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NaNoWriMo: Day 26

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.

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NaNoWriMo: Day 21

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.”

 

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NaNoWriMo: Day 20

Bess opened the window in the nursery a smidgen, welcoming the draft of cold air that seemed to freshen the closed-in room where she had been spending most of her time since Judd was refusing to speak to her. So much for the concept of forgiveness, she thought. No matter that she had spent the last decade becoming this other person, the one who worked hard at a decent job and didn’t take what wasn’t hers, no matter that his own brother had seen something worth loving enough to marry, Judd was too quick to believe the worst about her. She could see the fragile connections she had been building evaporating like the heavy dew on blades of grass in early morning.

Agnes stepped into the room, her Bible in her hands, and gave Bess a sort of sad smile. “I’m old, Bess, but I’m not stupid. I know Judd didn’t invite Lillian over to hurt your feelings. In fact, knowing her, she probably finagled the invitation just to stir up trouble.”

“Well, she succeeded.” Bess picked up a fussy Daniel and sat down with him to rock, closing the window before she sat down to avoid giving her baby a chill.

A silence settled over the room as Agnes studied her. “Judd refuses to talk to me about it. I suppose you feel the same way?”

“Judd thinks because there are things I don’t want to talk about that I am some kind of super villain.”

“And both of you are too stubborn to give an inch.” Agnes sighed. Then, she shook her head, changing the subject, “Well, I thought we’d do some reading in Romans today, if you’d like.”

Bess nodded, hoping she could concentrate enough to learn. “Sure. Thanks.”

The letter the apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church was a treatise on grace. Too many Christians wanted to lean on the Law for their salvation, thinking that if they just did enough of the good things and nothing of the bad, they would be saved. But, Paul pointed out, any person who broke even the smallest portion of the Law was guilty of breaking the Law in its entirety.

This truth is what made the gift of grace offered by Christ so precious. Because of grace, those who are incapable of keeping the Law in its entirety, no matter how good they are, are given the gift of salvation because of who they are, which is believers who have taken Christ as their Savior, instead of because of what they do.

“Because we can’t earn our salvation by what we do,” Agnes explained, “we have to be more open to forgiving ourselves and others when we stumble. God loved us so much that He was willing to sacrifice for us, even though we so didn’t deserve it. It’s humbling when you think about it.”

Bess smiled. “I guess it’s pretty easy to fall into the habit of trying to do enough instead of trusting in grace.”

“All the time,” Agnes agreed. “But when I trust in grace most, it really gives me the freedom to listen to the Holy Spirit in me and to be guided by love in the actions I take. It’s a great responsibility, but it’s uplifting too. There’s a reason Jesus tells us His yoke is light as compared to the burden of living solely under the Law.”

Jethro set up with a howling wail that prompted the other dogs to create a barking symphony. Agnes excused herself to look outside, returning a few minutes later with a long, rectangular package in her hand. “Someone left this at the front door. It’s for you.”

Bess felt a spike of fear run up her spine. “Who brought it?”

Agnes shrugged. “No one was at the door. All I could see was a cloud of dust from where the car pulled out of the drive. Whoever it was, they were in a hurry.”

Taking the package in hands that slightly shook, Bess studied the bold, black scroll that said For Bess and wondered if it was a man’s or a woman’s handwriting. “It’s probably a baby present from one of your friends,” she said, just to fill the silence.

“Well, are you going to open it?”

How could she refuse without giving something away? And the box could really be a baby present. Bess pulled on the plain, brown paper, revealing a mix of black and white roses.

“What an interesting color palette,” Agnes said. “Let me put them in some water for you.” She took the flowers out of the box, handed the folded card to Bess and left the room without waiting to see who the flowers were from.

Bess sat down hard in the rocking chair and took two deep breaths before opening the vanilla card. The greeting was like a ransom note, letters and words clipped from multiple sources to spell out the message, with little wiggle room when it came to the message’s intent.

If only they could see the darkness in your soul, the note threatened. Soon, they’ll all know better.

To keep herself from packing a bag and running in response, Bess forced her mind to work more logically. As threats went, this one didn’t seem very physical. Considering the gossip Lillian was spreading, it could just as easily have been from that vindictive woman than Bess’ real enemy.

By the time Agnes had returned to continue with their Bible reading, Bess had calmed herself enough to appear completely unruffled. Agnes was even kind enough not to probe about who had sent the flowers in such a mysterious manner.

Judd wasn’t as easily diverted. When he came home from working with the cattle that evening, the first thing his eyes latched onto were the flowers sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.  “Whose are those?” he asked his mother, even though Bess happened to be sitting right at the table when he walked through the back door.

Agnes glanced at Bess from the stove and kept her mouth shut, forcing Bess to answer. “Someone left them at the door for me today.”

He looked at her as if he hadn’t realized she was in the room. His jaw worked for a moment, and then he barked more than asked, “Who?”

Bess straightened her shoulders. “A secret admirer? The note wasn’t signed.”

“What did it say?”

Bess watched him for a moment, noticing how tired he looked, the new lines around his eyes and the tense set of his mouth. “Nothing important,” she said, making her voice sound bright. “Just a congratulations on the baby and the wedding.”

The last word came out a little strangled despite her efforts. Judd probed her with those eyes of his a few moments before shrugging, dismissing the mystery and probably Bess herself, and leaving the kitchen to get cleaned up for supper.

