Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 30

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Bess asked Agnes as the car pulled up in front of the pastor’s house, with its ocean-blue shutters framing the windows and rose bushes lining the walkway.

“They spread her brother’s ashes at Palo Duro yesterday, just her and Michael, poor girl. Even though none of this was her fault, she’s having a hard time even looking people in the eye, have you noticed? If we aren’t holding what happened against her, why should anybody else?”

The rumors around the small town had been flying since the night of the attack, especially since Judd had exerted his considerable influence to keep most of the details out of the papers. The latest story had Bess sneaking out to meet Samuel for secret liaisons while Judd was in the hospital. Only a thick skin honed over years of being an outsider kept Bess from hanging her own head in public.

Bess sighed. “Well, let’s do this then.”

They rang the bell twice before Michelle cracked open the door, her eyes red-rimmed, her hair disheveled. She made a wink of a sound when she recognized them and stepped back to let them in the house. Agnes walked inside and right up to Michelle, wrapping the younger woman in a warm hug that brought fresh tears.

“Oh, Bess,” Michelle said over Agnes’ shoulder. “I don’t know what to say.”

Bess thought about how kind Michelle had been when the pastor’s wife could have ignored Bess altogether. She’d given Bess newfound confidence in her sewing skills and included Bess in social activities when others would have cut her out. “There’s nothing for you to say. I’m sorry everything ended the way it did.”

Michelle’s eyes got a far-away look. “He won’t get a chance to redeem himself,” she said. “I think that’s what hurts the worst of all.”

Agnes moved back, placing her hands on Michelle’s shoulders so that she could look the younger woman in the eye. “I’m sorry we didn’t hear any last words from your brother, but we don’t know what happened in those last moments, Michelle, between Samuel and God. You can’t torture yourself for something that was never yours to control in the first place.”

Something passed across Michelle’s wan face. She gave herself a little shake and forced a smile. “We can’t just stand around here in the entry all day. Would you all like some coffee?”

She motioned them into her living room, where the sofa and many chairs offered proof of the household’s commitment to hospitality. As she sat down on the sofa with Daniel settled against her shoulder, Bess thought about all the church members and strangers who had been welcomed into this house. She could almost feel the energy of acceptance in the air around her.

Perhaps the routine of putting together a tray of drinks and treats settled Michelle’s frayed nerves. When she returned from the kitchen a few minutes later, she had more color in her cheeks, and her soft eyes had just a hint of their old sparkle. She handed Bess a steaming cup of herbal tea and sat back in the straight-backed chair by the couch with her cup of coffee.

Drinking the hot liquid, feeling it pool in her belly and chase away the last of her butterflies, Bess worked up the courage to ask something that had been bothering her ever since the night of the incident. She glanced at Agnes and Michelle, who were discussing the upcoming Valentine’s Day banquet, and took a deep breath.

“If I had died that night,” she blurted, startling the other two women, who sat down their coffee cups with a clink, “I wouldn’t have been redeemed either.” She swallowed, letting those words, finally spoken out loud, sink in. “I have a better life now than I’ve had in the whole of my life. I have a husband who loves me, a great mother-in-law, and a beautiful, precious baby. But none of that means anything if I am not in a relationship with Christ, my Savior, does it?”

Michelle moved to sit beside Bess on the couch, laying a soft, warm hand on Bess’ thigh and squeezing so that Bess winced. “No, it doesn’t,” she answered. “And you’re going to discover that being in relationship with Him makes everything that much better, especially when times get hard again.”

Bess grimaced. “Times definitely have a tendency to do that.” She studied the back of Michelle’s hand, still clutching her thigh, watched the network of bluish veins that shown through the other woman’s pale skin, like a map of the twists and turns of her own life, leading her here. Suddenly, her worries about giving up control to God, about not being good enough, seemed moot. She looked up to gaze into first Michelle’s and then Agnes’ eyes. “What do I do?”

Agnes kneeled in front of Bess and gathered all three women’s hands together. “You pray, darling,” she said. “Right here and now, you tell Christ that you know you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. You ask Him to forgive you because you accept Him and His gift of grace as your Savior. And when you pray those things, Bess, you believe them with all your heart, mind, and soul.”

