Copyright 2004 By Texbard email@example.com
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Rachel jumped in startlement, her body twitching awake from vague unsettling dreams. Slowly, she raised her head from the sofa back and looked around, blinking at her surroundings, momentarily forgetting where she was. She shook her head to clear it and winced in pain as her stiff neck protested her actions. A solid weight on her leg, along with gentle warm breathing that tickled her skin through her trousers leg quickly reminded her she was in Mattie's parlor.
She looked down and couldn't help but smile. Mattie had rolled toward her, facing her stomach, and her face looked very young and very much at peace. The tension in her features had dissipated as she slept, and she looked like an angel to Rachel. "My angel," she whispered softly, hoping that perhaps saying it aloud might make it come true.
The room was decidedly darker than it had been when they sat down, and looking out the window, the long shadows of palm trees and the red-gold sunlight which gilded the rolling waves confirmed that west of the island, night was beginning to fall. She knew Adam wasn't due back until Tuesday evening, and so she allowed herself to relax. She had nowhere she needed to be until sunrise the next day.
Mattie murmured in her sleep and pursed her lips, making frightened whimpering noises. Rachel instinctively stroked her friend's head and allowed her fingers to trail along Mattie's face, smoothing a slight frown and tracing the puckered lips. The lips smiled and Mattie settled down again, one hand reaching up and curving around Rachel's upper thigh, perilously close to places she truly didn't need the hand to be. She groaned quietly and carefully lifted it and moved it, allowing smaller fingers to curl around her hip, a much safer and less-distracting spot.
Her own hand continued idle exploration, roaming down Mattie's arm and side until she reached the redhead's own hip. She patted it lightly before splaying her fingers around a too-prominent hipbone. Mattie needed to put on some weight, she noted ruefully. Just as her hand settled into place, Mattie shifted in her sleep, rolling even more toward her, and suddenly her hand was no longer on Mattie's hip, but was planted firmly against her backside. A very nice, very shapely backside. "I do believe you're trying to torture me," she muttered, and allowed one gentle pat to the firm derriere before moving her hand up and lightly scratching Mattie's back.
This elicited an appreciative purr, as Mattie curled in toward her, drawing her thighs up against Rachel's hip. Mattie tucked the hand that had been on Rachel's hip under her own chin and sighed with contentment. Rachel decided she was the most adorable woman in the world, and leaned over, planting a loving kiss on her friend's cheek, causing another sigh as Mattie slowly drifted into wakefulness.
Two hazel eyes fluttered open, so close they startled Rachel, who was just pulling away from the pale cheek. Without further thought Mattie reached up, threading her fingers through the hair at the base of Rachel's neck and drawing her back down, kissing her softly on the lips. It went on for a bit, until both women began to find breathing rather difficult.
Mattie sat up and stretched, and found herself pulled into Rachel's lap. Long fingers traced her brows, then her nose, then gently caressed her cheek before tilting her chin slightly to the side. Rachel's eyelids lowered halfway and she whispered one word. "Please."
Mattie smiled and closed the distance, feeling Rachel's other arm wrap around her, stroking her back as she deepened the kiss. Mattie gasped as a warm tongue probed between her lips. Rachel ever so gently coaxed her, not pushing her or showing any sign of aggression. It was new and different from anything she had ever felt before, and she decided she liked it, opening up and doing her best to mimic Rachel's actions. She heard a low moan of appreciation and felt herself being lowered down on the sofa with agonizing slowness, Rachel's long body stretched out next to her, pressing against her side.
It was comfortable and warm, and relieved of her own body weight, she felt her muscles and mind completely relax, all thought pushed aside, save for the new sensations coursing through her blood, causing her to crave more of the closeness they shared. She allowed herself to get lost in it, returning kiss for kiss and touch for touch, pulling Rachel closer and grasping at handfuls of her clothing, desperately wanting something, and not knowing what it was. Strong hands and soft lips gentled her and at the same time drove her to a level of passion she had only read about in books.
Rachel on the other hand, in a very small corner of her brain, wondered fuzzily if she was losing her mind. She was taking things much further than she had anticipated. This was a long way from standing together on the beach as they had the week before. True, they had been in each other's arms, but the kisses then had been chaste nibbles compared to what they were sharing now, and a fire ignited in her belly as she heard more of the pleasure-filled murmurs coming from Mattie's throat.
She forced her hands to stay in a restricted area, either running through Mattie's hair or stroking her face and arms. She smiled against Mattie's lips, realizing that Mattie had no such inclination, her smaller hands running freely up and down Rachel's back and occasionally clutching at her shoulders or sides, holding her in place as they continued their mutual exploration. She felt her shirt tugging loose from her trousers and groaned quietly, knowing Mattie had no intention of actually removing her clothing; it was simply inevitable given the pulling sensation she felt at her back as Mattie crushed the cotton material into her fists.
Reluctantly she moved away from Mattie's lips, kissing her softly along her jaw line and down to her ear, planting a kiss on soft sensitive skin and whispering in her ear. "Thank you." One more kiss. "No one ever kissed me like that."
Mattie frowned and she shifted, cupping Rachel's face. "But Lillie "
The invocation of Lillie's name seemed all wrong, but Rachel pushed that aside and focused on the moment and a very important truth she needed to share. "No." She smiled and stole one more kiss from still-moist lips. "We never kissed. It's one of her rules."
"Why?" Mattie felt Rachel grasp her hand and draw it around, and a tickling sensation against her knuckles as Rachel's lips brushed across them.
"Kissing is too intimate." Steel eyes warmed to vibrant blue gazed at her with a mixture of hope and fear. "It conveys something that would be an untruth between Lillie and me."
Blonde brows knitted in confusion. "I don't understand." She felt Rachel move, resting on her side, still hovering over Mattie's face. A warm smile graced Rachel's lips and she leaned in, sharing another lengthy kiss.
"I don't kiss Lillie because I don't love her." She ducked her head, thick chestnut waves hiding her face.
"And .. with me do you ..?" Mattie trailed off and reached up, pushing Rachel's hair behind her ear.
The dark head turned and Rachel nibbled the inside of Mattie's palm before holding it against her own face. "Not a lie." Their lips met again, a gentle exchange that ended in a long rocking hug as both women slowly sat up.
Mattie curled into Rachel's lap, one arm wrapped loosely around her waist, her other hand running up and down a muscular arm, which she occasionally squeezed unconsciously, enjoying the steely sensation against her fingers. "I don't know what to do." She buried her face into Rachel's neck, nuzzling the soft skin. The scent of her bay rum cologne was heavier, mixed with another scent she couldn't identify, but liked very much. A strong hand rubbed her back in comforting circles.
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to do, Mattie." Rachel kissed her head. "I enjoyed what we just did very much, but I'd never expect it of you. If you're not comfortable with it, just be my friend. That's more than I could ever have hoped for."
"But you love me?" Mattie kissed her throat and felt it shift as Rachel swallowed.
"Yes." She released a long breath. "I do."
"I think I love you too." Mattie kissed the spot again. "The way you love me, I mean."
This time she held her breath for a moment, allowing the knowledge to settle in. "This is new for both of us, Mattie. I have no expectations. Take all the time you need to figure out your feelings."
"I don't know if I can ever do the things with you, that you do with Lillie." Rachel sat up taller, her head down, as she played with Rachel's shirt collar, occasionally pulling out the silver chain and studying it while she spoke. "Maybe someday " she shook her head sadly. "I have to sort it out, what's right and what's wrong. If I wasn't married, Rachel "
"Shhhh." Rachel hugged her more tightly before releasing her again into their comfortable loose embrace. "This is enough, I promise you. If all you ever give me are your hugs, Mattie, that's enough."
"You can get the rest from Lillie." For some reason that thought settled in her stomach, making it hurt, and she almost felt like crying.
"I don't think I can." She stroked Mattie's face and waited until hesitant hazel eyes looked up. "Not anymore. You have my heart, Mattie, whether I have yours or not doesn't matter. What I feel for you I just can't go back to Lillie's bed is all. It wouldn't feel right. Though I don't want to give up her friendship. She's been too good to me."
"I would never ask that of you." Mattie ran light fingertips down her button placket. "I don't even feel like I should expect the other." She blushed, her fingers continuing to wander.
"Even if you don't, Mattie, I expect if of myself." She gasped slightly as Mattie's hand unconsciously slid over her breast. She was about to gently remove her friend's hand when she felt Mattie pause, her expression one of great curiosity.
"Are you cold?" A hard nipple pressed back against her palm, and she blushed more furiously, before moving her hand down to a safe place against Rachel's ribs.
"Not hardly." A light nervous chuckle escaped her lips. "You how do I put this ? It's a reaction to your touch, Mattie."