But Bess had had enough of the silent treatment. She stood up so quickly, her chair clattered to the floor. She ignored it, storming down the hall and right into the bathroom where the shower was beating a rapid rhythm into the steamy air.

Before she could think better about it, she stormed right up to the shower curtain and shoved it to the side, causing a shocked Judd to freeze in the act of rubbing his hairy chest with soap. Bess forced her eyes to stay above his waistline, placing her fists on her hips as she glared at him.

“I won’t be treated like I don’t exist just because I don’t want to dredge up all the misery that was my life before all this happened to me,” she said, flailing her hands to indicate the house and all the people in it. “I can’t make it a living thing again, seeing the pity of it reflected in your eyes when you look at me, when all I want to do is put it behind me. So why don’t you just make up your mind to practice some of that forgiveness your God is always talking about, and get over the stupid thing that Lillian said on Christmas Day?”

He blinked slowly, and for one awful moment, she thought he was going to grab the shower curtain and close it on her. Then, he smiled wickedly. “Well, are you going to stand there, glaring at me, or are you going to join me?”

Bess felt a wide smile break out on her face, the mysterious flowers and threatening note momentarily forgotten. She loosed the buttons of the maternity dress she was wearing because she’d had no time to update her wardrobe and made quick work of disrobing.

Stepping into the shower a moment later, she felt hope surge in her chest again, like a single butterfly flapping its golden wings.

As the start of something binding and true, it might not be much, but it was something.

 

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NaNoWriMo: Day 24

The morning Judd was released to come home from the hospital, Bess grudgingly agreed with the rest that it would be best if Agnes alone went to pick him up, especially since Daniel was being particularly fussy, as if he sensed Bess’ nervous energy. She spent the time Agnes was off fetching Judd changing the sheets on their bed, fluffing the pillows to make them as comfortable as possible, and dusting and vacuuming the house so that Judd would be recuperating in a spotless environment.

She shouldn’t have been surprised when the car she heard in the drive turned out to be not Agnes and Judd, but Lillian, wrapped up in a linen coat with a faux-fur collar. Bess tried and failed to hide her shock and disappointment at finding the woman on her doorstep, but she managed to open the door against the winter’s chill to invite Lillian in, even though it was the last thing she wanted to do.

“I hate to disappoint you, but I’m the only one here at the moment,” Bess said, standing close to the front door, not wanting to give Lillian any ideas about staying.

That’s when she noticed the difference in the other woman. Instead of her usual, ruby-red lipstick and fancy coiffure, Lillian barely wore any makeup, and her considerable hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. Under the fancy coat, she was wearing a cotton, plaid button-up shirt and loose jeans. Even the shoes she was wearing, boots with square toes, were scuffed and in need of a polish.

Lillian swallowed at least three times before she could make her mouth work. “I’m glad you’re home. I mean, I came to talk to you. May I?” She motioned to the sofa, as if she were afraid her legs weren’t capable of holding her up any more.

Bess, curious now, motioned for Lillian to sit, taking her own seat in the club chair next to the sofa. “Is something wrong, Lillian?” she heard herself asking, while the other half of her was trying to figure out what kind of angle Lillian might be playing now.

But Lillian’s contrite expression really didn’t hint at any subterfuge. Bess doubted she was that good an actress. Lillian crossed and uncrossed her legs on the sofa, clasping her hands in her lap until the knuckles were white.

“I owe you an apology,” she said, and once the words started, they flowed out in a great rush. “Probably more than one apology, actually. I shouldn’t have gossiped about you to your husband and half the congregation, and I shouldn’t have thrown myself at Judd once the two of you were married. I had a long talk with Pastor Michael, who apparently had a long talk with your husband. Well, the upshot of it is that I promise not to interfere in your marriage anymore, or talk about you behind your back.  In fact, I’m hoping that someday we can be friends.”

Lillian finished this monologue on a gush of breath and sank back against the cushions as if all her strength had been zapped from her body. Bess knew she was gaping. She could feel her chin scraping her neck from her jaw being opened. “I’ve never had anybody apologize to me before,” she finally managed, “not like that anyway. No offense, Lillian, but what’s the catch?”

“There’s no catch,” she responded, with just a hint of her usual hauteur, but then her features relaxed again. “Look, Bess, I’m a Christian, even though I haven’t been acting much like one lately. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, especially since I haven’t done anything yet to prove to you I mean what I say, but I’m hoping you’ll forgive me eventually.”

“Agnes says that we forgive others because God was willing to forgive us of all our sins. I’ve got as many sins on my plate as the next person, Lillian, maybe more, and I want to be accepted for who I am, not what I’ve been. If you really want to start over, you and me, I’m willing to do that.”

“Thank you, Bess.” Lillian stood up, wiping her hands on her jean-clad thighs as if she’d been sweating. “I’ll go now. I know you probably have a lot going on. If you need anything, you just let me know, OK?”

She walked to the door, and Bess stood up to follow her, feeling a little dizzy, like she was in an alternate universe. She said good-bye to Lillian and watched her car disappear down the long drive before turning back into the house. And all the while, she was trying to absorb how powerful believing in Christ must be if it could make a person like Lillian apologize to a stranger like Bess.

