It was Sunday, the day that Joshua normally came to call. Even as I pushed my palms into the dough, helping Mama knead it for bread, I couldn’t keep my mind from straying. Just the thought of seeing his sweet face made my heart beat faster.
“Where’s your mind at today, Mag-pie?”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I replied, turning my attention back to the ball of dough at my elbow, but not before she caught me looking at the door.
“I reckon he’ll be here soon enough.”
I flushed, hearing the smile in her voice. Joshua and I had been courting for the last three months and I secretly thought he would talk of marriage any day now. Though Mama didn’t say anything, I knew she shared my hopes. She’d begun buying new fabric, here and there. A bit of lace, some satin buttons. She didn’t try to hide them, but she didn’t mention them to me, either. We were both waiting, passing time until he spoke to my pa and matters were settled.
Truth be told, I was a bit worried that Pa might not let me leave the house today. We only ever went for a stroll around the property, talking, but knowing that my pa was vexed with me, I wasn’t sure if he would let me go. It had only been an hour ago that I’d been spanked for leaving without telling anyone where I was going. It was a severe offense where he was concerned and my bottom still stung from the thorough attention he’d paid it.
“Do you think just because you’re nineteen now and have a caller that you don’t have to follow my rules?” he’d asked as he’d swatted my bare behind.
“No, Pa,” I’d insisted, whimpering, even though I had thought he might be more lenient with me about to be married and all. I was sadly mistaken, which he proved by warming my tail thoroughly. He hadn’t stopped until I was a ball of wailing tears.
“You can’t leave without telling someone where you’re going,” he’d scolded. “It might seem awful old-fashioned to you, but it’s my rule and you will abide by it, y’hear?”
I’d promised I would and he’d sent me out of the room with orders to fix my face and then go to the kitchen to help Mama. Now I wondered if I wasn’t to be punished further by not being allowed to see my beau. Pa hadn’t mentioned it, but it would be just like him to tell me so in front of Joshua.
I didn’t have long to stew on it, because I soon heard Joshua’s familiar knock on the door. Pa rose to answer it, not giving me so much as a glance. When he opened the door and Joshua walked in, my heart leapt in my chest. He stopped and held out his hand to my father, saying howdy, but his eyes were searching for me.
When they landed on me, his lips spread into a smile. “Howdy there, Maggie.”
I stepped forward, brushing my hands on my dress. “Hello, Joshua.” The joy in my voice would be plain to any who heard it, despite the fact that I spoke in a near whisper.
“I thought I might take Maggie for a walk?” Joshua directed these words at my pa and I held my breath as I waited for him to answer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his slow nod of agreement and I carefully schooled my features so that my eagerness didn’t show.
“You’ve got flour all over your dress!” Mama scolded with a sigh. “Go on and change and then you can go with your young man.”
I beamed a smile at her before practically skipping to my bedroom. I quickly changed my soiled dress for a green muslin that Joshua had once told me was pretty. I got into the new dress lickety-split, but I spent a few minutes examining my reflection in the smudged-looking glass hanging on my wall. My cheeks were flushed with excitement, my eyes sparkling. My hair was in a simple bun for cooking, so I took the pins down and let my tresses fall to my shoulders one by one. Joshua liked my hair down anyway. I’d never thought of myself as a pretty girl, but with my dark brown hair looking soft as silk and my eyes bright with love, I nodded approvingly at the looking glass before making my way back to the parlor.
He was sitting by Pa when I came in, and when he looked at me, the twinkle in his eyes mirrored my own. “Are you ready?”
I nodded, glancing back at Mama. Her eyes were disapproving and I waited for her to say something about my loose hair, but she kept her lips firmly sealed. Joshua offered me his arm, which I accepted giddily before telling my parents goodbye.
When we had walked out of the house and down a ways, Joshua dropped my arm and took my hand instead, locking his fingers with mine before we continued on. The feel of his fingers touching mine sent a thrilling jolt crackling through my body hotter than the swelter of summer. Just being close to him, near his lean yet powerful frame, made me feel safe and protected. And the look in his eyes when he looked at me made me feel…
My heart pounded loudly in my ears, making me aware of the hot blood pulsing through my veins. When he looked at me with such fire in his eyes, it was easy to forget that he hadn’t yet asked for my hand. Joshua made things like logic and sense fly out of my head until I wasn’t sure what remained. What’s more, I wasn’t certain that I minded.
