks burned in shame.
"Oh." It was almost like one of Adam's punches to her gut, only for the shock of it, rather than any real pain. "That makes sense, I suppose."
"She is the only other person besides my father who knows about me who what I am. Or at least who knows rather than merely suspects. She approached me first, a long time ago, after I moved here. I don't know exactly how she knew about me, but she is the only person I've ever been with, in that way. She's about six or seven years older than me. Until you came along, she was the only true friend I truly felt I had." She felt Mattie move aside, just a little, although their legs were still touching. "I should have told you sooner. I am a coward."
"No. You're very brave for telling me now." She allowed the thoughts to swirl through her head. "She's been with Adam, you know."
"Yes. I know." Might as well jump the rest of the way in. "Only once though, right before I met you, although it was a while longer before I learned he was your husband. He hit her. I punched him and broke his nose."
"So that's how that happened." Mattie finally chuckled, just a little. "No wonder he wouldn't talk about it. He was bested by a lady."
"I'm no lady." Rachel smiled and their eyes met for a brief moment. "But I did injure his pride, and he has been out to get me ever since."
"Pride." She shook her head. "He has a great deal of that."
"So do I." Rachel tucked her hands between her knees again. She thought about Mattie's sadness of late, and the things Mattie had just revealed to her. "Is that why you've been so sad lately, Mattie? Because of how Adam is with you?"
"Partly." It was Mattie's turn to study her hands, clasping them in her lap as she spoke hesitantly. "He wants to start a family, so he wants to be with me even more often than he used to. He wants me to have a baby, I think so that I will stay home and have something to keep me busy. I don't want that with him."
"There are ways "
"I know." Mattie cut her off. "It's taken care of. I talked to a woman back in El Paso and she told me what to do to prevent it. Adam has no idea, of course. Once I figured out how things were going to go between Adam and me, I had to do something. I don't love him. He doesn't love me. I couldn't bring a child into our relationship. It's hard enough protecting myself from him. I won't give him the chance to treat a child the way he treats me. I know it's a sin "
"No." Rachel hugged her close to her side. "It's one of the most unselfish things I've ever heard. I'm so sorry, Mattie. Any child would be lucky to have you as its mother."
"Thank you." She patted Rachel's leg. "But Adam wouldn't be capable of loving a child. He's not capable of loving anyone, I don't think."
"You deserve to be loved, Mattie." Rachel's voice was profoundly sad, repeating a sentiment she had shared with her friend on more than one occasion.
"So do you." She squeezed Rachel's leg. "Do do you love Lillie?" Mattie glanced up, studying Rachel's strong profile, watching the play of the sunshine that danced across her hair, creating rich auburn highlights.
"I love her as a friend. We have a complex relationship. She is my friend, lover, and older sister at turns. I am forever indebted to her, both for the things she has taught me, and for accepting me. But I am not, and never have been in love with her, if that is what you're asking." She couldn't look up, and felt the sweat beading on her forehead, dreading questions she didn't want to answer.
"But you are drawn to her physically?" Mattie tilted her head in question, trying unsuccessfully to catch Rachel's eye.
"Yes." She still refused to look up.
"Have you been drawn to any other women on the island in that way?"
"Yes." A painful whisper that Mattie barely heard.
Mattie thought about that, thought about the way Rachel treated her, with such kindness it came close to breaking her heart at times. It was a completely new concept to her. She had never heard of women being intimate with other women. No one had ever discussed such things with her. Her head told her it must be a shameful taboo, or she would have heard of it before now. Yet her heart told her that if two women could bring comfort, perhaps even love, to one another, then how could that be wrong? Didn't she and Rachel already bring comfort to one another? She acknowledged silently that part of what Rachel offered her, part of what made her feel so good in Rachel's presence, was the physical aspect of that comfort.
Even now, she felt it herself, though she had not yet defined it a warmth and a connection that she had only ever felt with Rachel. She had certainly never felt with Adam the things she felt when she was with Rachel. She was so confused. Part of her wanted to take off running down the beach, run until her legs gave out. But the part of her that was her heart moved closer, touching Rachel's face, then stroking her hair until pained steel eyes looked at her. "With me, do you ?"
Rachel's hand covered her mouth. "Please don't ask me that."
