Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 17

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.

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NaNoWriMo: Day 16

The weeks passed as Agnes introduced Bess to the important truths in her worn, much-read Bible. When she wasn’t grappling with the Bible stories, Bess ate with slightly more appetite and slept without dreams. Every other day, Judd would grace her room with his presence, standing at the foot of her bed like a sentinel, studying her with that icy stare. Bess returned his probing look with the blankest gaze she could muster.

Once, she blinked her eyes at him and threw him a kiss just to break the tension. Instead of leaving the room as she’d expected, he’d leaned forward, propping himself over her feet with his hands and told her in an even tone that didn’t reveal any emotion, “Don’t tempt me.”

After a few minutes of this silent interrogation, Judd would usually step over to the window and study the landscape while he told her about his youngest constable, who kept getting lost when they sent him out on calls, about how many cattle he was going to have to sell this winter because of the poor hay crop this past summer, about missing Daniel’s strong back to pitch in on the chores around the place that never ended.

They were almost surreal conversations, as if she were becoming his friend and not his enemy, but then he would glare at her again, sensing the secrets she carried and would not share. She did not know if she offended because she had the audacity to stand up to him or because he really did not want to be saddled with two more dependents.

A week before Christmas, an unexpected visitor knocked on the framing of Bess’ open bedroom door. She looked up to see Michelle’s brother, Samuel, immaculately dressed and flashing his dimples at her. “May I come in?” he asked, stepping into the room without exactly waiting for her answer.

She smiled to herself and said hello. Samuel took this an invitation to launch into a long monologue on the latest challenges in his business, his plans for Christmas Day, and the small house in Irving, a suburb of Dallas, that he was thinking about buying. Suddenly, he seemed to wind down like a spinning top, and sat down in the rocking chair.

“I could look at you all day, Bess Taylor,” he said. “When Michelle said she needed to visit with Agnes, I insisted on coming over here with her, just to see you.”

Bess forced herself to grin, even though Samuel’s straightforwardness made her feel uncomfortable. “I’m having a baby, literally any day now, Mr. Miller,” she said. “I find it hard to believe anyone would find me attractive at the moment, or for any time in the foreseeable future as well. Aren’t there plenty of eligible, single ladies in Dallas with more sophistication and looks than me? I find it impossible to believe otherwise.”

Samuel leaned forward, clasping his hands between his knees. “The chemistry between two people just is, Bess. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt something between us?”

Yes, something, like a thick, great wall of insincerity and shadowy intentions. “Is there a history between you and Daniel or Judd that I should know about?” she demanded, tired of pretense. “Maybe you think they insulted you some time in the past, and you want a way to get back at them? Whatever it is, I’m not interested in being part of it.”

“What a low opinion you have of yourself, Mrs. Taylor,” Samuel countered, but something like anger flashed in his brown eyes and was gone again before Bess was sure of what she’d seen. “I’m actually looking to expand my company with a branch office here. I plan on being in the area much more frequently in future. I hope you’ll do me the honor of allowing me to call on you?”

Bess didn’t get an opportunity to answer this question because Judd walked into the room then, just in time to hear Samuel’s bold invitation. He glanced between Samuel and Bess. “Your timing, as usual, leaves a great deal to be desired,” Judd barked. “Go find your sister, Sam.”

Judd didn’t wait to see if his orders would be followed, but stepped up to the bed with his back toward the other man. He placed a work-calloused palm against Bess’ forehead. “You’re warm,” he told her, “and you look pale. Are you feeling all right?”

His touch took away the agitation caused by Samuel’s aggressive behavior. She swallowed and pushed her head back against the pillows. “I’m okay, I think,” she said.

He stood back up and shoved his hands in his pockets. Samuel, still in the rocking chair, gave Judd’s back such a look that the hairs on the back of Bess’ neck stood on end, and then he stood and stalked out of the room. Judd, hearing the heavy footfalls behind him, gave Bess an assessing stare. “You like that silly boy?” he demanded.

Bess opened her mouth to answer him, only to hear a moan escape her lips. A pain, sharp and quick, wrapped around from her back to her stomach. She took a breath and then gripped the covers with knuckles gone white when a second pain ripped through her torso.

Judd stepped to the door and called for Agnes before turning back to the bed, grabbing Bess’ hands in one of his own and using the other to massage her back. All the while, he was giving her a cadence of comforting words, phrases that made no sense to her as she fought the pain, but that soothed nonetheless.

Bess just managed to get to the car, as Judd half carried her with Agnes following behind, holding tight to the suitcase they had packed days before. The sting of the hospital’s sterile environment clung to her nostrils as they wheeled her to a room. Bess concentrated on each inhale and exhale, willing herself to ride the wave of each, fresh contraction. Judd kept one, large palm splayed across her back for support. Agnes fed her ice chips and wiped her brow with a cool cloth.

Eventually, Dr. Warren came into the room, his white coat rumpled, his glasses perched on the edge of his nose as if they might slip to the floor at any moment. He ignored Judd’s tense questions and smiled at Agnes knowingly before giving Bess a loving pat on the foot and settling onto a stool at the foot of the bed.

When Judd would have left the room, Bess grabbed his arm, gritting her teeth against the wave of the next contraction. “Please stay,” she pleaded. “I’m afraid.”

Judd’s complexion, already pale, blanched further, but he nodded briefly and climbed into the bed behind her, wrapping his arms around her chest, allowing Bess to lean against his torso so that she could feel the strength of him through her thin hospital gown.  Minutes later, how long she didn’t know, she pushed for the final time and held her breath until she heard the distinct wail that was her child’s first breath.

The moment the nurse laid the blond bundle into her arms, something in Bess’ chest broke wide open. She placed her lips against the soft skin at little Daniel’s temple and breathed in the sweet, new baby scent. When he opened his bright-green eyes and looked at her, raising one thin eyebrow, she was completely lost. How was she ever going to leave him?

Judd, still supporting her from behind, reached over her shoulder to lay a gentle finger alongside Daniel’s brow. “He looks just like his father,” he whispered, his voice husky.