I could tell anyone who asked the exact moment I’d fallen for Joshua Accord. It had been years ago, when I was nearing my eleventh birthday. Mama had sent me to school in a brand new dress she’d sewn just for the occasion. When I’d seen it hanging in my room first thing that morning, I’d demanded to know where she’d found the time and she revealed that she’d been waking extra early every morning to get it done in time.
It was a beautiful red checkered dress with a full skirt and bits of lace sewn around the bottom. I felt like a queen in it and had to resist the urge to preen under the compliments my friends gave me as soon as I arrived. Wesley and Trent had called out their goodbyes and I was walking toward the part of the schoolroom reserved for the bigger kids when I felt someone bump into me.
I’d spun around, eyes widening as I felt something wet slide down the back of my dress. I’d seen Libby Park standing behind me, her mouth drawn into a perfect, round O. When I saw the ink bottle in her hand, I’d felt a wave of sickness crash against me, almost enough to knock me off my feet.
“Did you…” The words stuck in my throat, as sour as week-old milk.
“I am so sorry,” she said, sounding as sincere as she could manage.
I wasn’t going to have the wool pulled over my eyes. I scowled at her, about to make a scathing retort when Miz Peters, the schoolmarm, poked her head outside the door.
“Girls! Didn’t you hear me ring the bell?” Without waiting for a response, she swept into the schoolroom and Libby quickly trailed behind.
I hesitated, wondering how much trouble I’d get myself into if I went back to the house to change clothes. Maybe, just maybe, if I ran quick enough, Mama might be able to do something to save my dress. I was standing there, torn between the thought of walking in either direction when Joshua walked up to me.
I knew who he was, of course. Every girl in school did. He gave me a quick, easy smile that made my stomach churn for the second time that day, if for an entirely different reason.
“Howdy, Maggie. Are you late, like me?”
Wordlessly, I shook my head. I didn’t think I’d ever exchanged more than six words with Joshua in all the years I’d been coming to school.
“Well, you comin’ or not? How ‘bout we sit together today?”
I looked at him with wide, surprised eyes and scanned his face to see if he was somehow pokin’ fun. I saw nothing but warmth in his clear gray eyes and his wide smile. He seemed to smell like sunshine, and when, without waiting for my answer, he took my hand and led me inside the crowded school room, I felt my heart lurch in my chest.
Young as I was, right then and there I fell for him. As I took a seat beside him, even Libby’s whispered comments on the state of my dress couldn’t steal the smile from my face or the lightness from my heart.
We didn’t sit together after that, but my eyes were always searching for him, my lips always ready with a smile. As we got older, I’d never strayed from my affection for him, and rarely accepted attention from the boys who were willing to give it. Joshua seemed to be in a world apart from them, anyhow.
When he finally came courting, I could hardly believe it. Every week leading up to Sunday, I worried that our courtship had all been a dream I’d awoken from. When we walked side by side with my hand tucked in his, all the fear and doubt melted away. It had become our habit to wait until we were a good bit away from the house before we spoke. Joshua had been taking me out for walks ever since he’d first come calling; he said that he enjoyed the fresh air, but I secretly wondered if it wasn’t something more. I liked to think that he wanted me all to himself, away from the prying eyes of my parents and their old-fashioned ideas.
If they had their way, I was sure we would talk from opposite sides of the parlor, never talking about anything of importance. Not that we did anything improper on our strolls around the farm. It was true that he took my breath away every time he smiled at me in his quick, rakish way that was all his own. Seeing his luminous gray eyes looking at me made my body rush with warmth in a way that was both pleasant and startling. He’d put his arm around me more than once and kissed in a way that left me breathless from the very first moment his lips pressed against mine.
I was sure Pa wouldn’t approve, no matter how chaste the kisses were. No, I knew he wouldn’t like it at all, and although I fretted over the consequences if we were caught kissing so openly, part of me thrilled at the excitement. Though we rarely touched other than to hold hands, when I looked into his sweet, lively face I saw the yearning for more.
