Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
Independence Day dawned, hot and muggy. Thin clouds brought no promise of refreshing rain, but rather served to increase the humidity and the discomfort of both man and beast. Horses and buggies, and the occasional team of Oxen, were tied at every available hitching post along Main Street and The Strand, as holiday revelers arrived to partake of the island's annual festivities. The horses clustered together in what little shade the buildings had to offer, their long tails switching at large blood-sucking flies. Stray dogs lay motionless under covered porches, and there was nary a cat to be seen.
Mattie looked around anxiously, before lightly touching Adam's proffered hand and stepping down from their buggy. She tried not to shrug him off as he reached out with both hands, grabbing her around the waist to steady her as she landed solidly on the ground. It was not even noon, yet Adam had already put up the folding buggy top to protect them from the sun during the short ride into town.
"Well?" Adam held out a crooked arm and she reluctantly wrapped her hand around it. "What shall we do first?"
"Whatever you wish, darling." Mattie tried very hard to take the sarcastic edge off the endearment. "I suspect it will be much like celebrations back home."
"Perhaps." He began walking, guiding them through the already-sizeable throng that milled along the board sidewalks of Main Street. "But back home we didn't have to deal with this dreadful humidity." He mopped his brow with a handkerchief.
"True." Mattie clutched a delicate lacy fan in her free hand, but chose not to use it until she was desperate. It was only going to get warmer. Like every other woman of any status on the island, she had started the morning with a tepid bath, followed by a liberal sprinkling of sweet-smelling talcum powder. She felt vaguely like a dewy sugar cookie, the sweat and talcum sticking to her skin beneath her clothing, releasing a floral scent. Her hair was pinned up well off her neck and shoulders, in a tighter twist than she usually wore. She had chosen a pale lavender skirt with a matching shirtwaist, and had decided on only one petticoat in deference to the heat. Her skirts would not be quite as full as she would like, but it was a compromise she was more than willing to make in order to be as comfortable as possible.
She put on a brave face and mustered up her sociable smile, nodding in greeting each time Adam stopped to introduce her to one of his associates. She had met a few of them on prior occasions, but for the most part, the people they stopped to talk to were complete strangers to her. On the surface she played the part of the charming wife, but underneath, she found herself listening intently for clues as to what, exactly, her husband did for a living besides gamble. She had thought him to be in banking, as he had been in El Paso, but that was prior to her discovery in the locked desk drawer.
At various times, his associates mentioned shipments, trades, and payments, but what they were shipping and trading was never mentioned. Part of her wanted to ask outright, and part of her did not want to reveal her lack of knowledge to Adam's colleagues. She wondered if the other wives they met were as much in the dark as she was, or if she was the only one who wasn't privy to the means of her own livelihood. As the men became involved in conversations to which she truly wanted to give her full attention, inevitably one of the women would engage her in side discussions of fashion, food, and a number of other subjects that held little interest for her, and caused her to possibly miss important clues about Adam's secret life.
She was frustrated as all get-out, but ever the gracious wife, she feigned interest and smiled sweetly, laughing in all the appropriate places, whether she was amused or not. Underneath the sham of her mirth was a profound melancholy. Once there had been nothing more in her life than housekeeping, sewing at the tailor's, reading, drawing, and attending to Adam's whims and desires. It had never been enough, and now she knew why.
She had ridden a bicycle, swam in the ocean, run on the beach, and knew now what it truly felt like to be alive. She had given and received touches and kisses from someone she knew cared for her deeply. Her mind wandered pleasantly over the weekend past, which had been spent reading, drawing, and swimming, mingled with a whole lot of kissing. She hadn't been brave enough to explore any further than stroking the soft skin of Rachel's back, and was much too embarrassed to articulate her own desires.
She wanted Rachel to touch her in the same way, and to show her so much more than what they had done thus far. She had thought of little else, and how she might find the courage to ask for what she wanted. She chuckled ruefully to herself, realizing that she didn't know exactly what it was that she wanted. She wanted to be lost in Rachel -- the feeling she got when Rachel took her into her arms and kissed her senseless -- she wanted to feel that sensation tenfold, if that were possible.
A tug at her arm drew her out of her daydreams, to find Adam almost, but not quite, glaring at her. "Say farewell to our friends, Madeline." Adam gestured toward the couple they had been talking to, both of whom were looking at her in puzzlement.
"Oh." She blushed furiously. "I beg your pardon." She smiled in turn at each of them. "I thought I saw Mr. Vaughan from the tailor's shop across the way, and was distracted. It seems it was someone who only resembled him from the side. I do apologize." She didn't mention that he was her boss, assuming either they knew, or else that Adam probably didn't want them to know. Her employment was still a point of contention, and she sensed he felt her working to be a slight to his manhood.
"It's quite alright, Mrs. Crockett." The man -- Mr. Wells, if she recalled -- tipped his hat to her. "A good day to both of you. Perhaps we'll see y'all again down at the pier for the fireworks."
"That would be delightful," Mattie fully recovered, giving the couple a little wave as they departed.
"I'll not have you embarrassing me again." Adam squeezed her arm so tightly she had to clamp her jaw shut to keep from crying out. "Pay attention, Mattie, and get your head out of the clouds." He released his grip and she felt her skin tingle painfully as blood returned to the surface. She knew she would have a bruise around her forearm when she undressed that night.
"I'm sorry, Adam." She had sensed she was in trouble when he had addressed her by her more formal name, rather than the diminutive. "I fear the heat may be getting to me and causing me to feel addled. Could we find some lemonade and sit down for a spell in the shade?"
"We're already in the shade," he groused, but steered her toward a lemonade stand, nonetheless. She stood politely to the side as he ordered two cool mugs, her eyes taking in the colorful red, white, and blue banners hanging from almost every window along the street. Several flags were flying, and somewhere out of sight she heard a fiddle playing patriotic tunes. Suddenly mixed in with the music, a familiar laugh rang out behind her. Turning ever so slightly, she spotted Rachel, Lillie, and Billy standing around a large wooden pickle barrel, all three of them munching on the salty sour treats, causing her mouth to water in sympathy. Rachel and Lillie were both laughing in between bites, as Billy told what was obviously a funny story, too far away for her to hear his words.
"Shall we go find a bench?" Adam turned and followed her gaze, his eyes darkening in anger. "I suppose there's no banning the riffraff from these affairs. Come along, Mattie. I'll not have that whore or her friends bothering you."
"Yes, darling." As he turned his attention toward some tables and chairs that had been set up in a vacant lot, her eyes lingered on her friends, her heart longing to be with them. At the very last minute Rachel looked up and their eyes locked. The brunette ducked her head almost shyly, then looked back up and winked, flashing Mattie a brilliant smile. She bit her lip before returning the smile, then allowed herself to be led away. Adam had missed the entire exchange.
Morning slowly segued to afternoon, the ever-present sun shining down relentlessly on the growing crowd of hot and sweaty townspeople. Many of the elderly had retreated indoors or down to the beach to escape the heat, while the more delicate women chose to settle in chairs and swings on the porches of businesses and houses. Most of the men had removed their jackets and rolled up shirtsleeves, while the women broke out parasols and wide-brimmed hats.
Mattie had retrieved her parasol from their buggy and was just about to suggest a detour to the shore when Billy approached them uncertainly. Mattie peered apprehensively at Adam until it became clear he didn't recognize him from his earlier association with Rachel. She smiled and waited, wondering what the attractive young man might be up to.
"Excuse me." Billy stopped a polite distance away and rocked back on his heels, clasping his hands behind his back. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir," he smiled at Adam. "I was hoping I might persuade your lovely wife to let me into the tailor's shop for a few minutes. I was in there yesterday afternoon and I believe I left my hat on the counter." He glanced up at the blazing sun. "As you can see, it would be a great help to me at the moment if I could retrieve it."
Mattie looked up at Adam hopefully, before she spoke. "I believe he's correct, Adam. I was thinking of popping into the shop for a bit anyway, to re-touch up my hair. It feels like it might be coming loose, and in this heat, it would be unbearable hanging down on my neck."
