Copyright 2004 By Texbard firstname.lastname@example.org
For disclaimers see Chapter 1
A soft knock at the door drew Rachel's nose out of her reader. She sighed and set the book aside, clipping the top of the page with one of Mattie's hairpins. She was making great progress; so much so that Mattie said they might want to start concentrating more on writing skills than reading. "Now who could that be at this hour?" She muttered, as she swung her long legs over the side of the bed and made her way to the door, opening it a crack and peering out. A huge smile involuntarily lit up her face. "Mattie?" She opened the door wide, drawing her friend inside. "What a surprise? Although it's a very nice one." She stopped, studying Mattie's drawn features. "What's wrong?"
Mattie handed her a large round paper bundle, which was tied up with thick twine. "Partly, I wanted you to take these for safekeeping." She bit her lower lip and looked down at her feet. "They're all my drawings of you, and a few of the pastels I've worked on. I decided it might not be safe to keep them at my house anymore. There are too many of them at this point."
"Alright." Rachel placed the bundle on the bed and took Mattie's hands. "I can do that, but you still haven't told me what's wrong."
"Some federal marshals came by the house this afternoon, looking for Adam." Mattie looked up, the fear evident in her eyes. "They wouldn't say exactly what they wanted, only that they wanted to talk to him and would be back around in a month or so. They were on their way to New Orleans. I'm afraid, Rachel. I lied and told them I don't know where Adam is. What if he's in some serious trouble? What if it involves me somehow? Do you think I should tell him they came by? He'll be home sometime tomorrow."
"First of all, you've done nothing wrong. If Adam is in trouble, it's something of his own doing that shouldn't involve you, I wouldn't think." Rachel guided her over to the bed and sat down, pulling Mattie down next to her. "As for telling him, you have to decide what's best for you, Mattie. If they do take a month or more to come back around, maybe you won't even be with him by then." She looked earnestly at Mattie, every fiber of her body urging Mattie to consider taking off with her before a month was out.
"Maybe," Mattie offered her a trembling half-smile. "But if something happens and they come back sooner than they said they would, Adam would probably kill me if he knew I knew they were looking for him and didn't tell him. Rachel …" She drew in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "The last time he got into trouble, he packed me up and moved me here. He didn't even tell me why we were moving. Just came home one day and started packing up our belongings and told me we were leaving."
"What if he does that again?" Rachel shifted, facing Mattie and taking her hands again. "What if he wants to pick up and move in the middle of the night? What if he takes you away?"
"I've thought about that already." Mattie scooted closer, and reached out with one hand, touching Rachel's face, idly rearranging some errant locks of hair around her eyes. "If I do tell him, I'll do it while he's driving me to the tailor's, on a day when he's leaving for Houston. I can pull it off innocently enough, pretend it slipped my mind that they came by, or act like I didn't realize it was important. He seems to get less angry when I feign ignorance, for some reason. That way he'll have a few days to brood over it before he does anything, and it would give me a few days to make some arrangements if I need to."
"And what if he does decide to run?" Rachel grasped her hand and held it against her own cheek. "How will you keep him from making you go with him?"
"I … I have a gun." Mattie watched Rachel's jaw drop. "I know. Not what you would expect of me. It's just a small revolver, but I do know how to use it … very well, actually … I have it with me nearly all the time, in my pocket book. Adam doesn't know about it. If … if he tries to make me go away with him, I'll threaten him … do whatever I have to do, to get away from him."
"You can't kill him, Mattie." Rachel placed her hands on Mattie's shoulders, squeezing them to emphasize her point. "You're his wife. There is no defense for shooting your husband because he wanted to move away. They'd hang you."
"I wouldn't kill him. Just threaten him, as I said. I think I can use the gun effectively enough to make him believe I mean business. I could probably shoot his hat right off his head without disturbing a hair on it." She smiled at Rachel's wide-eyed reaction. "Hopefully it won't come to that. But if I do have to run from him, I'll most likely come running to you. I don't know where else I'd go, unless I ran home to El Paso, and he'd probably just come after me if I were to do that."
"You run to me anytime you feel the need to." Rachel pulled her into a hug, rocking her back and forth. "I wish you'd run to me and just stay here, but you already know that." She kissed Mattie's head and continued to hold her. "I wish you could stay here tonight."
"So do I," Mattie murmured against a patch of warm soft skin. She felt her worries receding, replaced by a comforting warmth, and Rachel's slightly sweaty, slightly spicy scent. The brunette was wearing a white ribbed sleeveless undershirt and lightweight tan trousers. Mattie wrapped one arm firmly around Rachel's body, while one hand ran lightly up and down the curve of a solid upper arm. Solid. That was a good word for Rachel in general. She was dependable and she always seemed to keep her wits about her, logically thinking through each situation as she faced it. "I'd best get back home sometime tonight, though. Adam occasionally takes the morning train home."
"But you can stay here for a little while, can't you?" Rachel ducked her head, lightly kissing Mattie's lips. "I missed you today, something fierce. Billy kept teasing me. I couldn't concentrate on fishing to save my life. He was almost as bad. Seems he spent a good part of his weekend with Lil."
"Truly?" Mattie closed her eyes as Rachel's lips moved lower, nibbling the sensitive skin just below her ear. "They're both nice people. They deserve to be happy. Oh …"
"Oh?" Rachel chuckled, her voice burring against Mattie's shoulder, taking advantage of the lower neckline of her dress. "Was that a good 'oh' or a bad one?"
"A … good one," Mattie's own hands began to wander, tugging at Rachel's undershirt until it was free of her waistband. "We shouldn't …"
"I know." Rachel found her lips again for a long moment. "I need to let you go home in a little while. I can hardly help it. Feels so good when you're in my arms."
"I like being in your arms." Mattie felt herself being lowered down onto the soft mattress. "But maybe we'd best keep our clothing on, just to be on the safe side. I'd hate to get carried away and fall asleep afterward."
"All our clothing?" Rachel's undershirt was halfway up her torso, and she smiled as Mattie blushed and hastily pulled it back down.
"I'm sorry." She buried her face into Rachel's shoulder.
"Don't ever be sorry about this, Mattie." Rachel kissed her, getting lost in the sensation of Mattie's body moving against her own. After a long while, she reluctantly came up for air, feeling Mattie's head settle against her upper chest as she wrapped one arm around Rachel's stomach. She frowned, realizing she'd allowed herself to get distracted from helping Mattie with a very real problem. "Do you have any idea what kind of business Adam engages in when he goes to Houston, besides gambling?"
"I used to think he was in banking." Mattie rubbed random circles against Rachel's stomach with the flat of her hand. "It's what he did in El Paso, at his father's bank. But those papers I found in his desk -- he had to leave because of some sort of problem there. I think he may have taken some money from his father or from the bank itself."
"But you don't think that anymore?" Rachel stroked Mattie's hair, enjoying the silky sensation against her fingertips.
"No." Mattie rolled over, resting her chin on Rachel's collarbone. "I sometimes think all he does is gamble, that perhaps our living is made off his winnings. But during the Independence Day celebration, I heard snippets of conversation between him and some of his business associates. They are in some sort of trade, I think, although I have no idea what sort of goods they might be trading. Cotton, maybe, since we have the mill here."