“I do believe,” Bess said. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. The words came haltingly at first, but picked up fervor as she continued. Bess knew her sins were many, but that Jesus’ love was much bigger than those sins. When she finally lifted her head, she felt hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Her heart swelled, beating a happy rhythm in her chest.

Agnes took Bess’ face in her hands and kissed her forehead. “I’m so happy for you,” she breathed.

Michelle was smiling through her own happy tears. “It’s a life-long journey, Bess, growing closer to our awesome God, but the hardest step is always the one you just took. I’m so honored you let me be a part of your journey.”

Bess smiled. “You were already a part of the journey, Michelle. You and Agnes, and even Lillian. I can’t thank any of you enough.”

As they got in the car some time later, Bess turned to Agnes and asked her, “There’s something I haven’t done yet that I’d still like to do. Can we go by the cemetery? I’d like to introduce Daniel to his father.”

The cemetery was just off a lonely stretch of highway outside of town, surrounded by fruitless mulberry trees. There were tombstones that went back to the time of the civil war. The grass spread across the ground in odd patches, as if it were chasing water.

Daniel’s grave lay next to his father’s in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Their matching headstones were simple granite with their names and birth and death dates. At the bottom of each was the single-word epitaph, beloved.

Bess sat down on the ground with her baby in her lap, ignoring the dirt that could be easily washed out of her dress later. Agnes laid the fresh flowers they’d bought on the way to the cemetery at the base of each headstone, running her hands over the cool, flat granite. She sighed so deeply, the action seemed to start at the tip of her toes and spill out of her like a waterfall. Without a word, she turned and stepped away, out of earshot, to give Bess privacy.

Holding Daniel’s chubby hand as he lay in the hammock created by her crossed legs underneath her dress, Bess took a moment to really study the features that were all Daniel, the green eyes and perfect nose, the tilt to his smile that held the promise of the heart-breaker her son would become one day. A single tear slid down her cheek, splashing on Daniel’s blanket and leaving a paisley pattern in the soft cotton. She swiped at her cheek and looked up at the gravestone with her first husband’s name on it.

“Daniel Taylor,” she told the grey slab, “I’d like you to meet your little boy. Your brother and I are going to make sure he grows up knowing everything about you, especially what a hero you are. Not only did you give your life for your country, Daniel, I wouldn’t have this life if you hadn’t seen something in me that day on the Galveston shore.

“I owe you so much. I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know you better, to love you like you deserved. I can’t be sorry about falling in love with your brother, though. He’s a good man, Daniel, the best of men. But, you already knew that.

“Rest in peace, beloved. We’ll be back to see you here, but you will always be with us wherever we go.”

They were settling words, a kind of epiphany. Bess repeated them often through the years, as she and Judd came with a rapidly growing Daniel to pay respects, as more children, two boys and three girls, were bundled into the station wagon to ride to the graves, as they laid Agnes, 95 and mobile until the last, into the ground next to her husband.

All the while, Bess worked to grow in faith. She discovered with each passing year with Judd, with each child added to her family, that love had no limits. The more that seemed required of her, the more she had available to her to give. For the orphan-child who once lived without love, discovering the power of God’s love, the greatest love of all, was truly the key to her finally finding a home. ##

Dear Readers,

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I appreciate your patience with the stumbles of a first draft. In a few months, when the new has worn off these words, I’ll pick up this draft again and begin the next hard job of editing. “Use the best word,” Mark Twain said, “not its second cousin.” I’ll be searching for the best words as I edit.

If you are interested in reading some of my more polished writing, you can check out my books at ramonalevacy.com.

I will be publishing my latest book, Fire in the Bones, in the next couple of weeks. If you visit my website, you can sign up for my email list. I’ll send out an email blast when the book is available. When you sign up for the email, you’ll get instant access to the first chapter of the novel.

Have a wonderful holiday season as we celebrate the glorious truth that our God loved us enough to be born into this life of misery and joy only to die as a sacrifice for all, so that all might be saved.