Bess just resisted the urge to lean her exhausted head back into the crook of his shoulder. Instead, with a regret she ignored, she leaned forward slightly and told him, “Thank you, Judd. I couldn’t have done it without you.”

He patted the top of Daniel’s head and extricated himself from the bed, while Agnes leaned over her grandson and planted kisses all over his soft head. All too soon, the nurse was ushering all of them out of the delivery room while Dr. Warren helped Bess pass the placenta and then ordered her to rest.

Some time in the early hours of the morning, Bess was awakened by the nurse, who brought in a fussy Daniel to be fed for the first time. What Bess had assumed would be natural proved daunting until the kind, older nurse gave Bess a few pointers, the best of which was to relax.

Bess had just finished feeding Daniel and burping him as the nurse instructed, when the door to her room opened again. Judd walked inside, his gray Stetson twirling in his nervous hands. He stopped by the cradle where Daniel lay falling to sleep as the nurse began to roll it back to the nursery and laid his hand on the baby’s belly, patting it lightly.

When they were alone, he walked to the side of the bed, studying Bess’ face in his usual, blunt fashion. “How you feeling?”

“Tired, but happy,” she told him, casting her eyes to the blanket because she was feeling a little shy about having him stay for the birth now that it was all over.

His finger snaked under her chin and lifted her gaze to meet his. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he ordered. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I was proud to be a part of it.”

The kind words brought tears to her eyes. She brushed them away with the back of her hand.

“You can’t leave us,” he said suddenly. “No matter what your reasons for thinking otherwise, we’re better off with you than without you. You understand that, don’t you?”

She didn’t. She was going to have to leave her baby to save him, but she didn’t know how she was going to accomplish that feat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He glared at her, but the look quickly softened. “It doesn’t matter. I think I’ve come up with a solution.”

While she watched, he walked over to the door and opened it, inviting someone into the room. Michael Jones, his suit in disarray as if he had been pulled out of his bed, walked into the room, a shy smile on his ruddy face. “Congratulations, Bess,” Michael greeted her.

“Thank you,” Bess stammered. She looked between the two men, a question mark in her eyes. Surely Judd didn’t think she would tell all her secrets to the pastor, a complete stranger, when she had refused to disclose anything to either him or Agnes?

Judd walked over to the bed again and took Bess’ left hand into his own. She watched his chest move rapidly, as if he were having trouble catching his breath. As Michael pulled up a Bible, flipping it open as he positioned himself at the foot of the bed, Judd looked Bess straight in the eyes and answered the question he saw there.  “If we’re married,” he said, “I won’t have to worry about your leaving.”

 

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NaNoWriMo: Day 15

Two days later, she was propped up with pillows in her bedroom, a pile of magazines on the bedside table. After the first night in the hospital, Judd had been called into work. Agnes stayed with her the second night. Neither of them asked her about her secret again, but they watched her with a new kind of wariness in their eyes that made Bess’ heart hurt.

Still, she schooled herself to keep her mouth shut. The scare about the baby had proved to Bess once and for all that the Taylors wanted this boy who was moving more and more restlessly in Bess’ belly. And, as much as Bess detested the idea of Lillian being the woman who would replace her in her son’s life, she was slowly training herself to accept the idea. The alternative was too selfish to contemplate. If Bess stayed to raise her baby boy, she would be putting little Daniel in harm’s way just by being near him. If James Ruben ever discovered where Bess was and found her with a son in tow, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them both. Bess felt the truth of that reality in her very bones.

Agnes came into the bedroom with a lunch tray piled high with turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, sweet potatoes and baby marshmallows oozing in butter. The sight of the leftovers of a Thanksgiving dinner no one got to eat on Thanksgiving Day made Bess feel guilty all over again for causing this family so much trouble. She forced herself to place the heaping spoonfuls of food into her mouth, chew and swallow, the burst of flavors barely registering in her dulled senses.

Agnes sat in the rocking chair, watching Bess eat while she slowly creaked the rocker back and forth, her house slippers, which were frayed on the edges and splattered with paint, a reminder of one of her many re-decorating projects, making a thin, rubbing sound against the shag carpet.

“I wanted to talk to you about something, Bess.” Agnes held up her hand when Bess opened her mouth to protest the request. “I don’t expect you to say anything. I just want you to listen, just listen. Would you do that for me, darling?”

Bess nodded slowly, feeling her limp curls bounce against the back of her neck. This was going to make finishing the daunting plate in front of her even more difficult. She forced a spoonful of mashed potatoes into her mouth and worked it around with her tongue.

Agnes stopped rocking and leaned forward onto her knees, clasping her long fingers loosely in front of her. “Something you said at the hospital has really been on my mind these past days, Bess. You told me that you had always been alone, so alone that you don’t even feel you can trust us with whatever is bothering you.

“I lost my mother when I was thirteen. Judd is the spitting image of my father, right down to his limited conversation skills, so there were plenty of times growing up that I sorely missed my mother. You may not believe this, but even when you belong, you can feel so completely alone.

“The thing is, Bess, none of us are ever actually alone. Whether we realize it or not, Jesus is always here, and He is just a prayer away no matter how big or small our trouble. When you collapsed on me in the kitchen, calling out to Him for guidance is what kept me calm while we waited for the paramedics to arrive. When I want to despair about losing my Daniel, I pray for peace, I pray to thank Him for the blessings He bestows every day even though I deserve none of them, like the beauty in the sunrise, the feel of Jethro’s warm heart beating as he leans against me of an evening, the gift of a daughter when all I’ve ever had was sons.

“He comes to me then, in a sense of calm that settles on me like a warmth in my chest that just grows and grows until it reaches to my fingertips and toes. I know you haven’t had the opportunity to know Jesus like I have, Bess. I want to give you that opportunity. If you’ll let me.”

Bess pulled at the covers nervously. “They took us to church, lined up all us orphans in our old, but clean uniforms and made us sit in pews in the back, away from the other children like we had something contagious hanging round us. And the sermons. God wanted us to be perfect. But we were fidgety, nervous little things who were constantly being scolded for our late-night skirmishes and our whining for seconds so that we knew God would never love us. Wasn’t our life already evidence of His punishment?”