There was no denying that my body stirred at his touch. I desired him to claim me as his own—what woman with eyes in her head would be able to resist him? With his straight black hair, his fine, handsome features and snapping gray eyes, any woman would desire him. Not a single day passed that I didn’t thank God in heaven that he was courting me. I felt like every moment I spent out of his company I was holding my breath, only free to exhale when I heard his knock on the door.
“You’re mighty pretty today, sweetheart.”
My face warmed at the compliment and I averted my eyes. Was this what it was like to be in love? Did every woman feel so embarrassed to be paid a compliment? Of course, other women weren’t being called upon by Joshua, whose flattery left me tongue-tied.
Feeling hopelessly smitten, I tried to turn away, but Joshua’s hand tightened on my arm, keeping me firmly in place. I tilted my head to look up at him—he was tall, even taller than my pa—wondering what he possibly saw when he looked at me.
“This is when you say ‘thank you,’ if I’m not mistaken,” he chided gently. “Manners are very important, darlin’.”
“Thank you,” I stammered.
“No, don’t look away. Nothing gives me more pleasure than those beautiful blue eyes of yours.”
Joshua was the first man to ever pay me a compliment and I found myself hungering for more of them, vain as it might be. ‘Course, my pa didn’t cotton to needless flattery, and might be that he would have found it inappropriate coming from any man who didn’t have noble intentions. Not that anyone but Joshua would think of my eyes at all.
What was more, the way he met my eyes with his own, staring into them tenderly as he brushed a fallen strand of brown hair from my cheek, made me believe he meant what he said.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice stronger this time around. The words had barely left my lips before he leaned forward and met them with his own. The kiss was quick, but long enough to send shivers of excitement all along my spine. “Don’t,” I protested feebly.
“Don’t?” he echoed softly. “What are you sayin’? Can’t I kiss you, Miz Swift?”
“It’s improper,” I protested with a giggle. “Whatever would my pa say?”
“He’d probably say we should marry,” he replied with another rakish grin. “And why not?”
My heart began to flutter and before long it was beating wildly in my chest. Was this the moment I’d been hoping and praying for? Was he asking me? “Why not?” I repeated, holding my breath once more as I waited for him to speak. I found I was keenly disappointed when he let the matter drop entirely. Instead, he took my hand and led me along the dirt road, staring off at the apple trees that were in fruit.
Joshua led us over to one and we took shade under the large branches. He spread his coat on the grass for me, but even with that extra buffer, I found myself wincing as my rear made contact with the ground. I hoped it had gone unnoticed, but Joshua didn’t seem to miss much, especially where I was concerned.
“You feelin’ alright?”
“I’m fine,” I replied, practically choking on the words.
“Maggie,” he guffawed. “Sounds like a thumper if I ever heard one.”
I couldn’t meet his eyes or protest the accusation, though I hadn’t meant to lie. It was just that the idea of telling him the truth made me squirm uncomfortably. His eyes were fastened to me intently and I knew I’d have to acknowledge the truth no matter how much I disliked it.
“You really shouldn’t concern yourself,” I said feebly. “My pa just spanked me is all.”
His eyebrows pinched together as he frowned. “Why would he go and do a thing like that?”
I avoided his eyes, but answered truthfully. “I took my horse out without telling him or Mama where I was going.”
“I see.” His tone said it all. It was a conversation I’d had many times with my father, each of them ending the same way—with me bare-bottomed over his knee, waiting for the pain of his punishing hand. What’s more, Joshua knew all the details, so he understood more than most what it would cost me. “I would think you’d have learned that lesson well by now, Maggie. Perhaps your pa doesn’t strike hard enough.”
I gasped at his words, even though his smile told me that he was joshing. I protested even louder when he reached over and pinched my bottom cheek. “Joshua!” I squealed.
His eyes were laughing at me. “Not to worry, Maggie. I can see now that your father did a fine job. I just gave you a pinch, and anyway, soon we will wed.”
I nearly swooned at his words and the self-assured way he said them. “Truly?” I whispered, my heart pounding in my ears.
“Truly,” he echoed, and in that one moment I thought my heart would burst. I could hardly believe that a man so fine would want me for a wife. He scooted closer to me and looked at me in a way that was so intense that I felt my earlier blush deepening.
