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.

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.

 

 

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 22

By the time the third ambulance had been called to the scene according to the police scanner, Agnes and Bess piled into the older woman’s car with Daniel in tow to head to the hospital themselves. They might not know the special codes the operators used to communicate over the police channels, but they could certainly tell that the bank robbers were not the only gunshot victims being talked about.

Bess held a fuzzy Daniel to her breast, where her heart was beating so rapidly, she found it hard to catch her breath. Agnes grabbed her by the waist, as if to help her stay upright, as they entered the hospital. “I hate that you have to meet the other wives under such strained circumstances,” Agnes said. “They’re some of the nicest women.”

Bess just nodded dumbly, noticing the movement all around her as just a kind of blur in her periphery vision. “Where do we find out about Judd?” she whispered, looking everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“We don’t know that Judd is here, dear,” Agnes assured her, but the voice, usually so steady, cracked just a little bit. “Why don’t you sit down right here with the baby, and I’ll see what I can find out?”

Bess sank into the blue bucket-style seat Agnes indicated and began rocking back and forth subconsciously, making hushing noises to the baby. She embraced the numbness with a sinking feeling that too soon, her pain would be real and piercing.

Agnes returned a few moments later, her face pinched, affirming the worst of Bess’ fears.

“How bad is he?” she forced past her lips, past the tight feeling in her throat that shot daggers into her chest.

Agnes snaked her bony fingers through the space between Bess’ arm and her torso and squeezed hard enough to cause Bess pain. “They have him in the operating room now. The surgeon will be out when there’s news. That’s all they would tell me.”

“He’s not going to make it,” Bess mumbled, voicing her worst fear, that fate or God had a target on her back, and she was not allowed to have any goodness or peace in her life.

“Don’t you think that way,” Agnes scolded, and the bony fingers sunk into Bess’ arm with even more power behind them. “We keep our hope on God, who loves us, Bess.

“Everyone I’ve ever loved leaves me, Agnes. If that’s what God’s love means, I don’t know that I want any part of it.”

Bess was sorry for the words almost before they left her lips. Agnes’ eyes, already sad, became stricken with grief. She cast them toward the ceiling and asked the monotone hospital tiles, “How do we plant these seeds into good soil, Lord?”

Bess kept her own counsel after that, refusing to go to the chapel with Agnes because she wanted to be where she could hear about Judd’s condition as soon as possible. Agnes left her reluctantly, but with her own need to feel even closer to the God she always carried close to her heart evident in her watery eyes.

Bess wasn’t waiting very long by herself before she was joined by several other women. They introduced themselves, but Bess didn’t remember any of their names. They were the wives of the men who worked under Judd. At least one of them had a husband who was also in surgery. Bess looked at the woman, with her stringy, straight brown hair and worn eyes and wondered if she were the wife to the deputy who had driven Bess home.

She had just returned from putting a new diaper on Daniel when a doctor walked into the waiting room, his scrubs splattered with blood, the lines around his eyes deep and dark. “Mrs. Taylor?” he said to the room at large.

Bess couldn’t make her mouth work, so she stepped up to him instead. He smiled gently at her. “The bullet clipped two of his ribs and punctured a lung. He was lucky, a few inches either direction, and he’d be dead on arrival. With a lot of TLC and rest, he should be up and going in no time.”

Bess would have fallen if the surgeon hadn’t reach out to grab her by the elbows. He made sure she was seated before standing to return to the operating arena. She reached out her free hand and grabbed his before he could leave her. “Can I see him?”

“He’s in recovery right now. I’ll have a nurse come and get you as soon as we get him into a room. I promise.”

Her considerable grip relaxed. “Thank you,” she said. She was seated only a moment longer before she stood to find the hospital chapel so she could tell Agnes the good news.

One of the women walked over to Bess. “Let me look after the baby for you,” she offered. “I’ll be right here the whole time.”

Bess hesitated, but only for a moment. She knew her roiling emotions weren’t doing Daniel any good. She kissed the baby’s head and handed him to the other woman.

A minute later, she found Agnes sitting in one of the pews of the small room dedicated to God on the hospital’s first floor. The other woman suddenly looked her age sitting there, her thin back hunched, her body drawn in on itself like an armadillo warding off an enemy.