Another car pulled into the drive all too soon, with two car doors opening and closing this time. Bess hurried out to slip under Judd’s arm, lending him support. He stopped her as Agnes continued on into the house with the medicines and things from the hospital in her hands.

She looked up at him with a question in her eyes. “Look tired,” he said, his breathing still a bit painful as his lungs and ribs healed.

“Well, aren’t we a pair, then?” She moved the few inches left between them and kissed him, overcome that he was alive and back home again.

They made slow progress into the house, but when she would have guided him to the bedroom, he motioned to the sofa instead, telling her he wanted to sit up for a while. He eased down on the cushions under his own power after shooting Bess a look that promised such retribution if she attempted to lower him down herself.

The crunch the sofa made under his considerable weight was the first time Bess actually remembered that the growing pile of unopened envelopes were actually hidden there. Before she could divert him, Judd had fished underneath the cushion and extracted the pile with one, large hand. He didn’t stop to ask what they were or whom they were for, just tore into the one on top, glanced at the contents, then threw the entire pile onto the coffee table in front of him.

Jamming his fingers through his hair, he kept his eyes on the piece of paper in front of him, a vulgar description of Bess’ tempting beauty covering a wealth of sin, spelled out in clippings like the first note Bess had seen. She sank to the nearest chair and clasped her hands between her knees. Why hadn’t she burned those letters?

“Did you mean to keep this from me?” Judd’s voice, instead of its usual bark, held an almost wounded quality that haunted her more than the threatening notes did.

“More like I was keeping them from myself,” she stammered. “I didn’t even know he was alive until just a few weeks ago. When I saw that article,” her voice trailed off, and she took a shuddering breath before continuing. “It’s why I was so determined to leave. I should leave, to protect you all.”

Judd blinked twice and winced, laying a steadying hand against his injured ribs. His face paled, and a bead of sweat broke out on his forehead. Even though she had never felt more isolated from him than in that moment, her body moved without her brain’s consent. She sat beside him on the sofa and felt under his chin for fever with one hand, using the other to make comforting, tiny circle along his back.

“Forget about this for now,” she coaxed, moving her hand from his chin to rest on his broad chest, which was moving raggedly. “I didn’t mean it, about leaving. I promise to tell you everything I know, and then I’ll do whatever we decide together,” she promised, and was gratified to feel his heartbeat slow considerably. “For now, your rest is the most important thing.”

He meant to argue. She could see it in the set of his jaw. His words confirmed her fear. “What’s his name?”

“Please,” she begged, “can’t it just wait?”

He took her hand away from his chest and squeezed it. “The name, Bess,” he said with a voice that seemed to contain the last bits of his energy.

She bit her lip. He was going to want to know the whole story, and she couldn’t bear to tell it to him in the best of circumstances, certainly not now when he was still so hurt and in need of healing. The black glare hardened as he kept that steel grip on her fingers. “James Ruben,” she muttered before she lost what little nerve was left in her body.

He surprised her by merely nodding once, a quick jerk of his head. He released her hand and grabbed her cheek with his palm, pulling her ear to his lips. “Keep the doors locked and only go outside with Mama and the gun,” he ordered, sealing the decree with a pressing of his warm mouth to the skin just under her earlobe.

She shivered from the sensation of his warm breath on her skin and the cold reality of the words. He demanded to use the phone then, but she would only agree to help him to it if he promised to make only one call and then go straight to bed. Agnes arrived just as a settlement was reached, and the trio managed to get Judd to the hall for his phone call and then into the bed. He sent Bess to the kitchen for his lunch tray and had private words with his mother, probably about the deputy that arrived some minutes later, taking the envelopes from Agnes with a grim set to his square features.

Agnes said goodbye to the officer and turned back into the house, her face determined. “I don’t know about you, Bess, but I’m starving.”

She didn’t wait for an answer, but walked with a steady step to the kitchen. Bess followed, feeling somewhat like a dog with a tail between its legs. She really didn’t want to eat, but she knew she owed it to Daniel to stay healthy so that his food would be nourishing.

Agnes laid ham sandwiches on the table with glasses of milk. The first bite tasted like sawdust to Bess, but she forced herself to chew.

“This isn’t your fault, Bess,” Agnes said a moment later, her eyes probing Bess as if she were looking right through her.

“You don’t know the whole story,” Bess whispered through the tight throat that was fighting back tears. “And if I tell you, I’m afraid none of you will want me around here anymore.”

Agnes got out of her chair and pulled Bess up into a bear hug that made it difficult for Bess to breathe. “You’ve said it yourself, Bess,” she said in a raspy voice, “who you are now is what counts.”  She released Bess and stepped back, her eyes softening. “Darling, when he’s had his rest, you’re going to have to tell Judd the whole story. He needs to know it to protect you, and since he’d die to protect you, it’s best he has all the facts. Don’t you agree?”

She agreed all right. But that didn’t mean the knowing wasn’t turning her heart inside out, filling her chest with icy fingers that made her whole body cold.

 

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 19

Christmas morning dawned with a bright, clear sky and just a touch of frost in the air.  Bess woke to find a brand new robe at the foot of her bed. She slipped it on and went in search of the rest of the family. She found them in the living room, gathered around the lit-up Christmas tree with an LP of holiday music playing on the turntable.

There were presents under the tree, including the chambray shirt she’d wrapped the day before, along with an apron she’d made for Agnes. Bess sat down on the sofa next to Judd, taking Daniel from his arms.