Mattie gently pulled her hand away from her mouth, but held onto it tightly. "Alright. Let me ask you a different question. Do you think I could be drawn to women in that way?"
The chestnut head snapped back down, as Rachel looked steadily at the packed sand between her boots. "Only you know the answer to that question." Her throat hurt as she choked out the words, and her heart twisted in her chest. She was certain she would faint from the resulting rush of blood that pulsed to her head and made her limbs feel like liquid. Mattie's firm grasp on her hand was the only thing that kept her from jumping up from the log.
Gentle fingers probed Rachel's jaw, then trailed along her face. "I think you know the answer as well." Slowly, she scooted closer, and placed a kiss on Rachel's cheek. The brunette turned toward her, her eyes wide and uncertain. She looked as if she was about to bolt, and Mattie touched her on the leg with one hand, while the other cradled her face. "Don't be afraid, Rachel. I care about you every bit as much now as I did before we went walking down this beach."
"You you do?" Some of the fear receded, replaced by a warm glow that turned her eyes a deeper shade of almost navy blue. "You aren't repulsed by me?"
"I could never be repulsed by you." She moved closer still, until they were nose to nose, and she could feel the air between them as they breathed. She tilted her head and their lips met. Rachel's hands came up, holding her face reverently, and Mattie automatically pressed against her.
Rachel's mind protested, only for a moment, before she gave in to what her body craved, deepening the kiss, guiding Mattie, begging her silently for more as she heard her slight murmurs of pleasure. It was more than she had ever hoped it would be. It was something she could easily give her heart up to being in Mattie's arms, feeling her gentle hands against her face, and her warm lips pressing against her own. It was a place where her dreams could come true, if only Mattie shared those dreams.
She didn't intend for the kiss to go on for as long as it did, and when they finally broke apart, they were both breathing hard, their foreheads pressed together and their eyes closed. "I sorry I "
"Shhh." Mattie pecked her lips again. "I surely wanted to do that, Rachel, more than I've ever wanted anything. No one has ever kissed me like that. It was wonderful."
Rachel looked down, more confused than she'd ever been in her life. What she wanted, she knew she couldn't have. At least not at the moment. She gathered her wits and looked back up. "I'm glad I didn't scare you away, Mattie."
"You didn't scare me away, but you have given me a great deal to think about." Mattie stood and pulled Rachel up with her. "I am married -- a loveless marriage." Hazel eyes grew sad. "If ever I were to be sorry for anything, it's that I've had a taste of something I fear I can never fully have."
Rachel wanted to say so many things -- that Mattie could leave Adam. That she would take Mattie anywhere she wanted to go, if only they could go there together. But she knew it was much too soon to say such things, and too much had just happened to heap more confusion on her friend. "I will always be here for you, Mattie," was what she said instead. " I want to be your friend, in whatever way you need me to be."
"What what if I need you to help me ponder my way through what all of this means?" Mattie's hand left her arm, and she wrapped it around Rachel's waist as they continued to walk.
Rachel's heart skipped a beat, then her own arm landed across Mattie's shoulders. "If that is what you need, I will help you in any way I can."
"I love you, Rachel."
She knew Mattie didn't mean it, not in the way she wanted her to. Yet once again, Mattie was offering her friendship, despite all they had discussed. It was a gift she could only accept with wide-eyed wonder. "I love you too, Mattie."
The rest of the evening was spent in reading lessons, and a leftover fried chicken supper, and one more walk on the beach, that somehow led to another heartfelt kiss, followed by a warm comforting hug that neither woman wanted to leave.
The sun broke over the horizon, warm and bright, as Rachel's boots hit the docks with a purposeful rhythmic clunking noise. It felt good to be out and about, to feel the ocean breeze on her face and smell the clean salty air. Even the pesky seagulls were a welcome sight after her month of bed rest.
Her ribs were bound securely, and other than the occasional pull if she turned too quickly, she felt good. Heck, she admitted, she felt darned fabulous. She was wearing the shirt she wore the day before, and if she inhaled deeply enough, Mattie's scent greeted her nostrils, sending pleasant happy chills across her skin. Her lips almost tingled in memory of sweet kisses shared under the friendly blue sky, and later under the stars.