She looked out the window, at the dusting of snow, like fine powder, blanketing the posts of the barbed-wire fences and making the cacti look cold and out of place. “What if there are things you’ve done God can’t forgive? Is Jesus there for you then, Agnes?”

The older woman got up from the rocker, took the tray of food away from the bed, and sat down beside Bess, laying a hand on the younger woman’s thigh. “By your own admission, trust doesn’t come easily to you. And yet, despite that, you didn’t hesitate to put some trust in us, perfect strangers, when you knew that doing so was actually what was best for your baby. Think about how much you care for your child, whom you haven’t even met yet. Do you think if he did something terrible and then came to you all repentant about it that you wouldn’t forgive him his mistake?

“God’s love is even bigger and all-encompassing than the love a mother feels for her child, Bess. You know why Jesus is our Savior, don’t you? It is because He came to earth as God’s only Son, born of a woman and yet a part of God as well, God living as a man, facing all the same trials, tribulations and temptations as other men. But Jesus, unlike the rest of us, was truly without sin. Despite His innocence, He allowed Himself to die on the cross for my sin and your sin and the sins of all humanity, once and for all. Whomever believes in that sacrifice and calls on Jesus as Lord and Savior is given the gift of salvation.”

Bess shifted uncomfortably in the bed. She felt heat rising up her neck, turning her cheeks red. “Nobody gives something for nothing. What’s the catch?”

Agnes smiled. “Grace is salvation as a gift from Jesus, Bess. We don’t earn our heavenly home. We receive our place in heaven because we believe that Jesus died for our sins. When we believe, Jesus sends us His Holy Spirit, who dwells in us to help us strive to become perfect, just as Christ was perfect. The Holy Spirit helps us live by loving God first and foremost and then by loving others and treating them as we want ourselves to be treated. We never reach perfection in this life, but the process of persevering through life’s challenges with God’s help is part of our becoming something only God knows as best for His heavenly realms.”

Bess was thinking about James Ruben for more reasons than the obvious. Up until a few weeks before, she had lived in the certain knowledge that she had killed the man. Could God forgive that? Would she forgive little Daniel if something similar happened to him?

“I don’t want anything bad to happen to my baby ever, Agnes,” Bess said. “If God really loves you, why did He let Daniel get killed in Vietnam?”

A faraway look passed across Agnes’ eyes. “For reasons only God knows, with His omnipotent view of all things past, present and future, good and bad exist in this fallen world, Bess. Good people die too soon right along with the bad people. But God doesn’t want us to be focused on this world. He wants us to have our eyes on heaven, where we will spend eternity with Him. He alone knows what wonders we will experience there. He alone knows what character traits we need to hone to serve the kingdom best and to be served in eternity. I have to have faith that whatever happens to me, good or bad, in this life, God will be there to help me make it through so that I become the kind of Christian He needs and wants me to be.”

“My head is spinning,” Bess grimaced, laying one head on the side of her temple.

Agnes patted her leg. “Bess, I’ve been studying God’s word for nearly 60 years, and I still learn something new every day. The Bible is the best way to get to know who God really is. All His promises are there. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to start studying God’s word with you. Would you let me?”

Bess’ throat felt hot and tight. She swallowed back unexpected tears and a kind of rising panic. Agnes was asking her to surrender herself, which included giving up control over her own life to an invisible God, one who had only brought her pain. On the other hand, the promise in Agnes’ words rang something deep inside Bess, diffusing a kind of lightness throughout her body that made her feel like floating.

“It will certainly give me something to do,” Bess finally said. “I suppose it’s as good an activity for bed rest as any.”

Agnes leaned in to hug her, filling Bess’ nostrils with scents of vanilla and almond extract and the baby powder Agnes applied liberally, her one, true luxury. “I’ve been praying for you since my Daniel was a little boy,” she whispered, “long before he was of an age to marry, that his wife would be a loving, kind woman who followed God. You are so much more than I ever expected. You are going to be one fierce woman of God.”

And then, she swept up from the bed, grabbed the lunch tray and hurried to the bedroom door, where she turned and ordered Bess. “Take yourself a little nap, dear. We’ll start reading later this afternoon.”

The older woman’s humming sounded from the hall and faded as Agnes reached the kitchen. Bess pulled the covers up to her neck and closed her eyes, a soft feeling in her chest. If this was an inkling of what real love felt like, maybe she could get used to the emotion after all.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 14

Bess watched as Agnes flit around the kitchen, humming to herself as she worked to prepare Thanksgiving dishes for the next day’s meal. It had been almost a month since she discovered that her worst enemy was alive and kicking, a long month in which she teetered between worry that he might find her when she was still pregnant and her baby vulnerable and despair that the only way to totally protect her child was going to be to get as far away from the baby once it was born.

This must be what love felt like, she thought, this gnawing in the gut with the need to protect, the soft, fuzzy feeling in her chest when she allowed herself to fantasize about watching her child grow. Sometimes, she would sit in the rocker in her room imagining a little girl she could teach to sew and make crowns out of daisies or a little boy she could learn to fish with and hunt for doodlebugs in the mounds of sand around the farm. They were sweet dreams that helped to keep the dark, bloody nightmares at bay.

Agnes took the bubbling chocolate off the stove, pouring it deftly into the homemade pie crusts she had already baked in the oven. The kitchen was filled with the sweet, mouth-watering scents of the pies and pumpkin bread. As Bess watched, Agnes separated her eggs with one hand, whipping the whites and a touch of sugar into a healthy meringue that peaked more than six inches above the chocolate filling. After Agnes placed the finished pies in the oven for the meringue to brown, she turned to Bess with the remaining chocolate filling, lifting the spoon so that a healthy portion of the thick, brown pudding dripped back into the pan.

“Would you like to clean up this dish for me?” she laughed.

Bess wasn’t hungry, hadn’t been hungry since she’d seen the article in the newspaper. Still, she couldn’t be responsible for dimming the sparkle in the older woman’s eyes, so she summoned up an enthusiastic, you bet, and took the pan and spoon out of Agnes’ hands. The filling was warm and silky, with just the right contrast of bitter to sweet. She felt it slide down her tongue and into her belly like a cuddly blanket and sighed despite her tension.