“Merry Christmas,” she told her baby boy, letting him grab her finger with one, tiny hand. She felt Judd’s arm settle across her shoulders and looked up just in time to catch a twinkle in his eyes. “Merry Christmas to you, too,” she told him, feeling herself grinning stupidly.

They exchanged presents. Agnes had knit the baby a beanie hat and several pairs of booties. She gave Bess a pretty, round sewing basket decorated with summer wildflowers. Judd acted as if the chambray shirt was the best he had ever owned. He kiss Bess full on the lips as if Agnes were not watching, mingling his breath with hers so that she could taste the coffee he’d been sipping, laced with just a touch of peppermint.

Bess felt her fingers tremble as she opened the present from Judd. It was a large, rectangular box, wrapped in sparkly, green paper. When she had carefully undone the tape so as not to tear the paper, the opened box revealed a smaller package, this one wrapped in paper with red and green stripes. Two more times, she repeated the process, until finally she revealed a gold necklace with a heart-shaped charm framed in turquoise stones.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

He looked as if he were going to say something, but turned instead to pick up the present he’d bought for his mother, a silvery shawl with tassels that sparkled in the light.

Bess nursed Daniel, put him down for a nap, and changed her clothes before they all sat down to a Christmas feast of ham and turkey, oyster dressing and giblet gravy. The homemade biscuits melted in Bess’ mouth, and the green beans, canned from Agnes’ garden, tasted summer fresh.

They were just about to dig in to the delicious-smelling pies when someone knocked at the back door. It was a sharp, brisk sound that made Bess’ heart skip. Agnes, already at the counter slicing up dessert, answered the door, stepping back to invite the visitor into the kitchen.

Bess just managed not to roll her eyes when Lillian stepped into the house, her voice dripping honey as she wished the room a happy holiday. The infuriating woman even walked right over to Judd, who had politely stood up at her entry, and gave the man a kiss that just missed his lips.

Agnes pasted a thin smile on her face and said with a kind of nettled patience, “Lillian, we weren’t expecting to see you today. What a surprise.”

“Oh, but Judd said specifically that I should drop by if I found myself at loose ends today, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of meeting the new addition to the family.”

Bess stood up from the table, deliberately misunderstanding the other woman. “Oh, but we’ve met, Lillian, remember?”

Judd, whose cheeks had taken on a ruddy hue, hid a smile behind a forced cough. Bess shot him a glance filled with fire, touching the turquoise heart around her neck as a talisman against the evil intent she could feel rolling off Lillian in waves.

Lillian ignored Bess altogether, placing her perfectly-manicured fingers onto the crook of Judd’s arm. “Where is little Daniel?” she asked him, looking up at his impassive face with eyelashes fluttering.

Bess, battling a wave of nausea from the gooey flirtation, refused to give Lillian the satisfaction of thinking she was succeeding in her attempts to ruin the day. She walked over to the counter full of pies and chose a slice of the chocolate with its meringue piled high.

“How generous of Judd,” Bess said to the kitchen cabinets, keeping her back to the room at large, “to invite a lonely spinster to our first-ever Christmas together.”

“Bess,” Agnes admonished from right at her elbow, but it was a softly-spoken reprimand and mostly overshadowed by the sharp intake of breath from the other side of the room.

“I’m sorry, Lillian,” Judd said, his voice sharp, “I should have mentioned my invitation to my wife. Maybe then she would have been more gracious.”

So much for their truce. Bess turned so that she could lean against the counter for support and gave the couple standing across from her an icy stare, perfected through years of being picked on and judged. Agnes, glancing between the three other adults in the kitchen, threw up her hands and exclaimed, “I’m too old for this nonsense. I’m seeing to my dogs.”

Judd stepped out of Lillian’s grasp then and walked over to Bess, his black glare pinning her in place. “Why don’t you offer our guest a slice of that pie, cupcake?”

She flexed her hand at her side, and he grabbed her wrist lightly as if he could tell she was itching to slap him. A silent battle of wills ensued, brief but devastating. Bess sighed out her surrender and took a slice of the chocolate pie in her free hand. “Agnes makes the best meringue I’ve ever tasted. Please, have a slice.” There, she thought, her voice had even managed to come out steady.

Lillian crossed her arms in front of her low-cut blouse. “I was hoping to speak with you, Judd,” she said, giving Bess a triumphant look before adding, “about an important matter. Alone.”

Judd kept his eyes on Bess, as if he were afraid she might fling the plate full of pie in Lillian’s direction if he weren’t watching. “Whatever you have to say, Lillian, just say it.” He paused, and his lips curled briefly into a self-deprecating smirk. “Bess and I have no secrets.”

The last word shot through Bess with the force of a bullet. She caught her breath and laid the pie plate back on the counter before she dropped it. Lillian sat down in a chair and crossed her legs, so that the sexy curve of her legs was on full view for Bess’ husband. She licked her ruby red lips and calmly crossed her hands inside her lap.

“I’m concerned for you, Judd. Do you know the kind of woman you married?”

“Lillian,” Judd warned.

“You need to hear this,” she insisted, but her voice quavered a little. She took a deep breath before plunging on. “She has a record, Judd. She’s been arrested for,” she looked around as if the room were being watched, “prostitution.”