Bess sat beside her and laid a hand that shook slightly on Agnes’ back. “The doctor says he’ll make it,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, Agnes, for the things I said.”

Agnes lifted her eyes then, and they were bright spheres that shined with a golden light. “Don’t be apologizing to me, now. Just, when the time comes, and you remember what you’ve said, you also remember that God has big shoulders to bear all the hurt of this world and an infinite capacity to forgive.”

Bess sealed the advice inside herself and continued. “He’s got some broken ribs, and they had to inflate his lung. We can go see him when he’s out of recovery. They’re supposed to send a nurse out.”

Agnes grinned. “When he’s out of recovery, they won’t have to send a nurse. I’m afraid the whole hospital will know.”

“Are you saying Judd doesn’t make a very good patient?”

Agnes patted Bess on the back. “I’m saying that boy has a hard time giving up control, kind of like somebody else I know.” She looked at Bess hard, so that Bess cast her eyes up toward the front of the chapel, where a stained glass window allowed the evening light to stream into the room. “Giving your heart to Jesus completely is the ultimate act of surrender, telling Him you trust Him to be the guiding force in your life. It’s a big step. I’m glad you’re not taking it lightly.”

Bess turned her eyes to Agnes, surprised at the praise, disappointed that she couldn’t just embrace Agnes’ beliefs for Agnes’ sake. But, if she had learned anything over the past months, it was that Bess’ relationship with God had to be on terms that were between God and Bess alone, not because of another human being.

Agnes stood up then and reached out her hand to Bess. “Let’s get back to that waiting room, so we’ll be ready when Judd starts roaring.” They were out in the hall when she added, almost as an afterthought, “I take it one of the officer’s wives has our little Daniel?”

Bess blushed. “Yes. I didn’t catch her name. There were too many of them, and I was too distracted. She has long, blond hair and almost purple eyes, about so high.”

Agnes nodded. “Gladys. She has seven of her own running around at home. Daniel couldn’t be in better hands.”

“Seven?!!” Bess exclaimed, thinking how much work even one supremely well-behaved baby was requiring. “She must be a saint. I hope her husband isn’t one of those who was wounded?”

“Not this time,” Agnes told her. “But the man has at least two pieces of shrapnel in him from his time in Korea.”

Bess walked with Agnes in silence for several steps before she worked up the courage to tell her mother-in-law. “I don’t know if I can take Judd being Sheriff after this. Please don’t be offended, Agnes, but somehow this is hitting me harder than even Daniel’s death. Maybe it’s because I’ve known Judd longer, or because it’s happening right here in front of me and not thousands of miles away?”

They stopped by the cafeteria as Agnes laid a staying hand on Bess’ forearm. Doctors and nurses in scrubs and uniforms flitted in and out of the wide, double doors that served as the cafeteria’s entrance. Surprisingly pleasing aromas of fried chicken and heavy, cheese-laden sauces filled the hallway just outside.

“Maybe it’s because you share a deeper connection with my Judd than you did with his brother. I know my sons, Bess. Truth be told, I would not have picked you for my Daniel in a thousand years, not to last anyway. But I’d have walked across broken glass to nab you for my Judd. They’re both fine men, but that’s the truth of it. It’s all right, Bess, to love one of them more.”

Bess felt the searing pain of her fear for Judd press in on her, and images of his black glare in those moments, too many, when she’d somehow disappointed him also filled her brain. The peaceful wholeness of the afternoon, before a bank robbery and bullets shattered everything, blasted her senses. The ups and downs of it, all at once, were suffocating. She struggled for breath and gave Agnes an almost desperate look. “If this is love, Agnes,” she breathed, “I’m not completely sure I want it.”

Agnes shook Bess’ arm slightly. “Of course you want it. Think how dead your life was before it happened to you, Bess. There’s no going back now.”

As they made their way to the waiting room, Bess struggled to keep her mind from exploding into a thousand different directions. One thing at a time, she thought. Get Judd well. Hope for no further mysterious threats. Think about giving up control to God. Talk Judd out of his dangerous profession when she had no right, really, to ask even one more thing of him when he had already given so much and she so very little.

