She was so stunned, her mouth refused to work for several moments. She took a deep breath, forcing the air down to her belly to calm her flighty nerves. He couldn’t be serious, except this was Judd. Finally, she said the one thing that kept repeating in her numb brain, “You don’t even like me.”
He shrugged, and his warm hand tightened around her fingers. “I didn’t know you,” he corrected her. He took his own deep breath. “My brother already had to grow up without a father. I don’t want that for his son. Do you?”
Tears sprang, unbidden, into her eyes. If he was looking for the best argument to persuade her, he could not have found a better one. The idea of watching Daniel grow, of making a real family with Agnes and Judd so that Daniel had a mother and father for PTA meetings and a grandparent to drag to school Christmas parties swelled inside her, pushing aside all reason.
“All right,” she whispered, so softly that Judd had to lean in to hear it.
Moments later, Michael had finished the ceremony. Bess wore a simple, gold band on her left ring finger. Judd’s lips, soft and warm, had sealed the union with a brief, tender kiss. Bess lay back on the pillows and watched as Judd escorted the pastor out of the room, shaking the other man’s hand before turning back to her bed.
He put his hat on the window ledge, pulled the chair closer to the bed, and eased down as if his bones ached. Stretching with a rueful smile, he propped his boots on the foot of the bed and settled in as if to sleep.
“You don’t have to stay,” Bess told him, hating how uncomfortable the chair looked for a man who deserved a good night’s sleep.
“And leave you alone on your wedding night? I don’t think so, wife.”
The word floated between them in the still room. Even though she had been a wife before, this did not seem the same. This time, she hadn’t married to be kind. This ache in her chest, the warm feeling in her belly, they were reactions uniquely reserved for the man falling asleep in a chair too small for his tall frame. She realized with a shock that when she wasn’t fighting the urge to shake him hard, she was restraining herself from flying into his embrace and kissing him stupid.
Was this what it meant to love? She closed her eyes on the thought and soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Agnes did not respond to the news of the overnight nuptials with quite the enthusiasm Bess had hoped for. Instead, the older woman held Bess’ shoulders loosely and her eyes in a penetrating gaze. “Is it what you wanted?”
Bess nodded, embarrassed to admit her need. “Judd doesn’t exactly tell me what to do.”
Agnes chuckled before her face turned serious again. “It won’t be like your marriage to Daniel, who, for all his fine qualities, was really just a boy at heart. Judd is a man full grown and stubborn as a mule, even if he is my beloved son.”
“I want my child to have a Mama and Papa and a loving Grandma. You can’t know how much I want that.”
The nurse interrupted whatever response Agnes might have made to this pronouncement, bringing young Daniel, swaddled in a soft, wool blanket, for his morning feeding. Even though she had just married the man, Bess was chagrined to realize how grateful she was that Judd had left for work some time earlier that morning, when he leaned forward with a deftness of motion to peck Bess on the forehead before slamming his Stetson on his head and striding from the room.
Dr. Warren released Bess from the hospital later that morning. Agnes drove her home, making cooing noises to little Daniel, swaddled in his blanket and held fast in Bess’ arms. Bess stepped into the living room and stopped short, so that Agnes had to side-step to avoid running into her.
“I don’t believe it,” she said in despair, recalling a previous conversation with Judd about things for the baby. “Daniel really will have to sleep in an old drawer. I didn’t get to finish buying all of the baby things before I had to go on bed rest.”
Agnes chuckled and stepped around Bess, motioning for the younger woman to follow. They walked down the hall and into Bess’ room. She gasped at the sight that met her eyes. A dresser with a padded top had been set up next to the closet, modified and painted a soft green to work as a changing table. Next to the twin bed, just under the window, sat a new baby crib, which gleamed a bright white in the early afternoon light.
Bess shuffled with a sort of awe into the room and gingerly laid her son onto the fresh, crisp crib sheet, a bright yellow linen with blue diamonds. She nibbled at her lower lip to compose herself. Then turned to catch the bemused look on Agnes’ face.