"Maybe," Rachel agreed with her, her voice thoughtful. "I only deal on the end where we ship the cotton out, so I have no idea who works on the other end of that. The business owners don't generally come down to the docks. They leave the physical aspect of loading the boats to the dock bosses. I could nose around, ask some questions."
"That would be wonderful, if you could manage it without getting in trouble." Mattie's fingertips brushed lightly back and forth over Rachel's upper chest, causing tiny pleasant internal shivers in Rachel's gut.
"That's nice," she commented with a smile.
Mattie smiled back and peppered her skin with a series of kisses, before resuming her tracing, her chin back against her collarbone. "If I knew what Adam does for a living, it might help me decide what to do about those marshals. But I can't wait very long before I tell him."
"I'll ask around tomorrow, see what I can find out." Rachel grasped Mattie's waist, drawing her up and forward, and engaging her in another lengthy kiss. She broke off and studied the hazel eyes at close range, observing the warm affection and deep passion there, and suddenly realizing she was the object of all that. "I love you, Mattie."
"Love you too," Mattie answered shyly. "Never thought I'd get the chance to love someone, not after …" She stopped, unable to speak his name. "… anyway, I kept wanting to pinch myself today. Couldn't believe my good fortune. No matter what happens, I know what it is to love someone, and to be loved in return." Her voice wavered and she swallowed.
"And no matter what happens, I'm never going to stop loving you, Mattie." Rachel hugged her tightly. "You can depend on that. It's not something I'll take away. I'm not like him." She averted her gaze, feeling her chin tilted back toward Mattie.
"Not even close." Mattie held her gaze, watching until Rachel's eyes shone with unshed tears. "Not even close." She kissed her intently. "I'd best be going."
"I'm going to walk you home." Rachel sat up, bringing Mattie up with her. "Don't want you out alone in the dark trying to hitch a ride. "Better yet, I'll take you on my bicycle. How'd you like that?"
"That would be fun." Mattie smiled. "We haven't ridden it in a while."
"Very well then." Rachel quickly tugged on her boots and a shirt, buttoning it up and tucking it into her trousers. "My lady, your two-wheeled carriage awaits you." She motioned Mattie out of the room with a flourish, and soon they were riding down the road, laughing merrily as a blanket of stars twinkled down on them.
As they pulled up to house, Mattie's thoughts grew somber, and she shivered unconsciously. Rachel slowed the bicycle, and stepped down, straddling it to balance it until Mattie could slide down to the ground. She watched as Mattie crossed her arms over her chest, facing out toward the Gulf, as a light breeze blew back the loose tendrils of hair around her face. Silvery moonlight shone down, illuminating her pale freckled skin and burnishing her hair with copper highlights. She was breath-taking.
"Mattie?" Rachel propped the bicycle against the porch and stepped closer, moving in behind her and reaching out hesitantly, touching Mattie's shoulders. She felt the smaller body melt back against her, and she wrapped her arms around Mattie, resting her chin on her head. "What's wrong?"
"I used to like it when I was alone at home without him," Mattie mused quietly. "Now when I'm alone it only makes me wish I was with you." She looked up and over her shoulder, and smiled. "I was just wishing you could stay with me tonight. We could get up early, give you plenty of time to leave before he comes home, even if he were to take the early train home."
A dozen emotions tore at Rachel's heart, and a part of her was sorely tempted. Pride won out, however; the good kind of pride rather than the bad kind. It would feel wrong and she knew it would probably hurt things more than it would help between them. "I won't sleep in his house." It was the one place she had to draw the line when it came to Mattie. "Not in the bed you share with him." Her chest felt tight and her throat constricted. "I can't," she whispered. "I'm sorry. I love you, but I can't."
"I know." Mattie wrapped her arms around Rachel's, hugging them to her tightly against her stomach. It occurred to her that she had never desired to be that physically close to anyone before. Now her body craved Rachel's touch, and the closeness they shared, not just on a physical level, but on an emotional one as well. "I don't suppose the sofa …" A faint negative nod of Rachel's head was her answer. "I didn't think so. But you could stay with me for a little while, couldn't you?"
"As if I could leave you." Rachel smiled, and kissed her on the cheek. "Maybe we could go for a walk on the beach."
"Maybe we could take a blanket down to the dock and sit together for a spell," Mattie turned in her arms and batted her eyelashes fetchingly. The dark head nodded in agreement, and soon they were walking hand in hand toward the dock Rachel had been sitting on the morning they met.
Rachel took the blanket and fluffed it out, spreading it over the weathered boards, and took Mattie's hand, tugging her down on the blanket with her. They removed their shoes and dangled their feet in the refreshing water, feeling the waves lap at their legs as they held each other close, wordlessly watching the moonlight shimmering on the surface of the Gulf further out.
They became acutely aware of each other's breathing, and Rachel turned her head, nuzzling Mattie's hair, then moved lower, brushing her face against Mattie's neck before planting butterfly kisses on the tempting soft skin. Rachel knew she was lost, that there would be no going back from what they had started. In a few short days they had bonded well beyond anything that could be described merely as friendship. Not that friendship wasn't the important basis on which their relationship was formed, but she knew what she felt for Mattie was so much more. She would love Mattie forever. Mattie owned her, heart, body, and soul.
"What are we going to do?" Mattie stroked Rachel's stomach, as much for her own comfort as Rachel's. She felt tense muscles relax under her touch, and she gently pecked Rachel on the shoulder, inhaling her cottony-clean scent in the process.
"I'll do whatever you want to, Mattie," Rachel blew out a frustrated breath. "I'd leave with you tonight if you wanted that. I'm waiting for you to decide what you want."
"I know, and it isn't fair to you, to keep you in suspense like that." Mattie took Rachel's hand, twining their fingers.
Rachel reached up, tracing full lips with her thumb, then moved to stroke a downy soft cheek. "I'll wait for you forever, Mattie, as long as you give me hope. There is still hope, isn't there?" She looked away, at the sprinkling of stars overhead, her throat moving in an audible swallow. She was suddenly unsure of herself, afraid that the dream had come true much too easily. She could hear her own breathing in her ears, waiting for an answer she almost dreaded.
Mattie shifted, sliding up, planting soft kisses at Rachel's jaw line. "There's always hope." She cupped Rachel's face, turning it back toward her. "Don't ever give up on me, Rachel. Please?" Her eyes brimmed with unshed tears and she blinked, sending a scattering of them down her face and onto Rachel's shirt. She ducked her head, feeling Rachel's fingers brushing them off her face.
"Don't cry, Mattie." She realized that if she was feeling unsure of herself, Mattie must surely feel as if she were drowning. I taught her how to swim in the ocean, she mused to herself. It must be up to me to teach her how to swim these waters as well. "No matter how frightened you are, sweetheart, no matter how uncertain you are of me, or of yourself, or what we share, no matter what you decide you have to do, I'll always be here for you. You can count on me, Mattie. I promise you that. You've got some decisions to make. I'll admit I wish things were settled between us, but something is holding you back. I suspect it's your fear of Adam, am I correct?"