In Christ,
Ramona

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 28

The call came four days later, a shrill bleating in the otherwise silent house. Everyone had followed the baby’s example and lain down for a nap after lunch. The last few days had been spent with the impending certainty of a reckoning, and yet each day passed without event, leaving everyone jumpy, restless.

Agnes knocked on the bedroom door, pushing it open a fraction and calling out in a hoarse whisper to avoid waking Daniel, “Sorry, Son. It’s for you.”

Judd groaned as he pulled himself out of the bed. He was back a few minutes later, tense and determined, his jaw working but no sound coming out.

Bess sat up against the headboard, wide awake now. “What is it?” she demanded, worried as much by the wild look in Judd’s eyes as his harried motion.

He stopped in mid-button. “There’s a problem at the university. They’re calling in departments from across the county.”

Bess held her breath. In May the year before, students had been killed protesting at Kent State in Ohio. Since then, other violent protests against the war had been occurring across the country. She looked at the bandage still covering her husband’s ribs.  She knew he had to go, so she just refrained from asking a stupid question. Instead, she got out of the bed and dragged the dress back over her slip.

Judd strapped his gun across his hip this time and sat on the bed to pull on his boots. He grunted with the effort it took. Bess walked to his side of the bed and kneeled between his knees, laying her head against his thigh. “You’ll be careful. That goes without saying,” she told him.

He grabbed her chin and lifted her eyes to his black stare. “I don’t want to go. I shouldn’t go, but they haven’t given me a choice.” He stood up suddenly, pulling her with him and grabbing her hand to walk her toward the kitchen.

Agnes was there, just filling a thermos with steaming, black coffee. She handed it to Judd and kissed his cheek without saying a word, but it seemed to Bess that a lifetime of conversing passed between mother and son. Judd took both women into his steady gaze.

“I can’t leave anybody here,” he said, “so you’re going to have to be extra vigilant. I want that rifle at arm’s length at all times. Don’t be answering the door or letting anybody in the house. Somebody tries to get in, you shoot first and ask questions later.”

Bess glanced at the rifle propped against the counter and shook her head. “I don’t know the first thing about guns,” she blurted.

Agnes touched her arm. “I do.”

Judd was moving toward the kitchen door. “I wish I had more time. I don’t like this, not one bit.”

The more he was talking, the more nervous Bess became. If he was worrying about her, his mind wouldn’t be on whatever was right in front of him. “We’ll be okay,” she reassured him. “Don’t you worry about us. You just worry about getting home safely.”

“Amen,” Agnes seconded.

Judd gave them each another long look before nodding sharply. Then, he was gone like a puff of smoke. Agnes locked the screen and closed the solid, wooden door as well. She turned to Bess and reached out her hands. “Let’s pray, Bess,” she said. “It may not seem like much at the moment, but it’s actually everything.”

Bess discovered that the words of thankfulness and praise made her feel better, even if her hands still tingled with nerves. She went into the living room, where she had her sewing things in one corner, and began working on altering more maternity wear, as well as making things for the baby. The work brought a numbing regularity to an otherwise discordant day. She could hear Agnes moving in other parts of the house. Once, Daniel fussed, then quieted. The wind outside whipped handfuls of sand against the window panes.

They were in the kitchen several hours later, pretending to eat the meal of salmon croquettes, green beans, and biscuits Agnes had put together for them, when the knock sounded at the kitchen door. For one insane moment, Bess thought Judd was back and rose as if to open the door. Agnes snaked out a quick hand and caught Bess by the wrist, shaking her head silently. The tension in the air around them crackled.

“It’s me, Samuel,” the voice said from the other side of the door. “Are you ladies all right in there?”

Bess felt her shoulders relax and took a step toward the door. Agnes’ grip tightened. Bess looked at her. “It’s only Samuel,” she said.

Agnes released her death grip. “Of course,” she agreed, but she went to the counter and picked up the rifle just the same.

Samuel knocked again and called out. Bess glanced at her mother-in-law, who nodded, lifting the rifle loosely to her hip, ready to raise it into position if necessary.