They sat back down in the waiting area while Daniel slept contentedly in Gladys’ arms and visited quietly with the other policemen’s families until the first bellow sounded from a distant room. The nurse met them halfway up the hallway with a rueful grin, merely pointing toward the open door where Judd’s explosive commands made the walls in the hospital ring.

It was going to be a long, long night.

Posted in NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo: Day 17

She was so stunned, her mouth refused to work for several moments. She took a deep breath, forcing the air down to her belly to calm her flighty nerves. He couldn’t be serious, except this was Judd. Finally, she said the one thing that kept repeating in her numb brain, “You don’t even like me.”

He shrugged, and his warm hand tightened around her fingers. “I didn’t know you,” he corrected her. He took his own deep breath. “My brother already had to grow up without a father. I don’t want that for his son. Do you?”

Tears sprang, unbidden, into her eyes. If he was looking for the best argument to persuade her, he could not have found a better one. The idea of watching Daniel grow, of making a real family with Agnes and Judd so that Daniel had a mother and father for PTA meetings and a grandparent to drag to school Christmas parties swelled inside her, pushing aside all reason.

“All right,” she whispered, so softly that Judd had to lean in to hear it.

Moments later, Michael had finished the ceremony. Bess wore a simple, gold band on her left ring finger. Judd’s lips, soft and warm, had sealed the union with a brief, tender kiss. Bess lay back on the pillows and watched as Judd escorted the pastor out of the room, shaking the other man’s hand before turning back to her bed.

He put his hat on the window ledge, pulled the chair closer to the bed, and eased down as if his bones ached. Stretching with a rueful smile, he propped his boots on the foot of the bed and settled in as if to sleep.

“You don’t have to stay,” Bess told him, hating how uncomfortable the chair looked for a man who deserved a good night’s sleep.

“And leave you alone on your wedding night? I don’t think so, wife.”

The word floated between them in the still room. Even though she had been a wife before, this did not seem the same. This time, she hadn’t married to be kind. This ache in her chest, the warm feeling in her belly, they were reactions uniquely reserved for the man falling asleep in a chair too small for his tall frame. She realized with a shock that when she wasn’t fighting the urge to shake him hard, she was restraining herself from flying into his embrace and kissing him stupid.

Was this what it meant to love? She closed her eyes on the thought and soon fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Agnes did not respond to the news of the overnight nuptials with quite the enthusiasm Bess had hoped for. Instead, the older woman held Bess’ shoulders loosely and her eyes in a penetrating gaze. “Is it what you wanted?”

Bess nodded, embarrassed to admit her need. “Judd doesn’t exactly tell me what to do.”

Agnes chuckled before her face turned serious again. “It won’t be like your marriage to Daniel, who, for all his fine qualities, was really just a boy at heart. Judd is a man full grown and stubborn as a mule, even if he is my beloved son.”

“I want my child to have a Mama and Papa and a loving Grandma. You can’t know how much I want that.”

The nurse interrupted whatever response Agnes might have made to this pronouncement, bringing young Daniel, swaddled in a soft, wool blanket, for his morning feeding. Even though she had just married the man, Bess was chagrined to realize how grateful she was that Judd had left for work some time earlier that morning, when he leaned forward with a deftness of motion to peck Bess on the forehead before slamming his Stetson on his head and striding from the room.

Dr. Warren released Bess from the hospital later that morning. Agnes drove her home, making cooing noises to little Daniel, swaddled in his blanket and held fast in Bess’ arms. Bess stepped into the living room and stopped short, so that Agnes had to side-step to avoid running into her.

“I don’t believe it,” she said in despair, recalling a previous conversation with Judd about things for the baby. “Daniel really will have to sleep in an old drawer. I didn’t get to finish buying all of the baby things before I had to go on bed rest.”

Agnes chuckled and stepped around Bess, motioning for the younger woman to follow. They walked down the hall and into Bess’ room. She gasped at the sight that met her eyes. A dresser with a padded top had been set up next to the closet, modified and painted a soft green to work as a changing table. Next to the twin bed, just under the window, sat a new baby crib, which gleamed a bright white in the early afternoon light.

Bess shuffled with a sort of awe into the room and gingerly laid her son onto the fresh, crisp crib sheet, a bright yellow linen with blue diamonds.  She nibbled at her lower lip to compose herself. Then turned to catch the bemused look on Agnes’ face.