"Very well," Adam answered slowly. "I see one of my colleagues across the way, and need to discuss a business matter with him." He gestured toward a man in a ten-gallon hat. "I'll be over there when you return." He released her arm. "Don't be too long."
"I wont." She had to fight the huge smile that was lurking just under the surface. She stopped and turned, walking back and whispering in Adam's ear. "I have the need for the outhouse, so I'll take care of that while I'm over there." She smiled as he nodded his agreement. She had just bought herself some time.
She barely spoke to Billy until they were around the corner and out of Adam's sight and earshot. "Thank you." She finally smiled fully, taking his hand and squeezing it quickly.
"You don't know what you're thanking me for, yet." He laughed at her obvious good spirits.
"I have a fairly good idea." She looked up at him, her eyes twinkling from beneath the brim of her yellow straw bonnet.
"You know, I do believe my hat may be in the hotel after all." He bowed his bare head in a parting gesture. "Just to be on the safe side, you'd best look inside the tailor's, though." They reached the shop and he left her to herself, as he dashed across the street to the hotel for a sarsaparilla.
Mattie looked around anxiously and shrugged, finding the tailor shop key in her pocketbook. She had barely gotten the door open and slipped inside when a pair of warm hands grasped her shoulders from behind. Before she could stop it, a muffle little cry of joy escaped her lips, and she turned, burrowing into Rachel's embrace. Joy dissolved into tears, and she heard quiet shushing, and felt long fingers rubbing her back and arms, as Rachel rocked her in comfort. "S . Sorry." Mattie sniffled. "Just missed you terribly these past couple of days. I didn't realize how much until now."
"It's alright, Mattie." Rachel's voice caressed her name. "I've missed you too." She tilted Mattie's chin up and kissed her soundly, holding on tightly as she drew out the exchange. "Whew." She finally pulled back. "I was already warm, Mrs. Crockett, but I do believe you've thrown another log on the fire." She kissed her again and drew her into a soundless hug.
"Take me away from here, Rachel." Mattie nibbled at a patch of exposed collarbone, something she had not done in the past, but instinctively wanted to do. "Take me anywhere."
Rachel's heart skipped a beat as Mattie's lips delicately explored her skin. "That's why I had Billy get you in here." She licked her lips nervously. "I know we don't have much time before Adam comes hunting you down. When does he leave for Houston again?"
"Not until Saturday morning." Mattie looked down at her feet, studying her polished black shoe tips. "Dratted holiday forced him to rearrange his usual schedule."
"But he'll be gone by Saturday night, then?" Rachel moved to the chair at Mattie's sewing machine and sat down, pulling Mattie onto her lap.
"Yes." Mattie trailed one finger up Rachel's shirt, reaching her neck and tracing her jaw line. She watched the steel blue eyes flutter closed for several minutes, while she stroked smooth tanned skin, trailing her fingertips along a high cheekbone and even daring to circle Rachel's full lips. She giggled as white teeth snapped at her finger and captured it.
Rachel raised one saucy eyebrow and released it, laughing back at her. "How would you like to spend Saturday evening on Mr. Gentry's boat? We'll only go out a little ways from shore and drop anchor, just relax and maybe I'll get some fishing in."
"Truly?" Mattie felt giddy. "It sounds lovely. Can we go out early enough that I can have some sunlight to sketch by for a few hours?"
"We can do whatever you want to, Mattie." Rachel kissed her again. "I have a little surprise for you after the sun goes down, but we can make a day of it if you'd like -- take a picnic basket and blanket out. Maybe even a bottle of wine. And pack up your swimsuit. We can swim off the back of the boat."
"I'd like that very much." Mattie hugged her fiercely. "I wish I didn't have to go back out there, but I'd best, or we might get caught in here."
Rachel grew quiet and looked down, finding Mattie's fingers and twining them with her own. She felt Mattie's lips brush across the top or her head, and buried her face into her shoulder, inhaling the smell of talcum and Mattie's own scent that set her own senses spinning. She kissed the pale soft skin on Mattie's neck and ran one hand up Mattie's arm, intent on pulling her even closer. She gave her a little squeeze and pulled back when she heard a sharp intake of air. "What's wrong?"
"N nothing." Mattie bit her lip.
"Sounded like I hurt you." She delicately touched Mattie's arm again. "Did I?"
Mattie sighed. "No. Just my forearm hurts a little is all."
"Bastard." Rachel carefully unbuttoned her sleeve and pushed it up, revealing a series of finger-sized red marks circling her arm, just above the wrist. "Did he twist it?"
"No." Mattie closed her eyes as Rachel gently probed her muscles. "I embarrassed him. He squeezed me a little hard is all."
"Hard enough to do this?" She gritted her teeth in anger. "I can't stand it, Mattie." She lifted the injured arm, kissing it all along its length before she carefully re-buttoned the cuff. "I hate that he puts his hands on you at all, I think you know that by now."
Mattie nodded slightly and re-twined their fingers. She didn't think of what she did with Adam and what she did with Rachel as even representing the same thing. What she felt with each of them was so different. Rachel touched her to make her feel good -- make her feel special -- so she could see how the thought of Adam's callousness in his attentions would probably drive Rachel nearly insane.
"But when he touches you to hurt you." She released a long frustrated breath. "I want to kill him." She buried her face into Mattie's neck again. "Never wanted to kill anyone before."
"I know." Mattie stroked her head and tugged gently at the long braid hanging down Rachel's back. "You can't. You simply mustn't."
"Would solve a whole lot of problems," Rachel's muffled voice hummed against her skin, tickling it.
"And would create a whole parcel of new ones, and you know it." Mattie kissed her head again. "I'm puzzling through all of this Rachel, and when I figure it out, I need you to be here for me. Your neck is much too lovely to be hanging from the end of a rope. Alright?"
Rachel hugged her fiercely. "Alright." She felt gentle stroking against her back and sighed, then looked up hopefully. "You truly think my neck is lovely?" She batted her long dark lashes fetchingly, her earnest expression almost enough to make Mattie laugh.
"Yes." Mattie tilted her head and nibbled the neck in question. "I I'd like to " She trailed off, unable to express her feelings.
Rachel found her lips and captured them, gasping as Mattie's hand slipped up and circled her ribs, just below her breast. "Whatever you'd like, Mattie " She pressed her forehead against Mattie's, looking down, her stomach fluttering as Mattie's hand slid up a little higher. "I you can do whatever you like." She smiled. "But we'd best not do it here and now."
"I .. want " Mattie couldn't look up, her cheeks flushing bright red. She felt Rachel's hand cup her face, forcing eye contact.
"Me too." Rachel kissed her quickly. "More than you can possibly imagine. But right now I want you safe. So kiss me, and then let's go before Adam finds us here."
Mattie took her face in both hands and complied, a slow and promising contact that ended with both of them breathing hard, arms wrapped tightly around one another. "I'll see you Saturday, then?" Mattie sat up, straightening her shirtwaist. "Might be best if I come to the boarding house after Adam is gone."
"Alright." Rachel stood, depositing Mattie on her feet. She took her hand and led her to the door, where she pressed her against it and kissed her soundly one more time, her body wanting to stay right where she was, feeling Mattie moving against her. She forced herself to stop, and patted Mattie's hip. "Go on and lock up. I'll stay inside a little while so as not to draw suspicion. I can slip out a side window after you make it around the corner."
"I can hardly bear to wait for Saturday." Mattie opened the door and stepped outside, looking around before she locked the door. Across the street Billy and Lillie sat on a bench in front of the hotel, sipping sarsaparilla through two straws from a common glass. She waved, and Lillie waved back and smiled, while Billy tipped his hat, which had magically been found.
"I can't wait either, Mattie." Rachel watched through the shop window until she was out of sight. "Be careful." She swallowed, feeling her eyes sting. "I love you."