It had been so long.
She reached Mr. Gentry's boat and carefully hoisted herself over the side, keeping her weight off the arm on the side where her rib was still mending. Just as her feet landed on the deck, Billy's tousled morning head appeared from down below, his arms wrapped around a bucket of bait. "Hello, Rachel." He set the bucket down and approached her, holding out a hand in greeting. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
"That goes double for you." She grasped his hand and shook it. "The old man asleep?"
"Passed out, as always." He stood back, his eyes taking in her lean frame. "You've lost some of your color. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were one of those lily-white society ladies."
"You!" She playfully punched him in the arm. "I haven't grown that pale in only a month. It would take more than one mean ugly bastard to keep me down. You should know that by now."
"True." Billy's eyes grew thoughtful. Rachel had seen her share of scrapping, but never had she taken a beating like the one dealt to her by Adam Crockett and his posse. "Say. When are you going to take that sorry scoundrel up with the Sheriff?"
"I'm not." Her face took on a determined expression, her eyes gone cold and hard.
"You don't mean to tell me you're going to just let him get away with what he did to you?" Billy moved closer, shielding his eyes from the sun with his hand. "Rachel, for crying out loud, they almost killed you. Murder. It's a punishable offense, last time I checked."
"I won't do that to Mattie." Her chin jutted out defiantly. "She's been through enough because of him. I won't add to her misery."
"You can't stand by and do nothing, Rachel." Billy's eyes flashed in anger. "What if he comes after you again?"
Rachel bent down and pulled up her trousers leg, revealing a large Bowie knife tucked into her boot. "Let 'im try." A dangerous little smile tugged at her lips, and she dropped the leg back in place, hiding the well-sharpened weapon.
"I know you're pretty accurate with that, and it does make me feel better, but I still don't understand. You've never backed down from a fight in all the time I've known you." He shook his head sadly. "All you have to do is file a report with the Sheriff, and let him go after the low-life snake."
"And then I'll have to testify before the county judge, and Mattie might have to testify as well." Rachel stood back up, wincing at the pain in her side. "And after that he'll go home and beat the hell out of her. And as his wife, she'll have very little recourse. Think about it, Billy. Even I don't have a ghost of a chance against someone with Adam's influence. He's got all the money and power. I'm just another no-account dockworker, and a woman at that. It's not worth it. I wouldn't win anyway."
"But to not even try if that's what you want, I'll abide by it, but I'm not making any promises about what I'll do if he crosses my path in a back alley. Hey !" Without warning Rachel grabbed fistfuls of his shirt, hauling him close.
"You'll do nothing, do you hear me?" She shook him surprisingly hard, given her injury. "Do you? I mean it."
"Alright." He held up both hands in defense. "I give. Just let me go." She released him and he stepped back, tucking his shirttails back in and recovering his breath. "I don't understand at all."
"You go after Adam, he'll take it out on Mattie." Rachel's hands were still balled into angry fists. "I'm just glad he chose to take out most of his anger against me on me. Even so, he slapped her around some after he was done with me in that alley. So help me God, Billy, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure he has no reason to hurt her on my account."
"What does he have against you, anyway?" He took up the bucket of bait and Rachel followed along as they pulled up fishing pole lines and baited sharp hooks before dropping them back into the water.
She remained silent for several minutes, thinking about how to respond. She dared not tell the whole truth. Much as she trusted him, the fewer people who knew about her feelings for Mattie, the better. Above all else, protecting Mattie was the most important thing. "He thinks I'm a bad influence on Mattie."
"Well." His eyes twinkled, knowing her penchant for drink, gambling, and cigars. "Are you?"
Her eyes closed for a moment, remembering shared kisses yet again. She opened her eyes and smiled mysteriously. "I prefer to think that I'm broadening her realm of experience. She's led a sheltered life, Billy. She's curious about some very basic simple things. We have fun together, and she could sure use some fun in her life."
"Sounds like you two have become very good friends." Billy remembered Adam's comments about Rachel, and couldn't help but wonder at the nature of that friendship. "Rachel." He clapped her on the shoulder. "Just be careful."
Their eyes locked in a moment of silent understanding.
"I have to be." She looked down, breaking their gaze. "Too much is at stake."