Bess watched as the words that would take away everything she had sank into Judd’s brain, watched as the eyes which had never left her face showed despair and then blinding fury. Because she couldn’t bear to see all her dreams die right there in his eyes, she turned to face her real enemy.

“Those records are sealed. How threatened you must feel.”

Judd recovered a part of himself, cutting off whatever Lillian might retort, and ordered her in a voice that brooked no argument, “Leave.”

Lillian scrambled to her feet and hurried to the back door, without so much as a peep. Her eyes shot Bess such a look of triumph as she opened the door to go that Bess felt it like an ice-cold bucket of water thrown over her head.

The kitchen was silent, and Bess worked her lips trying desperately not to cry. If she concentrated on breathing in and out, maybe she could make it to the next minute. Judd released her wrist as if her skin burned and took a step back from her. His Adam’s apple bobbed convulsively. Finally, he sighed and looked up.

“Are you going to explain any of that?” he asked the ceiling.

Bess took a shuddering breath. “Please, don’t make me,” she begged.

“Is there any truth to it?”

The images flashed across her brain, Ruben’s attention to Lydia, the rolls of cash he carried in the front pockets of his too-tight jeans, the night she’d gone with Lydia to his dreadful row house where obscene noises eased through the thin walls and everything ended in police sirens and blood.

“A little,” she told him, “but not in the way you think.”

“Then, in what way?”

Bess hesitated, then pulled herself up straight. “No,” she said, as much to herself as to Judd. “What does it matter who I was? Do you not trust that you know who I am?”

Judd’s nostrils flared in and out. For one wild moment, she thought he might reach back and hit her. Instead, his shoulders slumped. “I could ask the same thing of you, Bess.”

He turned on his heel and stalked out of the room then. Bess’ legs gave out on her, and she slid to the cold linoleum, laying her head on her knees and wailing until she was dry of tears.

She did not see Judd again the whole of that day. Agnes, seeing Bess’ puffy eyes and her son’s absence, wisely kept her own counsel. By nightfall, Judd had still not returned. Bess lay awake all night, alone in the full-size bed, unable to fall asleep. When she got up the next morning, it was to find sheets and a pillow piled on the sofa, where Judd had obviously slept.

It was two more lonely days before he returned to their shared bed, but his manner had cooled, and he kept his hands and arms to himself. Bess, putting the bricks of her protective wall back in place, slept pulled in on herself, pouring all the love she could muster onto the only person who really wanted it, the baby boy who’d brought her to this now-lonely house in the first place.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 23

He looked so pale, though his color was rapidly recovering. He clamped his mouth shut at the sight of Bess and his mother in the room. For her part, Bess schooled her features so that he would not see the fear she felt at the sight of him attached to wires and tubes, with bandages across his ribs and the orange-red antiseptic they’d spread across his weathered skin to ward off infection marring his perfect body.

She moved across the room feeling like a ghost image of herself and leaned across the bed to touch her lips to his forehead, which was feverish. He moved as if to yank the oxygen mask from his mouth and nose, but she stayed the movement with one amazingly steady hand.

“You were already a hero, Judd Taylor, without going and getting yourself shot up like this,” Bess whispered into his ear. She was satisfied by the visible relaxation of his shoulders at the remark. “Now, quit giving your nurses fits. It won’t help you get out of here any sooner. And talking cannot be helping your ribs.”

He gave her his black-eyed glare, but then he winked and seemed to sigh back into his pillow. When Agnes came up on the other side of the bed and laid her hand on his brow, he allowed himself to fall back into a much-needed sleep.

“I’m not leaving him,” Bess told the ward doctor when he came in to check Judd’s vitals and proclaimed him in no immediate danger.

Agnes shook her head. “I’ll stay with him tonight, Bess darling. You are a nursing mama. You need your rest, and Daniel needs to sleep in his crib tonight.”

She couldn’t argue with this logic. Twenty minutes later, she had gathered up her son and been offered a ride home by one of the many patrolmen gathered in the waiting room now that the immediate threat of the robbery was over and the waiting for healing had begun.

Bess sat in the patrol car cocooned in silence, too tired to say even one polite thing to the officer, who seemed to understand because he turned on the radio to a country station and lightly hummed with the music as he drove Bess home. She did manage a thank you as she left the car and entered the empty house, with Jethro hot on her heels and frankly much-welcomed company.

Somehow, despite her tension and worry, she slept. The next morning, she called the hospital to discover that Judd had done well during the night. She arranged for a ride to the hospital and hurried to feed Daniel and be ready when her driver arrived.

A knock at the front door long before she expected her ride to arrive made her jump nervously. She allowed Jethro to greet the visitor first, his deep, threatening bark from inside the house making an aggressive, eerie sound.

“It’s me, Bess,” a familiar voice called from the front step, and Bess sighed with relief.

She pulled Jethro back into the living room, settling him before opening the door to Samuel and Michelle. “Hello,” Bess smiled at them.

Michelle, her arms full with a casserole dish, stepped into the house in front of her brother. “I know you will probably be eating hospital food for a few days, but we’ll just pop this in the freezer for when you get back home,” she called over her shoulder as she escaped into the kitchen to do as she said.

Samuel stopped beside Bess, studying her from head to toe. “You don’t look like someone whose husband just got shot,” he said.