“I’m sorry that Judd has to work tomorrow,” Bess said. “I guess emergencies don’t take a holiday.”

Agnes frowned. “No, they don’t. And Judd has always been the one to cover on holidays. He wants his men to be able to spend the time with their families.”

Bess knew without asking that Agnes was wanting Judd to have a family to come home to instead of just his mother and a stranger carrying his brother’s child. Bess was surprised to realize that she wanted that for Judd, too, that she was beginning to understand just what family might mean from living in the Taylor household.

Just as long as Lillian wasn’t a part of that family.

She finished the chocolate and stood to take the pan to the kitchen sink. A sudden, sharp pain shot across her belly, so intense that she dropped the pan, doubling over and just catching herself on the table to keep from falling to the floor. She managed to get back into the chair where she’d been sitting, just as Agnes reached her, a bony hand wrapping around Bess’ arm and squeezing tight.

“What is it?” Agnes pleaded.

Bess couldn’t answer because another pain, more intense than the first, shot through her again. She shook her head and moaned, and the eyes that looked up at Agnes were filled with fear. The next few minutes were a blur as Agnes ran to the phone to call an ambulance, and Bess used up the little energy she had concentrating on the next breath.

They were met at the emergency room entrance by a harried looking Judd, who towered over the EMTs and grabbed Bess’ hand with fingers that shook slightly. She was on oxygen then, and watched the buzz of activity around her through a haze of pain. Judd’s palm against her forehead lessened her fear. She did her best to relax back into the hospital bed they transferred her into as the doctor and nurses worked around her. A blackness began at the edges of her vision. She watched it close in on her with a certain detachment. The last thing she saw before the darkness enveloped her completely was Judd’s haggard face as his black eyes bore into her, not glaring for once but somber with just a touch of desperation in them. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he had more at stake in all this than just Daniel’s child.

When she woke, it was to find Judd glaring at her again. He grabbed her hand and shook it. “You haven’t been eating enough. You’re on bed rest for the duration of your pregnancy. Hopefully, that will be enough.”

He saw her face pale, her eyes grow wide, and the grim look on his face softened. “That was a hell of a scare, cupcake,” he told her. “Why are they having to give you nutrients, Bess, when I know how much food Mama puts on the table?”

“Will my baby be okay?” she asked, avoiding his question.

“We’ll make sure he’s born healthy.” His hand moved up to her shoulder and squeezed, comforting her frazzled nerves. “But you have to tell us why you’ve stopped eating.”

“They know it’s a he?”

Judd nodded. “The doctors did some scans to make sure he was all right. You’ll have to start coming up with boy names.”

Bess touched her hand to her belly. “He should be Daniel, for his dad.”

“She’s awake?” Agnes’ voice came from the doorway.

Judd pulled back from the bed and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Yes. Maybe she’ll tell you what has been bothering her.”

Bess bit her lip. She couldn’t tell them the truth, and she didn’t want to lie. “I just haven’t been hungry,” she said. “I didn’t realize how it was going to effect the baby, honestly.”

Judd took two deep breaths, making his nostrils flare. “I don’t believe you.”

Her shoulders slumped. Of course he didn’t believe her. She turned to Agnes, who raised an eyebrow at her and smiled encouragingly. “You’re going to have to believe me,” she said, hating how strained her voice sounded. “It’s the only explanation I’ve got.”

Judd leaned forward suddenly, laying a hand on either side of her head. His black eyes bore into her blue ones. “Why won’t you trust me?” he asked her, his voice just above a whisper. Then, just as suddenly, he turned on his heel and swung out of the room, calling to his mother as he left. “You talk to her.”

Agnes perched on the edge of the bed and took Bess’ hand in her own. Bess squeezed the bony fingers and let the first tears drop from the corners of her eyes. “It’s not that I don’t trust him,” she said.

“Oh, my darling girl,” Agnes tutted, “how is it that you are the only one who doesn’t know that you don’t trust anyone except yourself? Aren’t you tired, baby?”

“I’ve only ever had myself,” Bess explained. “Is it any wonder that I find it hard to trust other people?”

“You’re not alone now. Have we given you any reason to doubt us?”

“I can’t tell you. I’m sorry.” Bess pulled her hand out of Agnes’ loose grasp and balled it into a fist. “If you knew me, the real me, you wouldn’t . . . .” She pursed her lips, unable to finish the sentence. Not being wanted was too painful, even when she went through life expecting just that.

The room fell into silence then, and Bess listened to the beeps of the machines next to her bed, to the ragged breaths Agnes tried to conceal, to the distant echo of alerts being blurted over the loudspeakers in the hospital’s hallways. She took a deep breath, inhaling the tangy, antiseptic scent of the sterile environment, felt the scratchy material of the hospital gown against her skin. She glanced at the needle sticking out of her arm, following the thin tube of liquid to the IV bag, which hung above her head, reflecting the fluorescent lights from the ceiling in prisms of its clear liquid.

Judd came back in the room then, a cup of coffee sending threads of steam over his uncovered head. He sat down in the chair by Bess’ head, propping his big boots on the foot of the bed. He set the coffee on the bedside table, folded his hands on top of his chest and closed his eyes.

Agnes stood up and gave Bess one, last sad look. “I’ll see you in the morning, darling,” she said. “You get a good night’s sleep now.”

“‘Night, Mama,” Judd called without opening his eyes.

Bess swallowed hard. “Aren’t you going too?” she squeaked.

Judd opened one eye and swiveled it in her direction. “Trust is a two-way street, cupcake,” he told her. “We can’t have you doing a runner in the middle of the night.”

Bess scoffed. “I’m not going anywhere until little Daniel is born.”

He opened both eyes then. “Just as I thought,” he said, but that was all. He closed his eyes. Moments later, he was snoring away.

Bess watched him sleep, his strong chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm, and felt something break inside herself. If only she could make herself tell him everything, risk having those black eyes see her for the good and the bad of her. If only.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 13

The band in the corner played Western swing as the tables around the banquet hall began filling up with people. Bess, her blond hair pulled into a coiffure of her natural curls, leaned just a little more than she liked into the crook of Judd’s arm as they made their way to a seat.