After a while she found her way out a back window and decided to work out her pent-up energy in some boat races. She bypassed the partnered races, deciding to pit her strength and skill against several competitors in the single-man rowing competition. It was simple enough. All they had to do was row a small boat a hundred yards out to sea against the waves, circle a buoy and ring the bell, then be the first back to shore where the winner had to ring a second bell suspended from a pole at the end of the dock.
They lined their boats up in a row behind a rope which floated between two docks, serving as a starting line. She sized up her competitors. She was the only woman, and other than one of the other five men, she was the smallest. Ah, well. It would be a good exercise, and would serve its purpose in expelling energy.
Just as they were about to take off, she spotted a pair of shining hazel eyes, watching her intently from one side of the dock. It was all the inspiration she needed, as the gun went off and she set her oars, drawing strongly in long pulls against the water. The salty spray pelted her face and her arm and back muscles strained tightly, but she barely felt it, as the race became a blur and suddenly it was more than an exercise. It was a chance to show off and hopefully see more admiration in those eyes. Before she knew it, she was ringing the first bell and turning her boat back to shore.
One man challenged her, but he made the mistake of looking back over his shoulder at her, and lost some of his momentum. She laughed and surged toward shore, soon feeling the sand scraping the bottom of the boat. She tossed the oars aside and leaped out, running with all her might until she slapped the pole which was her goal, ringing the second bell.
A loud cheer rose up and one of the judges strode forward, pinning a long blue ribbon below her shirt collar. She shook his hand, looking past him until she found Mattie's face once more. Her eyes were still shining, her lips curved up in a happy smile. I put that there. She beamed back for as long as she dared, with Adam also watching from behind her with a proprietary air, his hands planted on Mattie's shoulders. Rachel tore her eyes away from the sight and grasped the end of the ribbon to give it a kiss, then waved to the crowd before heading back toward town in search of a cold drink.
Billy and Lillie found her and escorted her to the hotel, where she found more than one mug of frothy ale pressed into her hand. She stopped after three mugs, her body craving the more sedate lemonade and water available out on the street. Other race winners trickled in, many of them with either a wife or a girlfriend following along adoringly at their side. If she concentrated hard enough, she could imagine Mattie's hand at her arm, and picture her face smiling back at her.
"Let's go find out what else there is to see." She got up abruptly, making her way around the bar to congratulate the other winners. Billy and Lillie exchanged a worried glance, but followed her mutely back out to The Strand. They knew what was wrong, and knew even more certainly that there was nothing they could do to ease the hurt in their friend's eyes. There was no convincing Rachel to slow down and guard her emotions. The look on her face whenever her eyes fell on Mattie told its own story. Rachel Travis had fallen in love, and just as she gave of herself in every other aspect of her life, Mattie owned her heart completely and without expectation. Once Rachel gave away a gift, there was no asking the receiver to ever give it back.
The late afternoon sun reached out across the sky in red and orange streaks of light, gilding the waves as they rolled ashore. A slight breeze picked up, bringing some relief after the scorching heat of midday. Most of the revelers had moved to the beach area near the pier, setting up blankets in preparation for the fireworks display which would start just after sunset. Families partook of picnic suppers, while some of the more resourceful vendors had moved barrels of lemonade, oranges, and pickles down to the pier, to take advantage of the last round of patrons for the day.
Rachel walked along the beach, her eyes absently taking in her surroundings while her sight turned inward. Billy walked next to her, keeping up a steady stream of conversation to which she managed to pay an adequate amount of attention. They were headed toward the docks to sit on Mr. Gentry's boat and share cigars and whiskey during the fireworks. Lillie had left them a while earlier to go to the saloon. Holiday evenings tended to be profitable, as some of the island's bachelors would end up there to delay going home alone after the long day of festivities.
"Can I ask you a question?" Billy stopped, turning toward her, his body blocking the sun from her face.
"You can." She studied his serious expression. "I may or may not answer."
"It's not that kind of question." He looked down and kicked a shell across the sand. "I think I know how you feel about Mattie." He looked up and held out a hand to forestall her cutting him off. "Hold on. I'm not finished. It must hurt to know she's with that horse's behind of a husband, when you'd rather she be with you."
"It does." Rachel's eyes snapped in angry memory of Mattie's bruises.
"What do you think about Lillie?" He watched her brows furrow at the sudden change of subject. "What I mean is, what if someone had feelings for her? With what she does at the saloon how would someone deal with that?"
"I never had those kinds of feelings for Lillie." Rachel guessed at the reason behind the question, and its tie to his comments about her and Mattie. "Although there were times when I felt very protective of her. But IF I had those kinds of feelings, I'd make sure I could be with her as often as possible. After all, the more I'd be with her, the less she'd be with others. As for what I think of her, she's a kind, decent person, Billy. She does what she does because it's the best money she can make. Anyone who has feelings for her, if they are going to pursue those feelings, they will have to forgive and forget her past. And not be judgmental."
"I see." He tucked his hands into his pockets. "Would you be alright if I take off for the saloon tonight?"
Rachel grinned knowingly at him. "I would be." She playfully punched him in the gut. "Um Billy have you ever been with Lillie?"
His blush was answer enough.
"She said something to me once." Rachel closed her eyes for a minute, remembering. "That the men she entertains, that it's always all about their pleasure, and not hers. I think she's looking for two things. Someone who can offer her a decent life, and someone who will make it about her. Do you understand?"
"I think so." The blush deepened. "I'd better get going. With Gentry gone, I've taken the rest of the week off, so I guess I won't see you again until the crab boil Saturday night."
"No. I won't be there." It was Rachel's turn to blush. "I have plans." She reached up and clasped his arm. "Thank you, Billy, for what you did this afternoon. Means a lot."
"I'll always help you out if I can, Rachel." He smiled and patted the hand at his arm. "Guess I'll see you Monday on the docks, then."
"Go on." Rachel gave him a little shove. "Get moving before she's otherwise engaged for the evening."
He grinned and took off at a trot toward the road. She watched him go, a part of her slightly envious that he would get to be with someone he cared about for the evening. She sighed and wandered on listlessly, still intent on watching fireworks from the boat. She passed a grouping of blankets that were occupied by nuns and children from the orphanage, and smiled as Frank and Albert ran up to her, stirring up the sand as they came to a halt and both boys hugged her around the legs. "Howdy Miss Rachel. You going to come sit with us and watch the show?"
"Hello, y'all. Have you had fun today?" She eyed the nuns who were watching them with a small measure of disapproval.
"Oh, we did." Albert held up a small American flag. "We all gots these flags from one of the nice men on The Strand, and another nice lady, she boughts all of us lemonade and pickles."
"And we gots to watch the boat races." Frank chimed in. "You are the best racer there ever was, Miss Rachel. I wants to race boats when I grow up."
"I'll just be you'd be a fine and dandy boat racer." Rachel ruffled his head and felt both boys tug at her hands. She smiled. The blue ribbon was carefully folded up in her trousers pocket to give to Mattie on Saturday.
"Come sit with us a spell, Miss Rachel, and tell us all about the race." Albert looked up at her, his brown eyes beseeching her. "We done ate our supper, but Sister Mary, she says if we are real good we might get some ice cream when we gets back to the orphanage. Maybe you could come have ice cream with us."
Rachel looked down at her sweat-rumpled white shirt and her dusty trousers. She could feel tendrils of hair sticking to her neck and knew her braid needed attention. She'd left her hat at home and her face felt tight with sunburn. The staunch nuns, their tall starched collars looking crisp even after a day in the sun, stood out in stark contrast to her own appearance. She knew she wasn't welcome there, and the nuns didn't appreciate her small amount of influence on the boys. "I appreciate the offer, boys, but I need to get going." She smiled sadly. "Maybe some other time."
"Awwww." Frank's lower lip protruded in a pout. "We like you, Miss Rachel."
"Frank thinks you're pretty." Albert teased him.
"Do not!" He blurted back in embarrassment. "I mean, I " He looked up at her, realizing what he had said. "You have nice eyes, Miss Rachel."