"Rachel." Billy finished baiting the last hook and they moved to unfurl large nets from the back of the boat. "Whatever happens, you have my full support."
She swallowed a painfully large lump in her throat. "Thank you, Billy. You're a true friend."
"Hey." He rooted around in his front shirt pocket, digging out two cigars. "I've missed going for a smoke with you." He handed one over to her, in an attempt to lighten the mood. With a flourish, he produced a match and lit first hers and then his own, sucking deeply at the tangy-sweet tobacco smoke.
Rachel smiled between clamped teeth, wiggling the cigar into a comfortable place as the smoke curled up and around her face like an old friend. "Got any whiskey to go with these?" She winked at him.
"I think I just might, my lady." He pulled a small flask from his back pocket, and they sat down for a morning of watching the lines and catching up on dockside gossip.
Mattie arranged the china on the table one more time, folding her fine linen napkins and setting a pitcher of fresh lemonade on a lace doily. She moved to the stove and stirred a pot of simmering clam chowder and opened the oven, removing a pan of hot steaming corn bread. She cut thick chunks of the bread and placed them in a basket, covering it with a red and blue-checkered cloth. A china butter dish, which matched the plates, held a slab of sweet cold butter she had purchased from the general store the day before. She owned a churn, but hadn't used it since moving to Galveston, finding store-boughten butter to be worth the extra cost compared to the time and muscle saved at the churn.
Satisfied the meal was more or less ready, she went into the water closet and fluffed her bangs one more time, peering at her complexion with great scrutiny. Dark circles under her hazel eyes bore testimony to the sleep she had lost during the week -- a week that she had spent in much thought and contemplation. A little face powder helped mask the circles.
She had seen Rachel exactly once since their evening of kissing and hand-holding on the beach. The tall woman had shyly appeared in the tailor's shop at the noon hour on Friday and they had shared a quiet meal of sandwiches and awkward conversation in the back room. Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan, sensing they needed some privacy, had stepped out for dinner at the hotel. She didn't want things to be uncomfortable between them, and hoped their Sunday afternoon dinner would restore their friendship to a state of normalcy.
But nothing felt normal anymore, she acknowledged ruefully. Her entire world had been turned on end, and she was forced to consider possibilities she never knew existed. Did she care for Rachel in a romantic way? It was difficult to find an answer to such a complex question. She had nothing with which to compare her feelings for Rachel. She certainly didn't love Adam, and couldn't remember ever having feelings for anyone as strongly as the ones she had for Rachel. So why am I standing here primping in the mirror like a young girl waiting for her beau to arrive? And what if I do love her? What can I do about it, even if I do?
A light rapping at the door tore her from her thoughts, and she pinched her cheeks for some color, before hastily entering the parlor. She took a deep breath and opened the door, to find Rachel standing there, head down, idly kicking at the doorframe, both hands behind her back. Slowly she looked up, her eyes full of hope, as she brought a large bouquet of wildflowers around and held them out. "Thought you might like something pretty for your table."
Mattie took the flowers, inhaling their sweet fresh scent, and drew Rachel inside, leading her by the hand into the kitchen. Rachel sat down at the table, taking in the dainty china, a bone-colored pattern with a sprinkling of tiny yellow rosebuds and gold scrolling around the edges. She tried to remember if she had ever dined at such a fine table. Maybe once in the hotel, a long time ago, when Mr. Gentry had treated her and Billy to a full-course supper after a particularly spectacular catch.
Mattie arranged the flowers in a vase and filled it with water, pumping the copper handle and watching as the water slowly reached the rim. She turned and paused, admiring her friend. Rachel's hair was down, long chestnut waves spilling over her shoulders and framing her tanned face, which set off her blue-gray eyes. Eyes which were looking back at her with that same hopeful expression they bore on the porch step. She wore a crisp blue and white striped shirt, with the folded corner of a white handkerchief peeking out from her front pocket. Part of her hair was pulled back and clipped with the hair clasp Mattie had given her for her birthday. "I think I already have something pretty for my table." She smiled as Rachel visibly drank in the compliment, her cheeks blushing with a dusting of pink that reached from her nose all the way to her ears.