Bess opened the door and looked at Daniel, keeping the locked screen door between them. “Samuel, what brings you here today?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.

He was dressed in a three-piece suit and looked freshly groomed, as if he were expecting to meet a very important person indeed.  He smiled, exposing his dimples, and cocked his head at the screen door Bess still had between them. “I’m headed back home to Dallas, and I promised Michelle I’d look in on you all as I was leaving.”

Bess crossed her arms over her chest. “She couldn’t come herself?”

“She’s feeling poorly. Wouldn’t want to expose that baby of yours to any illness now, would you?” He pushed back the pin-striped coat and placed his neatly-manicured hands on his hips. “I don’t have to come in or anything.”

Bess felt a pang of guilt for her rudeness and unlatched the lock on the screen door, pushing it open with one hand. “Come on in. We have some salmon if you’d like.”

Samuel stepped into the kitchen but stopped when he saw Agnes standing in the corner with a rifle in her arm. “Were you expecting a different kind of company?” he asked.

“Can’t be too cautious these days,” Agnes said. She openly studied Samuel, who didn’t even blink, and she laid the rifle back in its place. “Would you like some coffee?”

“Please,” Samuel smiled.

He sat down at the kitchen table, sipping on the coffee Agnes laid before him, his eyes flitting around the kitchen, eerily quiet for once. Bess sat down across from him and went back to pretending she was eating, pushing the steadily cooling food around her plate.

“I hope Michelle isn’t feeling too poorly,” Bess finally said, just to fill the quiet void.

He shrugged. “It’s just the sniffles. She’ll be right as rain soon enough.” Pushing back from the table, he crossed his legs and studied Bess over the coffee cup he tilted to his lips. “I can’t believe how beautiful you look, even without makeup.”

If Bess was going to stay friends with Michelle, she had to nip this habit in the bud. “Samuel, I’m married, and compliments like that, well, they just don’t seem appropriate. Don’t you think?”

Agnes, who had begun to clean up from making supper, coughed suddenly. Samuel looked between the two women, but he didn’t answer Bess’ question. He took another sip of his coffee, sitting the cup down on the table with a distinct thud. He laid his fingers beside the abandoned cup and tapped them on the solid wood, his eyes never leaving Bess’ face.

“Beautiful women have a tendency to think too much of themselves, you know. But I thought you were different.” His voice had the same, content little rhythm as always to it, but something about the look in his eyes made Bess’ back stiffen suddenly.

She got up and walked over to Agnes, touching the older woman on the elbow as if to ground herself. This was Samuel, for goodness’ sake, weird but harmless Samuel. “Beauty is more than skin deep, Samuel,” she said. “Believe me, I have skid marks underneath.”

“Samuel, are you feeling all right?” Agnes asked before he could respond to Bess.

Samuel stood up and moved across the kitchen so quickly that Agnes stuttered backward, her hand flailing for the rifle propped against her corner cabinet. But, Samuel was faster. He knocked Agnes to the side with a blow to her head from his balled fist and easily grabbed the rifle as it started to clatter to the floor.

Agnes, laying prone, groaned pitifully as Bess whirled around, reaching for the large kitchen knife her mother-in-law used to open cans of vegetables and lard. She felt Samuel’s fingers in her hair seconds before he yanked her back, sending her to her knees. His arm snaked under her chin and pulled, cutting off her air.

As she gasped for breath, she felt Samuel’s hot breath against her skin and yet her body was cold. “Yes, I can smell the smut on you,” he rasped. “You’re much too proud, Bess, for a whore.”

“Was you,” she just managed through thin lips as the room became dark around her. She gasped and pulled against his arm, but the struggles were futile.

“Yes, how convenient that you had such tunnel vision. But then, women like you are always hurting men. You deserve everything you get.”

She felt the tears well in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall where he would feel them against his hand and laugh all the more. How ironic that when she had the most to live for, she was going to die. She would ask to see her baby one more time, except she was hoping Samuel had forgotten about the little boy sleeping peacefully, thank God, in the other room.