"Y … yes." Mattie bit her lower lip, her eyes hesitant as they met Rachel's. "Mostly. I'm afraid he'll find us, no matter where we go -- afraid he'll kill you if he ever finds out about us. I could never forgive myself if anything bad happened to you because of me."
"First of all, I can take care of myself." Rachel combed her fingers through Mattie's hair. She took a moment to enjoy the idle pleasure of it, of the long red locks spilling down Mattie's shoulders, and shimmering in the moonlight. "He caught me off guard once, but it won't happen again. I'm much more aware of my surroundings at all times. If we go away together, I'll find us somewhere so far from him, he'll give up before he finds us. We can go to Mexico, or Canada, or Europe, if we have to."
"That's where the 'mostly' part comes in," Mattie closed her eyes and dropped her head, afraid of the repercussions of her thoughts. "It frightens me to think of moving so far away, Rachel. A part of me wants so very much to share my life with you. Another part of me is terrified. I suppose it doesn't make much sense. It's not as if I have many friends here. My family isn't here. I feel as if …" She struggled for words, her heart warring with itself. "… as if moving so far away, I might get swallowed up, that I'll never see home again, or my sister. I want to be with you. I do. But it isn't fair to you for me to do anything until I'm absolutely certain it's a decision I can live with. Once we leave here, I have a feeling there will be no coming back, ever. I know you're willing to give up everything for me. Everything. No one has ever sacrificed anything for me, Rachel. Being cared for so deeply, it feels wonderful and frightening all at the same time. And it makes me feel selfish that I'm not as certain about all this as you are, just yet."
"Don't feel that way, Mattie." Rachel drew her head down and kissed it. "I meant it. I don't want you to do anything you're unsure of. If … if the day comes when you can't be with me, like this …" she gestured at their closeness, and smiled half-heartedly. "I don't ever want to lose your friendship. It would hurt, for a while, I think, because I love you deeply. I'll not lie to you. I want to build a life with you, and I don't much care where we do that, as long as we can be safe and happy together. I very much enjoyed the things we did this past weekend." She smiled warmly then, allowing her eyes to speak for her. "But I do fear it will make me crazy if we don't move one way or the other, eventually, either toward sharing our life under the same roof, or back to our friendship without the physical intimacy we've shared."
"Why?" Mattie's eyes flashed, almost in anger, and she consciously softened her voice. "Isn't that what you've had with Lillie for many years? Why can't you be happy with that with me? At least for a little while?"
"I might could, for a very short while. But it isn't the same. Lil and I … we shared friendship, and affection, and we did know each other in as intimate a way as we could, but not as intimately as I've come to know you in just three short days, because I've never been in love with Lil. I recently walked away from that part of my life with her, rather easily, I might add. I'll always care for Lil, be concerned for her welfare, and I'll always be her friend, but it's caused very little emotional consequence to either of us to give up the physical aspect of our friendship." She sat partway up, resting her weight on one forearm, while holding on to Mattie with the other. "Is that what you want, Mattie? Something that means so little to me that I could reject it without much pain or consequence?"
"N … no." Mattie flopped down on her back, covering her face with one arm.
"Good." Rachel hovered over her, softly stroking her hair in comfort. "Because I don't think I can walk away from this. Not without a great deal of heartbreak. I need you in my life, Mattie, one way or the other, but I don't think I could settle for anything in the middle. I hope that makes sense."
"It does." Mattie moved her arm up, peeking timidly at the beloved face over her. She saw so much in Rachel's eyes -- love … fear … pain … patience. She couldn't remember invoking that much in anyone before, and it warmed her all over. "I do love you, Rachel. That much I'm sure of."
"I waited so long to hear you say that to me." Rachel smiled, willing away her own fear for the time being. "And it give me hope." She bent down, tenderly brushing her lips against Mattie's. "I'd best go home. I have a feeling it's near midnight, and I need to be at the docks tomorrow at dawn. I'll be unloading some boats tomorrow -- couple of freighters coming in from New York with goods for some of the stores. I should be able to ask around about who the cotton traders are during the noon hour. There are several folks I trust enough to ask without them prying into why I want the information."
"Oh." Mattie sat up. "I'd almost forgotten all about that. You took my mind right off it." She smiled and ran her hand up and down Rachel's arm. "I'll not tell Adam about the marshals' visit until I hear from you. If he's dealing in something truly bad, I'll have to decide what to do about that. Turn him in, tell him they're looking for him, or run like the dickens."
"I'd settle for turning him in and running like the dickens," Rachel replied, her face somber with worry.
Mattie looked deeply into Rachel's eyes, seeing her frustration and fear, and she moved closer, kissing a tanned cheek. She felt two arms close around her, and melted into the embrace, laying her head against Rachel's chest and inhaling deeply, imprinting her warm exotic scent in her mind. "You have a natural perfume." She nuzzled salty skin. "Draws me in like a bee to honey."
"It's not perfume." Rachel wrapped her arms more tightly around her. "It's the scent a woman gives off when she's aroused. You have your own special scent too."
Two shocked eyes peered up at her before Mattie buried her face into Rachel's shoulder in embarrassment. "I do?"
"Yes, and it makes my mouth water." Rachel pecked her on the forehead, unwilling to break away from the warmth that enveloped both of them. "Can't seem to tear myself away from you," she mumbled.
"Someday, you won't have to leave me," Mattie vowed, looking up and pulling Rachel down for one last promising kiss.
"And I hope that day isn't too far in the future." Rachel took her hand and led her back to the house. The moon was high in the sky and much smaller than it had been earlier. They paused in front of the house and hugged each other as if for dear life, finally breaking apart. "I love you, Mattie. Hold on to that."
Mattie merely nodded and watched as she mounted her bicycle and pedaled up to the road and around a dune into the night. She sighed heavily, and entered the house. It was indeed almost midnight, but she drew herself a bath and spent another hour soaking in the tepid water, rinsing off the sand and salt from the dock and contemplating her options.
The room seemed empty, and much too quiet, as Rachel entered it and switched on the bedside lamp. She very much understood how Mattie felt when she went home to her empty house. When she left Fort Worth, she had relished being alone. It was a novelty after spending her childhood in the company of all her siblings. Now, she longed to have Mattie in her arms.
She was giddy from the time spent with Mattie, and knew sleep would be long in coming to her. After a quick trip down the hall to the water closet, where she washed her face and brushed her teeth, she returned to the room and stripped down to her bloomers and undershirt. She carefully hung up her trousers and shirt, smiling as she caught a whiff of Mattie's toilet water on her shirt. She held it up to her face and inhaled, closing her eyes in pleasant memory before she reluctantly placed the shirt back on its hangar. She closed the armoire door and turned, spying the wrapped up bundle on the bed, the crisp paper catching the lamp light.
She had seen some of Mattie's drawings of her, but apparently not all of them, judging from the thickness of the rolled-up paper. Curious, she sat down and untied the thick twine string that bound them, and carefully unrolled the drawings to avoid smudging or wrinkling them. The first few she had seen -- a drawing from their first meeting, the one of her bared back from earlier on, and some from one of their picnics on the beach. There were many more she hadn't seen; ones Mattie had obviously drawn from memory when Rachel wasn't around to pose.