Quizzical eyes looked at her in consternation and the hand came back up. She pressed her hand in slightly and cupped Rachel's breast through the starched cotton shirt, feeling the ribbed undershirt beneath and the still-hard nipple. She looked back up and watched Rachel's eyes slam shut. "Remember when I measured you for these shirts?" Her hand rested in place.
"Reaction to your touch," Rachel squeaked out, keeping her eyes closed for fear she might die of embarrassment.
"And here I thought you were cold that day." She laughed lightly. "I had no idea."
Blue-gray eyes opened in amazement. "You don't mean to tell me that Adam has never " The utter confusion in Mattie's eyes was all the answer she needed, and it took all her considerable self-control to keep from showing her exactly what she had been missing with her inept husband. Sensing it might frighten her, she took a deep breath and reached up, unbuttoning her own shirt, allowing the crisp material to slide off her shoulders, exposing her soft cotton undershirt. "It's alright." She grasped Mattie's hand and kissed it. "You can touch me if you want to."
"Adam has never what?" Mattie's hand came up, the firm soft curve of Rachel's breast filling her cupped palm again. It was an interesting sensation, the firmness and softness mixed with the hardness that pressed against the cotton barrier separating her skin from Rachel's. It didn't occur to her to remove that barrier, much to Rachel's mixed relief and frustration.
"I " She swallowed hard, forcing herself to concentrate on the impromptu lesson. "I told you that there are ways that women can touch each other, that can be very pleasurable."
"I remember." Mattie grew braver and lightly squeezed Rachel. She felt the sharp intake of breath and watched goose bumps suddenly dance across her friend's upper chest.
"The way you're touching me right now." Warm eyes opened and Rachel smiled softly, not wanting Mattie to be afraid or to stop. "That would be one of the ways."
"Oh." Mattie blushed furiously and started to remove her hand, then felt a large one cover it, holding her in place.
"Don't be ashamed." Rachel's lips brushed past her ear on their way to her lips. They kissed again, a deep longing exchange which left Rachel breathing heavily, her eyes tightly closed as she pressed her forehead against Mattie's, feeling her friend's hand drive her to almost painful distraction as Mattie freely explored the novelty of Rachel's response to her touch.
Rachel held back. Allowing Mattie to take her time, both hands coming up and gently circling her breasts, hazel eyes occasionally tilting upward to see Rachel's face. Much as she wanted to return the exchange, she knew Mattie was not ready for it. There would be plenty of time, a part of her reasoned. Something deep inside of her innately knew that someday they would share so much more than what they had on this evening.
Finally, when she could stand it no more, she grasped Mattie's hands, kissing each one almost reverently and holding onto them. "I'd best be going home, Mattie." She saw the uncertainty in her friend's eyes and smiled warmly. "Otherwise I'm afraid I'll bee too tempted to scoop you up and take you to that nice comfy bed in there, and I think we'd both regret that tomorrow, don't you?"
"Probably." Mattie's own skin was flushed and she felt an exhilarating tingle all through her body. "I don't know much about all of this, Rachel." She blinked shyly and looked down. "But I suspect if it does ever feel right for you to show me how two women can touch each other anyway I'd most likely want it to be in your bed, and not that one."
"We have all the time in the world, Mattie." Rachel hugged her tightly as she stood, Mattie's feet coming off the ground in the process. "We need to talk some more. I know you're feeling all befuddled about things. I don't want you to feel that way. But I meant it when I said I don't want him to hurt you anymore." She dragged the backs of her knuckles along Mattie's cheek. "Think about that, sweetheart. I'll help you in any way you need me to, if only you'll get yourself someplace that's safe. Promise me you'll give it some thought."
Mattie hugged her back as she was lowered back to the floor. "I promise." They kissed again in the doorway, and Mattie watched sadly as Rachel walked away. She turned at the edge of the dunes and waved, smiling brightly as Mattie waved enthusiastically back. She turned then, and made her way on down the beach, her skin bronzed by the setting sun and her hair framed in a flaming auburn halo. "I declare, Rachel Travis, you look just like an angel in the sunlight," she turned and closed the door on the sweet vision, unaware she was repeating Rachel's own sentiment.
A dark head popped out of the surf, sleek hair plastered back, the long ends fanning out in the water. Rachel bobbed up and down in place, treading water, trying to sort out a myriad of thoughts and sensations. She hadn't intended on the impromptu dip into the ocean, but for some reason, the cool water against her overheated skin seemed very appealing. She had her suit with her anyway, rolled up inside a towel, just in case she and Mattie had decided on swimming lessons.
What they had done instead
She smiled. It had felt wonderful sweet and had left her longing for so much more. She played it over in her mind. True, Mattie had initiated their exchange, but she had encouraged the lengths to which they took it. A part of her wondered if it had been a huge mistake, if Mattie would be overwhelmed by it later. Another part of her wanted to take a quick hike back to Mattie's house, scoop her up, and take her to bed. She felt vaguely like a cat in heat, her skin longing to rub all up against Mattie's.
She ducked back under the water, holding her breath until she thought she might explode, before surfacing again. There. She shook the wet hair out of her eyes and nodded with satisfaction. The stinging salt up her nose, the slight chill to her skin, and the beginnings of a headache from holding her breath so long served their purpose, dampening her ardor to a more tolerable level.
It was full dusk and time to get out of the water. The tide was rising, but nothing unusual or dangerous. She swam toward shore and stood when the water was at hip level, walking with the pull of the water back to where she had left her clothing, stashed safely behind a thick pillar of someone's private boat dock. She looked around and stooped down behind it, slipping out of the wet bathing trunks and top, and drying off briskly before re-donning her clothing.
She paused as she was pulling her undershirt over her head and closed her eyes, remembering Mattie's hands on her, teasing her and making her ache inside. She opened her eyes again and swallowed, looking regretfully back out at the water. All her good intentions in cooling off were completely undone, and she was once again longing for things they did not finish. She thought, shamefully, that when she got home there were ways for her to take care of the problem, at least temporarily. Just one more thing Lillie had taught her. It wasn't something she did very often -- a sin that was almost as mortal as her desire for women.
Ruefully, she realized that giving up her physical relationship with Lillie was going to leave her with few other options. A grim smile graced he lips as she pictured extended hours of swimming in her future. Well, she shrugged internally, if she was going to Hell anyway for what she'd done with Lillie, and what she had done with Mattie, she might as well toss in a few more sins for good measure. She wasn't especially fond of swimming when the water was cold.
She finished dressing and decided to walk the rest of the way home along the beach, rather than through the streets of the town. It was a beautiful night, though slightly warm. The truly hot summer nights would be upon them any day, and she had learned to enjoy what pleasant summer evenings she could get. She rolled up the wet bathing suit inside her towel and tucked it under one arm, picking her way along the shoreline just in the edge of the water, so that it occasionally washed up and covered her feet and ankles.
She whistled a tune in her head and then began singing it. It was supposed to be called "Katie," but she changed the name to "Mattie," smiling as she sang:
You're the only gi-gi-gi-girl that I adore.
When the mo-moon shines,
Over the cow shed,
I'll be waiting at the ki-ki-ki-kitchen door.
If I ever have a cow shed of my own, she mumbled. Or a kitchen. Need to dig into those reading lessons and then go find myself a better job.
She allowed her mind to wander along those lines, picturing herself several years down the road, buying her own little plot of land and building a house. It would be a large sturdy house, one that would be big enough for her and whoever else she shared it with, and anyone else they knew who might need to take shelter from time to time. It would be on stilts to protect from floods, and the first floor level would have a balcony wrapping all the way around. Large picture windows would face out to sea, and the second floor bedrooms would each have balconies as well. At the peek of the roof she would build a watchtower, so that she could climb up and look way out to sea, and be able to see the sunset over the mainland on the other side of the island.
She tried to picture herself in another job, maybe at the bank, or perhaps owning some sort of shop. Maybe she would make something in demand, like buggies or harnesses. Maybe she would go to school to learn how to be a druggist or a doctor. She smiled to herself, dreaming of the possibilities, and what it would be like to have a job where everyone respected her. What would she feel like after a day at a job like that?
She'd come home and maybe be greeted warmly. Maybe by Mattie. Maybe someday they would find a way to be together, and Mattie could do whatever she wanted to all day long, be it work at the tailors or do her artwork, or something completely different. She would take care of Mattie, if only given the chance. Mattie deserved to be loved and cared for, and Rachel wished, more than anything, that she could be that person.
A splashing sound in the water brought her out of her musings, and she strained her eyes, peering down the shoreline toward its source. She was coming up on the orphanage's property, and realized that some of the boys were out playing on the beach and swimming. Most likely they weren't supposed to be there, she chuckled quietly.