"Thank you," she mumbled, and looked down, smoothing her placemat in a nervous gesture. "Um dinner smells delicious. She eyed the basket of cornbread and watched mutely as Mattie set the vase on the end of the table so as not to obscure their view of each other while they dined.
"I hope you like clam chowder." Mattie fiddled with the flowers and started to sit down, when strong fingers gently clasped her hand, a calloused thumb brushing across the back of it.
"I'd like anything you cook for me, Mattie." She lifted her hand and placed a quick kiss on her knuckles, then released it and allowed her friend to take her seat.
"Oh." Mattie frowned and stood up. "The chowder. I forgot to get the soup bowls out. I'll be right back." She disappeared into the parlor where her oak china cabinet sat against one wall, removing two bowls and returning.
Rachel stood at the stove. "Here." She held out a hand. "You did the cooking, let me serve it up. Go on." She shoed Mattie toward a chair. "I can at least manage to use a ladle without spilling anything, I think." She smiled charmingly as Mattie relented, handing her the bowls. She quickly dipped up two healthy portions of the thick milky-smooth chowder and placed them on the table before taking her own seat.
Mattie poured two tall glasses of lemonade and they dug in, both women still struggling with their awkwardness. Finally, they eased their way into small talk, discussing the upcoming Independence Day celebration the island had planned, along with tidbits of information Mattie gained at the tailor's shop, and Rachel's adventures on the fishing boat during the week.
After Rachel refused a fourth helping of chowder, Mattie got up and fished some fresh-baked sugar cookies from a jar, arranging them on a platter and motioning to Rachel to join her in the sitting room. After retrieving two cups of sweet hot tea, she sat down on the sofa next to her friend, not touching, but with very little space between them. "Cookie?"
Rachel took the top one and bit into it, rolling her eyes and closing them in pleasure as the sweetness washed over her taste buds. "Delicious." She smiled encouragingly and took a sip of tea.
"Thank you." Mattie cleared her throat and looked down, clasping her hands in her lap. "I hate this," she mumbled.
"Hate what?" Rachel knew exactly what Mattie spoke of, but wanted to give her friend the choice to talk or not talk, whatever she was comfortable with.
"I feel so close to you, but I can't seem to speak my mind." Mattie stood and moved to the window, looking out at the sun-sparkling waves as they washed up onto the beach.
Rachel was on her feet in a second, moving in behind Mattie and hesitantly wrapping her arms around her waist. "I'm glad that you still feel close to me, because I feel the same, Mattie. I was afraid maybe we shouldn't have kissed last weekend if it's going to make us feel awkward "
"No." Mattie leaned back into her, closing her eyes and allowing the closeness to fill her up and give her courage. "I just don't know what to do. I want something I don't think I'm supposed to have. Is it wrong, Rachel? I'm married to Adam. I wish I weren't, but I am. And even if I weren't, what kind of life could two women have together?"
Rachel's heart skipped a beat and her tongue felt like lead. That Mattie had thought hard enough to even consider the possibility of them, or any two women, sharing a life, was more than she had ever hoped for. It made her head spin so much that she felt slightly dizzy.
The silence was overwhelming and Mattie felt the body behind her go still. "I'm sorry." She moved to pull away from her. "I must have offended you. I shouldn't have presumed that you would want oh." Rachel's arms tightened around her, unwilling to let her go.
"Don't be sorry." Rachel kissed the top of her head and briefly nuzzled her soft hair, which was pinned up loosely on top of her head. "I'm just surprised is all. I hadn't dared hope that you might consider " She couldn't bring herself to say it, for fear she had misunderstood Mattie's meaning.
"I've thought of little else." Mattie turned in her arms, reaching up and playing with her collar. The top button of her shirt was undone, and a small silver chain was visible. Curiously, Mattie pulled at it and drew it out, revealing a tiny silver cross surrounded by an open silver heart. "How pretty." She continued to study the charm, surprised that Rachel would wear such a thing.
"It was my mother's. I took it when I left home. Haven't worn it in years, but I pulled it out this week and decided to start wearing it again. Figured I could use all the good luck and guardian angels I can get, considering everything that's happened in the past month." Her heart skipped a beat again as Mattie gently dropped the chain back inside her shirt, and she felt a soft kiss at the hollow of her throat, followed by gentle fingers that probed at the thin scar at her temple.