She had on more makeup than usual to disguise the dark circles under her eyes. After calming herself enough the day before to finally leave her room, she had only managed to disguise her panic for the rest of the evening from Agnes and Judd due to her years of practice at showing no emotion in order to survive her challenging living arrangements. She’d gone to bed early, claiming to be tired because of all the paperwork she’d done earlier in the day. But instead of sleeping, she’d sat up in bed all night afraid that sleep would bring nightmares.

It was a credit to her ability to wear a mask that neither Judd nor Agnes seemed to sense any change in her. They were talking about the band, how the stand-up bass player was an M.I.T. graduate and that the violinist also played in a string quartet that toured the country. Bess gratefully took the seat Judd pulled out for her and closed her eyes to listen more closely to the music.

“There she is,” Michelle’s voice exclaimed. Bess opened her eyes to see the pastor’s wife standing right beside her, tugging along a handsome, tall man with black, straight hair and twin dimples when he smiled. “This is my brother, Samuel Miller,” she told Bess. “Samuel, this is Bess Taylor, the woman who made this great outfit.”

Samuel took Bess’ hand in his own, engulfing her cold fingers, infusing them with warmth. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, holding onto her hand a little longer than necessary. “Is this seat taken?”

He didn’t wait for Bess to answer, but gracefully pulled out the chair and eased himself next to her, so that his long thigh just grazed her knee.

“Oh, don’t mind me, brother dear,” Michelle laughed. “I’ll just be over there with Michael. You know where to find us.” She waved at Bess over her brother’s head and winked before leaving them on their own.

Samuel gave Bess the full treatment of his dimples. She noticed the length of his thick lashes and the depth of his brown eyes. Wherever he was from, he must be devastating to the female population, she thought.  “My sister said you were talented,” he said, “but she didn’t mention that you were also really beautiful.”

Bess smiled politely. “And also really pregnant,” she replied bluntly.

To his credit, Samuel didn’t flinch. “I’m sorry about your husband,” he said. “I met him once years ago. He was a really nice guy.”

“He was indeed,” Judd’s deep voice said from over Bess’ head. He sat down in the chair on the other side of her, draping his arm across her back, settling his hand on her shoulder.

“Sheriff Taylor,” Samuel said, winking at Bess, who had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud.

The hand on Bess’ shoulder tightened. Normally, she would have been irritated with his presumptive attitude, but the contact felt comfortingly protective. She turned to Judd. “Samuel is Michelle’s brother,” she said. “Have you met him before?”

“Only in a purely social way,” Samuel answered, laughing at his own joke.

An uneasy silence settled on the table. Bess gripped her hands in her lap and stared at the tablecloth, wishing that Agnes had not volunteered to help with the serving line. Judd leaned toward her, so that she could feel his warm breath against her forehead.  “Would you like me to fill you a plate?” he asked.

Before Bess could answer, a purely feminine voice shot across the table. “Judd, I’ve been looking all over for you,” Lillian draped herself over his other shoulder, her perfume filling Bess’ nostrils so that she had to hold back a sneeze.

Judd’s arm left Bess’ shoulder, leaving her feeling strangely disappointed. She watched as Lillian purred in Judd’s ear, as they left the table to go to the buffet line. She watched knowing Lillian wouldn’t let Judd return to her table.

“She sure doesn’t like you,” Samuel remarked.

Bess gave Samuel a bland smile. “We might as well eat.”

Samuel stood up and helped Bess out of her chair. “Your brother-in-law is pretty possessive,” he said.

He was right, but the comment rubbed Bess the wrong way. “He’s already lost his brother to the war,” she said. “I think that gives him the right to be protective of his brother’s child.”

“Of course.” Samuel wrapped his hand around her elbow and felt her shake. “Hey,” he said, “you feel a little wobbly. You want me to bring you a plate?”

It was a kind offer. She looked up to catch Judd’s black glare from across the room. “Thank you,” she agreed, turning her face up to Samuel’s and offering him a brilliant smile that made his dimples deepen. Let Judd glare at that.

She sat back down, realizing with a start that for a few minutes at least she had forgotten about the danger she was in. It didn’t help that she’d discovered the tattoo shop James Ruben had opened was in Texas, just a few hours away from where the Taylors lived.

She glanced around the banquet hall, at the women in their shirtwaist dresses holding hands with husbands dressed in suits and bolo ties, their pointy-toed cowboy boots gleaming.  A little boy in a cowboy hat with pressed jeans and a striped shirt danced in tight circles around his mother’s legs, clapping in rhythm to the stand-up bass. The teenagers gathered at a table in the corner by the band, pairing off in couples, holding hands surreptitiously under the tablecloth.

It was a good place to have a family, a good place to learn about love. It would be a good place for her child to become the person Daniel would have raised. But it would have to be a place without her. She was used to watching life happen from the outside, so why did the thought hurt so much?

Samuel returned with two plates, sitting even closer beside Bess at the table. He talked to her about his job as an insurance salesmen in Dallas, about his glory days playing baseball in high school and college, about the Mustang he drove.  He didn’t seem to notice that Bess wasn’t talking at all.

When she had finally heard enough, she excused herself to go to the restroom. She had only taken a few steps away from the table before a couple of women came up to her, complimenting her on Michelle’s dress and asking if she could do some sewing for them as well. She was thinking about the possibilities when she made it to the line waiting to use the facilities, so that she didn’t notice who was around her until a familiar voice dripped from behind her.

“You certainly play the widow card well,” Lillian spoke so that only Bess could hear her. “You know all those women look on it as charity, complimenting you on that rudimentary design and asking you to sew. And Judd will see right through you, too.”

Bess forced her body not to react to the viscous words. “Jealous much?” she whispered, then whirled out of the line, the pressure on her bladder forgotten. She returned to her table, surprised to see Judd in her former seat, making Samuel look all kinds of uncomfortable sitting beside him.