As she drew closer to the boys, she recognized two of them, Albert Campbell and Frank Madera. They were known to spend time down at the docks during the summers when they weren't in school, begging for odd jobs -- sweeping boat decks, scaling fish, or helping wrap up bales of cotton. She had spent several afternoons cleaning fish with them. They roamed the town freely in the summer; however, the sisters who ran the orphanage kept a pretty close eye on their charges at night. She suspected the young hooligans had slipped out a first floor window of their dormitory.
"Hello, boys," she called out, and laughed as a half dozen young gangly bodies froze in the shallows. "It's me, Rachel Travis."
Two bodies relaxed, as Albert and Frank trotted down the shore toward her, stopping a few times to re-roll trousers legs that were sliding down. "Hello, Miss Rachel, what are you doing out here?"
"I'm going for a walk in the moonlight." She ruffled Frank's unruly head of thick black hair. "I should ask you the same thing. Do the sisters know you're out this evening?"
Albert ducked his head, digging his big toe into the sand and tucking his hands behind his back, trying to appear innocent. Frank merely crossed his arms over his chest and smiled at her, his two front teeth obviously missing even in the low light. "We's big boys now. We know how to swim"
"Can you swim faster than a shark?" Rachel's eyes twinkled mischievously.
"Sh - shark?" Four other boys joined them, quickly moving out of the water, all of them looking down fearfully into the shallow waves as they retreated.
"Yep. Shark." She dropped her bundle of clothing in the sand and draped an arm across Albert's shoulders, then the other across Frank's, steering them back toward the narrow trail through the dunes, which led to the orphanage, the other boys following closely behind them. "I hear tales that big ol' sharks come out after dark, looking for something tasty to eat."
"Are little boys tasty?" A wide-eyed lad looked up at her, his freckles standing out against his pale skin.
"I wouldn't know," she smiled. "But I suspect sharks would find them to be a mighty fine meal on a warm summer evening."
"Miss Rachel," Albert looked up at her and took her hand, holding on tightly. "I think it might be time for us boys to go to bed now. I'm awfully tired all of a sudden."
"I think that's a splendid idea." Rachel squeezed back and stopped as they reached the bottom step of the orphanage's back porch. "You boys have pleasant dreams." She laughed internally, wondering how many of them would dream of sharks. She knew she shouldn't find it so funny, but couldn't help herself. Their young faces were too precious. Besides, she justified to herself, she'd probably saved a couple of them from drowning with her shark story.
"I heard you was laid up for a while, Miss Rachel." Frank took her other hand, and she knelt down at boy-level.
"I was hurt pretty bad for a while, Frank, but I'm feeling much better." Before she knew it, he wrapped his arms around her neck and gave her a hug.
"I's glad you's better, Miss Rachel." He stepped back. "We was looking for you on the dock and heard somebody had beat you up."
"Somebody did." She frowned, wondering just how much of the story had made it around the town. "But it won't happen again."
"Miss Rachel," Albert slid in and also gave her a hug. "When I'm big enough, I'll beat up any mean old man who tries to hurt you."
She took a deep breath, her eyes suddenly full of unshed tears that blurred her vision. She hastily swiped her hand across her eyes and stood up. "Thank you, Albert." She sniffled. "I think you'll grow up to be a fine gentleman someday."
The young boy beamed, too shy to say anything.
"What about me, Miss Rachel?" Frank looked up hopefully at her. Four other pairs of eyes were immediately behind him, all of them trained on her, waiting eagerly for an answer.
"Y'all just keep studying your lessons and do what the sisters tell you too, and I think all of you will grow up to be fine gentlemen." She ushered them up the steps. "Now go on, and get some sleep. Get yourselves into bed before you get in trouble."
She watched as all six boys clambered up the steps and traipsed across the porch, crawling through an open side window, just as she suspected. Not until they had all safely cleared the windowsill did she notice the lone figure rocking in a porch swing across the yard at the girl's dormitory. She cleared her throat and stood up tall. "Don't be too hard on them, Sister. It's such a lovely night and the moon is almost full. Probably too much temptation for little boys to stand, I'd imagine."
The nun merely nodded graciously at her, and she turned and made her way back down to the beach, retrieving her bundle at the trailhead.
Mattie sat up in bed, her sketchpad braced on her legs. She had splurged on the container of pastels from the general store, and was busily filling in color on a seascape she had worked on for several days. It was a dusky scene, drawn from memory of her walk on the beach with Rachel the weekend before. She used a peach color to work in the sunset reflecting on the water, smudging it with her pinky finger until it blended in with the gray-green color of the water. She added a touch of white for whitecaps and held the picture up at eye level.
It was a start, she told herself. She had no formal training in art, and relied on books on the subject to educate herself. If she mastered pastels and color blending well enough, she hoped to move on to oil painting or maybe watercolors. She read that watercolors were more difficult to work with than oils, as a mistake in oil could easily be painted over, while watercolor mistakes were much more difficult to correct.
She smiled and used a brown pastel to color the hair on one of the two small figures she had sketched in. The figures were of her and Rachel standing hand in hand on the beach, facing each other, about to kiss. They were too small for anyone to tell who they were. It was her own little secret.
Her mind was racing so fast from everything that had happened, that it was all she could do to stay focused. The two days of work at the tailor shop since Sunday had been a blur she barely remembered, her mind very far away from the task of sewing. She had made many mistakes and was grateful she had caught them. Sleep was out of the question. Sketching seemed like a good way to calm herself, but the subject matter of the previously started drawing only served to make her even more distracted.
She knew that she would never see her relationship with Adam the same way again. Kissing Rachel had been like stepping into a raging river. It washed over her and through her, and she had very nearly drowned in it. It had been heavenly. She couldn't begin to imagine what other things women could do together. The kissing alone had been beyond anything she had ever dreamed of.
She smiled, remembering how it felt to touch Rachel, and the interesting sounds her friend had made during their mutual exploration. A few times she thought Rachel was going to stop breathing. And at least once she was certain she heard a squeak. However it felt, Rachel had seemed to enjoy it immensely. Mattie wondered what that felt like, and if she dared ask Rachel to touch her in the same way.
Adam never would, she knew it, and a part of her was repulsed by the thought of him touching her that way. She puzzled that over, trying to decide if it was because it was too late, in her mind, for him to become the husband she would want him to be, or if it was because in her heart, she might have already given that part of herself to Rachel.
This confused her even more, as she pondered what, exactly, it might mean, that she had emotionally already given something to Rachel that they had not done, and that should be reserved for her marriage to Adam. Then there was the whole question of what she and Rachel had not done. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't imagine Rachel doing what Adam did to her, because she knew Rachel wasn't equipped for it, and because even if she were, she couldn't imagine enjoying it. Trying to guess at what Rachel referred to regarding women touching one another was making her crazy, a great mystery beyond her understanding.
Her head hurt thinking about all of it, and she wearily closed the sketchpad and put the cover back on the pastel tin. It was growing late and Adam was due home from the train depot. Her stomach churned, knowing he was still bent on her having a baby, and what he would surely want to do when he arrived.
She had decided to feign illness for the few days he would be home before going back to Houston. She knew she couldn't carry on such a ruse indefinitely, but it would buy her at least a week. She smiled sadly and removed a note she had tucked into her bodice. It was a simple note from Rachel, who had started practicing writing along with her reading. Mattie had found the note tucked into the top drawer of the sewing table she always used at the shop. It was folded over twice and her name was printed in carefully blocked letters on the outermost fold. Inside were three words -- "I MISS YOU." The note wasn't signed, but the faint scent of bay rum told her clearly who it was from.
She kissed the note and got up from the bed, placing the note and her sketchpad in the bottom drawer of the armoire, hiding them under the extra set of bed linens. She kept all her drawings of Rachel there, along with her pessary box. It was a place Adam never ventured into. Changing bed linens was a woman's work. Even if he did have reason to go there, she had placed one old tattered blanket over the hidden objects, with all the newer linens on top of it.
She ran her fingertips along the pastel drawing and covered the lot before closing the drawer. Rachel had been out at sea all day both days since they had seen each other last, and she longed to talk to her friend. The note was brave on Rachel's part, she knew, and she wanted to assure her that it was well received. "I love you, Rachel, leastwise I think that's what I'm feeling. I sure hope I can see you before Sunday."
With a heavy heart, she began dressing for bed, hoping to be asleep by the time Adam got home. After slipping into a ruffled white nightgown, she took a brush to her hair, working out the snarls before she braided it to keep it from getting tangled during the night. She splashed her face with water and used her toothbrush and powder.