She smiled at a few, in which Mattie had drawn herself into the scene. In most of the drawings of them together, they were either holding hands or else Rachel had her arm around Mattie's waist. All of them were beach scenes, with the ocean crashing in the background, or the sand dunes rising behind them.
Mattie had a very good eye, she acknowledged, and a wonderful talent for transferring what she saw to paper. The detail in the waves, the sand dunes, and other background details were amazing, and her rendering of the human form was very true to life, almost photographic in quality. Her ability to depict light and shadow lent reality to her work and gave depth to the pictures.
Rachel's heart skipped a beat when she came to the drawings from their time on the boat. She had seen the longing in Mattie's eyes. What she wasn't prepared for was how well Mattie had captured the fire burning in her own eyes. Had she truly been looking upon Mattie with such open desire? She had certainly felt it. And how often had she looked at Mattie like that prior to their time together on the boat? She appeared almost as a starved thing, her eyes at once desirous and begging. Mattie had managed to capture that. It was a wonder Mattie hadn't melted into a puddle under such an intense gaze.
She moved her attention from her face to the rest of her body, studying it with a critical eye. Mattie's drawing was flattering, and she found herself wondering if she truly looked like that. She moved in front of the mirror and slowly removed her undershirt, raising her arms so that they were extended as they were in one of the drawings. Yep, she mused silently. Same muscles.
While she did pride herself on keeping a neat and tidy appearance, she didn't often think about her features in terms of whether or not she was attractive to those who saw her. She was more inclined to worry about whether or not her braid was secure, her shirt tucked in, and her boots polished. Now she studied herself through different eyes, comparing the image in the mirror to those on the smooth creamy drawing paper.
It was indeed the same body, but Mattie had captured her through the eyes of a lover, she realized. In the photo her breasts were high and proud, her nipples tight and puckered, and she felt herself blushing as she studied all the tiny details -- the shadowing under her breasts, the indention of her waistline, the curve of her hips in the form-fitting swimming trunks, and the long muscular lines of her lower legs. Mattie had even somehow sketched in the fine sheen of sweat on her chest and face.
"You're a talented little vixen, Madeleine Crockett." She chuckled. "And I love you."
She finally moved on to the last few works of art, some pastel drawings, which were all from Mattie's head. One was of Rachel fishing on the boat, and was very good, considering she knew Mattie had not spent much time watching her fish. Another was of both of them reclining on the beach, fully clothed but engaged in some trysting that was vivid enough to set Rachel's blood racing all over again. There were a few other scenes of them walking hand in hand on the beach, and one of them playing in the surf.
Slowly, she rolled the drawings back up and tied them securely. Looking around the room, she pursed her lips, pondering where best to store them, settling on a lower drawer of her armoire, one that contained only a few odd personal possessions. She tucked them away and closed the drawer, then stood up and moved to the middle of the room. She still felt warm, and removed her bloomers before crawling into bed and pulling up clean fresh sheets that she had just changed that morning. The cool cotton felt delicious against her bare skin, and she fell into contented sleep.
Morning brought cloudy skies and thick humidity, which settled over the town with an uncomfortable heaviness. Rachel awoke in a mass of sweaty tangled sheets, a testament to the outside weather conditions. She slowly rolled toward the window and opened one eye. Not even a hint of a breeze stirred the perfectly-still curtains, and she could see the almost mist-like quality of the air. She sighed. The docks were going to be unbearably hot, she already knew.
She slipped out of bed and blotted her body with a towel, removing the coating of sweat. A morning bath would have felt good, but was almost pointless given how little time the fresh feeling would last. She had bathed right after work the day before, and planned to do the same again on this day. Choosing her lightest pair of work trousers and a white shirt, she quickly dressed and braided her hair, then chose a straw cowboy hat that was loosely-woven to allow air to circulate around her head. If there were any air blowing, she acknowledged ruefully.
A hot breakfast was out of the question, and instead she chose a tall glass of cold milk and a slice of fresh buttered bread, pocketing two sweet-smelling oranges to eat later in the morning. Her coffee was the only part of the meal she took hot. Rain or shine, hot or cold out, Rachel was of a mind that coffee was meant to be consumed good and hot. Not that Galveston was ever very cold, even in the middle of winter.
She rode her bicycle to the docks, enjoying what little breeze her brisk pace allowed. As she parked the bicycle, she looked up to see Billy also riding up on his bicycle. "Good morning," she smiled. "Murderous day ahead."
"So true." Billy parked next to her and they headed toward their assigned boat together. "Wish we were going out to sea instead of unloading cargo today."
"Maybe we can get in the water during dinner." Rachel swung her dinner pail as she walked. "At least wade in and get our feet cooled off."
"That will feel mighty fine." Billy swiped the back of his hand across an already-sweaty brow.
"Here." Rachel retrieved two broad green magnolia leaves from her dinner pail, treasured pilfered from a tree in the churchyard on her way to the docks. She handed over one and removed her own hat at the same time.
"Thank you." Billy also removed his hat, and they simultaneously pressed the cool leaves against their foreheads, replacing their hats to hold them in place. "Got more in there?" He eyed her pail hopefully.
"A few, yes." She chuckled. "Might be a four-leaf day before all is said and done."
"At least." They reached a large unfamiliar freighter, and stood quietly to the side, waiting for instructions from the ship's captain, who was nowhere to be seen.
They both sat down on the dock next to the ship, their feet dangling over the side, not quite reaching the water's surface. "Billy." Rachel decided to begin her questioning with the person she trusted most on the docks. "Do you have any idea what Adam Crocket does for a living?"
"I've heard a few things, yes." His eyes shifted, studying her profile curiously. "Why?"
"I promised Mattie I'd try to find out. She thinks he's in some kind of trade or shipping, but can't figure out what his product is." She felt Billy shift, and heard the long release of an almost-silent breath, followed by a faint clucking of his tongue against his teeth. "So. You going to tell me what you know?"
"I'm not supposed to know anything." Billy looked down, plucking at the crease in his trousers leg. "But I've got good ears, you know?"
Rachel bit her tongue, willing him to get to the point.
"I don't know, Rachel. The less you know about him, the less Mattie knows, the safer it might be for you. He's a no good skunk, if what I've heard is true."
"Billy." Rachel touched his arm, her eyes pleading as he looked over at her. "Please?"
"I hear his cargo comes in from Cuba, partly, and Mexico." He pushed the brim of his hat up, dabbing away fresh sweat with a handkerchief, and re-adjusting the magnolia leaf. He felt a prickling sensation over his skin, more sweat, a product of nervousness more so than the pressing humidity.
"What?" Rachel's patience wore thin. "What is it? Sugar cane? Coffee? Tobacco? Tropical fruits? What is it Billy?" She saw the hesitation in his eyes. "None of those things are so scandalous that you can't share with me. What? Is he in the diamond trade? I hear tell there might be some diamonds to be had in the jungles down there."