When she had seated herself next to Judd, Samuel gave her a lazy smile and excused himself to visit with his sister. Judd made no comment, but shot Bess such a look from his knowing eyes that she almost laughed out loud. The smile died on her lips when Lillian sauntered up to Samuel’s vacated seat and poured herself next to Judd, sitting so close that she was practically in his lap. The sudden realization that her leaving would give Lillian full access to her child caused a spasm in Bess’ lower back.

She winced, catching Judd’s attention. He saw her hand reaching to where the pain was worst and replaced her fingers with his own, rubbing her back gently with his big, work-tough palm until the spasm had subsided.

“Is that better?” he asked, looking into Bess’ eyes so that he missed the venomous glare Lillian was shooting in her direction.

Bess ignored the other woman and gave Judd a grateful smile. “Thanks,” she whispered, allowing her hand to reach up and cup his craggy face momentarily.

It was like lightening striking. He held his breath until her hand slipped back to the tablecloth. “We can’t have you overdoing it,” he told her, his voice unusually husky.

Lillian’s red-tipped fingers snaked around his neck, effectively turning his head and breaking the spell. “Pastor Jones is getting ready to speak, Judd,” she purred. “You don’t want to miss this.”

Bess, shell-shocked and feeling every bit of her pregnancy, leaned hard against the back of her chair and just concentrated on the next breath. She couldn’t even look at Judd’s muscular, broad back without seeing that woman’s possessive arm snaked around it, so she closed her eyes.

Men. Stupid, silly creatures.

Or brutal and deadly.

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 12

When Judd had told her his desk was in need of some organizing, she had not pictured the piles of papers strewn in every direction. A few had perfectly round coffee rings on top of them, as if they had been used as coasters rather than paperwork. Two piles were fanned out like playing cards.

“I suppose you know exactly what is in each of these piles,” Bess told Judd, who was standing in the doorway watching her as she surveyed the task in front of her.

“Sure I do,” he assured her, walking into the room and stopping just behind her. “Don’t worry, several of them just need filed. I have some letters you could type up for me this morning, and I’ll show you what we do with the invoices and sales records.”

Within the next few hours, Bess learned more about the operations on the Taylor homestead. They worked crops to help them feed their livestock as well as growing a hectare of cotton. The cattle they ran in part to qualify for certain government subsidies and tax breaks. Looking at the books, she also understood why Judd’s job as sheriff was so important to help keep the family’s head above water.

As he leaned over her, pointing to the feed records and birth weights that needed to be typed up into specific tables, Bess noted the missing stitches in the hem of the otherwise immaculate collar of his uniform shirt. Not for the first time, she thought how much he needed a wife, someone to see to the little things for him, like the nick right behind his ear where he had cut himself shaving.

Lillian wanted to do those things for Judd. That thought made her straighten in the chair so that Judd had to ask her what was wrong. She shook her head and asked him a lame question to distract herself from her wavering emotions. Was she concerned for Judd because he was currently keeping a roof over her head, or was there something more to her fluctuating interest and anger when it came to her brother-in-law?

She tried to imagine Daniel doing this paperwork or working on the tractor in the fields just past Agnes’ dog pens as she’d seen Judd doing on more than one occasion in the past weeks. The man worked twelve or more hours at the police station every day after beginning his chores well before sunrise. When he finally came into the house most nights, his jeans and chambray shirt covered in dust, she wondered at his ability to eat without falling asleep in his dinner plate.

“Did you ever get to be a kid?” she asked him.

He stood back on his heels. “As much as the next fella in this part of the world, I suppose.”

“We used to pick pecans and shell them to sell to the grocer. Sometimes, when the nuts were scarce on the ground, we’d root out the pack rats’ nests for more.” She saw an error in the debit column in front of her and corrected it absently. “We wound up using the money for things like canned peaches and thread for mending, but sometimes we’d splurge on a matinee.”

It took her a few moments to realize that Judd was standing stark still, as if he thought she might tell him more as long as he didn’t move or make a sound to remind her she had an audience. But she had just told him one of the few happy memories of the time when she had most belonged, before her grandfather, already too old for a toddler when he’d been saddled with her, fell to the tilled earth at the back of his property with eyes that would never close again.

The room settled into an uncomfortable silence that was only broken by the shuffle of papers as Bess clamped her lips together and concentrated on the task in front of her. She could hear Judd breathing behind her. Finally, she said without turning to look at him, “I think I understand enough to keep me busy for a while, if you have to get to work.”

He sighed. “Such a tough shell,” he said enigmatically. “All right. If you need any help, ask Mama or give me a call, yes?”

Bess nodded, not trusting her voice, and kept her eyes glued to the papers on the desk. Only when she was sure that Judd had left the room did she allow her hands to shake. She tamped down the images of her tiny bed on the dirt floor of the one-room rock building where she had lived with her grandfather, of the tepid smell of the water in the old coffee cans where the legs of the bed were placed to keep the ants from crawling over her arms and legs while she slept.

She worked in the study until Agnes called her to lunch, and then she began to work on the rest of her sewing project for the pastor’s wife, who was due to come by for a fitting later that evening. She had just completed the bottom hem of the jacket when Agnes called her into the kitchen.

Bess took the re-created outfit into the kitchen with nervous fingers. She had streamlined the black skirt, making equidistant slits all the way around that provided a peek-a-boo view of the golden material she also used to create a waist-length, tailored jacket with long sleeves to wear over the scoop-neck black and gold top she’d made.

“Well?” she asked Michelle, holding her breath.

“I’ll look like Jackie Kennedy,” the other woman breathed. “May I try it on?”

Bess sighed out in relief. “Please. I want to see if I need to make any adjustments for you.”

While Michelle stepped into the bathroom to change, Agnes handed Bess a steaming cup of herbal tea. “I like a woman who keeps herself busy, goodness knows, but Bess, darling, you’ve got to give yourself some time to rest for the baby’s sake.”

“I love to sew,” Bess defended herself.

Agnes nodded, “And clean, and be Judd’s secretary. You know you get to eat even if all you did all day was read in bed?”