Once she was ready for bed, she placed items on the nightstand to aid in her deception. Nervously, she arranged a cup of water, a box of headache powders, and a small basin of water with a rag. She dipped the rag into the water and wrung it out, draping it haphazardly on the rim of the basin as if it might have been feverishly placed there. She would tell him she had been running a fever and coughing. If need be, she would manage the coughing part of her story.
Before climbing into bed, she left a single lamp on, on a far table across the room. She lay in bed for a long time, her hands folded across her stomach on top of the covers. The window was cracked open to let in the salty ocean breeze, just enough to keep the room from being stifling in the warm night air. It had been abnormally hot during the day and hadn't cooled down much after sundown; all the more reason she didn't want Adam anywhere near her. It was just too hot.
Her weary mind continued to race, thinking about Rachel and Adam, until finally she fell into an exhausted sleep. Sometime around midnight she felt the bed shake and she stirred, mumbling in agitation before opening her eyes a crack. Adam stood over her, his face lined with worry.
"Mattie?" He held up the headache powder box. "Are you ill?"
"Oh." She forced a cough and picked up the cup from the bed table, sipping from it delicately. "Just a little cough and fever."
Adam felt her forehead and she waited. "You are a little warm."
She breathed a silent sigh of relief, grateful that he seemed to believe her. If she was warm, it was her own natural body heat, which was often slightly elevated when she slept. "It was worse earlier," she lied. "Just came on earlier today."
"Long as you don't get that chills and fever that's been going around." Adam turned the lamp off, and pulled his nightshirt on. "I hear it takes a good month to get over it." He crawled into bed beside her and settled on his back, his arms behind his head.
"Haven't had too many chills." Mattie noted with satisfaction that Adam was keeping his distance. "Mostly just this nagging dry cough." She coughed again, just for good measure.
"Mmmpph." He rolled on his side, facing away from her. "Good."
A deep rumbling snore was her answer.
She smiled into the darkness.
"Hey sugar, I haven't seen you around here in a coon's age." Lillie patted Rachel on the back as she slipped behind the bar to talk.
"Oh. Hello, Lil." She finished stacking some clean bar glasses on a rack to dry, and wiped her hands on a towel tucked into her waistband. "Been kinda busy, working on Mr. Gentry's boat and staying busy with my reading lessons. I " she paused and looked down at her boots, gathering her thoughts. "I worked out a deal with Mr. Bullock for my job here. If Adam Crockett shows up, I am to immediately pack it in and go home. He said it was the only way he'd let me keep working here, after what happened." Her voice was bitter.
"You mean to tell me he's going to continue to let that low-life good-for-nothing yellow-bellied skunk of an excuse for a man into this place?" Lillie's face colored in anger, as her voice rose.
"Shhhhhh." Rachel covered her mouth with a cupped hand, hearing a squawk of outrage as Lillie continued to rant. "I need this job, and so do you. Am I right?" She watched the blonde ringlets shake affirmatively, and removed her hand. Looking around, she poured up two glasses of rich amber ale and steered Lillie to a table in the corner. It was early and only a few Friday afternoon regulars had wandered in to shoot the breeze until the poker games started up.
"I wish to high heaven I didn't need this worthless place." Lillie's lips puckered in a full pout and she huffed, placing her elbows on the table and cradling her own face in her hands. "I'm a good mind to up and quit anyway. Go find myself something more respectable."
"Maybe you should." Rachel sipped at her mug with one hand, tracing a circle in a water puddle on the table with the fingers of the other.
"Ain't nothing pays women better than what I do, sugar, and you know it." She sat back and took a long draw at her ale.
"I know." Rachel couldn't meet her eyes. "And I hate that. I'm going to find something better, Lil. I swear I am. I'm reading pretty good now. I might even go back to school and make something of myself yet."
"You are something, in my eyes, Rachel, and I know you are in Mattie's." She saw the slight grin tug at her friend's lips. "How is Mattie? You been spending time with her?"
"Yep." She felt a blush creeping up her neck and flooding her cheeks, and sat back smugly in her chair, tilting it back on two legs and crossing her arms, as she propped one booted foot against a table leg, although her head remained bowed as she studied the bleached bone buttons on her shirt cuff.
"Oh, do tell." Lillie scooted closer, dropping her voice.
"Not that kind of time, Lil, although I suspect someday we might reach that point." She finally looked up, fully meeting Lillie's cornflower blue eyes. "I Lil, I can't spend time with you upstairs anymore. Wouldn't be right. I'd feel like I was being unfaithful to her."
"Is she still with her husband?" Lillie touched her leg, curling her fingers around it.
"Yes," she spit out through gritted teeth. "And I can't allow myself to think about that. Makes me crazy, thinking about him touching her."
"Why don't you grab her up and run away from here, Rachel? There's plenty of places you could go. East to New York, or out West. I hear there's all kinds of land to be had, even for women in some places." She watched the smile disappear.
"If Mattie were to say the word, I would." She drained her mug and sat forward again, gratefully accepting Lillie's unfinished drink. "She's all confused. I swear, Lil, I know I was naοve when you met me, but Mattie -- she's married and knows less than I did about things. She's just now figuring out how she feels about me."
"And how do you feel about her?" Lillie squeezed her leg, feeling the tension just under the surface.
"I think I'm in love with her." Rachel's eyes watered and she blinked hard. "Don't have nothin' to compare it to, but when I think about her, I feel all light, as if I'm walking two feet off the ground, and when she touches me, it sets my skin on fire. I I'd do anything for her. And when I think about the possibility that she might decide to stay with Adam and be miserable, it makes my chest feel so tight I can hardly breathe. I don't know what I'll do if he ever hurts her again."
"You'll keep your head about you if you know what's good for you." Lillie stood and drew Rachel up with her, pulling her into a hug. "I'm so sorry she doesn't see things for what they are. Do you want me to talk to her? We became friends while you were recovering. Leastwise I think we did."
"No." Rachel released her and looked around. Only a few curious pairs of eyes had turned their way, and quickly looked elsewhere as she met their gaze. "She's getting there. I don't want to push her until she's ready. I think hope she will leave him, Lil. Even if she doesn't leave him for me, I hate the way he hurts her. I feel so helpless. If I could get away with it, I think I'd kill him on sight."
"But you wouldn't get away with it. In the eyes of most of the folks in this town, he's better people than you. We know better, but they don't. They'd tie a rope around your pretty neck and that wouldn't do no good to nobody." Lillie kissed her on the cheek and led her back toward the bar, her hand crooked in Rachel's arm. "Mattie needs you alive and in one piece, sugar, so don't you go doing anything stupid, you hear me?"
"I do." She grabbed a rag and began swiping down the bar top. "I well I'll be damned." A familiar red head appeared in the doorway, looking uncertainly around until hazel eyes lit up with recognition, and Mattie strode across the saloon toward her.
"Hello, Lillie, Rachel." Mattie nodded to each woman in turn. "Am I interrupting anything?"
"Absolutely not, sugar." Lillie hesitantly patted her on the arm, glad when Mattie didn't flinch away from her. "I was just headed upstairs to change, so I'll leave you two gals to talk."
"You don't have to "
"No, no." Lillie waved a hand at her. "Talk. I have things I need to be doing." And she was gone up the stairs before they could say anything further.
"Hello." Mattie smiled shyly. "I got your note." She felt Rachel's eyes roam over her as she talked, and dropped her eyes uncertainly, yet another new sensation washing over her as she wondered for the first time if what Rachel saw was pleasing to her. "I I miss you too." She felt a touch to her hand and looked back up.
"I'm glad you came in." Rachel trailed one fingertip along the top of her hand. "I take it Adam is "
"Gone until Tuesday." Mattie felt a pleasant tingle that shot from her hand all the way to her stomach, making it dance with butterflies. "Could you maybe come over tomorrow instead of waiting until Sunday? I can take tomorrow off at the tailor's. I already asked and Mr. Vaughan said it would be alright."
"I'd love to." Rachel noted a profound sadness in her friend's voice, and tilted her chin up to get a better look at her face. Mattie's smile didn't reach her eyes. "What's wrong?"
"I miss you something fierce is all." Mattie looked around, glad that no one seemed to be paying attention to them. It was a great risk, coming into a place where so many people knew Adam, but she'd gone by the boarding house only to find Rachel missing. Rachel's friend Billy had spotted her in the hallway and told her where she was.
"It's alright. No one in here talks to Adam." Rachel guessed at her fear. "I'll be over whenever you want me there, Mattie." She reached up, cupping a freckled cheek. "Spend all day with you if you'd like."