“Well, you didn’t think we Taylors would let one of our own into this world without a warm welcome, now, did you?”
Bess collapsed onto the bed, reaching her fingers toward the door where Agnes was still standing, as if she did not want to invade on the mother-son sanctuary without an invitation. Agnes moved into the room slowly, as if she were approaching a wounded animal that might spook, perched on the other side of the bed and laid one bony hand lightly on top of the younger woman’s.
“This room,” Bess told her in a quiet tone so as not to wake her baby and because, in her present state, the awed whisper was all that she could manage, “has everything in the world I have ever been able to call my own.” She gulped convulsively, blaming the ordeal of childbirth for her emotions being just below the surface. “And I wouldn’t have had any of it if it weren’t for the two of you. How can I ever thank you enough?”
“Don’t talk that way to Judd, dear,” Agnes frowned. “The last thing you want him to think is that you married him out of gratitude.”
“Of course,” Bess stammered, though she wasn’t sure she understood. In her life, gratitude was as noble a reason as any to bind yourself to another. Binds were never long-lasting, after all. Somehow, the people in her life always managed to slip away just when she was coming to rely on them most.
The thought of loss shadowed her features, dampening the brightness and promise of the afternoon. She glanced at the cradle so close to the window and grimaced. “Could we move the crib to the other side of the bed here?” she asked, though her voice betrayed her, coming out more like a plea than a question.
Agnes looked at her, waiting, as if for further explanation. When none was forthcoming, she merely shrugged. “When Judd gets home, we’ll look into moving it. You aren’t moving anything.” She stood up and pulled back the corner of the covers Bess was not sitting on. “Now, you get in bed and take a nap of your own. You heard the doctor say that you still needed plenty of rest for the next few days.”
Bereft of argument, teetering between a certain euphoria and impending dread, Bess stood up and finished turning down her twin bed. As she changed into her flannel gown and slipped between the cool sheets, she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow this would be the last time she slept in this bed with any sense of peace and comfort.
When she woke some time later, surrounded by a semi-dark that hinted at the length of her sleep, it was to find herself in one half of a full-sized bed, her senses assailed by the spicy cologne Judd wore clinging to the pillow under her head. When she turned toward the light, it was to look through an open door and across the hall, where the door to her room also stood open, giving her a solid glimpse of the crib, which had displaced the twin bed to stand squarely in the center of the small room, well away from the window.
At least one of her many questions about the marriage to Judd had been answered, she thought with a mirthless sense of dry humor. He meant to share his bed with her. When her body had healed of the childbirth, would he want her in that way as well, or would she be like his brother’s used seconds?
She thought, not for the first time, how much more he deserved a woman of better education and a higher sense of virtue. What would she do when he met a real lady, not a viscous shrew like Lillian, who saw past Judd’s craggy features into the strong, reliable man any woman would be proud to call husband? Would he feel cheated by Bess’ dubious background and somewhat shady past?
She shook her head and stretched, loving the feel of the wide bed. The die was cast, she admonished herself. Her strength needed to be focused on keeping her baby and her husband safe, no matter the cost to herself. If she closed off at least a part of her heart to both Daniel and Judd, she decided, then if the time came, she would be able to flee from them in order to keep the wrath of James Ruben from falling on their innocent heads.
She envisioned the dark corner of her riotous organ where visions of her mother and father, shadowy figures with only the impression of fingers and lips, eyes and curly hair, resided, the place where a dear friend laughed during her sewing lessons and still breathed fresh, golden air, and physically shut the thick, steel door she imagined cut that part of her heart away from the rest of the world. The key, a rusty, round thing with spiky edges, slipped into the shadowy lock and turned with difficulty. As she breathed out a sigh into the semi-darkness of Judd’s room, she imagined flinging the thick key with perfect accuracy into the dead center of the large lake a half-day’s walk from her grandfather’s small rock house, watched as it floated softly to the silt floor, sending puffs of fine particles and tiny bubbles as it settled. And then the dark of the deep, deep water closed over everything.
With a tiny cry that barely escaped her lips, she squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself back to a dreamless sleep.