"I'm afraid guardian angels won't do you much good where Adam is concerned." She lowered her head again and she fiddled with the rest of the buttons that ran down the placket on Rachel's shirt. "They sure haven't been around when I've needed them, at any rate." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I don't know what to do."
"What do you want to do?" Rachel tilted her chin up, holding back her desire to kiss tempting full lips.
"I want to go back to when I was fourteen and not marry him." Mattie looked back down, the lips in question beginning to tremble. "I want to meet you first. I want to not be so confused. I want to know what is the right thing to do."
Rachel pulled her close, until Mattie's head was resting solidly on her shoulder. She stroked the red hair and placed another kiss on Mattie's forehead. "I wish all those things too." She hugged Mattie tighter as she felt her begin to shiver. "Leave him," she whispered into her ear.
"It's wrong." Mattie mumbled against a clean-smelling bit of cotton. Mixed in with the clean smell was the scent of bay rum and tobacco. She decided she liked it and buried her face more fully into Rachel's shoulder, feeling herself being rocked slowly back and forth, almost as if in a dance.
"Not for me." Rachel continued to soothe her. "Although I think you know that's what I would wish for. But not for me." She rubbed her hands up and down Mattie's back, in an effort to calm her fears. "Mattie, how long is he going to go on, before one day he hits you too hard?" She felt her own legs tremble and backed toward the sofa, landing on a plump cushion with Mattie cradled in her arms, sitting on her lap. She continued to rock from side to side. "I couldn't bear it if that were to happen."
"I can't just up and leave him." Mattie sighed and sat up enough to look at Rachel's face. "I'd have to get a divorce, and the church I know adultery is reason enough, but he could deny it. Then I'd have to bring in Lillie. She's the only true witness, and that would get her in trouble with the law. I don't think he will give me a divorce if I ask him for one. More likely he'd beat me senseless if I did "
"Over my dead body." Rachel's voice took on a fierce protective tone Mattie had never heard her use before.
"My knight in shining armor." Mattie mumbled softly.
"Just leave him," Rachel pleaded. "Forget the divorce. I know you want to do everything in the proper way, Mattie, but he isn't playing nicely. Sometimes you have to break the rules. I don't want him to hurt you anymore."
"Even if I did leave him, where would I go?" She looked sadly into Rachel's eyes. "I couldn't stay here, and the only other place I know anyone is back home in El Paso."
"I I would go with you, if you wanted me to. No matter where you want to go." Rachel broke their gaze, and gasped, as soft lips brushed against her own.
"That is a very noble offer." Another kiss. "But I don't think I'm brave enough to do that, Rachel. I need some time to think about all of this. My mind is all aflutter and I haven't been able to concentrate. I had to re-sew the buttons on a shirt three times yesterday because I kept placing them wrong. I haven't slept more than an hour at a time since last weekend. I'm so very tired."
Rachel studied her eyes more closely, finally noticing the powder-covered circles, and Mattie's blood-shot orbs. She looked weary, and Rachel unconsciously placed a hand against her ribs. She had felt them often enough during their swimming lessons for her to know that they were more prominent than they should be. "You haven't been eating well either, have you?"
"No," Mattie answered in surprise. "Not until tonight. Somehow, when I'm with you, I feel calmer. Not that I have answers to all my questions, but that I worry less for some reason."
"You need to rest Mattie, take better care of yourself." Even as she spoke, she scooted to the end of the sofa and urged Mattie to stretch out, her head pillowed in Rachel's lap. "We don't have to swim or read today." She gently began removing Mattie's hairpins, then ran her fingers through the long tresses, watching gratefully as the hazel eyes blinked at the calming sensation, fighting sleep. "Rest, Mattie. I'll sit here with you for a spell."
"I truly could ." She yawned before she could stop it. " stand some sleep. She rolled slightly, curling one hand around Rachel's knee. "So peaceful," she murmured, before she drifted off into dreamless sleep.
Rachel soon joined her, her head drooped back against the sofa's high back as her hand stilled against Mattie's head.
Outside, the waves continued to roll ashore, maintaining their own quiet lullaby as the early evening tide rose.
Continued in Chapter 6
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