"I'd like that very much." Mattie felt a tug to her hand and then she was being steered out the back door into the alleyway. She released a relieved breath as long arms wrapped around her, pulling her into a hug. It felt so good, and she snuggled in closer, inhaling a mix of cologne and clean salty sweat that she greedily craved. It drew her in, and she had no explanation for it. She only knew that lately Rachel's scent invaded her dreams. "Wish I didn't have to wait until tomorrow. I wish "
Rachel ducked her head and kissed her, a soft bit of contact that left her head spinning. "Come to my room tonight." She brushed a lock of hair out of Mattie's eyes, which were round with fear. "Not for anything like that." She kissed her again. "I miss curling up with you as we did when I was ill. You we could sleep together. Only sleep. I'll never push you, Mattie. You have my word on that."
"Sounds heavenly." Mattie hugged her tightly, feeling Rachel lift her and spin her around once before setting her back on the ground.
"I'll be going home early tonight, I'm thinking." Rachel winked at her and gave her a playful pat on the behind before releasing her. "I'll get one of the boys to cover for me. It's my first night back since " she trailed off, unwilling to bring up unpleasantness in light of the evening to come. " anyway, they don't expect me to be fully back on my feet yet, I don't think."
"I'll go home and pack up a few things." Hazel eyes twinkled with genuine happiness. "I'll see you in a few hours, Rachel."
"I can't wait." Rachel waved at her, as Mattie turned at the end of the ally, blowing her a kiss before she rounded the corner out of sight.
Rachel sighed in giddy joy. It was going to be a long night at the bar.
She tidied up the small room a dozen times, despite the fact that she always kept it in pristine condition, and not that there was much inside to be tidied up in the first place. She'd turned the lamp off, and a single candle burned on the bedside table, it's flicker causing strange shadows to dance on the walls. After thirty minutes of nervous pacing, Rachel finally drew a chair up to the open window and leaned on the windowsill with her nose pressed against the mosquito netting. A slight breeze made the room temperature tolerable, lightly riffling the pages of an open readers stacked on the table, the fresh salty scent filling the room and driving away the oppressive heat of the day.
If she craned her neck, she could see a scattering of stars across the sky. A full moon, while not visible, painted the buildings and alley below in pale soft light, making the ordinary scene appear magical, somehow. Or maybe it just felt magical because Mattie was surely on her way.
After a quick bath, she had stood in front of her small armoire for way too long, trying to decide what to wear. She finally decided on a short-sleeved ribbed undershirt and a pair of tan summer trousers. Her feet were bare and she had left her suspenders hanging down around her hips. Her hair remained in the long braid she had worn to work that morning, in deference to the summer sun. She considered that for a moment, to take it down or leave it braided, then mentally slapped herself.
"We are going to sleep," she muttered to herself, "so quit letting your mind wander places it has no business going."
An almost inaudible rapping at the door interrupted her musings, and she hesitated, taking a deep breath before she stepped across the room and opened it. "Hello, Mattie." She held out her hand, drawing her friend into the room and closing the door. "Here, let me take that." She grabbed hold of a small carpetbag and stowed it at the foot of the bed. She looked up and smiled. "You look lovely."
Mattie stood to the side, her hands clasped behind her back as she studiously watched Rachel. She wore a white frilly shirtwaist and a pale green gingham skirt with a flounce at the hem. Polished shoe tips peeked out from the bottom of a full ruffled petticoat, and her hair was swept up on top of her head. At Rachel's comment she blushed and looked down. "Why do I feel like a girl seeing her beau for the first time?" Her voice was somewhat uncertain, and before she had time to speak further, a gentle hand tilted her chin up.
"Hey." Long fingers stroked her cheek. "It's me. No need to be afraid." Cool skin quickly warmed at her touch, and Rachel felt a slight trembling cease as warm hazel eyes lost some of their fear. "I will never, ever hurt you, I promise."
"I know." Mattie smiled and clasped Rachel's hand, kissing her knuckles. Her smile grew wider as Rachel's brilliant one matched it. "Just that this is something different than anything I've ever done before."
"Why is it different?" Rachel moved to the chair at the widow and sat down, pulling Mattie onto her lap. She felt her warm slight weight settle against her, in contrast to the coolness of the wood floor against her bare feet. "You've been to my room before and we've slept together before. You've sat on my lap before." She gave a playful tickle to Mattie's ribs and bounced her up and down a few times.
"Stop that." Mattie giggled and batted her hand away. "But that was before " She felt a long arm snug around her back, Rachel's other hand unconsciously squeezing her calf through her skirt. She smiled. " before we ever did anything."
"And we don't have to do anything you don't want to do." Rachel kissed her on the cheek. "Are you uncomfortable sitting here?"
"N no." Mattie bit her lower lip in consternation. "That's just it. I'm never happier than when I'm with you, Rachel. Never more comfortable. I think I might want to do I don't know I can't not what you and Lillie did, but I told you that. But maybe some of what we did last weekend that would be nice." Her eyes dropped in embarrassment and she almost whispered, "I kind of liked it."
"So did I." Rachel kissed her cheek again, then brushed lightly across her lips. "There is no rush, here, sweetheart. I don't care if we sit and talk all night. I only want to be with you as much as I can."
At that the dam burst, and Mattie sniffled quietly as the first tears trickled down her cheeks. "I'm sorry." She began to cry harder and felt Rachel wrap both arms around her, rocking her and making tiny shushing noises, along with a few kisses to her forehead. "I want to be with you, too. I wish I want to leave him. I do. I just don't know how. I still need some time. I held him off this week from " Their eyes met in understanding and she continued, "but I don't think I can keep it up until I figure out what to do. I don't want to be with him like that, but he's my husband. He will expect it, eventually "
"Shhhh." Rachel touched her lips, silencing her. "I don't expect that. You owe me nothing, Mattie. Nothing at all. Don't go trying to do anything that would make him hurt you. I'd rather " she couldn't believe she was saying it, but pressed on, " I'd rather you do what he expects than have him harm you in any way." Her eyes flashed in anger and helpless frustration, and she felt a return kiss to her head.
"You deserve better than what I can give you." Mattie talked softly, her lips near Rachel's ear.
Mattie's breath on her skin sent a pleasant chill down her spine, and her bowed head slowly came up. "You listen to me. I I have never been as happy as since I met you. Don't you go saying things like that. You're everything that is kind and gentle and loving, to me. You're my best friend, Mattie. You're the best. There's no one I care about more than you."
"That feeling is mutual." Mattie finally smiled and dabbed at her eyes with her cuff. She looked around and spied a bottle of wine on the bedside table, along with two glasses. "What's that?"
"French red wine Lillie gave me before I left tonight." Steel eyes twinkled in the low light. "Would you like some?"
"I've only had wine a few times." Her interest piqued and she stood, walking over and picking up the bottle, reading the label. "Nice. Imported from Paris, no less. I'd love some." She held out the bottle and smiled fetchingly.
Rachel stood up, and took it from her, popping the cork and pouring up two glasses with a flourish. "I usually drink ale, sometimes whiskey." She handed Mattie a glass. "Haven't had wine much, but I do like it."
Mattie held up her glass and swirled the rich dark liquid around, then sipped daintily at it, allowing the tart sweetness to wash over her tongue before she swallowed. "Mmmmm." She took another sip. "Dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Rachel drank down half a glass in one swallow, calming jittery nerves.
"It's strong. I can feel it burning as it goes down." A devilish grin played at her lips. "Too much of this might make me wanton."
"Would that be a bad thing?" Rachel teased her, making sure her smile told Mattie she wasn't serious.
"Maybe." Mattie moved to the window. "Maybe not." She looked outside at the moonlit night. "What a beautiful evening."
"That it is." Rachel finished her glass and poured another one, setting it down for later and moving in behind Mattie. She circled her waist with her arms, resting her chin on Mattie's head. "Wish I had a nice ocean view here."
"The stars are view enough. And the moonlight." Mattie swallowed and leaned back into the embrace. "What do you do here in the evenings after working all day?"
"Oh." Rachel swayed slowly from side to side. "Some nights I'm so tired, all I do is come home, eat supper, take a bath, and go to bed. Some nights I work on my reading or practice writing my letters. Some nights I play my harmonica. On nicer evenings I might go sit on the fire escape and smoke a cigar. I don't draw or knit or anything like that. If it's too hot sometimes I go walk down to the beach to cool off. What do you do on the nights you're home alone?"
"Read." Mattie felt Rachel nuzzle the back of her neck, and a thrill ran through her. "Draw. I just started working with pastel colors, so I've been experimenting, learning how to use them."
"Bet you'll make some nice pictures with those." She nibbled to the side of Mattie's neck and kissed her below her ear, before resting her chin back on top of her head.
"Some of them are of you." The arms around her tightened and the nibbling started up again.