From any other person, it would have been an odd thing to say. Bess chuckled nervously. “I guess you mean that as a compliment.”

Samuel took her chin in his soft fingers and spared her a glimpse of his dimples. Bess was suddenly thankful Michelle was just in the other room, a shout away. “So beautiful,” he murmured, and then dropped his loose grip and took a step back.

“This was on your doorstep,” Samuel said, handing her a large envelope.

Bess looked at it in Samuel’s hand for a long moment before she took it from him. It was going to be another threatening note. She knew it, but she didn’t want to see it just then and verify it. So, she laid the envelope on the coffee table to deal with later and was just about to tell Samuel they should join Michelle in the kitchen when Samuel interrupted her.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

She shook her head. Michelle walked back into the living room and right up to Bess, wrapping the other woman in a strong, warm hug. “Now that that dish is out of my hands,” she said into Bess’ ear. “What a terrible thing to happen in our little town, and around the holidays, too! I’m so glad none of our policemen were killed. What can we do for you, Bess?”

Bess smiled. “I think we’re all right,” she said. “One of the men is coming to take me to the hospital. I need to keep Daniel with me since I’m nursing him.”

“Oh, but the hospital is no place for a newborn!” Michelle cried.

Samuel made a noise in his throat. “Well, she really doesn’t have much of a choice, sis,” he defended. “I’d be happy to pick you up from the hospital later today, Bess. You just give me a call at Michelle’s.”

A feeling, the one that had helped her survive this long in a wide, ugly world, warned Bess this would not be a good idea. And yet, the notion of unease seemed silly. She nodded at Samuel and simply said a non-committal thank you.

There was another knocking at the door, this time from the officer who was Bess’ ride. She said goodbye to Samuel and Michelle and left the police officer in the living room while she quickly gathered Daniel and her diaper bag, another gift from Agnes, to head to the hospital for the day.

The hospital room was bright with the light coming through the window when Bess arrived. The light showed her the pinched look in Judd’s eyes, which were dulled by the pain killers that still left him in pain. She carried Daniel over to the side of the bed and propped herself next to Judd, taking his hand with her free one.

“How do you feel?” she asked, even though she could see it. She pulled his hand to her mouth and kissed it, then gently rubbed the back of his hand against Daniel’s head. “It’s worse today, hmm?”

He nodded. “Better soon.”

Agnes came into the room, looking tired but not much worse for wear. She smiled at Bess. “Well, we all survived the night, even the nurses.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I need you both to go home.” A raspy, dull voice that it took a moment for Bess to realize was Judd’s filled the room.

Bess stood up from the bed and backed toward Agnes. “We don’t want to leave you. You might need something. You were shot.” Bess felt the words coming out of her like a steady stream of water she couldn’t stop.

Agnes took Daniel from Bess’ arms and nudged Bess back toward the bed. Judd extended his hand, pulling Bess close again.  “I want to know you’re back home with the baby and mama. That’s what I need to get better. I’ll be back home before you know it.”

Bess glanced back at Agnes, who merely shrugged. She turned back to Judd. “I want to talk to the doctor first,” she told him.

Before she could move to find the doctor, the door to the room flew open, and Lillian, dressed as if she were headed to a dinner party in her low-cut, slinky dress, descended on them like a whirling dervish. While Bess watched dumbfounded, the other woman descended on Judd, wailing about his condition as if he were still bleeding and filled with bullets, and would have thrown herself on top of him despite his tubes and bandages had Judd not managed to grab her arm with a burst of strength born of surprise and stop her.

Bess rolled her eyes and moved to put herself between Lillian and Judd. She stretched to her considerable height, shouldered past Lillian’s heaving chest and physically broke the contact between them.

“What is wrong with you?” she enunciated, leaving a little space between each word and taking a step forward so that Lillian was forced to move even further away from Judd’s bed.

Lillian managed to look just a touch apologetic before putting on such an air of hurt that anyone would think she were the wife and Bess the intruder. “Oh, Judd,” she exclaimed, ignoring Bess completely, “I just couldn’t believe it when I heard. And knowing what hospitals are like, I just rushed right over here to watch out for you.”

“Because, goodness knows, his mother and wife couldn’t be trusted with the job,” Bess moved so that all Judd would be able to see was her straight, livid back. She felt his hand at the base of her spine, his fingers tapping her lightly. She took a calming breath and added, before Lillian could come up with some other retort, “Judd was just telling us that he preferred not to have visitors, not even family. So, why don’t you join us in the cafeteria for a coffee before we all leave the hospital?”

Lillian’s mouth moved like a guppy, and then she recovered herself and smiled grudgingly at Bess. “Thank you for the invitation,” she said, “but I have a prior engagement. I’m sure Judd is in fine hands with Agnes here, as you say.”

Agnes joined the conversation for the first time with the mention of her name. “Lillian, I am often reminded of your dear mama’s gracious behavior when I am in your company. You’re sure you can’t join us downstairs, now?”

Daniel, laying in Agnes’ arms, chose that moment to kick out his muscular legs and set to wailing so that the hairs on the back of Bess’ neck stood on end. “Looks like someone is hungry,” she said, taking her son from Agnes and settling into the chair with him.

She had just managed to unbutton the front of her dress when Lillian made a startled sound and turned to face the door. “I’m sorry I can’t stay, Judd. I’ll check on your progress soon,” she said as she hurried out of the room.