Instead, she used the last of her energy to swivel her head, hoping to make contact with Samuel’s skin so that she could sink her teeth in the meat of his hand. Her struggles came up short.

“Now,” Samuel said, lifting her off her knees and stepping with her toward the hallway, “you’ve been a naughty, naughty girl, Bess, and you’re going to make it up to me.”

If she were going to die anyway, she certainly wasn’t going to help him do it. Bess went limp, falling to her knees again, feeling the choke hold tighten with a flash of gut-wrenching fear.

Samuel cried out in anger, a mad sound that echoed off the kitchen walls. Suddenly, a flash of black and brown fur flew across the kitchen. Samuel cried out again, this time in agony, and the hold on Bess fell away. She scrambled away and up, using the cabinet to pull herself to her feet and grabbing the knife. She whirled with it in her hand, prepared to defend herself.

That’s when the room, which had been spinning, came into full focus. Jethro, his hard body stiff and bristling, had his jaw locked around Samuel’s neck. Blood spewed in all directions, covering Jethro’s slick fur so that the bloodhound looked as if he had been wallowing in mud. Samuel’s body convulsed on the floor, his knees bucking, and then he was still. Jethro began a low growl in his throat, then sat back on his haunches and howled until goosebumps broke out on Bess’ slick skin.

She ran to Agnes lying on the floor, shaking her lightly. Agnes groaned and opened her eyes, her thin lids flickering several times before she managed to focus. She looked over Bess’ shoulder, a grim set to her lips. “It’s over,” she said, pulling herself up against the cabinets and sagging there.

Bess grabbed her bony hand and held it, surprised to discover her own hand shook uncontrollably. “I’ll call an ambulance,” she said after a minute.

“No,” Agnes said. “I don’t want Judd hearing about this on the radio. He’d kill himself trying to get home.”

Bess glanced behind her, where Samuel’s body lay oozing blood. “What do we do, then?”

Agnes grasped Bess by the shoulders with two amazingly strong hands and shook her slightly. “We wait.”

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 27

The house wasn’t big enough, not for the eight dogs, including Jethro, crammed into the kitchen and the two patrolmen sleeping in shifts. It had been three days since the mixed labs were poisoned, and Agnes wasn’t about to lose another animal.

The officer sent to talk to James Ruben found a closed tattoo shop and no leads about his current location. Even with a description distributed throughout the state, no one seemed to know where the man was.

Judd grew restless with the waiting and his inability to do much more than bathe, eat and sleep. He barked orders to his men over the phone, chewed out the part-timers working for him on the homestead as they stood at the foot of the bed, and gave Bess a bracing glare every time he saw her shoulders tense in worry.

Sunday arrived with a sense of peace descending on the embattled household. Agnes had managed to loan all her dogs save Jethro to various neighbors, and Judd declared himself fit enough to sit up for church services later that morning. The house was eerily quiet as Bess dressed Daniel in a onesie that used to belong to his namesake and put herself in a maternity garment she had managed to alter for her rapidly slimming figure. Judd, decked out in his Sunday suit, looked almost handsome despite the severe lines of his granite features. He was dear to Bess, anyway.

He moved to grab his Stetson off the bedpost, and Bess saw the flash of the gun at his side. She gave herself credit for not swooning at the thought of Judd walking into the sanctuary with his police issue revolver in its shoulder strap.

“Is that really necessary?” she asked. Despite her worry and no word on Ruben’s whereabouts, other reports about the man depicted him as a model prisoner who, after recovering from his injuries, experienced a reversal of personality traits. One guard at the prison where Ruben did his time claimed that the new James wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“Somebody sent you those threats, Bess, and somebody killed Mama’s mutts. If not James Ruben, then who?” He took out his revolver as if to prove his point and checked the chamber, the click of the mechanism making a loud noise in the otherwise quiet room.

She walked up to him and pulled the sides of his suit coat together, buttoning them as she spoke. “Well, we don’t have to advertise your breaking the law.”

Judd rubbed her upper arms loosely, then gave her a light shake. “Don’t sound so mortified, cupcake. It’s my decision alone and no fault of your own.”

