Bess opened her eyes as the last bit of her biggest secret fell out of her tight lips. The only sound in the bedroom was Daniel’s gentle breathing from the crib which had been moved to the foot of the bed. She felt Agnes lay a hand on her calf from where the older woman sat listening at the foot of the bed, a light touch as if Bess might spook and bolt.
Judd was propped up in the bed beside her. She could hear his even breathing, feel the heat from his body so close and yet a million miles away. He had married her to keep her from running, but whether that was because he’d thought she would run with his nephew or because he really did need her somehow as he’d said, she didn’t know.
That dead-of-night ceremony with the bride in a hospital bed was probably the most impulsive thing Judd Taylor had ever done. She could feel the regret pouring off of him, even if she didn’t have the courage to look at him at the moment and see the cool rejection in his face.
Somebody sighed, a low, keening sound that caused little Daniel to stir and fuss in his crib. Bess realized with a start that the sound was coming from her own chest. She felt herself being dragged then against the thick bandages around Judd’s ribs, settling onto his chest. His arms, thick with muscle, locked around her. She could hear the erratic, hard thumping of his heartbeat.
Moments ticked by. She felt Agnes rise from the mattress, heard the gentle swish of blankets as she took Daniel from his crib, sensed the quiet click of the door to the bedroom closing. When she tasted the salty tears running into the corner of her mouth, she realized with a start that they were not her own.
She gathered the courage to look at him then, like pulling at the loose strings of a frayed jacket, and sat back with an effort, just enough to move her head. Startled, he loosened his death grip. The eyes that looked at her were liquid with more than his tears. She reached up, using her thumbs to gently wipe away the moisture from beneath his eyes, her palms resting gently on his rugged cheeks.
He let out a shuddering breath. His mouth opened, and because she did not want to hear the pity in that strong voice, she placed her lips over his and took the sound of his words into her mouth. She kissed him for a long time, as if she could freeze the moment, suspend the inevitable motion into this future where her true self lay bare, as if she were saying goodbye.
When she pulled away at last, they were both panting for breath. She sat back entirely, out of the reach of his caressing hands, and pulled herself into a ball beside him on the bed, her knees hugged against her chest. He drew his hand across his eyes and shifted on the bed, wincing with the effort. When he’d settled himself, his face was set in the familiar harsh lines again, his black glare ominous.
“I think it’s a good thing I’m laid up in this bed, Bess,” he said, breaking the silence with a voice like lead, “or else I’d kill that man with my bare hands.”
The words sent a surge of hope through her along with dread. “Well, that’s one good thing that came from being shot, then,” she managed.
A sturdy hand lifted her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. “Don’t ever be ashamed, Bess,” was all he said, but the way the words washed over her, it almost sounded like I love you.
“I guess you better rest now, hm?” she asked, feeling antsy in her own skin.
His hand dropped away, leaving her cold, so that Bess almost chased after the warm contact. “I haven’t answered your question, cupcake,” he told her. “Maybe because you asked the wrong one.”
She’d forgotten she’d asked a question at all. “What should I have asked, then?”
“My men are making extra patrols around the property. One of my deputies is paying Mr. Ruben a visit this afternoon. Mama moved the crib into the room with us. It’s not a question of what you’re going to do, Bess. We’re all in this together.”
She nodded, not trusting her voice to words, the guilt she felt at bringing all this trouble to Agnes and Judd, two of the finest people she’d ever met, reflected in her startling, blue eyes. Judd swallowed, his Adam’s apple rising and falling with the effort. “When we married, you became an us, Bess,” he said in a gruff voice, then shifted painfully onto his side, away from her. “Quit trying to do it all by yourself.”
His voice faded as his head settled into the pillows. Before Bess could respond to anything, his soft snores filled the space between them. The door opened a crack, and Agnes glanced into the room as she bounced a fussy Daniel in the crook of one arm. Bess stood, settling the covers around her husband’s sleeping form, and joined her mother-in-law in the hallway.
She followed Agnes into the kitchen, where Bess settled into a chair by the window, where the sunlight streamed into the room and thawed a little of the ache she felt deep in her body. She began to nurse her baby before she broke the silence between them. “I wore the poor man out.”
“You broke his heart,” Agnes said, but there was no sting to the words. “Cracked mine a mite while you were at it.”
Bess shuddered, misunderstanding. “I knew I’d disappoint you. I should never have come here.”
Agnes’ response was quick and almost violent. She grabbed Bess from behind, her bony arms digging into Bess’ shoulders, and rasped in the younger woman’s ear. “Don’t you ever say that. What blessings we would have missed if you had never come. And you didn’t disappoint us, Bess darling. When you love somebody, you hurt when they hurt. That’s what I’m saying.”
She let those words sink into her marrow, savoring them. “I don’t think I understood the meaning of that word until I came to live here,” she told Agnes. “It’s so much simpler and yet more complicated than I ever imagined.” She kissed the top of her son’s head. “Having Daniel helped. I’d do anything for him, no matter how much it hurt me.”
Agnes moved to sit down across the table from Bess, smiling. “Now you have a real inkling of how much God loves us, that His only Son would sacrifice Himself, dying for our sins so that we might be saved.”
“But now you know the whole story, Agnes. You know why I can’t be saved. There’s too much to forgive.”
“Bess, we all have too much to forgive. That’s entirely the point. We all need forgiveness. Grace is the gift Jesus gives by offering that forgiveness so long as we confess that He is our Lord and Savior.”
Bess felt a little bit of her old self tugging at her corners. She skidded around the serious subject. “Lillian came and apologized the day Judd came home, right before y’all arrived,” she said. “She told me it wasn’t Christian, the way she’d been acting.”
“Good for her. If she just opened her eyes, she’d realize that Harry Swenson over at the bank has been devoted to her since they were in grade school together. Did I ever tell you about the time Harry and Judd entered the bull riding contest together?”
And just like that, they moved on to more neutral topics. Bess felt a sense of relief mingled with regret. Lillian could be forgiven by God, so why not Bess? Of course, Lillian hadn’t almost killed a man and not regretted the revenge that bat wrought on James’ head for Lydia’s death.
The question of her salvation niggled at the back of her mind as she quietly settled Daniel back in his crib, as she dusted the house and scrubbed the bathroom until it shone. It lasted until that evening as the sun began to set in a blaze of purplish-blue, when Agnes came into the house from feeding her beloved pets and stood with large, rolling tears on her cheeks.
The two female lab mixes in the far pen lay dead in the dirt, their tongues swollen, bellies distended. No one, not even the ever-present wind, bore witness. Only the single rose stuck inside the gate left no room for doubt.
Patrol or no patrol. Judd or no Judd. James Ruben was coming.