She blushed in spite of herself. "Thank you, Frank." She patted him on the shoulder. "Ladies always like nice compliments like that."
Frank beamed and stuck his tongue out at Albert.
"You'd better put that back in your mouth before one of the sisters takes your ice cream away." She chuckled as the pink tongue quickly disappeared. "Go on. And be good. You be nice to the sisters. They take good care of you, don't they?"
"Yes." Albert smiled at her adoringly. "They do. See you, Miss Rachel." He grabbed Frank's hand and they ran back across the sand to their group.
As she watched them go, the same sister who had been sitting on the porch the night the boys escaped looked at her and smiled. Rachel merely nodded her head in acknowledgement and continued on her way. Much later, she sat alone on the back of Mr. Gentry's boat, her feet dangling in the cool water. She nursed a half-full bottle of whiskey between puffs from a fat Cuban cigar that Billy had slipped to her earlier in the day.
As the first fireworks went off, she held up her bottle in a toast. "Here's to you, Mattie." She took a sip. "I hope you're enjoying the fireworks, wherever you are." She knew she was getting drunk, something she didn't do very often. She'd most likely sleep on the boat and wake up with a headache. Well she mused fuzzily. Maybe the headache will take my mind off the pain in my heart.
Back on shore, Mattie jumped as a particularly loud explosion shook the ground, sending a flaming ball of light skyward, which burst into hundreds of bright sparkles. She felt Adam's arm around her, along with a rising lump in her throat. He'd talked more of wanting to start their family, and she knew there would be no holding him off for the nights remaining until he went back to Houston. She closed her eyes against the heavy ache in her chest, picturing a secluded summer beach, and a pair of warm steel blue eyes smiling down on her.
The boat sat a good way offshore near the end of the island, facing the beach area where the last crab boil was held. If they looked very carefully through Mr. Gentry's magnifying scope, they could make out minute details of the current crab boil being set-up, and occasionally if the wind shifted just right, the smell of the cook fires wafted over the boat. Otherwise, to the naked eye the few people milling about on shore were no bigger than ants, with neither form nor detail.
It suited Rachel just fine, as she poised at the stern of the boat, flexing her leg and arm muscles and stretching out tall, before she performed a high arcing dive into the water below. They had their privacy, but were still close enough to shore for the surprise that would come later. Mattie bobbed up and down in the water next to the boat, watching Rachel as she swam back to the little platform that was installed about a foot above water level at the back.
Rachel gave her a playful splash as she approached the platform. "Hey!" Mattie splashed back, watching in wicked delight as her friend spluttered the water out of her nose and mouth. She watched with a delight of a different kind, as long arms braced themselves, the muscles flexing nicely as Rachel hauled herself up onto the platform, turning and landing neatly on her behind.
She held out her arm invitingly. "Want a hand up?"
Mattie reached up and felt herself pulled partway out of the water, Rachel's hands grabbing her around the waist. An evil glint in the blue eyes told her of her mistake, as Rachel laughed heartily and lifted her, tossing her back out into the water. "That'll teach you to splash me, you wench. Hey !"
Mattie surfaced right under her and before she could grab hold, felt a decided tug to both ankles, and she landed in the water herself. "Ha." Mattie laughed, backing out of reach and holding onto the platform. "Now, Rachel." Hazel eyes grew round as the evil grin reappeared, and Rachel snared her. "Remember. Oh " she felt a tickle at her ribs. "I just learned how to swim. You wouldn't want to drown me, would you? Ah eeeee!" The tickle torture continued, gradually becoming more sensual strokes against her back and stomach. "Oh "
Full lips captured hers and she quite forgot the water, and the boat, and everything but the welcome warmth of Rachel's body in the water, pressing against her and lifting her until suddenly they were both stretched out on the wooden platform. "You wanna go back in the water, or stay right here with me?" Rachel smiled, her face mere inches above Mattie's. She watched Mattie's breathing catch as she caressed her face with the backs of her knuckles.
"Stay here." Mattie got lost in a long sensual kiss, her body on fire yet again.
It was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies and hot temperatures, which made swimming in the cool salty water all the more enjoyable. They had been teasing each other all afternoon, with gentle touches through their swimsuits, and occasional stroking of the bare skin of their backs, along with numerous kisses. In between, they had played with reckless abandon, swimming and fishing and laughing under the summer sun.
She had sketched several drawings of the boat, and of Rachel as she practiced her diving, enjoying the long clean lines of the lithe body as it arched and spun and leaped in mid-air. Now, as she felt Rachel's touches become more insistent, she longed not only to feel the broad muscular back, she wanted to see it as well. She remembered the day she had visited Rachel on the boat, and the way her muscles flexed in the sun while she worked hanging from the mast.
Suddenly, she had an idea, and wondered if she dared ask for what she wanted. She slowly broke away from the kiss, watching Rachel's chest rise and fall with uneven breaths. "Did you mean it, when you said we could do whatever I want?"
"Sure I did." Rachel's voice gentled, and she lifted Mattie's hand, kissing her palm on the inside. "What do you want, Mattie?"
"I want to draw you from the back again." She watched twin brows furrow in question. "Up there on deck, with you climbed partway up the mast." One brow hiked up. "With your swimming top off." She giggled as both brows disappeared under Rachel's bangs.
"Alright." Rachel sat up and they both silently climbed the ladder. Mattie went up last, and she could swear Rachel's legs were shaking as she climbed ahead of her. Rachel padded over to the mast and looked over her shoulder, watching as Mattie took up her position on one of the benches bolted to the side of the boat, opening her sketchpad and resting it expectantly in her lap. When Mattie was settled, Rachel slowly drew her swimming top over her head and dropped it on the deck next to her. Keeping her back turned, she climbed up on the first set of rungs, her bare toes curling around them to hold on, as she reached up with her arms until she was supporting part of her weight with her upper body. "Like this?"
She was more beautiful than Mattie remembered, the afternoon sun burnishing the smooth skin to a golden color. Rivulets of water ran down her body and dripped on the deck below. Her biceps and corded forearms flexed, and the muscles all up and down Rachel's back stood out in the effort of holding on. Broad shoulders tapered to a trim waist, which flared back out slightly at the hips. Without the longer swimming top, the form-fitting bottoms revealed a nicely rounded behind, and Mattie realized that Rachel's buttocks and leg muscles were also flexed, her bare calves bulging below the hem of the swim suit bottoms. "Just like that."
Mattie licked her suddenly-dry lips and began to sketch, watching as Rachel's smaller back muscles occasionally twitched, she assumed in the effort of holding herself up. She worked quickly, her fingers mapping out detail that was easier to capture, now that she had actually felt the subject she was working on. She finished the first sketch and stood, intent on moving to the side for a profile sketch, before she realized it would mean seeing Rachel's naked breasts. Not that she hadn't seen them when she was sick, but that was before
"Are you too tired to stay up there for one more drawing?" Mattie moved in behind her, lightly touching her on the back, which caused an interesting reaction. Rachel was sweating, the light moisture beaded across her back, yet at Mattie's touch, goose bumps raced across her skin.
"I'm good." Rachel's voice cracked and she gripped the mast rungs more solidly in her hands, hoping the sweat wouldn't cause her to slip.
"What if I draw you from the side this time?" Rachel felt her nape hairs prickle pleasantly at the prospect, wondering where the game was leading.
"Al alright." She closed her eyes as she felt Mattie move away from her, and kept them closed as she felt her nipples harden, knowing Mattie was watching her. She listened, hearing the scratch of Mattie's pencil against the rough paper. Overhead she heard a flock of seagulls fly by, their calls carrying on the wind well after they were past. The water slapped lightly against the sides of the slightly rocking boat, and a light breeze disturbed the ropes hanging from the masts. Underneath all of it Rachel's own blood pounded loudly in her ears.
"I'm all finished." She heard Mattie call out softly, and she opened her eyes, gathering her courage.