"Some of what you said, yes." He eased into the conversation, feeling his way carefully. "The sugar cane from the islands, and some coffee from Mexico and maybe even further south. But those products are a sham. Heard bits and pieces of conversations in the saloon here and there."
"Tell me!" Rachel resisted the urge to simply wrap her hands around his neck and shake him senseless. "Billy. The law is looking for him. Mattie's terrified. She doesn't know what to do."
"Oh." Billy gazed off toward the horizon. "The law." He squinted, looking up and over the boat to the rose-tinted clouds. "Doesn't surprise me. Who's after him?"
"Federal marshals, from what Mattie said." She remembered the fear in her friend's … no, lover's … eyes, she mentally corrected herself. That's what they were now, wasn't it? "Billy, she hasn't told him they came calling, and hasn't decided if she will or not. What is he into?"
"Black market trade." He turned looking her squarely in the eye. "Cheap labor."
Her eyes widened. "Slaves?" Her voice rose in indignation. "You mean to tell me Adam Crocket is dealing in illegal slave trade?"
"Shhhh!" Billy clamped a hand over her mouth. "Not so loud. Don't know who all around here might be in on it with him."
Her brows furrowed in anger and her muffled curses came out as hot breath against his palm, until he finally dropped his hand. "Why in tarnation have you kept this from me?" She bellowed in outrage.
"For your own gosh-danged good, for one," he snapped back at her. "And because I didn't hear enough to know if all of what I've heard is true or not. I can't validate any of it, because I've heard none of it from Adam himself. Just heard talk from some of the men I've seen him talking to from time to time."
"Alright." Her voice was low and even. "You're going to tell me what all you've heard, and help me figure out how we can find out if it's true or not. Please, Billy. If this is true, Mattie needs to know."
"If she turns him in, she needs to get away from here." Billy propped one foot up on the edge of the dock, wrapping his arms around his leg and resting his chin on his knee, turning his face toward her. "These are nasty people, Rachel. They'd kill anyone who betrays them."
"You think I don't know that?" Her ire rose all over again and she forced herself to remain calm. "Tell me what you know."
"I don't know much else, other than what I've told you." He sat back up, leaning back on his hands. "I got the impression they capture islanders and Mexicans, and force them into labor on ranches out west, and on some of the farms down south. Places that are remote enough that the law doesn't readily see what's going on. Sets them up in little row houses and makes it look like they're paid labor, at least on paper. But they're not. They're every bit as much slaves as all those Negroes were that Mr. Lincoln released back some forty years ago. Same idea, just different people involved."
"She needs to turn him in." Rachel spoke more to herself, than to Billy. "I can help her with the getting out of town part."
"You two planning on taking off?" His face registered complete surprise. "I mean, I knew you were sweet on her and all, but I had no idea …"
"We've talked about it, yes. But she can't make up her mind." She looked up at the sky, her voice almost a whisper. "Maybe this will help her make her decision. Can you put out some feelers, Billy? Help me find out if he really is dealing in slave trade?"
"I'll see what I can do," he reluctantly agreed. "But it's a dangerous business, Rachel. I don't much relish the thought of disappearing from my bed some fine night. I'll have to be very careful who I talk to and what I ask."
"Oh." Rachel wrapped sympathetic fingers around his forearm. "I don't want you to do anything to get yourself hurt, Billy. Didn't mean that. Just … do what you can as long as you can stay safe in the process."
"I'm no coward." His jaw jutted out defiantly.
"Didn't mean that, Billy, and you know it." She soothed his ruffled ego. "Just don't want to see anyone I care about hurt."
"Give me a week or so, alright?" He slowly stood, spotting what appeared to be a ship's captain walking toward them. Other dock workers were arriving, and their conversation could no longer be carried on in safety.
"Of course." Rachel also stood, and they lined up with the other workers, listening as the ship captain greeted them and began giving instruction on handling of his cargo.
Mattie swiped her hand across a damp brow, and pushed back her wilted bangs. She could feel her shirtwaist sticking to her back between her shoulder blades, and her stocking-clad legs and feet were absolutely miserable. She thought about Rachel and the cool waters of the Gulf, and fervently wished they were both playing together in the ocean.
Instead, she was cooped up inside the tailor's shop, buried under a mound of heavy black material, making a dress, a rush order for a woman who was attending the funeral of her great-grandfather. As a result of the rush, she was working a full day that day, in an effort to complete the job in a timely fashion. That was fine with Mattie, not only because she would earn more for the full day, but also because it would keep her away from home longer, in the event Adam arrived on the late morning or early afternoon train.
She knew neither the deceased nor the person for whom she was sewing, but felt sorry for the loss, and sorry for all the people who would have to attend a funeral mass and a graveside service, dressed in black in the July heat. She had started on the skirt of the dress that morning, while Mrs. Vaughan worked across the room on the bodice. They hoped to finish the entire outfit by noon the following day. The funeral was to take place two days afterward.
It was close to closing time, and she worked quickly to hand-sew the hem on the very full skirt. It was a double-layered skirt, a thick black cotton underskirt covered by a sheer black overskirt. Not the wisest of choices for summer, in Mattie's opinion, but it was what the customer wanted. She couldn't imagine wearing the dress, along with the customary two petticoats that would be required.
Her own corset boning was digging into her sides, adding to her discomfort, and she longed to go home and discard some of her underclothing. Another cool bath sounded divine as well, along with a liberal dusting of talcum powder. She had a new canister of honeysuckle-scented powder she was longing to try out, secretly hoping Rachel would find the fragrance pleasing.
She smiled as she worked, thinking about Rachel. Their time on the boat had been sweet. Rachel was an amazingly gentle lover, and her wide-eyed honesty and vulnerability when they were together worked magic to keep Mattie relaxed and comfortable in Rachel's arms, regardless of any new experiences or sensations Rachel introduced her to.
Mattie had forced most guilty thoughts aside, justifying her relationship with Rachel to herself, with the knowledge that Adam was doing the same thing, although she suspected he did not love the women with whom he committed adultery. He was incapable of truly loving anyone, and for that she was sad, for him. That was the other reason she tried to avoid the guilt, that Adam loved no one, not even her.
She knew she needed to make some decisions, and knew Rachel deserved to be with someone who could love her fully, without regret or question. Mattie had no doubt that Rachel did love her completely, and that she would wait for as long as Mattie took to make up her mind.
She wanted to leave. If she was honest with herself, she had never wanted to marry Adam in the first place, and that, perhaps, was the one thing she was sorry for. That she had not had the courage, at the age of fourteen, to speak up for herself and save herself a lot of misery, and perhaps give Adam the chance to marry someone who did want to be with him. Although she thought she would probably pity anyone who married Adam.
She wondered, secretly, if she had been older, if she had known more of the world, or of love, if that would have made a difference in the way Adam treated her. When she learned he spent time with prostitutes, she had wondered if part of the reason for that was her own naivety, if she simply was too young and too unresponsive to him to satisfy him.
She knew nothing of the physical aspect of marriage when she and Adam exchanged their vows. It was, after all, the man's responsibility, wasn't it? To teach his bride the ways of love. Adam had only taught her the way of pain and humiliation.