"Truly?" Forgetting all vows to be good, Rachel began removing the hairpins from Mattie's hair, the long wavy locks slowly spilling down her back and over her shoulders.
"Truly." Mattie tilted her head up and to the side, warm blue-gray eyes sparkling back at her in the candle light. "I think about you often when we're apart."
"I think about you often too, Mattie." Nimble fingers lifted the long hair, allowing it to sift slowly back down. "You're very beautiful."
"So are you." Their lips met in a slow sensual dance, and Mattie managed to set her wine glass on the windowsill before turning in Rachel's arms, pulling her tightly against her. The kissing continued for several minutes until both women struggled for breath. Mattie stood on her toes, hugging Rachel as the brunette kissed her way across her jaw line and down the side of her neck, before returning the hug for a long mindless bit of time.
"I'm not doing very good at controlling myself, I don't think." She chuckled lightly and felt Mattie squeeze her harder. "Sorry."
"Feels wonderful." Mattie grew brave and did some experimental nibbling of her own, small uncertain nips at the salty skin of Rachel's neck, which was very warm. Her hands found both arms, squeezing strong biceps, enjoying the sensation of the muscles flexing under her fingers. "Should should we get dressed for bed?" She pulled back, watching Rachel's nostrils flare. "Do I smell bad?" She tilted her head in question.
A grin spread across Rachel's face and she buried her nose into Mattie's hair. "No." She moved lower, kissing the base of her throat. "I love your scent. You always smell very sweet." She felt the blush at her neck and was glad for the low light. "Do you want to get dressed for bed?"
"It must be close to midnight." Mattie smiled shyly. "Are you tired?"
"No." Rachel smiled back, trying to ignore the thumping of her own heart. "But maybe if we get ready for bed, I'll eventually get sleepy. Do you need some privacy? The water closet is "
"I know where it is. I stayed here with you, remember?" She patted Rachel's belly through her trousers. "I'll just go splash my face and come back. I'd prefer to change in here. Don't want to walk down the hallway in my nightgown."
"Alright." Rachel pursed her lips inward. "Do you mind if I sleep in this shirt and my bloomers?"
"No, silly." She ruffled the dark head. "It's what you slept in while you were ill. Besides, I've seen you in less."
This time she couldn't hide the blush, remembering that Lillie and Mattie had given her several sponge baths when she was too weak to take one in the tub. "I forgot. Hurry back." She watched Mattie duck out the door, and leaned back against it after she closed it. She swallowed a few times and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "I am not going to survive this night, I don't believe."
She removed her trousers and hung them up in the armoire, then turned back the covers and flopped back on the bed. She sat up and fluffed the pillows, then laid back down, her arms folded back and tucked under her head. A soft padding of footsteps told her Mattie was just outside the door, and she smiled as her friend stepped back into the room. "I'll just turn toward the wall while you change."
"Thank you." Mattie waited, then stood in the corner and quickly divested herself of shirtwaist, skirt, petticoats and stockings. She drew a lightweight cotton nightgown over her head and turned back around. "Ready."
Rachel slowly rolled back over, her eyes drinking in Mattie's figure, which was backlighted through the window. "You look like an angel." Her words reflected her thoughts from the week before, and she watched a smile tug at Mattie's lips. She held out a long arm, beckoning Mattie to join her.
Slowly, Mattie sat down on the edge of the bed and scooted back, resting half-sitting, half-lying against a plump pillow. She was warm, but not too hot, and felt slightly giddy from the wine. She could feel Rachel breathing next to her, and she slowly leaned down, tracing Rachel's face with her fingertips, watching her eyes flutter closed. She continued mapping her features and leaned closer, placing a quick tentative kiss on her lips.
Rachel's eyes opened and softened, and she reached up, pulling Mattie's face back down for another kiss, taking her time until she felt Mattie opening up to her, her body relaxing as she sank lower, draped partly on top of Rachel. Rachel's other hand came up, gently stroking Mattie's back a she deepened the kiss, her hand stopping at the small of Mattie's back, careful not to move it any lower. She gasped slightly as she felt Mattie's hands begin to explore, one running leisurely around the curve of her hip and up her side, coming to rest just below her breast.
Mattie curled in closer still, and tentatively brought her hand up, re-familiarizing herself with the soft firmness, and hearing Rachel make quiet noises of pleasure in the back of her throat. "You like that?" She brushed her palm across a taut nipple, feeling it through the ribbed cotton.
"Y yes," Rachel managed to sputter. "Very nice." She reached up, covering Mattie's hand, encouraging her explorations.
"How does it feel?" Mattie's eyes studied her intently. "I've never "
"Would you like to find out?" Rachel kissed her soundly. "I won't push for more. I promised you that." She kissed her again and felt Mattie nod affirmatively.
Slowly she sat up and leaned against the wall, pulling Mattie up so she was sitting across her lap. She reached across, touching her face and tracing her lips. "So very beautiful." She kissed her one more time and trailed one hand slowly up Mattie's stomach, feeling the surface flutter under her hand. Even more slowly, she trailed the hand higher, feeling the combination of brushed cotton and tickling lace against her palm, then gradually took Mattie's breast into her hand, cupping it as Mattie's breathing stopped.
She peered at Mattie's downcast eyes and kissed her cheek. "Are you alright?"
"I feels nice," Mattie whispered, a myriad of new sensations assaulting her senses. Rachel's thumb brushed across her nipple and she cried out softly.
"Still alright?" The thumb stopped and Rachel ducked her head to make eye contact. Fiery hazel eyes met steel, and Rachel smiled. "Guess so." She leaned in, nibbling lightly at Mattie's neck, and began gently caressing her through her nightgown. "Breathe, sweetheart."
"Can't." Mattie gasped, then complied despite herself, her breathing erratic as she felt another new sensation settle into her stomach. At the same time Rachel gently rolled her over onto her back, hovering over her as she continued to tease her. Soft lips thoroughly explored her face and neck, while the sensations Rachel's hand was causing made her feel as if she were losing control. Rachel moved from one breast to the other, and Mattie cried out again. It was heavenly and she went with it, until Rachel finally slowed down and then stopped, withdrawing her hand and rolling onto her back, pulling Mattie on top of her and hugging her tightly.
"Was that too much?" She stroked Mattie's head and then her back, feeling her breathing begin to return to normal, although Mattie's heart was pounding so strongly she could feel it against her own chest.
"No." Mattie pushed up until she was hovering over Rachel. "Is that what two women can do together?" She smiled a crooked smile and felt Rachel take her hand and kiss it. It had felt good, but left her longing for more, although she couldn't figure out what she was craving.
"That was only part of what two women can do together." Amused eyes lit up as Rachel spoke. She saw the question in Mattie's eyes, and kissed her softly. "And I think we'd best stop now, or I'll be tempted to show you the rest."
"I I'm not sure I can " Another kiss stopped her.
"I know." One more kiss. "That's whey we need to stop." She pulled Mattie down, tucking her head against her shoulder.
"I think I like sleeping with you." Mattie traced idle patterns on Rachel's bare forearm with her fingertips.
Rachel laughed, a silent movement of her ribs that Mattie felt rather than heard. "I'm glad." She kissed Mattie's head one more time. "I like sleeping with you too. Goodnight, Mattie."
"Goodnight, Rachel." Despite the newness of it all, she was suddenly exhausted, and quickly gave in to sleep, feeling safer than she ever had in her entire life.
Rachel held her, feeling her breathing even out, and the warmth of it against her chest. She looked up at the ceiling, absorbing the newness of holding Mattie while she slept. A fierce protectiveness surged through her, and she pulled the smaller woman closer against her. Much later, she doused the candle and joined her in peaceful slumber.
The first thing she was aware of was that she was very warm. The second was that she pinned down and could barely move. Memory flooded her brain and she smiled, before opening her eyes to see Mattie's face inches away, her eyes closed in sleep. The very early morning sun robbed the room of all but the brightest of colors, painting Mattie's skin a very pale pink, her red hair shining like fire where the light touched it. Her head was still tucked against Rachel's shoulder, and her fist was curled under her chin. The bow of her lip pushed out in concentration, and her brows were furrowed slightly, as if she were dreaming of very serious things.
Rachel kissed the top of her head and lightly rubbed her back, and the frown disappeared, to be replaced by the faintest of smiles. Mattie stirred, her hand dropping down and settling in the indention of Rachel's waistline in an almost-possessive gesture. She sighed in contentment and snuggled up closer for more sleep. "That's it," she whispered quietly. "I want you to have nice dreams, Mattie."