She stepped down to the deck and turned, exposing her front to Mattie, and heard her swallow audibly in reaction. "You want a front view?" Her voice was almost a whisper, and Mattie merely nodded, her hands shaking slightly as she sat back down and began to sketch the third drawing. Rachel quickly unbraided her hair, the damp locks spilling over her shoulders, then leaned back against the pole and rested her weight on one foot, drawing the other foot back and up against the pole, as she reached over her head and held onto the rungs just above her head, stretching her chest and torso out, making nice lines and curves to Mattie's visual delight.
It was hard to concentrate on the picture, and the infernal tremor in her fingers didn't help any. She looked up, sketching out Rachel's hair and face, the long lines of her arms, and the nice slope of her shoulders, then gradually began to shape the soft curves of her breasts, remembering the weight of them in her hands, and the ribbed cotton that had separated them from the skin of her hands. She thought to feign the need to touch in order to draw, but knew she simply wanted to touch Rachel, the drawing be damned.
She set the sketchpad aside and tucked the pencil against it so it wouldn't roll away, and stood, gliding as if in a dream toward Rachel, who didn't move as she approached. She drew close and realized Rachel's breathing was shallow, her nipples constantly hard since she had done the sketch from the side. She's just as nervous as I am, Mattie realized in wonder. "Can can I ?"
She reached up, trailing her fingers along the soft curves, then grew bolder, cupping Rachel's breast and brushing her thumb over the nipple, watching more goose bumps dance across the tanned arms and the paler skin of her torso. Blue eyes slammed shut and Rachel made a noise deep in her throat, something between a squeak and a groan. It was an interesting sound, and Mattie moved to the other breast, hoping to hear it again. She wasn't disappointed. "Can't believe I've barely touched you, and you're all quivering."
"Oh, my darlin'." Rachel's arms dropped and she wrapped them around Mattie. "I beg to differ. You've been caressing me with your eyes ever since I took my top off. Before that even. Your eyes on me it makes my skin burn."
"Burn?" Mattie's own knees were starting to grow weak, as Rachel hugged her tightly and found her lips, kissing her with a new and hungry fierceness that made her whole body want to feel those lips. "All I know is when I look at you, I ache all over."
"Shhhh." Rachel moved away from her lips and kissed the top of her head. "Me too."
"Is this what love feels like?" Mattie nuzzled the warm skin of Rachel's upper chest and burrowed further into the comforting hug. She wanted to stay there. She wanted more. She was dizzy with the deluge of emotions and sensations racing through her mind and body.
"I think so." Rachel pulled back, just enough to see her friend's face. She watched as her own fingers reached out, and with a mind of their own, stroked Mattie's cheek, then drew her closer until their foreheads were touching. "I think so," she whispered, then tilted her head and brushed her lips against Mattie's again, this time with gentle promise and intent.
It was so soft, and she took her time, holding back the overwhelming desire to devour the warm mouth. She kissed Mattie, tentatively and slowly at first, then faster, with questioning nips, until the redhead opened up, and their souls merged in a kiss that left both of them breathless.
Rachel broke off, once again touching her forehead to Mattie's, while one hand wandered up the front of her swimming top, finding her breast with a soft sigh, mimicking the questing strokes that Mattie's own fingers had once again taken up against her skin. She closed her eyes and wondered if she could die from breathing too much. Then she quit breathing altogether as she felt Mattie take her hand and pull it first down, then push it up and under Mattie's swimming top.
She opened her eyes and slowly stroked Mattie's stomach, gradually moving up until she reached her goal, feeling Mattie's breast in her hand, the taut nipple pressing against her palm in contrast to the firm softness, as she delicately played against Mattie's skin. She heard a small whimper and felt Mattie's ribs contract sharply. "Feel good?" She nibbled the sensitive skin of Mattie's neck, her voice burring into the younger woman's ear, as she stroked Mattie's sensitized skin, a slow motion from her stomach all the way back up to the perfectly-shaped breasts. "Is this what you wanted?"
"Y yes." Mattie's own hands wandered freely, gliding up and down Rachel's back and down to her behind, then around and back up, pressing against her stomach as she sought contact. "P partly." Rachel's touches moved from one breast to the other, and her free arm reached behind Mattie, pulling her close and pressing their bodies together.
Rachel felt her own ability to reason slipping away. It was the strongest sensation of her life, her need to touch and stroke driving her quickly to a place where there would be no turning back. Rachel groaned as Mattie's hands slipped upward, cupping her breasts again and making her entire body shake. "I " her fingers moved higher, trailing along Mattie's jaw line. "I can't do this in half-measures, Mattie. We need to stop now, or "
Two fingers pressed against her lips. "Or you can show me what two women can do together." Mattie's thumb traced a full lower lip, and she felt a tiny nip from Rachel's teeth. "I'm not afraid, Rachel. Show me," she whispered fiercely.
"Are you sure?" Rachel was close to not caring if Mattie was certain or not, and pulled away to regain her sanity, save her hands resting lightly on Mattie's hips. "What about Adam? I I don't want to do anything you're going to regret tomorrow, Mattie. Don't want you waking up and feeling like I led you to do something that goes against your morals."
"I don't care." She grasped Rachel's hand, and held it against her heart in a fist. "I don't love him. I never did. You know that. All I know is that when I'm with you, I am longing. Simply longing, and I don't even know what it is I want. It hurts, Rachel. It's the most lovely pain I've ever felt. When I look into your eyes, I feel more with a single glance than I've ever felt in the whole rest of my life. I'm afraid of going through the rest of my life and never again feeling as much as I feel right now." She threaded her fingers through long chestnut locks and pulled Rachel's face within inches of her own. "With him I'm dead," she whispered. "With you I'm more alive than I ever dreamed possible."
Rachel's final defenses crumbled, and she pulled Mattie to her, kissing her fiercely, tasting and savoring the sweet mouth until she was certain both their lips were bruised. She moved away, kissing her way across Mattie's face, before ducking lower to sample her neck, greedily tasting the salty skin with light flicks of her tongue. Her fingers moved of their own accord, lifting the swimming top and drawing it over Mattie's head, tossing the top negligently to the side where it slid across the deck and stopped against the side of the boat. At last, Mattie stood before her, clad only in her split swimming skirt.
"You're beautiful." Rachel ran her flat palms up Mattie's stomach and cupped both breasts. "Beautiful," she wrapped her arms around the younger woman,
Mattie gasped as her breasts brushed against Rachel's stomach. Her entire being ached, and once again, she wasn't sure what could ever soothe it. Certainly nothing she and Adam had ever done had made her feel like she did at that moment. It was almost like a hunger, and she thought, fuzzily, as she felt Rachel reach around her, unbraiding her hair, that if she could somehow crawl inside Rachel's skin, that maybe then the ache would go away.
Her fingers unwittingly found the waistband of Rachel's swimming trunks, tugging anxiously at them as Rachel drew her close for another kiss. "You trying to take these off?" Rachel chuckled, a rich throaty sound that hummed against the skin of her neck.
"I I don't know." Mattie felt Rachel's hands drop next to hers, and watched the long fingers quickly unbutton the bottoms, then reach to the sides, slipping them down until they dropped down Rachel's long legs. Rachel kicked them aside and her hands rested against her thighs as she looked at Mattie uncertainly.
She had seen Rachel unclothed before, but this was the first time Rachel was awake enough to watch her reaction, as she took in her fully-naked body, her eyes roaming over tanned skin and firm muscles, then wandering over the curves of Rachel's breasts and hips. Normally-steel blue eyes had taken on a much more vibrant hue, closer to navy blue, shining back at her with something she couldn't quite read. "You're beautiful too," she commented shyly, her eyes drinking in soft-looking skin that begged to be touched, and inviting muscles that she wanted nothing more than to
Rachel's fingers tangled in her hair and she crushed herself against the taller woman, drawing her face down for another kiss, which they became lost in. Her thoughts were at best sketchy, her mind racing along with her heartbeat, as she took in the sensations randomly. Rachel's lips, devouring her own, an insistently probing tongue parting her lips, then swirling with hers, causing her skin to tingle all over. She felt one of the brunette's hands against her lower back, gently stroking her bare skin. Then the hand slipped down and cupped her backside, squeezing it and pulling Mattie still closer. She realized a tickling sensation against her belly was Rachel's wiry patch of dark hair. Another squeeze of Rachel's hand brought them even closer, and she felt an odd wet sensation against her stomach as well.