Agnes’ mild scolding was making Bess uncomfortable. She walked over to the kitchen table, laying her steaming mug down, and pulled out a chair. “I don’t notice you sitting around eating bonbons all day.” She glanced out the window, at the overcast sky and the wind blowing tumbleweeds across the open fields. “We’re born, we work, we die–isn’t that how life works?”

Agnes laid a warm hand on Bess’ shoulder and squeezed. “I hope you know you’re loved here, Bess, not because of what you do but because of who you are.”

Bess jerked, knocking the cup of steaming liquid onto the floor, barely missing her legs. She used the accident as an excuse to ignore Agnes’ proclamation, which touched something deep inside herself she had never felt before. Even Daniel had only loved her because she was beautiful.  How could anyone feel an emotion for her that she was not sure she felt for herself?

Michelle came back into the kitchen then, her face beaming until she saw Agnes wiping up the spill on the floor. “Is everything all right?”

“Just fine,” Agnes told her. “You look incredible, Michelle!”

Michelle smoothed the skirt over her hips. “Bess, you’re a wonder! I’d have you re-do my entire wardrobe, but the church ladies would think I was suddenly shopping in designer stores.”

Bess wanted to deny the compliment, but instead she forced herself to simply say thank you.  Her knees were shaking under her maternity dress. Because she didn’t want to think about how Michelle’s praise and Agnes’ affection were making her feel, Bess stood up to inspect the fit of the outfit more closely.

“I can’t believe I got this right the first time,” she said.

“I hope you had time to make yourself something equally stunning for the banquet,” Michelle told her.

Bess stammered. “I hadn’t planned on going. I’ve only been to your church a few times.”

“You have to come.” Michelle turned to Agnes. “You have to bring her. She deserves to see this dress in action.”

Agnes smiled. “Don’t worry. She’ll be there.” When Bess opened her mouth to protest, she added, “While you were in the city yesterday, I did some shopping of my own.” She left the room and returned moments later with a new dress on its hangar.

It was a black sheath dress with layers of fabric cut on a diagonal. Silver sparkles, woven throughout the fabric, shot layers of light on the linoleum floor. Bess felt tears in her eyes and batted her lashes to keep them from falling. “It’s perfect,” she finally managed.

“I’m going to get this dress back on its hangar,” Michelle said. “I can’t wait until tomorrow night.”

Michelle’s departure left an awkward silence in the kitchen. Agnes filled it. “You have that pretty pair of flats with the bow. I thought they would go perfectly with the dress.”

Bess nodded, barely. She felt the room closing in on her and knew she had to get away, to be alone for a while. Since she didn’t trust her voice, she managed to gesture with her head before turning on her heel and almost running back to her bedroom.

Sitting in the rocking chair, she felt her heart beating a rapid crescendo in her chest, even as she tried to slow her breathing. The baby tumbled around inside her, reflecting her inner turmoil. No wonder Daniel had been such a kind man. Could Bess hope to be as good a mother as Agnes obviously had been?

She picked up the tabloid she’d bought the day before and began flipping through the pages of outrageous headlines in order to distract herself. She was almost through the entire tabloid when she saw the picture. Her eyes blurred, and her breaths came in gasps so that she thought she might pass out.

It couldn’t be him. The photo was too new. He was leaning against the hood of a late-model Fairlane, his upper arms bulging muscles covered in tattoos. But those eyes, hard and slit like a snake’s, though wrinkled with crow’s feet, were the same. That thin mouth was the same that had touched her in places where her skin still crawled.

Her breath came in gasps. He was dead. She had killed him.

Her hands were shaking so badly, she couldn’t steady the paper enough to read the story that went with the picture. When she finally managed it, she was hard-pressed not to scream. The man in the picture had done hard time for killing a teenager more than a decade before, but he was out now, running a tattoo shop and getting his life back together after years of physical therapy following a serious brain injury.

At the time, the young social worker had picked Bess up at the hospital and taken her to yet another group home, promising her that she would never be threatened by that man again. Bess assumed she meant because he was dead.

Bess looked at the paper again. He definitely wasn’t dead. James Ruben, the man she’d last seen lying in a pool of his own blood, was most definitely alive.

She just managed to reach the trash can in the corner before losing the contents of her stomach. She laid her head against the closed door to her room, feeling the polished wood cooling her hot skin. Was he looking for her? Would he hurt Agnes and Judd too if he found her? Her hand gripped her stomach, and she felt a part of her die already.

Whether he was looking for her or not, Bess knew that the only way to keep her newborn baby safe was going to be to stay as far away from her child as possible.

And nobody could know about it.

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 11

They pulled into a parking space in front of a large department store with its plate-glass windows filled with displays of cornucopia and fall leaves, with dummies dressed in warm, winter coats and tableware decked across a table that included crystal and fine china in anticipation of the upcoming holiday.

Judd placed his hand on the door handle and hesitated when Bess didn’t do the same. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

She bit her lip. “This store looks expensive,” she blurted before she lost her nerve. “I don’t need such new things.”

“It doesn’t cost anything to look.”

“Did Daniel learn that from you?” she asked, keeping her eyes fixed on the large pumpkin sitting in the corner of the window display. “He was always dragging me to the most outrageous places we couldn’t afford, just to look at them. It made me feel like a tresspasser.”

“Is that because you’ve never really belonged anywhere?”

The question, though said in his usual, quiet voice, boomed like a gunshot between them. She wanted to tell him to go to Hades. Instead, she took a deep breath and cleared her throat. “Can you just take me to the nearest fabric store? And if we pass a flea market along the way, you’ll be amazed at the nice things I can find.”

He studied her with those black eyes for several long moments. “You don’t give an inch, do you?”

She whirled her head and glared at him. “Look who’s talking!”

One, long finger tapped against the steering wheel as he kept her pinned with his level stare. “I suppose that’s fair enough. What do you want to know? Ask me, and I’ll tell you, but only if you agree to answer one of my questions too.”

She leaned forward and felt the familiar grip of panic that always came when someone wanted to know anything about her past. Daniel certainly hadn’t cared about her parents or background. He took her as she was without asking where she came from. Why couldn’t his brother be the same?