“I’m very stubborn,” I announced, as though he didn’t know this himself. “Pa says I’m more strong-willed than any woman should be, and—”
“But you don’t understand, I—”
“I know all I need to know about you, Maggie Swift, and I don’t want to wait long to make you mine.”
I would have protested further, but Joshua put a finger to my lips and the shock, if nothing else, silenced me.
“I will go speak to your pa soon.”
I nodded, struggling not to cry. I did not succeed as well as I meant to and one tear leaked out, trailing down my cheek.
With a low chuckle, Joshua dropped his finger from my lips and reached over to wipe the tear from my cheek. “Don’t cry, darlin’.”
“Happy tears,” I assured him, delighting in his tender attentions.
“All well and good then.” He raised a hand to cup my cheek and touched me with such gentle fingers that I shivered. “Don’t fret, beloved. Of course it’s you I want. You’re so sweet and pretty, Maggie. Why, the only thing softer than your skin is the morning rain.”
I flushed with pleasure. It was a compliment I’d heard often from his lips, but each time it felt like the first.
“You blush prettily too,” he chuckled, circling his thumb over my chin.
All too soon, from my point of view, he dropped his hand and I felt the loss of his touch keenly. I wished I was bold enough to reach out and touch him—to rest my head on his strong shoulder, or brush a hand over his rock-hard thigh, or loop an arm around his waist. I wondered if I’d ever be able to do those things without my cheeks turning hot.
“Nothing,” I answered, too quickly.
Joshua tsked his tongue and trapped my eyes with his. “That doesn’t sound like the truth to me.”
I tried to look at the grass behind him or the tree a bit further down—anything but those eyes that teased and scolded at the same time. No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t seem to look away. “It’s nothing a lady should discuss,” I said at last, my voice lower than the softest whisper.
Joshua threw back his head and laughed.
If there was anything I loved as much as his touch, it was the sound of his laughter. I couldn’t ever help but smile too whenever he did. His laughter was deep and rich and his whole body shook with it. It was so contagious I didn’t even mind being the source of it.
“I think I might know,” he said, still chuckling as he wagged a finger at me. “I have half a mind to take you over my knee.”
I ducked my head, blushing yet again. Joshua had never spanked me, or even really hinted at it except in play. The idea of being put over the thighs I’d just been dreaming of… of having my bottom bared for his eyes to see… his hard, strong hand colliding with my tender flesh… it was enough to make any woman blush.
“Don’t worry, my desert rose,” he said, twining his fingers in mine. “I’ll leave that business to your pa, for the time bein’.”
His words made an excited shiver run through me, a reminder that in a short time I wouldn’t spend every moment I was with him dreading the passing of time that brought him closer to leaving. One day, I would be able to touch him if I wanted to and to see him saddle up to leave knowing that he would be coming back to me.
* * *
I stood by his horse as Joshua mounted her. I was smiling up at him, forcing myself to keep my disappointment from showing.
For all my effort, I think he must have known anyhow, because he leaned down and kissed me quickly. “Soon, my Maggie, my desert rose.”
I took a deep breath, inhaling his sweet, manly scent and giving him a more genuine smile. I loved when he called me by the name he’d given me. “When will you speak with Pa?”
“By the end of the week. Until then, keep it between just us two, hmm?”
I nodded obediently. “‘Course. I’ll… see you soon.”
With his irresistible rakish grin, he tipped his hat and was off. I stood watching him until he’d disappeared from sight, leaving only a cloud of red dust behind. The sun had already begun to slide down behind the clouds by the time I made myself walk into the house. My brothers would be home soon and Mama would want help in the kitchen.
I opened the back door and slipped in quietly, but Mama wasn’t in the kitchen. In fact, the light wasn’t on, nor was anything cooking as far as I could tell. I was about to call out to them when the sound of muffled voices caught my attention. One of them was Wesley’s, which surprised me; normally this time of day he was still in the fields. Whatever could they be whispering about?
I knew I should let them know I was home, but my curiosity got the best of me and instead, I pressed my body against the kitchen wall, straining to make out what they were talking about in lowered voices in the parlor. I would have peeked around the corner if I wasn’t so worried about getting caught. If there was one thing Pa didn’t like, it was sneaking. If I was found out, I knew we’d make a trip to the woodshed.