She pondered that, wondering if the abuse Mattie suffered at Adam's hands and mouth ever invaded her dreams. Probably, she realized. It angered her, knowing there was nothing she could truly do until Mattie herself was ready to take action. It was something she innately understood, that only Mattie could take the first baby steps toward changing her own circumstances, just as Rachel had made the decision to leave home, taking her destiny into her own hands. I wish for you courage, sweetheart. She kissed Mattie's head again and peered toward the window, wondering what time it was. Her body told her it was barely dawn. Her nose told her that downstairs, breakfast was cooking, and her stomach growled in anticipation.
Despite her hunger, lethargy won out, and her eyes fluttered closed again. She didn't fall completely back asleep, her mind chasing idle daydreams instead, while she lay there, simply enjoying the closeness. It was one of very few sweet moments in her life, and she didn't want to waste any of it by sleeping. A part of her wished time could stand still and she could always be as happy as she was right then. She wished she could wake up with Mattie every morning, and that they would never have to worry about Adam again, in any capacity.
It frightened her, how easily she could probably kill him. She had never wanted to kill anyone before, and had only gotten into fights defensively. It wasn't in her nature to attack anyone unprovoked. Defending herself or someone else was one thing, wishing someone dead was another matter altogether, and she wondered if her thoughts were being added to her sin list, and how long the list must surely be. What level of Hell did a person go to for wishing someone dead? Was it worse than having physical relations with a woman?
Certainly it was worse than stealing, which she had done a few times in her life out of desperation. There was the money she took when she first left home, and there were a few times when she was making her way to Galveston, that she took fruit from orchards near the train tracks, during the time she rode the rails south. And once during her travels she took a wedge of peach pie from a plate cooling on someone's windowsill, then snuck into their barn and added a tin cup full of cow's milk to wash it down with. She had been terribly hungry that day and there had been few other options. She didn't count the odd drink she took from the saloon as stealing, including the bottle of wine she was fairly certain Lillie had pilfered for her -- they were on an honor system of sorts, and she knew some of the others took more advantage of that than she did.
Her thoughts turned back to the woman in her arms, and she wondered how something that felt so right could be so wrong. Who was it hurting if she and Mattie loved each other? Just like taking drink from the saloon, she refused to count Adam in the equation. She didn't care if he and Mattie were married, at least not when it came to who might get hurt. He was more than an abusive monster, he was a fool. He had Mattie, at least legally. If he had spent his marriage being kind to her rather than cruel, Rachel was certain he would have Mattie in every sense of the word, and they wouldn't be lying in bed together at that moment.
Numbskull. She shook her head silently. You have no idea how lucky you are. Or what you're missing. She couldn't help but smirk, remembering their explorations from the night before. A part of her was meanly pleased that she had privy to something Adam had never bothered to take for himself. Another part of her, the bigger part, was very sad for Mattie, that she was forced to share her bed with someone who seemed so cold and uncaring. She shivered, wondering what it was like to be touched by someone like that, and hoping she never found out.
"Are you cold?" A soft voice and warm breath tickled her ear, as Mattie tightened her hold.
"N no." She rubbed Mattie's back again. "Just thinking about something unpleasant."
"Mmmm." Mattie kissed her on the cheek and began rubbing her belly through her undershirt. "No unpleasant thoughts should be allowed this early in the morning."
"True." Rachel looked down, tilting her head as Mattie's neck craned upward, and their lips met in sweet affirmation of what they had shared the night before. In the back of her mind, Rachel was glad her friend didn't seem to have any regrets. "Are you alright?" She had to ask anyway. "After last night, that is."
"Yes." Mattie smiled and pecked her lips again. "Last night was very nice. I wish " she looked down and continued to rub Rachel's belly, trying to articulate her thoughts. " I wish I were brave enough "
"Shhhh." Rachel silenced her, guiding her face back for a more lengthy kiss. "Don't push yourself, Mattie. Last night was more than I could have hoped for. I love being with you, feeling close to you. I was just thinking, before you woke up, that this morning was one of the happiest mornings of my life, just because I was with you, and for no other reason."
"Truly?" Mattie sat partway up, leaning on her forearm and peering down at steel blue eyes. "It's one of my happiest mornings, too." She nestled back down against Rachel's shoulder and felt both long arms close around her, pulling her close. "It's almost like sharing the same skin, isn't it?" She dared to look up again as she continued. "I notice things the past couple weeks I never noticed before."
"Such as?" Rachel's long fingers played with Mattie's hair, enjoying the silken texture and the weight of it as she lifted the mass of it, before letting it fall a few strands at a time.
"How soft your skin is," Mattie offered, "and that you smell like your bath soap and the bay rum tonic, and underneath that is another scent that must simply be you." She nuzzled the skin in question. "I love the way you smell." She blushed but forged ahead. "And when you hold me, and kiss me and touch me as you did last night, a part of me feels like it's all mixed up inside of you." She sighed in frustration. "I know I'm not making a bit of sense."
"You are making perfect sense." Rachel rolled her over, hovering over her, tracing Mattie's face with her fingertips. "Because I notice all those things about you too, Mattie, and I feel the same way, as if you're a part of me."
"Are we crazy?" Mattie's hand reached up, mimicking Rachel's actions, trailing over high cheekbones and full lips.
"We must be." Rachel dropped lower, nipping at Mattie's throat before moving higher, meeting her lips. "Must be," she repeated, kissing her deeply, restraining her hands from doing what they wanted to do. It was sweet torture, and she grudgingly broke away and sat up, pulling Mattie along with her, holding her in a rocking embrace. "I might best go down and get us some breakfast."
"Do you need me to get dressed and help you?" Mattie scooted to the edge of the bed, thinking to retrieve her skirt and shirtwaist.
A grin tugged at Rachel's lips. On the contrary, I'd like for you to be undressed. She kept that thought to herself, holding out a hand to stop Mattie from standing up. "No. I can manage it. You just sit here and I'll be back in a jiffy. Have you ever had breakfast in bed, Mattie?"
"I don't think so. I ommphhh " A pair of soft lips silenced her. She licked her lips thoughtfully as Rachel stood, donning her trousers and tugging her suspenders up over her undershirt.
"Allow you to pamper you, my lady." Rachel's voice took on a playful tone. "One breakfast, fit for a queen, coming up." With a wink and a smile, she scampered out of the room, leaving Mattie laughing behind her.
"Keep pushing, Mattie, we're almost there!" Rachel kicked backward, slicing through rolling waves as they swam deftly toward the sand bar set as Mattie's swimming goal. Lessons had progressed at a nice pace over the almost-three months, even with losing a month while Rachel recovered from the beating and the chills. She watched her friend make a credible effort, her arms drawing her forward, her face scrunched in concentration.
"I'm tired," Mattie spluttered. Her arms were beginning to ache and her nose and eyes burned from the salt water. Despite the coolness of the water, she was quite warm, the sun shining mercilessly down on her back and legs. She dared not stop. Several yards behind her she had discovered the water was too deep for her to touch bottom without becoming completely submerged. "You promise me we're close?"
"See those waves breaking and the white foam just ahead?" Rachel looked back over her shoulder. "That is where we need to go. I promise you can stand up when we get there."
Mattie blew out a frustrated breath, bubbling the water, and re-doubled her efforts, increasing her pace so quickly she almost collided with Rachel.
"Whoa, Nellie." Rachel held out her hands, gently guiding Mattie past her, keeping hold of the hem of her bathing suit top. "Mattie, slow down." She laughed. "You're about to swim over it. Stand up."
"Oh." Mattie cautiously let her feet drop and felt the shifting sandy bottom between her toes. "My stars." Her eyes grew wide. "What a queer sensation, to be standing so far from shore." She looked around in wonder, her chest heaving as she caught her breath. "Oh." A large wave knocked her off her feet and she felt a strong arm catch her around the waist, keeping her from going under. "Thank you."
Steel eyes twinkled. "You're most welcome." Rachel bit her lower lip and reeled Mattie in closer, tilting her head and placing a few tentative pecks on first her cheek and then her mouth. "Mmmmm. You're all salty." She dove back in for more, oblivious to the breaking waves around them. She felt Mattie's arms circle her neck, and she lifted her up at the waist, as Mattie's legs came up, wrapping around Rachel's own waist in a motion that seemed as natural as breathing. Her hands came to rest on Mattie's backside and she resisted the urge to squeeze her, concentrating instead on the intimacy, and how nice it felt.
She felt fabulous, and her heart soared as she increased the intensity of their kisses. For a brief moment it was just the two of them. Adam did not exist. No prying eyes were on the beach to intrude on their privacy. It was delicious. The entire morning had been wonderful. They had shared breakfast in her room, and had talked of light-hearted subjects -- she had gone so far as to tell Mattie a few jokes she had heard on the docks and to her delight, Mattie had laughed, even at a couple of rather naughty ones. She wasn't sure if Mattie had actually understood all of the more risquι ones. It was simply good to see her laugh and smile.
