She had finished breakfast the next morning and was headed down the hall toward the nursery when Judd came out of that room with Daniel in his bassinet. “Take a ride with me,” he ordered, but the statement came out almost like a question.
“I’ll get my coat,” she said.
When they were inside the car, he pulled her to his side so that she could lay her head on his shoulder. It felt warm and peaceful and right. “Where are we going?” she asked, as Judd began to drive.
He glanced at her, kissing her temple. “One of my favorite places in the world,” he said, but that was all.
They drove past the cotton gin, where mechanisms more than 200 years old still labored on, separating seeds from plant, searing the air with a pungent scent the locals claimed smelled like money. The feed store, with its tall docking bay so that farm trucks could back right up to the platform and load the heavy bags of seed or feed that were the lifeblood of most operations in the county, had a parking lot filled with old, but serviceable pickups, their mud flaps covered with the clay soil that made growing the work of the faithful or fools.
It took them almost a half hour to reach their destination, a trickle of a stream surrounded by capped hills and the sparse beauty of the semi-desert. A state highway sign called it the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos. This was his favorite place, she thought. Well, she wasn’t about to break the spell of their brokered peace by voicing her doubts.
Judd pulled off the highway onto a dirt road which wound around behind the hill and ended at a copse of mesquite trees that formed a semi-circle around the sparsely, tufted black grama desert grass. Judd kept the car running, leaving Bess inside while he built a fire and grabbed blankets to spread out on the ground beside it.
He turned off the car and grabbed Daniel as Bess joined him on the blanket by the fire. He used another one to wrap around them, warding off the rest of the winter’s chill as they lined up in a row, with Bess leaning against Judd’s sturdy chest and the baby in her arms. At first, all was silent except for the crackle of the red-blue flames of the fire and the cooing noises Daniel made as he settled into a deeper sleep.
“I brought Daniel here the night he graduated high school,” Judd said, breaking the silence, his warm breath ruffling the curls on the top of her head. “When it’s dark, all you can see is the sky full of stars. Makes a man feel how small he is in the universe.”
“Did you want Daniel to feel small?”
“Not small. Once you see the power of God up in the sky like that, well a feeling of how wonderful it is to be alive takes over. Out here, he could kick up his heels and tear the top off the moon without bothering another living soul. A man has a way of finding himself out here, especially when he’s all alone.”
“You didn’t leave him out here all by himself, overnight?”
Judd’s chest rumbled. “He thought so.”
“I hope it doesn’t bother you that I was married to him before,” she blurted and then wondered why she’d said it.
There was a long pause before Judd answered. “I wish he were still alive, Bess, but not because I don’t want you, like this.”
“It was never like this, with him,” she told him because it was suddenly important for him to know. “Your brother was kind and, well, insistent, but I never felt,” she let her voice fall away.
“There was a woman once,” Judd told her. “It was the first time I found myself having what you might call romantic thoughts and notions.” He chuckled. “I even bought her a ring I couldn’t well afford.”
His voice died too, as if the cold air had swallowed his words whole. She could feel his heart beating double-time in his chest and leaned her head so that it was resting at the base of his throat. His chin came to rest on top of her head. “She didn’t want to live with a man who already had the responsibility of a younger brother and a farm that couldn’t make ends meet,” she guessed.
He chuckled. “She was eloquent. At least the jeweler took pity on me and gave me my money back.”
There was a world of hurt behind the simply stated confession, but it was too much for Bess, who did not trust in her ability to fix it for him. She made her own hard-won chuckle and asked him in as light a tone as she could muster, “So, you don’t believe in romantic notions anymore, is that it, Judd?”
His lips touched her skin just behind her ear, his warm breath sending shivers down her neck. “I thought I didn’t.”
The baby woke then, demanding his lunch. Bess fed him with Judd’s arms wrapped around her own, with the clean scent of the nearby running water in the air and a feeling that this moment might just be the best she’d ever experienced in her life. She couldn’t put the thoughts into words, though, so she turned her head and kissed him, putting everything she was feeling in her heart into the possession of his lips.
A soft moan escaped her lips, and Judd pulled back abruptly. “Not too much more of that, Mrs. Taylor,” he said, using his palm to push the stray curls out of her eyes. “Remember, you just had a baby.”
Bess felt the blush creep up her neck, but it disappeared with one look at Judd’s eyes, which weren’t mocking, but smiling and gentle. They loaded themselves back into the car then, and Judd put out the fire before getting back behind the wheel.
“That was nice. You’re right. It is one of the most wonderful places in the world,” Bess said when they’d pulled back onto the highway.
Judd grabbed her hand and pulled her palm to his lips. “I’m glad you liked it.”
The pleasant feeling lasted until Judd’s police radio crackled with a coded message that made Judd tense. He grabbed the mic and barked in a series of orders before saying anything to Bess. When he spoke, his words were terse and explosive, and his eyes never left the highway, even as he turned on the lights and flipped on the siren.
“There’s a robbery in progress at the bank. Hold on tight.”
He sped up even more, eating up the pavement into town. Seeing how tight he held his jaw, Bess wisely kept her mouth shut. Another patrol car met them at the gas station just on the outskirts. Judd took only the time to peck Bess on the cheek before jumping out of the car and switching places with the other patrolman.
He was a tall, lanky redhead who jumped into the driver’s seat, smiled apologetically to Bess, and threw the car into drive. “I’ve got to get you home as quick as possible, ma’am,” he told her, keeping his eyes on the road.
She knew he wanted to be back where the action was. He was probably even needed. “I could have driven myself, if you men had just taken the time to ask me.”
“Not a county car, ma’am,” he said.
Feeling justly chastised, Bess clamped her mouth. The problem with that was that in the silence that followed, she had nothing but time to think about what might be happening at the bank robbery. But, her many hours studying the Bible with Agnes were not in vain.
She closed her eyes and started talking to Jesus, no matter that she had never before said a prayer in her life that wasn’t being guided by someone else. She knew that Judd had prayed, that he did pray on a regular basis. And she wanted more than anything to know that he would keep on praying for many years to come.
When she heard the tires leave the asphalt and crunch along the caliche road that led to the homestead, she opened her eyes just in time to see the house come into view. When the young policeman stopped the car by the front door, she hurried to get Daniel out of the back seat. He barely allowed her the time to close the back door of the car before he spun the back wheels hurrying back down the drive.
Bess entered the house on legs that shook, only to find Agnes in the nursery, on her knees, her head leaning into the seat of the rocking chair. She looked up when she heard Bess’ footfalls, her drawn face a reflection of Bess’ misery.
“How did you know?” Bess asked her.
Agnes motioned for the younger woman to join her. “He has a scanner in his study, darling.”
Bess nodded dumbly, then put Daniel in his crib before joining Agnes on the floor. “Will this really protect him?” she asked Agnes in a childish voice that wasn’t her own.
“God’s will be done, darling,” Agnes told her, “but it certainly won’t hurt to ask Him, and it will help us, no matter what.”