Rachel slowly backed her toward the picnic blanket spread out on the deck, where they had shared their afternoon meal earlier in the day. She was vaguely glad they had already cleaned up the leftovers and packed everything away, leaving the blanket wide open for them, as she slowly lowered them down to the soft quilted material. Now that it was actually going to happen, or at least she hoped it was, she mentally banked the fire, allowing her mind and body to calm enough to have the discipline to take things slow and easy, and take the time with Mattie she deserved.
She knew it wasn't Mattie's first time, but it was the first time Mattie had been touched in love, of that much she was certain. She wanted it to be gentle and soft and wonderful, and wanted Mattie to feel safe and unashamed. Mattie lay stretched out on the quilt, her eyes at once trusting and shy. "You're blushing." Rachel lowered herself, stretching out on her side and tracing the dusting of pink along Mattie's cheeks. "Are you alright, so far?" She stroked the shiny red hair. "With what we're doing."
"Yes." Mattie's hands couldn't help but reach out, one coming to rest on a bare shoulder, while the other hesitantly brushed over an enticing breast, enjoying the view from the different angle, as Rachel hovered over her, her eyes shining warmly back at her.
Blue eyes fluttered closed for a moment, her entire body reacting to Mattie's touch. She realized, vaguely, that what was true for Mattie was true for her. The sensations were stronger than they'd ever been with Lil. With Lil, there was physical pleasure and friendly affection. With Mattie she opened her eyes and found a pair of hazel eyes looking back at her, filled with wonder and something more. This was love. It made all the difference.
"I love you, Mattie." She dipped down, nibbling at the sensitive skin below a pink ear. "I want to show you just how much." She nibbled lower, across a collarbone and down. She paused and looked up at Mattie's face, then back down, and flicked her tongue over a brownish-pink nipple.
"Ahhh." Mattie's body arched up. "What are you doing?" It was heavenly and she wanted more.
Mischievous blue eyes peered back up. "Showing you what two women can do together." She flashed a fetching grin, then closed her lips around the nipple, sucking gently, while her other hand came up and traced the other neglected breast. Mattie's tiny whimpers of pleasure confirmed that what she was doing was alright, and she moved the hand from Mattie's breast, running it slowly down her flat stomach and across the top of her leg, before stroking up the inside of a surprisingly-muscular thigh, at least what she could feel through Mattie's swimsuit-covered legs.
Rachel's mouth on her breast was quickly rendering her of intelligible thought. She thought she would die if her friend ever stopped. Nothing could feel as good as this, she was certain. A decided throbbing sensation settled between her legs, and she gasped with pleasure as she felt Rachel's fingers playing against her, the pulsing growing even stronger. Rachel shifted, and lightly straddled Mattie's left leg, keeping most of her weight off the younger woman.
Slowly, she slid one hand up Mattie's right leg, pushing the wide leg of the swimsuit up until her hand rested on Mattie's upper thigh, at the juncture of her hip. She stroked slowly and tenderly, moving inward, and felt Mattie's body grow tense. She stopped her hand and raised up on one elbow, seeing fear in the hazel eyes. "You want me to stop?"
"No." Mattie lowered her eyes. "Just might hurt is all."
Rachel forced down the surge of anger. It wasn't the time or place to invoke Adam's name. Instead she ducked her head, kissing Mattie until she felt her relax again. "I would never hurt you Mattie." She tentatively stroked Mattie's upper leg again. "Never." Her fingers wandered lower, toward the soft skin of Mattie's inner thigh. "That doesn't hurt, does it?"
Mattie shook her head negatively, finding that quite the opposite was true. She didn't want the touches to ever stop, her body reacting strongly, wanting to feel Rachel touch her everywhere.
Rachel frowned, realizing she had one critical question to ask. "Has he hurt you recently, sweetheart?"
A tear squeezed out as Mattie closed her eyes and nodded affirmatively. Rachel quickly kissed the tear away, planting more kisses on Mattie's forehead. "I'll not touch you where he does. I promise you."
Mattie had already guessed at where Rachel's fingers might be headed and she opened her eyes wide in question. "But how can you ?"
"I don't need to." Rachel cupped her face reverently. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes." Mattie smiled, turning her head and kissing Rachel's hand.
"Good." Rachel's fingers played delicately against her skin. "Because I love you, Mattie, and I only want to touch you in ways that will make you feel good. Will you let me do that?"
"Yes," Mattie breathed against her skin, pulling her down for a long kiss, giving herself over to gentle hands and a warm heart, and relaxing into the knowing touches that her body craved.
Occasionally, as Rachel moved, Mattie felt the odd wetness again, against her leg, on the bare skin just above her knee. She boldly reached down, touching Rachel's inner thigh, and felt more of the moisture there. She also felt Rachel stop completely for a long moment, a tiny gurgle erupting from the back of her throat as Mattie touched her. "You're all wet." Hazel eyes searched blue curiously.
"Yes." The word came out on a husky note. "Yes I am." Slowly, Rachel shifted again and kissed her with great intensity, drawing it out, as she unbuttoned Mattie's split skirt, and slipped a hand inside. Her fingers trailed through soft curls and dipped between Mattie's legs, eliciting an almost silent whimper. "So are you." Rachel drew her fingers up and held them out for her friend's inspection. "It's what happens when a woman feels desire." Her eyes were on fire and she tilted her head, a rakish smile gracing her lips. Her features softened as she traced Mattie's face. "And I've never desired anyone as much as I want you right now."
"Oh." Mattie blushed furiously.
"Sweetheart." Rachel cupped a bright red cheek. "There is nothing shameful about what you're feeling what we're doing. I've only recently come to understand that. This is love, Mattie. God is love. God is perfect. This is perfect."
"I never thought of it like that," Mattie's voice trembled.
"Can I take this off?" Rachel tugged at the waistband of the swimsuit.
"Yes." Mattie lifted her hips and felt the suddenly constrictive material slide away. A light breeze blew pleasantly across her bare body, right before Rachel lowered herself again, her skin gliding against Mattie's, causing her to cry out at the almost overwhelming sensation. The brunette's mouth located her breast, while her hand wandered up Mattie's over-sensitized legs and slipped between them.
Rachel's skin continued to brush against her, at times feather-light and at others in a grinding motion, Mattie's body craving her lover's touch over every inch. She felt Rachel's lips against her ear, whispering quietly, while the brunette's fingers were drawing out strange new and powerful sensations. And I thought it felt good when she touched my breasts.
"Remember that ache?" Rachel nipped at her earlobe. "This is what your body wanted. Let me take you somewhere you've never been, Mattie." She kissed her soundly, then came up for air, studying Mattie's face as her fingers found their goal. She watched the hazel eyes grow wide, then slam shut at the pleasurable sensations.
"I think I shall die if you stop," Mattie gasped out, her eyes opening again partway.
Rachel chuckled. "Don't fight what you're feeling, Mattie. Let your body do what it wants to do. I promise, it will be the greatest pleasure you've ever felt." Her own body reacted, hearing Mattie's breathing coming in short gasps, her hips moving against her in an age-old rhythm. Rachel lowered herself, partly covering Mattie's body, craving the feel of the younger woman's skin against her own. She found the ear once more, whispering comforting words, as Mattie cried out, finding sweet release at Rachel's gentle touch.
"Shhhh." Rachel rolled to her back, pulling the smaller woman against her. "Shhh." She stroked Mattie's back in soothing circles. She felt Mattie's chest heaving and heard a tiny sniffle. "You're going to be alright."