She leaned her forehead against his torso and wrapped her arms around him, leaning into the strength of him. She moved back and forth with the force of his breath. “I’m so tired,” she admitted in a small voice that did not sound like her own.

“I know, baby,” he breathed into her hair. “But it’s all going to be over very soon. I promise.”

When they arrived at the church, Lillian was the first person to see them as they entered the building. She looked like her usual self, and Bess felt her back stiffen as she wondered if the other woman’s apology had truly been genuine. As Bess watched, Lillian stepped up to her, laying a tentative hand on Daniel’s head. “I’m glad to see you all here this morning,” she said, keeping her eyes on the baby’s fuzzy scalp. “How are you doing?”

“We’ve been better,” Judd answered, his voice hard.

Lillian blushed. “I guess that was a stupid question.” She took her hand off Daniel and stepped back, seeming to draw into herself.  “I’m glad you all were able to come to church today. You look great, Bess. No one would guess you just had a baby.”

Bess blinked twice before she could respond. Perhaps the other woman’s apology really was genuine. “Thank you, Lillian. You look great, too, as usual.”

Judd placed his hand in the small of Bess’ back. “We better find Mama and get seated,” he told both women.

Lillian took a deep breath and looked Judd in the eyes for the first time. “I’ve already told Bess how sorry I am for my behavior, Judd. I promise if you ever get shot again, I won’t be throwing myself on top of you.”

Bess thought her mouth would unhinge and just managed to keep her lips shut. She looked at the grim set of Lillian’s lips and knew what the confession and apology were costing her. And yet, the otherwise proud woman was humbling herself. Not only was she apologizing for her behavior, she was also being kind to a woman who had essentially stolen the life Lillian wanted to have.

Judd must have been thinking along the same lines because he reached out his other hand and patted Lillian’s shoulder. “I appreciate that, Lillian. It would be a very good thing if we could all be friends.”

Lillian nodded, a sheen of tears glazing her vibrant eyes. “Done,” she managed, then nodded and turned to go to her own seat in the church.

Michael Jones gave a subdued sermon on loving God through good times and bad, on how a grateful attitude at all times draws one closer to the Creator. Bess sat between Judd and Agnes, cradling Daniel to her chest and absorbing the message as she was drinking in the warmth from the two people beside her.

As the congregation filed out of the church, Michelle and her brother Samuel stopped by the pew where the Taylors were sitting. “We’re so glad to see you, Sheriff,” Michelle said. “And how are you, Bess?”

Judd straightened in his seat, and Bess noticed that he was studying Samuel as Michelle waited for Bess to answer. “We’re holding our own, Michelle,” she said. “I hope to be even better soon.”

“Have they heard something about that terrible man who’s been threatening you, then? I’m so glad.”

Bess started, but Agnes explained from behind her. “It’s a small town, Bess, and we’ve been making some pretty big changes around the homestead.”

It made sense, but it didn’t make Bess any more comfortable. Judd stood up suddenly, lifting Bess to her feet with one, large hand under her elbow. He tucked Bess under his arm and stepped into the aisle so that Michelle and Samuel had to take a quick step back.

“Judd still has some resting to do,” Agnes told them.

Samuel stepped in front of Judd, ignoring the black glare and hard set of his shoulders. “Surely, you wouldn’t mind letting the little lady get out of the house for a bit? We’d love to take Bess out for a nice meal. A new mother deserves a break now and then after all.”

Before Bess could answer for herself that she was not interested in any excursions without her husband, that man gave Samuel a look of such restrained fury that the younger man blanched. “We’re going home, Bess,” Judd said, turning away from Samuel, who made a strangled noise deep in his throat.

“We’ll talk to you later, Bess,” Samuel persisted, and Michelle seconded the idea.

Because Michelle had been nothing but kind to her, Bess gave a little wave with her free hand before walking out of the church beside her husband. There was a certain heaviness in the air as they got into the car to ride home. Judd glanced at Bess as he drove. “Why is Samuel so keen on feeding you?” he fairly growled.