After being with Rachel, she understood, more than ever, that Adam either hadn't tried very hard with her, or else he had been just as ignorant in those matters as she was. With Rachel, she had no choice but to respond. She smiled again, shaking her head as she worked. The way Rachel touched her when they were together, the kind and gentle words she spoke, her kisses, it made her blood race just thinking about it.
It was like a dream. She could never have imagined what it was like to be loved the way Rachel loved her. Rachel had never pushed, never forced, never asked anything of Mattie or done anything with Mattie that she wasn't willing to do. There were times when Rachel was so caught up in bringing Mattie pleasure, that she forsook her own. Mattie still felt timid in her attempts at reciprocity, but Rachel assured her that she was doing just fine. If the cute and interesting sounds Rachel made when Mattie touched her were any indication, then perhaps she was doing something right.
She couldn't help but love Rachel, and she halfway wondered if she even had a choice. There was no logical reason in the world they had become friends, much less lovers. It had happened slowly, settling over Mattie like a warm familiar old blanket on a cold evening. There was no one moment when she knew she loved Rachel. That realization had come gradually as well. She quietly thanked God each night for bringing Rachel into her life, and prayed just as fervently that she would know the right thing to do, in the right time.
Mr. Vaughan slid his chair back, the scraping noise against the wooden floor bringing her out of her thoughts. She looked out the window, surprised at the long shadows that indicated it was later than she expected. A glance at the clock on the wall revealed it was 6:00 p.m., and past time to go home. "I think we should close up for the evening, ladies." He folded up a pair of trousers he had been working on, setting them aside for the morning. "It's been a long day."
They quickly put away the rest of their work and walked out into the street. It was busy with the usual early evening bustle of people going home from work, or shopping. Mattie said a hasty farewell to the Vaughans, and looked around for Adam's buggy. It was nowhere to be seen, and she assumed he was coming home on the late train.
Despite the heat, she decided to walk home. If Adam were home, it would keep her away that much longer. If not, it would make for a shorter evening alone. She adjusted her hat against the long low rays of the sun, and trudged down Main Street to the beachfront road. Everything seemed to be paler in the hot summer air, and other than a few odd seagulls flying overhead, no wild creatures were out and about.
After a long hot walk, she finally reached her front porch. A few windows were open which she had left closed, signaling her that Adam was, indeed, home. She sighed and opened the door, peering around the room hesitantly as she entered the parlor. She remembered the visit from the federal marshals and renewed her vow to say nothing until Rachel reported back to her of her findings on the docks.
She frowned in puzzlement. The sitting room was empty, although Adam's ten-gallon summer straw cowboy hat was hanging on the rack in the parlor, and his small leather satchel sat beside the door. "Adam?" She called out softly, hoping maybe he had gone out again, although he rarely left the house without his hat. The house remained quiet, and she moved into the bedroom to remove her own hat, along with her sticky petticoat.
She stopped, studying the bed. The top quilt was turned back, and the sheets were rumpled. A half-full glass of lemonade sat on the nightstand, the sliced lemons still floating at the surface, and a book was resting open, pages down, on one of the pillows. Adam sometimes took a book to bed to read, and she wondered if he had arrived home early and taken a nap. If he were home, he was either in the kitchen or in the barn, but the house seemed awfully quiet. Maybe he had taken the horses out for some exercise.
She shrugged and sat down on the edge of the bed as she slipped her shoes off, sighing in utter relief as she rolled down her stockings and removed them, wiggling her bare toes, which reveled in being released from their hateful hot prison. She changed out of her work dress into a more comfortable pale blue housedress, glad to be rid of her petticoat. Even her bloomers and corset seemed too much, but it was much better without the dreadful petticoat and high neckline of the work dress.
Her heart sank as she realized that one way or the other, Adam was home, and she reluctantly stooped down and opened the bottom drawer of the armoire, digging beneath the folded blankets there for her pessary box. She frowned and felt her way deeper, still not locating it. With slowly rising panic, she removed each layer of clean bedding until she reached the bottom of the empty drawer, save a couple of Rachel's tiny folded up notes, which were tucked into cracks.
"Is this what you're searching for?" A low even voice asked.
Her heart lurched into her throat and her skin felt prickly all over, the adrenalin rushing through her system at rapid speed. She hastily dropped the bedding back into the drawer and stood up, turning to face him. "Adam." Her eyes went from the box in his hand to the hard lines of rage that etched his face. She was certain he intended to kill her, and cursed inwardly, realizing her pocketbook … and her pistol … were in the parlor.
"Yes, I'm Adam. Your husband." He moved closer, the box still clutched in his fist. "Where shall we begin, Madeleine? I was very disappointed to find this. I'm wondering how long you would have continued to deceive me, had I not spilled lemonade on our bed and gone searching for dry sheets."
"I … I can explain." She knew there was no good explanation, and inched backward until she was pressed against the wall next to the water closet door, trapped, with no where else to go. He was between her and the door, and the open window was on the other side of the armoire. She could see the sheer curtains fluttering out away from the sea breeze that blew in through the mosquito netting.
"It's a mortal sin, Madeleine, to prevent the natural God-given birth of children. And you lied to me, another mortal sin. Shall I also remind you of the admonishment that you are to obey your husband? You know I want children. And here, all this time, that's what I thought you wanted too." He stalked toward her, his eyes boring into her, his neck veins standing out against angry red skin.
"I … I love children …"
"Shut up!" He backhanded her so quickly she had no time to duck. Her face turned with the force of the blow, slamming into the wall. She felt the blood begin to trickle from her nose, and her cheek throbbed. She whimpered quietly and shrunk further away until she was in the corner.
"Only harlots have physical relations with no intention of bearing children." He held the box in her face. "This tells me I married a harlot." He shook it at her, then grasped her face with his other hand, forcing her chin around until she was looking at him again.
Her eyes were wide with fear, and the color drained from her face. He grabbed at her hair, yanking it until the bun came lose from the pins. "Adam, please," she whispered, her voice trembling and her knees shaking so badly she feared they would give way. He was pulling so hard, she was afraid he would pull her hair out by the roots.
"I said, shut up!" He slapped her again and she slid halfway down the wall, covering her face with one arm, holding the other out in defense. He backhanded her one more time for good measure, then flung the pessary box to the floor, sending it clattering across the hard wood until it hit the far wall. He watched it land, then grabbed her outstretched hand and wrenched it until she shrieked in pain. "Is that what you are, Madeleine, a filthy harlot? Maybe I should make a profit off you, loan you out for a fee, since you have no desire to bear my children."
"N … no … pl … please …" He pulled her up, grabbing her collar at her neckline, and with one strong jerk, ripped the front of her dress open. "Please." She wrapped her arms around herself and felt his fist connect with her upper stomach, forcing the breath from her lungs. She doubled over in pain and he grabbed her, pushing her onto the bed where he held her down with his knees against her stomach and his boots digging into her legs.