"What ?" Mattie looked shyly up into her eyes, blinking away tears brought on by intense emotion. "What was that?"
"Did it feel good?" Rachel cupped her cheek, brushing away the tears with her thumb.
"Yes." Mattie turned her head and kissed the thumb.
"That was me loving you, Mattie." She felt the boat rocking them, and a lethargic peace creeping over her. As Mattie's cries had reached her ears, Rachel's own body had exploded in empathetic response, and she felt quite sated.
"I had no idea." Mattie rubbed Rachel's belly in idle circles, needing the continued skin on skin contact. "Never knew it could be like that."
"I want it to always be like that for you, Mattie." Rachel kissed her head, and pulled the edge of the quilt over their sweat-dampened bodies, staving off a slight chill. She had no idea how long they'd been lying on the quilt, but somehow the sun had gone down without them noticing. A loud noise, like a cannon going off, made both of them jump, then hundreds of white lights streaked across the sky and sparkled as they fell to earth. "Oh." Rachel laughed quietly. "I forgot. Surprise."
It took a minute for it to register, then Mattie joined in her laughter. "More fireworks?"
"Yes." They watched another ball of light burst overhead. "One of the dockworkers helps run the Independence Day show each year, and he gets a crate of fireworks as part of the deal. He always brings them to the next crab boil and we get to have a second show.
"I thought watching fireworks with you would be romantic." Mattie snuggled up, resting her head against Rachel's shoulders. "I suspect it doesn't get any more romantic than this."
"I suspect you're right," Rachel agreed, wrapping her arms around Mattie as they watched the remainder of the pyrotechnic display, after which they shared a bottle of wine, still cuddled up in the blanket together in a pleasant tangle of naked bodies. And much later, they explored one another some more, this time with all questions and hesitation gone, as they became acquainted in a new and wonderful way.
"Don't go." Rachel pulled Mattie close, hugging her tightly and showering her face with kisses. "Just stay here with me."
"I have to." Mattie snuggled up, tucking the light blanket around both of them. "But not until later on today. Breakfast would be nice." She tweaked Rachel's nose. "Although that means one of us, namely you, would have to get dressed and go downstairs and get it for us."
"Oh, alright." Rachel mock sighed. "If I must." She kissed Mattie soundly, then rolled away, slipping out of bed and across the room to retrieve her clothing. "See, if you lived here with me, we could take turns fetching breakfast. Wouldn't have to sneak you in and out of here."
"If I lived here with you, I can assure you we would not survive the scandal." It was out before she thought about how it sounded, and she regretfully watched the smile disappear from Rachel's face. "I'm sorry." She stood and sidled up to her, hugging Rachel from behind. "We'll find a way, Rachel. We will. I can't just up and move out on Adam. He'd come kill both of us. We need to talk about this, don't we?"
"Nothing to talk about," Rachel pouted. "You and I pack up our belongings and move away from here. End of story."
"It's not that simple," Mattie fretted. They'd left the boat around midnight and ended up back in Rachel's room, where they'd spent the remainder of the night in relative bliss, although they had lapsed into one argument about the future, which had quickly passed. She sorely hoped to get back to the bliss and leave the arguments for another day. "Thought you said you'd give me as much time as I need." She felt the tears coming and swiped her hand across her eyes in frustration. "This is all new to me, Rachel. I need some time to let it simmer. I'm feeling a little overwhelmed."
"Are you sorry about what we've been doing?" From the tone of her voice, it was obvious Rachel's usual confidence was more than a little shaken.
"No." Mattie hugged her more tightly and felt Rachel turn so they were face to face. She burrowed into her, drawing in the familiar clean scent of bay rum. "I've never been happier, than when I'm with you. I never dreamed I could feel this good." She kissed the hollow of Rachel's throat, and felt long fingers combing through her hair.
"Good." Rachel nuzzled Mattie's hair. "Because I've been waiting my entire life to be as happy as I am with you. I just didn't know it."
"But it's difficult, Rachel." Mattie drew her over to the bed where they both sat down, facing each other and crossing their legs. She reached out and took Rachel's hands in her own, holding them between them as she spoke. "If we are going to do anything at all, we need to plan very carefully. Where we would go. How we would get there. When we would leave. How we would live after we get wherever we go. What can we take with us of what we have now."
"I guess it is a bit more complicated than packing a carpet bag and leaving, isn't it?" Rachel sighed, the reality of their situation setting in.
"It is." Mattie chaffed the hands she held. "I'm not saying it can't be done. I I still need time to think, Rachel. I never even considered the possibility of spending my life with another woman until the last month or so." She watched Rachel lower her head, chestnut bangs hiding her downcast eyes. "Not that spending my life with you doesn't sound very appealing."
A timid smile appeared, and Rachel looked hesitantly up, her eyes full of hope. "Until a month or so ago, I figured I would be living alone for the rest of my life." She scooted closer, until their foreheads were almost touching. "I'm sorry I've acted impatiently toward you, Mattie. I guess I know what I want, and I'm hoping you want the same thing."
"I think I do." Mattie bit her lower lip and continued to brush her thumbs back and forth over the top of Rachel's hands, admiring the combination of softness and strength. "But I don't think we can up and have that tomorrow. I'd like to spend some more weekends together." She blushed, a warm soft pink dusting of color that spread slowly across her cheeks. "Could I have some time to get used to this to us before we do anything further? We can keep talking about it, and start planning."
"I meant it when I said we can do whatever you want." Rachel leaned over and kissed her cheeks, first one and then the other. "I do want more time with you." Her eyes grew stormy -- a vibrant gray with tiny blue flecks of color dancing on the surface. "I hate the thought of you being with him. After we just makes my blood boil thinking about it."
"I can't refuse him completely, Rachel." Mattie's voice edged on despair. "Not without incurring his wrath. Especially with him thinking we're going to start a family. I must at least pretend to go along with that notion. Otherwise my life would become a living hell. Or more of a living hell than it already is."
"I know." Rachel was trembling inside. In a very short time she'd come to feel a new emotion -- a proprietary protectiveness of Mattie that was much fiercer than anything she had felt with any of her friends or family, even Lillie. "I hate that he hurts you. Hate that he hits you, and the horrible things he says to you. I can't help feeling the way I do. You're warm and bright and beautiful. I can't believe I ever won your friendship, much less anything more. The thought that anyone would hurt you "
"Shhhh." Mattie gently covered her mouth with her hand, then pulled Rachel's head to her shoulder, holding her and rocking back and forth. "I do believe you're my savior, Rachel Travis. All my life no one has ever truly come to my defense, even my mother and father. You're the only one who ever cared about how I feel or what I want. The only one."
"I love you," a soft almost shy voice answered.
"I love you too," Mattie kissed her on the head, then shifted as Rachel looked up, capturing her first with her eyes and then with her lips.
"Mmmm." Rachel deepened the kiss and slowly stretched out, bringing Mattie down with her and slipping a hand inside her nightgown, feeling warm skin and muscles that fluttered at her touch. Her own body trembled, as Mattie's hand stroked up her inner thigh, and she shifted, giving the inquisitive hand more room to explore. "I love the way you touch me," she breathed against Mattie's skin.
Mattie laughed softly, her touches becoming much more intense, as for a short while, breakfast, and the future, and everything else but each other, was forgotten.
The mid-summer doldrums set in, and business at the tailor shop tapered off. Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan assured Mattie there was no need to worry, that things would pick up later in August, a few weeks before school began for the fall term. For the time being, beginning the week after the Independence Day holiday, Mattie's hours were cut back to half days, leaving her free to go home at the noon hour.
Monday at precisely noon, she politely wished her employer a good afternoon, and made her way down Main Street to the general store. She absently checked off odds and ends on a shopping list, re-stocking her supply of sugar, flour, and a box of charcoals for her drawings. She smiled as she passed a shelf bearing toilette articles, including a bottle of fresh-smelling bay rum. She picked up the ceramic canister and uncapped it, inhaling deeply and closing her eyes. She could almost feel Rachel's arms around her, her soft skin brushing against her own, and Rachel's distinct scent enveloping her.