Despite the proof from her experiences with Lillian that humility could be a powerful tool in getting along with others, the question made Bess unreasonably angry. “Some men like to look at a pretty face,” she purred.

The car lurched as Judd reacted to the words as much as the tone. Agnes made a noise from the back seat and interrupted. “I have to admit, I didn’t like the nature of that conversation myself.”

Bess had to agree, but she didn’t feel like admitting it. She shrugged. “Samuel has always been like that. I think he speaks before he thinks.” Judd made a noise deep in his throat, and Bess glared at him. “At least he says more than two words at a time,” she told him.

Judd looked as if he would say something, then clenched his jaw shut instead. Bess looked out the window at the sun blazing across the winter landscape, and yet all the light seemed to drain out of the day. She sighed. “I know one thing,” she told the car at large. “He certainly isn’t worth this much discussion. I wouldn’t even be around the man except that he’s related to Michelle.” She turned and looked at Judd, whose eyes were focused on the road. “Should I quit having anything to do with the pastor’s wife?”

Judd shrugged. “Talk with whomever you want.”

Well, she didn’t like that any more than she appreciated his jealousy. The strain of being under guard all the time must be getting to them both. “Well, I only really want to be talking to you, so you’re just out of luck,” she said, reaching across to lay a hand on his thigh.

He glanced at it for a moment before laying one hand over hers and squeezing. “I’m lucky enough,” he said, taking the olive branch, lifting her palm to his lips and then weaving their fingers together.

After a few minutes of silence, Agnes chuckled from the back seat, where she was cradling Daniel and cooing at him, “Well, we’re glad that’s settled, then, aren’t we, Daniel?”

Bess looked over at Judd, who winked at her and went back to studying the road. She relaxed back into the passenger seat and relished these few minutes without the fear of the past days hanging in the air around her. If only she knew there would be a time when she was not living in fear. After all, even if they managed to stop the threats against her, Judd was still a sheriff, subject to being shot any time he went to work.

Some of the Bible readings she and Agnes had studied talked about God giving a kind of peace that would stand against all conflict and sorrow, the things that were part and parcel of a life lived in a fallen world. Was it possible for somebody like Bess to achieve that kind of peace?

Was she capable of giving up the part of herself that Christ required of her? More importantly, despite Agnes’ insistence to the contrary, could a perfect God really forgive the things a so-imperfect Bess had done? The questions continued to haunt her as they arrived home, to discover the single-word description of her past emblazoned across the chimney in large, red letters.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 25

They put me in my second group home the day before my thirteenth birthday. Group home. It’s a label that makes the taxpayers sleep better at night. 

For an orphanage, this one could have been worse. We were warm in the winter, even though we baked during the summer, when we generally slept bathed in our own sweat. They made sure we were clean whenever there were witnesses, at least. And as long as the bruises didn’t show, nobody got in trouble for bullying, which saved our hands and our faces.

Lydia came to me that first night, when the others had forced me out of my assigned bunk and into a corner and hard floor for my bed. She was 16, with the longest red hair and eyes so green, like emeralds. She tucked me in her own bed. It was the first time anyone had tucked me into anything.

When we weren’t in school or doing chores, Lydia would teach me how to whip stitch and hem, to read a sewing pattern and eventually create my own. Her mother had been a seamstress. Lydia said I needed to learn a skill to keep me honest in this world. It was the best year of my life.

James Ruben stood five-foot-ten in his bare feet. He had wavy, thick hair and a crooked smile, and he didn’t care that Lydia was only 17 to his 24. He wore expensive rings on his fingers and clothes that were fitted, not just off the rack. He took Lydia to fancy places, and he didn’t mind when she brought along her younger friend. He even called me sister, bought me the first, brand-new Barbie doll I ever had.

I don’t know how he managed to ferret us around. I still haven’t figured out how Lydia would be gone all night long, only to magically appear by morning. James seemed to know the rules about beating a girl, too, because it took a few months before he finally left a bruise I could actually see.

