Bess kept her eyes focused on Agnes’ pale face, on the purplish bruise marring her left temple and cheek. “Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked, ignoring the metallic scent of Samuel’s blood permeating the air around them, “You might have a concussion.”
“I have a harder head than that.” Agnes leaned against the cabinets and blew out a long breath. Jethro whimpered and crawled across the floor to lay his head in her lap. She stroked his head. “Thank the good Lord for you, boy,” she said.
Bess laid her hand on the dog’s torso, comforted by the warmth radiating from his slick fur. “Should we bathe him, and ourselves?” she asked, noticing the darkening splotches of blood that were everywhere. Her senses, numbed by the shock of the attack, were tingling back to life. She swallowed back the bile rising in her throat and felt a cold sweat breaking out all over her body.
Agnes shook her head. “I think we should leave everything as it is for the moment. Why don’t you get us some water, Bess?”
Bess nodded, feeling numb, and stood with an effort to fill the glasses with water, wishing suddenly that she drank alcohol because it seemed like a shot of whiskey would be more bracing than mere water. They drank the cool, clear liquid in silence, and then Bess took a deep breath. “Are we going to talk about it?”
Agnes shook her head and winced with the effort. “Why? It’s over now, and that’s all that matters.”
“Poor Michelle. This is going to devastate her. Do you think she knows he was . . . ?”
“Broken?” Agnes finished for her. “No, I don’t think so.”
They heard a car pulling up in the drive, and then Judd’s voice called after one, quick rap on the screen. Bess scrambled to her feet and pulled open the door, reaching to unlatch the screen. But, she had forgotten the image she presented, with her bluish-purple neck and blood splattered dress.
Judd’s face paled, and he ripped the screen from its latch before Bess could. His hands were everywhere, searching her body for injury, his long fingers shaking. She laid her hands on his shoulder and shook him slightly. “I’m all right,” she said.
He pulled her to his chest in a tight hug so that she could feel his heart hammering in his chest. “I’m all right,” she repeated.
He took a shuddering breath and held her a few moments longer before stepping back. His eyes roamed her body again, as if he still didn’t believe she was not injured. Then, he took in the scene in the room around him. His jaw worked convulsively, and then he saw his mother’s face. He grabbed Bess’ hand in a death grip and dragged her to where Agnes stood. He touched his mother’s swollen face with the backs of the fingers on his free hand.
“What about you?” he asked, and sighed heavily when Agnes nodded. He pulled Bess into his side and told the women. “Somebody needs to tell me what happened. All of it.”
The telling was painful, especially as she felt Judd tense beside her. At one point, the hand holding hers closed on her fingers with such ferocity that she actually cried out. When they had told it all, and Judd had asked a few questions, he went out to his car and radioed for an ambulance and backup.
An ambulance had hauled a protesting Agnes away, and Bess had given her statement to the coroner when Judd took hold of her and asked, “Why don’t you go change out of those clothes, take a bath. You don’t want to be like that when the baby needs fed.”
She shuddered when the mirror showed her the path of that evening’s nightmare across her stripped body and in the bloody pile of clothes at her feet. She eased into the steaming water in the tub and dunked her entire body beneath the still surface, holding her breath. When she surfaced, she was gasping for breath.
Using the Lava soap Judd kept by the sink for when he’d been working on the tractor, she spent the next half hour scrubbing until her skin was red and itchy. She dried her skin and hair, putting on the flannel gown that was the only one she owned, and cracked the door to the bathroom to make sure all the strangers in the house were gone.
“They’re keeping Mama at the hospital overnight, just in case,” Judd said from the nursery, where he had moved Daniel’s crib back to its rightful place. She stepped into the room beside him, and he placed his arm around her waist and pulled her to his side, his eyes on the little boy fast asleep in his bed as if all things were right and good in the world. “I don’t want you in the kitchen for the next couple of days. I’ve got some remodeling to do in there.”
Bess swallowed. “You’ll get no argument from me.”
Judd placed his lips on Bess’ temple. “Do you think Daniel is good for a while?”
She smiled at the long lashes brushing the pudgy cheeks. “I think so. I know how awfully fortunate we are that he fusses so little.”
“That’s not the only reason we’re fortunate. Come here.” Judd kissed her then, his lips taking possession as they never had before. She could feel a sort of desperation in the kiss and returned the fervor with a sense of her own recklessness.
Judd pulled away finally, but only long enough to search her eyes, the knowledge of how close he’d come to never seeing them again passing between them, thickening the air around them. He looked as if he might say something, then thought better of it. Despite his still-healing ribs, he bent, lifting her and walking into the bedroom across the hall, where he laid her down on the bed and followed her.
They were a long time loving, even after Bess attended to a hungry Daniel, who quickly settled back into sleep, even when they were slick with sweat and languid.
Bess pulled the covers over them, laying her head on her husband’s chest. “I love you, Judd Taylor,” she said, “more than anything.”
Judd touched his lips to her curly hair. “I lost ten years off my life when you opened that door this evening, cupcake. Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
It wasn’t exactly I love you, but it was as close as Judd Taylor was likely to get. “Well, you’re stuck with me now, Judd, so no need to worry.”
He jostled her against him. “I’m always going to worry, sweetheart,” he said. “That’s what you do when you love somebody.”
She stroked the scar along his right shoulder blade where the bull had caught him when he was just 10 and still learning the hard lessons around the homestead. “It feels good to love and be loved. I’ve never really had that in all my life.”
“Well, you’ll have it and then some for the rest of your days,” Judd said, but his voice was groggy with sleep. In another moment, his even breathing told her he had drifted. She sighed into his chest and also fell into a peaceful sleep.
When she woke, the sun was streaming through the window, and she was alone in the bed. For a moment, she forgot everything except the light, bright feeling in her chest. Then, the horror and the beauty of the night before came flooding back to her, and she bolted up, letting the coverlet fall to her hips, feeling the cool air of the house as it grazed her exposed skin.
She heard Daniel then and rose, slipping into her flannel gown and shuffling across the hall. Judd was in the rocking chair with the baby in his arms. His harsh features were silhouetted in the morning light, and Bess thought they were the most beautiful eyes and cheeks and chin that she had ever seen. Then, she thought how Judd might react to hear himself called beautiful and giggled.
His head jerked up, and he smiled when he saw her. “Men can rock babies, you know,” he defended himself against her humor, then winked at her.
She leaned against the door jamb, crossing her arms. “Of course,” she agreed. “They can also come in handy changing diapers.”
“Done and dusted this morning, cupcake.” Judd stood to hand her Daniel, who had opened his eyes and begun to mew for breakfast, leaning to plant a soft kiss on her lips. “I’m going to pick up Mama. I thought I’d pick us up some donuts for breakfast on the way back. Sound good?”
She nodded. “She’s doing okay then?”
He chuckled. “Apparently, she makes an even worse patient than yours truly.” He studied Bess and Daniel for a long moment, then kissed her on the cheek and turned to go. “I’ll be back,” he said.
Except for the blood-stained floor in the kitchen, it was the most normal morning Bess had ever experienced. And for the first time in a long time, she didn’t have anything threatening her normalcy. She leaned her head back against the rocking chair and smiled.