The door slammed back into place, and the room was silent except for the monitors attached to Judd and the soft, suckling sounds Daniel made as he ate. Suddenly, Judd and then Agnes began to laugh until Judd grabbed his wrapped ribs and moaned.

“I didn’t know Lillian came in that shade of red,” Agnes said.

“Shame on you, Bess,” Judd agreed.

Bess defended herself. “Well, I couldn’t let her throw herself all over my husband. I had to say something. And I wasn’t about to hide in the closet to feed my son just because she was in the room.”

“Master touch, coffee,” Judd said, but his voice was growing weary.

“I don’t see how you could call that woman gracious, Agnes,” Bess confessed.

Agnes chuckled. “I didn’t say Lillian was gracious, dear. I just said her mother was. But that wasn’t a very Christian thing to do, even if she is disrespecting my daughter-in-law with her enthusiasm for my son. I wish she had stayed for coffee. We might have been able to come to an understanding.”

Bess shifted uncomfortably in the chair, causing Daniel to let out a little wail before she settled him again. “I just wish she’d quit making me feel like I’ve crawled out from under a rock.”

Agnes didn’t know about Christmas Day, so she could be forgiven the shake of her head. “I don’t think Lillian is being deliberately rude to you, dear. She just needs some time to adjust to the fact that Judd actually married somebody else. After all, you’re very pretty, and this happened rather suddenly, when she’s been trying to get Judd’s attention since they were both in high school.”

Bess glanced at Judd then, only to see that his eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling a little raggedly. He needed sleep, and their presence was only getting in the way. As usual, he was right. She sighed and made as quick a work as possible of finishing with Daniel.

They made sure Judd was comfortable, then left the room. Only after speaking with the charge nurse and talking to the doctor over the phone were they convinced it would be safe to leave Judd alone in the hospital as he had requested. Then, Agnes drove them home in a kind of numbing silence without even the radio playing to break up the monotonous slap of the tires on the caliche road.

They settled into a regular routine for the next several days, rising early to do extra chores around the homestead, making just a dent in the chasm left by Judd’s absence, visiting Judd in the early afternoon for a few hours as he continued to heal, then returning home to do the next set of chores until they collapsed in the bed at night, frazzled and worn.

Two more mysterious envelopes arrived during this time. Bess tucked them under the cushions of the sofa and tried not to think about them at all because just one more thing was going to burst the tenuous grasp she had on sanity. And she managed with some success to forget the threats were coming with increased frequency until it was almost too late.

 

 

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 18

When Bess woke again, it was to the soft cries of her baby boy, calling to be fed. She shifted, feeling the warmth of another body beside her, and carefully pulled herself out of the bed.

Shuffling across the hall into her room, she hurried to the crib, lifting Daniel to her shoulder and patting his back as she whispered soothing nothings and moved to the rocking chair. The moonlight threw a shaft of bluish light across her as she got the baby and herself into position. His cries subsided so that the only sound in the room was the creak of the rocker as she pushed them back and forth with one foot.

“I think that’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” Judd’s voice, raw and rusty, breathed from the doorway.

She jerked, turning herself slightly as if to hide. He was kneeling beside the rocker then, one large hand touching Daniel’s fuzzy head, his thumb just grazing the swell of her breast. Her breath caught, and she held it. “Don’t be embarrassed,” he admonished, his eyes on the baby suckling hungrily. “This is the most natural thing in the world, especially for a country boy like me.”

He turned his black eyes to hers then, searching. She smiled at his tousled hair, thinking how young and boyish he looked in the moonlight, trying hard not to notice his bare chest with the dark hair matted all the way to his torso.

“You don’t have to be up,” she scolded. “You need to be in bed.”

He grimaced. “He’s my responsibility, too,” he said, getting to his feet with an economy of motion and turning on the small light above the makeshift dressing table. He studied the stack of cloth diapers, the old Mason jar filled with safety pins, and said over his shoulder, “I can change a mean diaper. Shall I prove it to you?”

She didn’t know how to take this Judd, who seemed almost talkative, lighthearted even. Well, they said babies did strange things to men. She finished feeding Daniel and stood up with him over her shoulder, patting his back as the nurse had taught her, and moved to stand beside Judd in front of the dressing table.

They weren’t touching, but she could feel the heat from his body like a caress along her bare arms. She shook her head to dispel her foolish thinking, and turned to hand the baby to him. “All right,” she said in a hushed tone, though whether that was to calm the baby or a result of the awe she was feeling standing here with a baby and a husband, she did not know. “Show me what you’ve got, country boy.”

His large hands engulfed Daniel’s rotund body, but they were gentle hands as he deftly replaced the dirty diaper and freshened the baby’s bottom. He finished the job in record time, as if it were a calf-roping event at rodeo and not the first of many such daily things that spin around each other and weave a life. He held Daniel in the crook of his arm for a moment after, smoothing his finger over the almost translucent eyebrows, tapping the button nose and soft, pink lips.

The baby, fast asleep once more, turned himself into Judd’s chest and kicked at his diaphragm. Judd grunted softly, and Bess tapped his arm as if to say that couldn’t have hurt. Judd smiled wickedly and whispered, “Kicks like a mule,” before placing the baby carefully back in his crib.