Lydia came up with excuses then, and I believed them with her. She was the only family I had in the world. For reasons I didn’t understand at 14, my devotion wasn’t enough for her. For the first time in her life, Lydia felt like she mattered. She was someone when James claimed her, even when he claimed her with his fists.

I found Lydia crying one night because James had another girl, some woman actually, with raven hair and blue eyes and curves in all the right places. She was crazy with grief, so crazy I thought she might hurt herself. I guess that’s why when she snuck out the next night, I followed her.

I knew there was going to be trouble when she walked into the tenement house. There were too many windows with only shadows of color, and men who whistled and laid hands on Lydia as she went up the front steps. An old man in a sleeveless shirt with tattoos that looked like blue rivers up and down his arms found me in the bushes and ordered me home with a fierce whisper that didn’t carry past my knocking knees.

When I didn’t move, he made me tell the whole story. He knew James, he said, and he walked me into that whore house bold as brass. There was a closet by the front door. He pulled the bat from there before pointing me to the right door. If I was bent on getting killed, he said, I might as well give Ruben a good fight.

I ignored the noises coming from the doors I passed, low moans and guttural laughter. The house reeked of alcohol and something swarthy and rank. There was a sickening thud outside James’ door, followed by a low moan. Lydia’s voice. I didn’t think then, just turned the doorknob, which miraculously turned.

He was on his knees on the bed, his fists pummeling so that blood splattered in all directions. He turned when he heard my stupid gasp. At first, his eyes didn’t focus. When they did, he laughed at the bat in my hand. He told me I was going to be begging for it, that I could just leave that useless stick by the door and come on in.

It all happened at once then. I saw that Lydia wasn’t moving, and there was so much blood, so much blood. I stepped backward to get away, lifting the bat over my head as I moved.  That’s when he lunged from the bed, still laughing, my Lydia’s blood still splattered all over him.

I don’t know what happened next except that I was never so terrified and angry in all my life. I heard the muffled thuds, the grunt, the sound like a melon breaking open. When I came back to myself, he was lying on the floor at my feet. The blood around his head was so red it was black, a big pool of it that threatened to cover the scruffy toes of my tennis shoes. And there was this piercing sound in the air around me, like a keening wail that made my flesh crawl. Except the noise was coming from me.

When the policemen came, they found me huddled under the covers. I’d pulled Lydia’s arm over me. It took three of them to pull me off her.

By the time they released me from the hospital, I was sent off to a foster home this time, with four elementary kids they made me feed and bathe. I didn’t mind because I had killed a man, and nobody seemed to want to punish me for it. All they’d told me was I didn’t have to worry about James Ruben any more. I didn’t get to see my friend Lydia buried, but I knew he was dead as sure as she was.

After two years of penance wiping snotty noses and watching my foster parents get drunk every Friday night, I fell in with some college drop outs, just some hippies really. It was protection against the world out there and warm bodies to huddle together on cold nights. We camped out under bridges mostly, picked up day jobs to pay for food.

In the summer, we moved south to the Gulf of Mexico. The sand wasn’t white like sugar, more like coarse grit, but the waves made a soothing sound and the water kept going and going. I might have gone on living like that forever, except one day I wandered into the laundromat to do some washing.

Milo Barnes was a big, round man with a happy laugh and ruddy cheeks. That day, he was trying to fix two of his machines while listening to three women complain because he’d lost yet another seamstress. He looked so helpless, I took pity on him. I offered to do the alteration jobs the ladies were hollering about.

They liked my work. Milo liked me. Before long, I had enough steady money to find some roommates who actually liked a roof over their heads instead of dreaming by the stars. That’s where your brother found me.

Until I saw that tabloid story about James Ruben and his tattoo shop, I thought he was dead. I thought I had killed him. And the only reason I felt guilty was because I wasn’t guilty about it.

Now that he’s found me, he won’t stop until he’s beat me to death. Up until 9 months ago, I probably wouldn’t even have cared. But I do care now, very much. The only thing I care about more is not having anyone else be a victim to that man because of me.

That’s everything, or the worst of it anyway.

So, what do I do now?

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 29

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.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

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.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

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.”

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

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.

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

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.