“You’re sure about this, son?”
“I’m tellin’ ya, Pa, it’s being whispered about all over town. People are sayin’ he got the Harris girl in the family way. Her parents are madder than an old wet hen.”
“Well, I should say so!”
I pressed myself tighter against the wall, trying to breathe in and out slowly. If I’d been worried before, knowing Mama was in there made me even more skittish. I’d always thought my ma had unnatural hearing and the gift to see through walls. She seemed built to ferret out my misdeeds with amazing ease. I worried my lip between my teeth; I just knew if she looked my way, the wall would melt to reveal me standing there and listening in.
Just tell them you’re home, I thought. Just call out howdy and no one will know.
But I couldn’t. Not until I had some idea who they were talking about. I’d never hear otherwise, because Mama didn’t hold to her daughter listening to gossip.
“Any woman would be upset, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“This is a mighty big accusation, Wes. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’m not accusing him of anything, Pa. I just thought you’d want to know what folks was sayin’.”
“Well, now, I appreciate that. Do you think your sister has gotten wind of this?”
I inhaled sharply and then clamped a hand over my mouth. I stood frozen, waiting for one of them to seek out the noise. I was only able to relax when their talk continued on.
“I don’t see how she could’ve gotten wind of it.”
“Alright, well, if you hear something else you let me know. Don’t be mentionin’ any of this to your sister. She’ll only make herself sick worryin’.”
“I won’t, Pa.”
As I heard the jangling of a pair of boots walking past the kitchen, I wondered what Pa didn’t want me to know, exactly. That the Harris girl was going to have a baby? Why would he care? It didn’t have much to do with me that I could tell.
“I don’t know about this, John—”
“People gossip, Kat. You know that. I wouldn’t worry yourself over it.”
“It has to be more than that! Wesley is a good, smart boy; if he didn’t think it worth mentioning, he would have kept it to himself.”
“I’m glad he passed on the talk, but until we have some sort of proof of what he’s saying—”
“What kind of proof? Do you want to sit by idle until the Harris girl’s wearing the bustle wrong and bearing his child?”
I was more startled by the sharp tone she used than by what she was saying. I’d never heard Mama talk to Pa in that tone of voice before and wouldn’t have thought it possible.
“Watch your tone, woman,” he growled at her. I heard the sound of a loud smack, and winced, knowing my mother must be doing the very same. “I’m glad Wes gave us the news, but just because some bored biddies in town are gossiping don’t make him guilty.”
“What are we going to do?” she asked in a more subdued tone. “We can’t have our daughter consorting with a man who—”
“We don’t know he’s done anything wrong. You want to break up their courtship over some tall tale?”
“Don’t you think she has a right to know?”
I could hardly move or find room to draw breath—my chest felt heavy and tight. I couldn’t see why they’d have cause to call off our courting; especially now that we were going to be married. The things they were saying… my head spun just thinking about it. There was no way he could have strayed in the way they suggested, I knew that for sure and certain. Joshua wouldn’t do that to me. Besides, he’d never even spoken to the Harris girl, far as I knew.
“I don’t see that she does. Why worry her without cause? This idle talk will die down and Maggie will be able to carry on.”
“But John, might be—”
“The discussion is over for now, darlin’.” As sweet as his tone was, it was equally firm. “If things change, we’ll talk it over, but until such a time, you’re goin’ to keep quiet on the matter until this all blows over.”
I couldn’t see their faces, but I could picture them perfectly in my mind’s eye. I knew my mother’s head would be bowed in supplication and that my father would have stepped closer, covering her hand with his own. My parents had a wonderfully loving marriage, one that I’d always wanted for myself. The kind of marriage that I had thought I would have with Joshua. But with the things they were saying—
At that moment, the back door swung open and my other brother, Trent, came in, noisily stamping his feet. I tried to melt against the wall, but it was no use—Trent spied me straight away. If he was puzzled over why I was standing there hiding, his face didn’t show it.
If it had been Wesley who’d caught me out eavesdropping, he would have turned me over to my father’s justice without thinking twice. He wasn’t mean-spirited, he just had very clear ideas of right and wrong and didn’t hesitate to enforce them. He was a miniature version of our pa in that way. Trent, by and by, was made of the same ilk. He was just as moral, but not so rigid, which was why I sat still as a stone, waiting to see what he would decide to do.