She realized with a sad smile that she finally understood how it felt to be in love. She knew very little of the world, having seen El Paso, Houston, and Galveston, and every train stop between the three towns. She'd seen paintings and drawings of far off places, in books and magazines, and had even seen a few black and white photos of such magical places as Washington, D.C., Paris, New York, and London. She'd seen paintings of the mountains and the Pacific Ocean out west, and the mystical Grand Canyon of Arizona.
A part of her missed the stark dry deserts and hills surrounding El Paso, but another part of her had come to love the Gulf of Mexico and the pale brown sand beaches, the rustling sea grasses and the beautiful shells, along with the invigorating scent of the ocean water. Despite her miserable marriage, Galveston had become home, perhaps because of Rachel, and perhaps because it would always be the place where, for the very first time, she dared to hope she could live her life as she pleased, and not as others directed her to. She tried to imagine where, in all the world, she and Rachel might go where they could be together and out of Adam's grasp. She was certain they would have to go somewhere very far away, and that they would have to leave by darkness of night some weekend when Adam was in Houston.
Even then, she wondered if he would find her. He was relentless that way, when he felt something belonged to him, and she understood all too well that to Adam, she was his property. His, to show off in public, to keep his house, to take care of his needs, and to be at his beck and call as he saw fit. Her leaving with Rachel, if he were to find out, would infuriate him. She feared that her and Rachel disappearing at the same time would rouse his suspicion, even though she was fairly certain he believed the only time she had ever spent with Rachel was at the clam bake back in the spring, and as her tailor at the shop.
Mattie sighed, opening her eyes to the reality of the small store around her, the dusty smell of slate pencils, the grainy scent of barrels of wheat and rye flour, and the rich aroma of coffee beans. The sun was shining brightly outside but inside the store with its small windows, it was dark and much cooler, and a sudden feeling of gloom settled over her. The walls seemed too close, and she had to get out, into the street and back to the beachfront at home.
She placed the cork back in the bay rum canister and set it carefully on the shelf and moved quickly down the aisle to sign for her purchases. Leaving the store, she stepped out into the hot dusty road and briefly peered toward the dock area just out of sight behind the buildings of the downtown area. Rachel was out at sea fishing, so they could not eat dinner together, although she had left a short note for Mattie, tucked inside her sewing machine drawer, just like the first note. She pulled it from her skirt pocket and unfolded it, smiling. Rachel hadn't written a word, but had simply drawn a heart and carefully printed Mattie's name in the middle, in even block letters. She kissed the note and slipped it back in her pocket, and began wandering toward the trolley, bound for home.
She shivered, despite the heat. It was a house, not a home. Home, she realized, should be a place filled with love. She knew she had some very nice things, and fine clothing, and never wanted for food, or shelter from the elements. Her lifestyle, on the surface, was much more elaborate than Rachel's, yet in Rachel's small room, amid its sparse furnishings, she'd never felt more at home, and the comfort she found in Rachel's arms was the first true comfort she'd ever had.
Impulsively, she decided to walk home, and raised her parasol against the white-hot sun. The sky was a thin blue color, devoid of clouds, and as she reached the beachfront road, the Gulf sparkled like emeralds. Heat shimmered off the broiling sand, which burned slightly, even through her sturdy shoes and well-knit stockings. She could feel the scant ocean breeze against the sweat on her neck and forehead, and she longed to be swimming in the cool water.
When she reached the house, she settled instead for a tepid bath and a liberal dusting of talcum powder. She donned her lightest housedress -- a simple yellow gingham checkered frock, which left her neck more exposed than the traditional Gibson girl shirtwaists she typically wore, with their proper high collars. The dress had sleeves that belled slightly at the wrists to allow more air to circulate, and she wore only one plain petticoat beneath it, choosing to leave her feet bare for the time being.
After a quick and cool dinner of bread and fresh cheddar cheese, and a sweet juicy orange, she picked up her sketchpad and flipped through its pages, which had become a chronicle of her time spent with Rachel. She smiled at the drawing from their very first meeting, chuckled at the one of the tall woman frolicking in the shallow waves, and felt her stomach flutter pleasantly inside at some of the more intimate portraits -- the first one of Rachel sitting with her bare back turned toward her in her bedroom, and the series from their time together on the boat only two days before.
She couldn't believe it had only been two days. In that very short time, her view of what life could be had changed irrevocably, and her heart hurt at the thought of the sham that was her marriage. She knew she should probably go to confession for the things she had done, yet couldn't find it within herself to feel guilty about any of it. She loved Rachel and Rachel loved her. Rachel had said it herself -- "God is love." If God was love and she loved Rachel, then surely there must be something divine in what she shared with Rachel.
And just as she loved Rachel, she knew she didn't love Adam, nor did he truly love her. If there was no love between them, then how could there be anything holy about their union? Could she be held, in the eyes of God, to vows spoken by a naοve teenage girl who hadn't a clue, at the time, of what life and love were all about? She knew that under the law, she could be, and that divorcing Adam would be a near impossibility without his consent. She wondered which laws were more honorable to God, the laws of man, or the love that now governed her own heart.
More importantly, was there an honorable and legal way to end her marriage? She knew women had run away from marriages before without legally ending them. She suspected as much of some of the women in Lillie's line of work, and thought she recalled Rachel expressing as much. Did she truly have it in herself to run away, even if it meant there would always be a piece of paper out there legally tying her to Adam? Did the piece of paper matter? She had some difficult decisions to make, and her head was beginning to hurt thinking about it.
She turned to more mundane tasks, setting aside her sketchpad to put away the remaining bread and cheese, and washing the few dishes she had used with her dinner. She was untying her apron when a solid knock at the front door surprised her so much that her heart skipped a beat. She folded the apron and hung it on a hook, and reached up to smooth her hair off her face as she made her way into the parlor and cautiously opened the door.
Three strange men stood on the porch, their eyes and faces very serious. They each had a pistol holstered at the hip, and she wished she'd had the forethought to get her own pistol before answering the door to strangers. "May I help you?" She heard the slight tremor in her own voice and cleared her throat nervously.
"Is Adam Crockett at home?" The tall man in the middle asked. He stood ramrod straight with his arms tucked behind his back. He wore a starched white shirt, a black string tie, plain black trousers, and black cowboy boots that were polished to a dull gleam.
"No." She eyed him curiously. "What do you want with him?"
"We're federal marshals, Ma'am," he folded back his coat lapel to reveal a shiny silver badge. "We wanted to ask him a few questions. Would you be " He fished a piece of paper out of his pocket and glanced at it. " Madeleine Crockett?"
"I am." She swallowed, willing down a wave of fear. "Would you like to come in?"
"No, Ma'am." The same man answered, and Mattie wondered if the others were incapable of speech. "When do you expect your husband back home?"
"I'm not sure." It was a small fib. She expected him home the next day. She truly didn't know exactly what time the next day. "He's away on a business trip."
"Where did he go, Mrs. Crockett?" The same man persisted, relaxing his posture just a bit in an effort to appear friendlier.
"Oh," she answered blithely. "I'm not privy to his business affairs." She smiled her most charming smile. "I've not much interest in such matters."
The marshal smiled in kind, and retrieved a small scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil from his pocket. He scribbled out something and handed it to her. "Here's my contact information. When he does come home, would you ask him to telegraph me? We should be back this way in another month or two, after we tend to some business in New Orleans."
"I'll see that he knows of your visit." She lay the scrap on a side table and looked back at him expectantly."
"Thank you, Mrs. Crockett." The man tipped his hat, and his silent companions did the same, before turning and stepping off the porch and walking back toward the road behind the house.
Mattie watched them until they were out of sight, then closed the door and leaned against it until her heart quit pounding. She picked up the piece of paper, studying it thoughtfully. "What has Adam gotten himself into?"
Continued in Chapter 8
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