She cried silently, the tears streaming down her face. Out of breath, her lips moved in pleas that were too soft for him to hear. She watched as he dropped his suspenders and unfastened his trousers, then closed her eyes, bracing herself for the pain that was to come. She felt the blood continue to flow across her upper lip and down her cheek, mixing with the hot tears that fell with them. Her stomach churned and she forced down a wave of nausea, as his warm whiskey-tainted breath brushed across her face.
"You will bear my child, Madeleine." He pulled her bloomers down and tossed them to the floor. "And you will obey me, no matter what it takes." He squeezed her wrists tightly, his blunt nails digging into her skin. "Do you understand me?"
"Y … yes." She briefly opened her eyes, her words coming through clenched teeth.
"You may be a filthy whore, but you are still my wife, and you will start acting as such." He pulled her tattered dress aside, observing her trembling body. It was one of the few times he had ever actually looked upon her nakedness, and briefly noted that she was quite lovely. He slowly unlaced her corset and also pushed it off her shoulders. "Are you afraid of me, Madeleine?"
She was shaking too hard to answer, and merely nodded her head affirmatively. "Good." He pulled his trousers down. "You should be."
The day passed much too slowly, the oppressive heat making each minute seem like an hour. At last, the freighter was unloaded, and the dock boss indicated they could all go home. Rachel flexed her hands, wincing at barked knuckles on almost every finger. She had no idea what all was in the heavy crates they had unloaded, all she knew was that the wood wasn't sanded properly, and she had the splinters to show for it. She couldn't wait for a long soak in the tub, and a fresh change of clothing.
She'd spent the afternoon mulling over her new information on Adam, interspersed with thoughts of Mattie. If Adam was involved in slavery, she hoped Mattie would find the fortitude to turn him in. Rachel knew she could never bring herself to turn him in without Mattie's blessing. He deserved punishment for a lot of things, but illegal slavery took him to new depths of lowness in Rachel's book, if that were possible, knowing what she did of his treatment of Mattie.
"Are you going to the saloon tonight?" Billy sidled up to her, nudging her slightly with one elbow. "Haven't seen you there in a while."
"No. Best if I not run into Adam or any of his posse." Rachel used the thin end of her pocketknife to pry some of the larger splinters from her palms as she talked. "Ouch!" She dropped the knife as she tugged at a particularly deep one, drawing blood. She shook her hand before bringing it to her lips. "Guess I should wait on those 'til I can get my hands under lamp light and see them better."
"Those look bad, Rachel, why didn't you wear your gloves?" He tugged at the heavy leather mitts hanging from her waistband, then bent down and retrieved the wayward knife, handing it back to her. "Are you sure you can take care of them by yourself? Tough to work alone when it comes to hands."
"Thank you, Billy. I'll be fine." She folded it and placed it back in her pocket. "And I tried to wear my gloves, but they're worn through at the palms. And they got so sweaty inside, my hands kept slipping around and I was afraid I'd lose my grip. Leather's stretched out 'til they're too big for me. I'm getting some new ones with Friday's wages."
"Good thing that fishing boat needs us for a few days. You won't need the heavy gloves for that. Although the owner wants to leave too gosh darned early for my tastes." He shoved his hands in his pockets.
"True." Rachel began walking toward their bicycles. "But it makes sense, if he wants to catch marlin, he needs to go out further and deeper. An hour before dawn can't be too bad, can it? Two whole days of smoking and fishing? At least he doesn't want to do a live-aboard."
"Too right. I always feel like I have to keep an eye on any other crew at night. Don't sleep too well unless I know everyone." They reached their bicycles and began the short ride to the boarding house. "Will I see you at supper?"
"Um. No." Rachel veered off toward the tailor's shop. "I have an errand to run first, then I'm taking a bath. Too hot to eat a cooked meal. I have some apples and soda crackers in my room. I'll be fast asleep in two hours. See you on the docks early tomorrow."
"Alright." He watched her ride away, guessing at where she was headed. "See you then."
Rachel reached the tailor's shop, which was already closed for the evening. The sun was almost set, and she tugged a slip of paper and a stub of pencil from her pocket, scratching out a short note to Mattie. She unconsciously stuck the tip of the tongue between her lips to one side, concentrating on spelling the words correctly:
I will not get to see you at noon for 2 days. I will be fishing. We will go early and come home late. I learned some thing today. Do not talk about what we talked about. Wait for me to talk to you first.
I love you and miss you.
She went around back and looked for neighbors, then raised a window, crawling inside and quickly slipping the note into the top drawer of Mattie's sewing machine table. She pinned it to her pincushion, just to make sure she would see it. A deep breath brought her the lingering smell of Mattie's toilet water, and she smiled at a subtler note she recognized as Mattie's own unique scent.
A giddy shiver worked its way across her skin, as she thought about the time they had spent together on the boat. Thoughts of Mattie had made the day go faster, and more than once Billy had shot a quizzical look at her, catching her smiling for no apparent reason. She was smitten, no doubt. Love had snuck up on her slowly and quietly, and settled in for what she hoped would be a lifetime.
She tried not to think about the fact that she couldn't go see the one she loved, and tried even harder not to think about what Mattie had told her, about Adam wanting children. Thinking about that would only make her feel things she almost couldn't bear. Especially after the things she and Mattie had done together. Under the best of circumstances she would never share someone she loved with anyone. That the one person she cared about most legally belonged to another tore her heart into pieces she wondered if she could ever put back together.
She wished with all her heart that Mattie would simply leave him, show up at her door, and they'd take off together. They would be just fine together, she was certain. She sighed, willing away the desire to punch the nearby wall. Her hands already hurt. She certainly didn't need to break anything on top of what she'd already done to them.
Slipping back out the window, she finished the short ride home and quickly retrieved a clean change of clothing before making her way down the hallway to the tub, which was blessedly unoccupied. She filled it full and dropped down blissfully into the tepid water, immediately feeling better just knowing the day's sweat and dust was washing away. She had just closed her eyes and collapsed further under the water when she heard a brief rap at the door.
"G'away. Just got in here," she called out, just loud enough for whoever was on the other side to hear.
"Rachel, sugar, it's me, Lillie." Rachel's eyes flew open. "Can I come in, please?"
"Lil?" Rachel looked down at her nakedness, uncharacteristically shy for Lillie to see her that way. She warred internally with herself, then shrugged. "Nothing she ain't seen before," she muttered quietly. "Sure. Come on in."
The door opened and a blonde head popped around. Lillie smiled and moved in, sitting down on a chair and closing the door. "I was supposed to meet Billy here. He was going to take me to a nice supper at the hotel across the street, but it's early yet. He told me about your hands, sugar. Said you might could use some help."
"Dang it." Rachel pouted. "I told him I'd be fine." She looked up, chagrined at Lillie's patient expression.
"Let me see." Lillie held out her hand expectantly, smiling as Rachel grudgingly offered up one of her own. "Oooo." She tisked softly. "Here." She pushed the lamp on the table beside the tub closer, and removed a needle from her cuff. "Let me take care of these for you, and no complaints, missy. You should know better than to let your gloves get in such bad shape that you can't use them."