With another glance in my direction, Trent stripped his gloves off one by one before walking toward the parlor. “I’m home! Howdy, Mama. Maggie should be coming in behind me shortly.”
I let my breath out slowly, sinking to the floor. I took a moment to get my bearings and push the questions I had aside for the time being. There would be time to think on it later. Silently, I thanked my angel of a brother before I made my way to the back door, which I opened and closed shut with a thud. “Mama!” I called out, hoping no one could hear the tremor in my voice. “I’m back!”
* * *
I had to get to him. I had to see Joshua and get him to explain. Was there even anything to explain? Maybe Pa had been right—maybe it was just gossips creating their own entertainment. Maybe…
But there was that small, niggling doubt that explained away every maybe my mind could create. It seemed louder than all of my other thoughts combined; it pounded alongside my pulse, whispering guilty, guilty, guilty until I thought I’d go mad. I had to have answers and I had to have them now.
Just then, Wesley walked in the door and I stopped my pacing to look at him. I watched him for a long minute, wanting to ask him so badly it hurt. I could tell I was making him uncomfortable.
“Howdy, Mags. You alright?”
“Fine,” I lied, hoping he didn’t see what it had cost me to say it. “Listen, I was thinking of going into town.”
“Really? What for?”
“I want to see Joshua,” I told him, looking directly into his eyes.
His unease was clear the moment the words left my mouth. “Aw, well…” He dragged a toe across the floor, avoiding my eyes. “I don’t know, Mags. I’ve got a lot of work to do…”
“I wasn’t asking you to come,” I replied, his evasive manner confirming everything I’d heard.
“Now, wait a minute, you shouldn’t go off by yourself.”
“Why would that be?” I asked, with a syrupy sweet smile. I had to admit, it was kind of fun watching my normally in-control brother squirm.
“Ah, because I wouldn’t want anything to, uh, happen to you, that’s all.”
“Well, I thank you kindly for your concern, but I’ll have Joshua to protect me.” I turned to leave, hoping he’d stop me and tell me what was going on.
“Hmm?” I asked without turning to face him.
“You know you need to let Pa know where you’re going. Go on and ask him and I’ll ready the buggy.”
I nodded dutifully and turned to do as he’d asked. It wasn’t what I’d been hoping for, but it would have to do. Perhaps he intended to tell me on the ride to town. Pa was just as evasive and skeptical of my going until I told him Wesley would be with me. Only then did he grant his permission to go.
If I’d expected Wesley to open up and confide what he’d heard in me, I was sadly mistaken. I didn’t know why I would be surprised; everyone knew that warm, brotherly talks weren’t like him. In fact, for the first few miles not so much as a word passed between us. I kept my hands folded in my lap, being torn between wanting to spur the horses on faster and wondering if we should turn back. For all I knew, Joshua might not even be in town and I didn’t have a mind to ride out to his house. His ma had never taken a liking to me, even though I’d known her since I was a child.
What would I say? I wondered. What if he took one look at me and thought I’d come because I thought him guilty? What if that was what I thought? I could feel the doubt hovering on the edge of every thought, waiting for a chance to have its say.
“Nice weather,” Wesley spoke up.
I shot him a glance and grinned. It was an old joke we shared. It never failed that the day we were planning on going to town the weather was dismal; today was no exception. The clouds hung low and were an ominous gray. The air was windless and stiff, as though the world was tense and waiting for some atrocity to strike. Maybe one already had—that was what I intended to find out. “You don’t say.”
“We could still go back,” he continued in our usual habit, though I thought I detected a more serious note this time.
“I don’t see why we should.” I left it at that and Wesley had no reply to offer. We rode in silence; the only sound was the horses’ hoofs pounding the dirt road as they trotted.
Wesley cleared his throat loudly until I’d turned to him. “The measure of it, Mags, is that some people are saying things. About Joshua. And I’d rather—”
“I know.” I was so relieved to have it out in the open between us, I didn’t let him finish. I’d spoken so softly I didn’t expect him to have heard me but I could tell by the way his body stiffened that he had.