They stood watching the baby sleep, side by side with just a hair’s breadth between them, until Judd yawned involuntarily. Bess wrapped her hand into his larger one before she could think better of the impulse and pulled Judd back toward his own bed. “Someone has to protect the citizenry and uphold law and order in the morning,” she said as they made their way to the bedroom.

“And throw out more hay bales for the cattle and fix the drip in the kitchen sink.” He hesitated beside the bed, his hand still warm around her palm. “I hope your okay with this arrangement, Bess,” he said into the dark, his voice almost a supplication. “A man and woman are meant to be together when their married, no matter what the circumstances.”

She gulped, feeling a little more like one of his cattle, part of the natural order of things, than his partner for life, but as a beginning, it was something. “I don’t mind,” was all she managed.

He pulled her into a loose embrace and kissed her temple. “Well, good night,” he said, then stepped away from her, rounding the bed to lay down on his side. Without another word, he crawled under the covers and was fast asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

Bess stood listening to the sounds of the now still house, his regular breathing, deep and rumbly in that strong chest of his, the creek of the siding where the wind whistled outside, the whisper of movement as the baby shifted in his crib. Slowly, she got under the covers, turning her face toward Judd’s shoulder. Carefully, as if any movement might break the spell, she reached her fingertips to lightly touch his bicep. The contact centered her, relaxing muscles she hadn’t realized were tight. In another two breaths, she was fast asleep.

She woke the next morning to find Judd standing beside her, the baby held close to his chest. As she watched, Daniel wiggled and fussed, kicking out his tiny legs. “This boy of ours has a big appetite,” Judd said, laying the baby into Bess’ outstretched arms. He sat down on the bed facing her while she nursed, one hand splayed across her thigh. “It’s Christmas in a few days. It’s been a while since we’ve had a tree with all the trimmings. Would you like that, for Daniel?”

Bess looked up, trying to keep her face from showing too much excitement and failing. “A real tree, like with ornaments you’ve had since you were a kid?”

“Complete with some presents from Santa.” He patted her leg, studying her. “Have you never had a tree, Bess?”

She looked up at the ceiling to hide the pain in her eyes. “It’s not a requirement for a happy life.”

“Look at me,” Judd ordered with that authority in his tone so that she did so without hesitation. “You can have as many trees in the house as we can fit in it, for the rest of your Christmases to come, and that’s all that really matters, right?”

The look he leveled at her, along with the words, started a tingly feeling in the center of her stomach that spread to her fingers and toes. The last time she’d felt it she’d been 13, playing hooky with her new friend, Laura, catching a Greyhound to the beach in Galveston, where they spent a sunny afternoon gathering seashells and kicking around in the foamy, white waves. Stepping onto that beach, seeing the ocean for the first time, the flat, blue horizon that went on forever, beyond herself, she’d thought how big the world was, how much more might be possible. It was the first time she’d thought she might not die alone and penniless, belonging to no one and having nothing after all.

Now, she was not alone. She had Daniel, and she belonged to Judd and to Agnes. She gave in to the luxury of forgetting about life’s losses and dangers and just breathed in the scents of her baby’s soft skin and her husband’s freshly-shaven jaw. Judd’s black eyes were piercing her again, and she realized he was waiting for her answer.

“I think everything that really matters is right here in this room right now,” she told him.

His shoulders seemed to relax. “Maybe you’ll tell me what you were thinking about just then, one of these days,” he said, not pushing her, but standing up instead.

“How about some breakfast?” Agnes called from the door, her arms laden with a tray full of food.

“I ate early,” Judd told Bess, bending forward to give her a light kiss on the lips. “I’ll see you two this evening.” He gave Daniel a kiss as well, then stood.

He passed Agnes in the door, kissing the top of her head in farewell. A few moments later, Bess could hear the front door open and close, hear Jethro’s welcoming bark as Judd’s car roared to life and pulled out down the long drive.

Agnes set the tray on Bess’ lap and opened her hands with a questioning look in her eyes. Bess handed Daniel to her and watched as her wrinkled face dropped years as it peered into the newborn’s wide open eyes. “I’m glad to see a truce of sorts between the two of you,” Agnes said as she rocked to and fro with the bundle in her arms and nodded in the direction where Judd had just left.

Bess was almost sure it wouldn’t last. Like finding out about her tree-less Christmases of the past, Judd was going to chip away at the pieces of her walled up secrets until he knew everything about her. And when that happened, how could he want her any more?

She knew one thing, as long as she could grasp hold of this tenuous feeling that all was well, she was going to do it with both hands. She kept that hope in her heart as she bathed her baby, as she helped Agnes cook pies and holiday cookies, as she put the finishing touches on the chambray shirt she planned to put under the tree for Judd.

The hope lasted through the next days as Judd brought home two different trees, a large Virginia Pine for the living room right by the fireplace with its stockings hanging from the mantel, and a much smaller artificial tree to be placed in Daniel’s nursery, as Agnes helped her string popcorn and cranberry garland and brought down boxes of family ornaments from the attic, as Judd lay sleeping beside her at night, sometimes slipping his arm over her waist so that she felt warm and protected.

It lasted right up to the moment on Christmas Day when Lillian descended on the household, spilling over with tales about Bess that ripped her fragile heart wide open, baring it to Judd’s cold, black glare so that Bess knew for certain what it meant for a heart not only to break, but to shatter.