"I know." Rachel's jaw clenched tightly as she felt Lillie removing the angrier splinters first. "I've been kind of busy."
"So I hear." Lillie smiled slyly at her. "Billy doesn't miss much, and he says you and Mattie must be spending an awful lot of time together. Said he saw you piling up a large breakfast plate a few mornings ago. Too large to be a meal for one. Said you took it back upstairs."
"Maybe I was just extra hungry and wanted to eat in private?" Rachel blushed from the tip of her toes to her hairline. "Thought we were more careful than that." The blush turned to anger at herself. "Can't risk Adam hearing about it."
"Shhhh. Don't you worry. Billy and I won't say a thing to anyone and I doubt anyone else noticed." She removed the last splinter and turned Rachel's hand over, clucking in dismay at the damaged knuckles. "You need to take better care of yourself, sugar." She kissed a knuckle without thinking, then released Rachel's hand. "Wash 'em up good. Now. Let me see your other hand."
Rachel groaned and complied, closing her eyes as Lillie took care of the rest of her splinters. A thought occurred to her and she peered up, grinning evilly. "And just where were you when Billy told you about my large breakfast?" The grin grew broader as Lillie looked up, a blush dusting her own skin.
"In his room." She smiled coyly. "He frightens me sometimes, Rachel."
"Bastard." Rachel sat up. "What did he do? I told him to …"
"Oh. No, no, no." Lillie was warmed all over at Rachel's ire on her behalf. "He frightens me because he's the most kind and gentle man I've ever met. He doesn't care about who I am, although I swear he's doing his darnedest to keep me too busy to spend time with anyone else. He must be spending every last dime he makes on me."
"Is that important to you," Rachel frowned in concern. "Money?"
"I used to think so, yes." Lillie finished up with the needle and carefully set it aside, dropping Rachel's hand back into the water. "Now I'm starting to understand that a kind heart may be worth more than a wealthy one."
"And?" Rachel nodded approvingly at her answer.
"And I think, someday, if things go as nicely as they have been, I might be Mrs. William Blaylock." She ducked her head in embarrassment, blonde ringlets hiding her face. "If he'll have me, that is."
"You're in love so soon?" Rachel teased gently.
"Doesn't take very long." Lillie looked back up and smiled, her face shining. "You should know."
"Guess I should," she answered quietly. "I'd best get out of this water before I turn into a prune, Lil. And you should probably get to your supper. Thanks for helping me out."
"Don't you ever be afraid to ask for my help, Rachel." Lillie patted her on the shoulder. "No matter what, I'll always be your friend."
"Likewise." Rachel stood and wrapped herself in a towel. "Go on. I'll be fine now, thanks to you."
"You have yourself some sweet dreams, sugar." Lillie kissed her on the cheek and slipped out of the room.
"Oh, I think I will." Rachel smiled to herself, a pair of passionate hazel eyes flashing through her mind.
She had no idea what time it was. All she knew was that it was cold and incredibly dark. It was amazing how cold she could feel in the middle of July. She hurt all over from the beating she had taken, and from Adam's attentions to her afterward. He had been rough with her, and told her she had it coming to her, that she deserved it for behaving like a whore. Despite the countless times he had pushed, slapped, and punched her since their wedding day, he had never been rough with her before when it came to lovemaking. Inept, yes, she now realized, but rough, no.
He was asleep. Her back was turned to him but she could hear his heavy even sores and she could smell him. He stirred and she felt him move closer, his back pressed against hers, although he continued to snore. His skin brushed against her, and it made her sick to her stomach, but she pushed down the waves of nausea, scooting away as much as she dared until they were no longer touching. She hated his touch before, but now she couldn't bear it.
Everything had changed.
She felt dirty and she couldn't wait until Adam was gone and she could take a bath in private. Maybe if she scrubbed hard enough she could scrub him away. She thought about Rachel and her chest felt so tight she had to bite her lower lip to keep from sobbing out loud. Suddenly her rebellious stomach won out, and she barely made it to the water closet, her abused abdominal muscles screaming in pain as dry heaves wracked her body. Adam had punched her hard, and her head pounded even as her stomach churned.
Finally the sickness passed, and she stood weakly, grasping the sink pedestal for support, her legs shaking like a newborn colt. There was no light in the water closet, and she was glad of it. She had little desire to see the bruises she could already feel on her face. She fumbled for the water spigot and rinsed her mouth out, cautiously sipping just a palm-full of the cool soothing liquid. She waited a moment, and when the water stayed down, she tip-toed back into the bedroom.
Adam had slept through the entire incident, and she released a tiny breath, deciding she had no desire to continue sharing the bed with him. She donned a soft worn old nightgown, grabbed a patchwork quilt from a rack in the corner, and made her way to the sofa in the parlor, where she curled up into a tight ball, lying on her side and hugging her knees up to her chest. She tugged the quilt up and caught a whiff of a hauntingly familiar scent.
It was the quilt they had taken down to the dock, and Rachel's bay rum lingered there, permeating her senses with memories too sweet to allow. She could still feel his hands on her and taste his breath against her lips. Those were her memories now. This time the sob welled up, choking out as her eyes stung and the tears came unbidden, streaming down her face. She dared not cry out loud, so she bucked it up, and rocked back and forth, holding the blanket tightly to herself as she cried in silence.
For the first time in a very long time, she felt sorry for herself. She cried for her stolen childhood, and for a mother who valued appearances over her own children. For a sister that was all but lost to her, and a father who saw her unhappiness but did nothing. She cried for the freedom she had never known, and for a life she had never truly lived. For a husband who knew her not at all and loved her even less, and who might as well kill her. He had all but murdered her soul as it was.
She had thought not to go to the tailor's shop the next morning, because there was no way she would be able to hide her injuries, at least not all of them, but the thought of staying in the house alone all day, or worse, with him, made her stop crying and simply shake for a very long while. Besides, they needed her to finish the funeral dress they were working on, and there were a few other orders that she could also work on, maybe earn some extra wages and start an emergency fund for herself.
She closed her eyes and almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Now on top of everything else, her eyes would be puffy when she got up in the morning. Although one eye, she was fairly certain, was already starting to swell from one of Adam's blows to her face. She had some of the fancy make-up some women were starting to wear. She used just a touch of it every now and then, but suspected a heavier coating of the facial powder might help mute the appearance of some of the bruises.
She had to get out.
Far off, she thought she heard the church clock chime two o'clock. She had a few more hours until dawn, and despite the fury of thought and emotion racing through her brain, her tired body won out, and she fell into fitful sleep, grasping the edge of the sofa lest she roll off it, even as she dreamed vague dreams full of dark frightening images.
The images turned to nightmares, as she relived the night Adam's men had beaten up Rachel. The memories twisted in her dreams, and she watched Rachel die in her arms. Just as she started to scream in her dream, she awoke in a heavy sweat, gasping for air. Had she truly screamed aloud? She cocked her head to one side, listening carefully, relieved when Adam's faint snores reached her ears. She shook her head to clear the images, and got up, padding quietly into the kitchen to get a drink of water.
Rachel was alive. Right then, it was all that mattered.
Continued in Chapter 9
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