She looked at Judd’s impassive face and tried to convince herself that whatever he knew or thought he knew about her really didn’t matter. Bess didn’t need ties to family, and she didn’t need a man. Hadn’t giving in to the impulse to cling to another person landed her in this situation in the first place?

No, once her baby was born, Bess would be her own person again, and she was confident she could make her way in the world for herself and her baby without the help of a man like Judd. He didn’t need to know a single thing about the memories she carried. They were burdens tucked in secret places even she’d forgotten were hidden away. Let them lay in peace.

She glanced at Judd again, who sat absolutely still, the same expression on his face. He could out wait anything. She would not think about how broad his shoulders were or how he was strong enough to raise his brother and hold down two full-time jobs, law enforcement and running the family’s farm. If she gave that piercing, black stare an inch, she’d end up running out a mile’s worth of woe on him. He didn’t deserve the burden, no matter that he was practically begging for it.

That last thought decided her. She pushed herself back into the seat, arcing her back, her palms stretched wide across her thighs. “Just the fabric store, please,” she managed through tight lips.

He made a guttural sound and cranked the engine, pulling out of the parking space with such speed that his tires squealed and they just managed not to slam into an oncoming car. Bess gripped the door panel and gritted her teeth.

A few, tense minutes later, he pulled into a strip center. The car came to a jerky stop in a space, and he stepped out of it without any hesitation this time. When Bess got out of the car, he was propped against the hood, lighting a cigarette.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” she exclaimed in her surprise.

He chuckled without mirth and gave her a lopsided grin. “I didn’t, cupcake, until you came along.”

He made the term of endearment sound like an insult. She spun on her heel without saying another word and headed into the fabric store at the end of the strip. The whole time she was looking through the selection of fabrics, her mind was busy thinking first of ways to make Judd pay for ever being born, and then, when she thought of Agnes and the guilt kicked in, on ways to be nicer to her brother-in-law for the other woman’s sake.

She purchased some soft cotton for making baby clothes and the cheapest polyester she could find on the sales rack to whip herself up a few more maternity dresses to see her though the remainder of her pregnancy. On impulse, she bought the yardage necessary to make Judd a new chambray shirt because the one he wore when he was working around the farm had been mended beyond any further repair.

As she was standing in line to pay for her purchases, she saw a colorful tabloid on the magazine rack by the register. She grabbed it on impulse, figuring that she could read it on the way home and avoid any further confrontations with Judd.

He met her at the door to the shop as she exited, taking her packages from her, walking back to the car with his spine ram-rod straight. When they were on the road again a moment later, he asked her, “Do you want me to empty out a dresser drawer to use for the baby’s bed too? If we’re making do, we might as well go full hill billy with it.”

It had not occurred to her that he would consider her economy, which was a way of life born out of necessity, as an insult to his ability to take care of her, especially since Bess did not consider Judd financially responsible for her baby. It made her feel that much worse about having to come to the Taylors for a temporary roof over her head in the first place.

“Buy what you like,” she forced herself to say. “It’s just that I’ve never lived on charity, and I don’t want to start now.”

He pulled into the parking lot of a small cafe. She shook her head when he glanced over at her, but Judd opened his car door anyway. “I know you’re not hungry, but I am. You can watch me eat.”

He walked around the car, opened her side door and stood there until she was forced to exit the vehicle and follow him into the restaurant. He ordered them each a burger, shake and fries and sat studying Bess over the cup of coffee the pretty waitress had poured for him. The fingers of his right hand made a rhythm against the Formica top of the booth’s table.

“They teach you double-entry bookkeeping at that laundromat you ran in Galveston?” he asked.

The question startled her. “I kept all the books for the owner, yes,” she said. “He still figured all the taxes and analyzed the balance sheets, though.”

“He wouldn’t be much of a business man if he didn’t.” The waitress arrived with the food then, and Judd took several bites of his burger before speaking again. “If you are so determined not to live on charity as you put it, you could start doing some bookkeeping for me. Goodness knows, I can use all the help I can get.”

“Really?”

He gave her a funny look before answering her. “I could show you around the office when we get home. You could start tomorrow.”

“All right.”

Bess forced herself to take a bite of the hamburger then, only to discover that she was hungry. The waitress came to check on them later, giving Bess a warm smile as she asked Judd, “Would you and your wife like some dessert?”

Judd gave Bess a wicked grin. “What do you think, honey?”

Bess kicked him lightly under the table. “Not today, thanks,” she told the woman.

When they were back in the car, she turned to Judd and sighed. “So, does this mean we can live in the same house without risking Agnes turning a hose on us?”

“If you agree to let Mama do the heavy cleaning until after my niece or nephew is born, I don’t see why not.”

Bess grimaced. “It relaxes me, cleaning. I like bringing order to things.”

“Well, it doesn’t relax me. So, do you think you could organize without crawling around on your hands and knees or lifting heavy appliances? I promise you there is plenty to organize right on top of my desk.”

She wanted to refuse. She hadn’t had to answer to anyone since she was 16-years-old. But this reasonable Judd was different than the scowling man who’d been barking orders at her since she’d crossed his threshold weeks before. Maybe, he deserved a chance.

“I promise not to lift more than a dust cloth and to stay off the floor,” she said, crossing her heart and holding up her fingers in the boy scout’s pledge.

Judd allowed a triumphant smirk to flit across his lips before turning his attention back on the road. He turned on the radio, which was playing a Bob Wills’ song that seemed to calm the big man even more. In a few moments, he was even humming very quietly so that Bess wondered if that was what she was hearing.

Before long, Bess felt her eyes growing heavy, and she gave in to the desire to sleep. When she woke, they were back in the drive with Jethro barking just outside the car. Agnes met them at the front door, shooing them into the kitchen, where she poured them all coffee and ordered everyone to sit.

“So, how did it go?” she asked.

“We didn’t kill each other,” Bess said.

“Bess has agreed to help with the office and to quit scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush,” Judd added.

Agnes smiled. “That makes me so happy. We’re family here, Bess, and you belong here just as much as Judd and me. Don’t you ever doubt it.”

They were kind words, and Bess was sure they were sincere. What she didn’t know was exactly what the words really meant.