"You did it!" Mattie yelled in triumph as she came up for air. "I can swim, Rachel!" She felt herself whirled around in a circle and laughed in dizzy happiness.
"On the contrary," Rachel hugged her tightly, speaking into her ear as Mattie's chin rested on her shoulder. "You did it. You swam all the way out here without any help."
"Couldn't have done it without you. Maybe I can go on a boat now, and not be afraid." Mattie pulled back, making eye contact and enjoying her perch, her legs balanced on Rachel's hipbones.
"You've never been on a boat?" Rachel's voice was incredulous.
"There aren't many bodies of water in El Paso, Rachel." She teased her friend, tugging at the wet braid running down her back. "No, I've never been on a boat."
"I could take you out on Mr. Gentry's boat, sometime." Rachel's mind thought ahead, and she took a deep breath, plunging forward. "Maybe for the Independence Day celebration next week? I believe he's planning on going up to Waco for a spell, to visit family, so I don't think he would mind. He already told Billy and me to fish while he is gone, if we can't get other work on the docks."
Mattie's smile disappeared, and her voice dropped to an almost inaudible level. She looked down, one finger tracing the neckline of Rachel's swimming top. "Adam will be in town for the celebration. It falls on Wednesday. He has already informed me I am to accompany him to the festivities, as he expects to see some clients out and about, and wants to make a favorable impression on them."
Her soaring heart suddenly began to dive, like the Pelicans she had seen diving from cliffs, and she swallowed, maintaining a brave front. "It's alright, Mattie. When does he come home?"
"Tuesday, the day before the celebration. Three days from now." She looked up, her eyes shining as she managed not to cry. "I'm sorry." She looked down again. "I was looking forward very much to spending the day with you. I didn't realize until last week that the holiday is in the dead center of the week."
"Listen to me." Rachel cupped her cheek, her thumb brushing across chilled skin. "We wouldn't have been able to stroll freely around town anyway. You know that. This way, at least you'll get to see everything."
"I wanted to watch the fireworks with you." Mattie forced a trembling smile. "It it sounds so romantic. I truly wanted to come down to the beach with you and see the show. Just us two." She remembered the party on the beach, and the couple they had seen kissing in the sand dunes in the dark under the stars. Her heart ached at something that seemed lost to her.
"You need to be safe." Rachel hugged her and shifted, until she was supporting Mattie and they began paddling back toward shore. "The town will be all spruced up, with red, white, and blue banners hanging from the buildings, and there will be barrels of lemonade and all kinds of food to be had. We could not have gone to that together, and you know it. With Adam in town, at least you will be able to go. It will be fun."
"It will not be fun." Mattie pulled away from her and swam the rest of the way to shore, her anger driving her with surprising speed. Rachel followed close behind, sensing that something was terribly wrong.
"Mattie." She watched Mattie reach the shallow area and stand, making determined strides back to the waiting blanket they had spread out before going into the water. Mattie reached down, retrieving a towel and wrapping up in it, before she sat down on the blanket, her ankles crossed and her knees up, her arms wrapped around her legs with her forehead pressed against one knee.
"Mattie." Rachel called to her again as she reached the blanket, plopping down next to her, but leaving a safe amount of space between them. "I'm sorry." She reached down, plucking a small conch shell from the sand and inspecting it closely, finding a tiny hermit crab inside, it's spiky legs poking out from its safe haven. Impulsively she held the shell down in Mattie's line of sight, between her knees.
"Yaahhhhh!" The red head shot up and Mattie jumped backward. She looked first at Rachel and then at the shell, and burst out in helpless laughter. "I'm sorry too." She scooted closer, until the sides of their legs were touching. "You did nothing wrong. I'm just so very disappointed about the holiday. I don't care if I get to see the festivities. I don't." Pained hazel eyes looked to the side, meeting steel. "All I care about is being with you."
"And I'll help you in any way you need me to, Mattie." Rachel felt the familiar helpless frustration, twisting her stomach into knots and making her temples ache vaguely. "But if Adam is planning on you going to the celebration with him, I don't see a way around that, not without putting you in danger."
"And you as well." Mattie dug a toe into the sand, giving it a vicious kick and sending a spray of the fine pale brown grains across the blanket. "What all do they do at this party, again?"
"Well," Rachel casually draped an arm around Mattie's shoulders, pulling her closer, her own body relaxing as she felt Mattie's head drop down, tucked against her neck. "It's a large celebration along the Strand, with all the food and lemonade I mentioned. They'll have some boat races near shore -- rowing and sailing contests and such. In the afternoon everyone will gather around and someone, most likely the sheriff, will read the preamble to the constitution, and folks will probably sing a few songs. There will be other readings and music, and all kinds of fancy speeches and such. After the sun goes down, they'll shoot off some fireworks from the pier area. It's glorious, with the lights reflecting off the water."
"Sounds lovely." Mattie closed her eyes. "That's the part I wanted to share with you -- the fireworks. I thought we might come down here and still be able to see them."
"Maybe not here," Rachel stroked her hair, enjoying the sleek damp locks against her fingertips. "But we could have found a private spot to watch from."
"I wish " Mattie stopped herself. And if wishes were horses I'd own a stable, she ruefully realized. "Maybe by next year, Rachel. I want if you can be patient with me, maybe I can "
"Stop fretting." Rachel kissed her head. "If there's even a chance, I'll wait for you forever Mattie, you hear me?"
"You'd do that for me?" Hope sparked anew as Mattie dared to open her eyes and peek upward.
"I'd do anything for you." Her words were sure and solid, and Mattie believed without question. Suddenly the world spun and she was looking up at the blue sky. Just as quickly it was blocked out by Rachel's tanned face hovering over her. "Anything."
Mattie reached up and pulled Rachel down to her, kissing her soundly. She felt Rachel's body press against her, and decided she liked that, feeling the solid firmness of her in her arms as time stood still. Her hands found Rachel's back, running up and down, then sliding underneath Rachel's swimming top. It was another new sensation, as her fingers explored the smooth warm skin of Rachel's back. She heard Rachel's murmurs of pleasure and felt a familiar fire in her own gut, a longing she couldn't place. "I " she blushed as Rachel pulled up for air. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have I don't know what came over me." She had never touched anyone's bare skin in such a manner, and felt her cheeks burning in shame.
"Don't be sorry, Mattie." Nimble fingers found Mattie's face and traced its softness. "I'd never have found the courage to ask you to touch me like that. Probably would never have found the courage to touch you either." Her own fingers ached for similar contact, and she soothed it with her continued exploration of Mattie's face. She frowned, reading confusion in Mattie's eyes. "Whatever you're puzzling over, you can ask me, Mattie. I'll give you honest answers. I hope you know that by now."
"You and Lillie, you touch each other's bare skin?" Mattie shivered pleasantly, imagining how it might feel.
Rachel sighed, remembering Mattie's description of Adam's fumbling intimacies. She didn't need to ask. It was obvious this was yet a new facet of their physical relationship that Mattie knew nothing about. She took a deep breath and decided to skip any delicate explanation. "Lillie and I, when we were together," she emphasized the word 'were.' "We got completely undressed." She watched Mattie's throat work in an audible gulp. "We got naked, as it were." She smiled as Mattie's pink cheeks darkened to red. "It was very nice, and it felt heavenly."
"You weren't embarrassed by it?" Mattie's own skin tingled, thinking about Rachel's soft brown skin, and the muscles she had seen when she and Lillie bathed her. She wondered what it would feel like, to have all that firm softness touching her.
"It's difficult to explain, but no." Rachel's fingers trailed lower, until it came to rest on the pounding pulse at Mattie's throat. "We didn't take all our clothes off right away." She smiled. "At least not most of the time. We undressed each other slowly, while we spent some time touching. By the time we got naked, there was no embarrassment, Mattie. I think, rather, we were aching to touch each other. Does that make sense?"
Aching? Mattie had felt that sensation all too frequently of late. "I think I understand." She slipped one hand beneath the top again, gliding up Rachel's back. "Seems like sometimes all I want lately is to kiss you, and touch you. It just never occurred to me, until today, about the bare skin part, that is."
Rachel groaned and slid her hand down, cupping Mattie's breast through her bathing suit. She would not return the bare-skinned touches without invitation. Patience, she reminded herself. She asked for patience. Then she was divested of thought, as she heard Mattie whimper, and felt a firm hand pulling her down, as they spent a leisurely time in more kissing. Ah, well. She tossed up a mental hand. There would be plenty of time to explore bare skin on some other day. For the time being, kissing on a private beach under the warm summer sun was akin to paradise, she was certain.
Continued in Chapter 7
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