“Well, you didn’t think we Taylors would let one of our own into this world without a warm welcome, now, did you?”

Bess collapsed onto the bed, reaching her fingers toward the door where Agnes was still standing, as if she did not want to invade on the mother-son sanctuary without an invitation. Agnes moved into the room slowly, as if she were approaching a wounded animal that might spook, perched on the other side of the bed and laid one bony hand lightly on top of the younger woman’s.

“This room,” Bess told her in a quiet tone so as not to wake her baby and because, in her present state, the awed whisper was all that she could manage, “has everything in the world I have ever been able to call my own.” She gulped convulsively, blaming the ordeal of childbirth for her emotions being just below the surface. “And I wouldn’t have had any of it if it weren’t for the two of you. How can I ever thank you enough?”

“Don’t talk that way to Judd, dear,” Agnes frowned. “The last thing you want him to think is that you married him out of gratitude.”

“Of course,” Bess stammered, though she wasn’t sure she understood. In her life, gratitude was as noble a reason as any to bind yourself to another. Binds were never long-lasting, after all. Somehow, the people in her life always managed to slip away just when she was coming to rely on them most.

The thought of loss shadowed her features, dampening the brightness and promise of the afternoon. She glanced at the cradle so close to the window and grimaced. “Could we move the crib to the other side of the bed here?” she asked, though her voice betrayed her, coming out more like a plea than a question.

Agnes looked at her, waiting, as if for further explanation. When none was forthcoming, she merely shrugged. “When Judd gets home, we’ll look into moving it. You aren’t moving anything.” She stood up and pulled back the corner of the covers Bess was not sitting on. “Now, you get in bed and take a nap of your own. You heard the doctor say that you still needed plenty of rest for the next few days.”

Bereft of argument, teetering between a certain euphoria and impending dread, Bess stood up and finished turning down her twin bed. As she changed into her flannel gown and slipped between the cool sheets, she couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow this would be the last time she slept in this bed with any sense of peace and comfort.

When she woke some time later, surrounded by a semi-dark that hinted at the length of her sleep, it was to find herself in one half of a full-sized bed, her senses assailed by the spicy cologne Judd wore clinging to the pillow under her head. When she turned toward the light, it was to look through an open door and across the hall, where the door to her room also stood open, giving her a solid glimpse of the crib, which had displaced the twin bed to stand squarely in the center of the small room, well away from the window.

At least one of her many questions about the marriage to Judd had been answered, she thought with a mirthless sense of dry humor. He meant to share his bed with her. When her body had healed of the childbirth, would he want her in that way as well, or would she be like his brother’s used seconds?

She thought, not for the first time, how much more he deserved a woman of better education and a higher sense of virtue. What would she do when he met a real lady, not a viscous shrew like Lillian, who saw past Judd’s craggy features into the strong, reliable man any woman would be proud to call husband? Would he feel cheated by Bess’ dubious background and somewhat shady past?

She shook her head and stretched, loving the feel of the wide bed. The die was cast, she admonished herself. Her strength needed to be focused on keeping her baby and her husband safe, no matter the cost to herself. If she closed off at least a part of her heart to both Daniel and Judd, she decided, then if the time came, she would be able to flee from them in order to keep the wrath of James Ruben from falling on their innocent heads.

She envisioned the dark corner of her riotous organ where visions of her mother and father, shadowy figures with only the impression of fingers and lips, eyes and curly hair, resided, the place where a dear friend laughed during her sewing lessons and still breathed fresh, golden air, and physically shut the thick, steel door she imagined cut that part of her heart away from the rest of the world. The key, a rusty, round thing with spiky edges, slipped into the shadowy lock and turned with difficulty. As she breathed out a sigh into the semi-darkness of Judd’s room, she imagined flinging the thick key with perfect accuracy into the dead center of the large lake a half-day’s walk from her grandfather’s small rock house, watched as it floated softly to the silt floor, sending puffs of fine particles and tiny bubbles as it settled. And then the dark of the deep, deep water closed over everything.

With a tiny cry that barely escaped her lips, she squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself back to a dreamless sleep.