“You do? How’d that come about?”
I worried my lip between my teeth, unsure how much to say. “I overheard you tellin’ Pa,” I admitted.
He gave me a sharp look. “Well, you could have said somethin’! Here I’ve been tryin’ to tiptoe around you and—”
“I didn’t hear much.” I took a deep, quavering breath. “And do you think it’s…”
“I don’t know, Maggie,” he said, his voice gentler.
I closed my eyes against the tears that threatened every time I thought about it. “I hope not.”
“What is it you hope to do, Maggie?”
It wasn’t until he asked that I realized I hadn’t the faintest notion of what I intended to say if we saw Joshua. What could I say? The only thing that sprang to my mind each time I thought of it was why. Why were they accusing him? Why wouldn’t he have told me? Why? As soon as what followed, I would find something to do to keep busy, not wanting to think about it.
“I have to tell ya, Mags, I don’t think Pa’s goin’ to be pleased that we came out here, knowing—”
“Then he should have told me himself,” I asserted.
“If you don’t quit interrupting me, Maggie Swift, I’m goin’ to turn this buggy around and ride for home.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, not troubling to hide my smirk. Same old bossy Wesley, no matter what the circumstance. I’d never thought I’d see the day where it would be a comfort to know that some things never changed.
He grinned at me as though I’d spoken the words aloud. “Don’t think you can forget your manners jus’ because Joshua is in a bind.”
I nodded at the gentle reproof. “What do you think is going to happen, Wes?”
“Aw, Maggie,” he sighed, snapping the reins harder. “I don’t rightly know. If it comes to it, I suppose…” It looked like he was going to add something, but he stopped short.
“What is it?”
He cut me a glance then faced the road, his lips pinched together. I didn’t think he was going to say anything more and was on the verge of pressing him when he said, “Lydia’s brother isn’t too happy ‘bout this mess she’s in. I hear tell he believes her story about Joshua.”
I winced at the news. I’d known Patrick Harris just as long as I’d known Joshua and he didn’t take this kind of insult very well. That was how he’d see it: an insult to his sister, to his family. Why, if Pat believed the rumors to be true, there was no telling what would happen. I wanted to talk to him about it, but my throat closed up, tight with fear. Oh, this was turning out to be a very messy business indeed.
“Here we are,” Wesley announced, pulling the horses to a stop. “Let me tie ‘em up and I’ll—” He stopped dead as I climbed out of the buggy and scowled at me when my feet hit the ground. “Maggie Swift, do you not listen to anyone?”
“I suppose you’d like a little visit with Mr. Park?” I suggested, giving him a sly smile. Wesley spent more and more time at the mercantile and though I couldn’t get him to cotton to it, I suspected he was more interested in the shopkeeper’s daughter than the dry goods.
“If you think I’m leavin’ you by yourself, you’re more foolhardy than—”
“Shhh!” I hissed. I could already see eyes turning in our direction, and I suspected it wasn’t for the pretty blue dress I wore.
“What did I say about you interruptin’?” he asked, jumping down and grabbing my arm. “There’s enough talk goin’ round already and I’m not goin’ to see your foolishness add to it. I’m goin’ with you or you’re not goin’ at all.”
Not for the first time in my life, I wished I was strong enough to pull away from him, but I knew it was useless to try to fight him. He meant what he said and nothing would change his mind. He kept my arm in his as we strolled past the shops. When I spied Joshua leaning against the wall of the feed store, I tried to yank away from Wesley, but he only tightened his grip.
“Do you want to give these old birds something more to sing about? You can’t go racin’ over there like some tottie!”
I glared at him, but he met my eyes without flinching. I stamped my foot impatiently, only to have Wesley pinch my arm.
“Stop it, Maggie. Don’t go causin’ a scene.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, without meaning it.
His dark eyes flashed at me. “Behave yourself or we can go right on home.”
“But then you wouldn’t get to stop in and see Libby Park!” I snapped, feeling ridiculous for arguing with him as my beau stood not ten feet away, but unable to stop myself.
“Fine, have it your way.” He pivoted around, dragging me around with him and began to walk toward the buggy.
“Wait!” I whispered in a hiss, but he didn’t slow an inch. I swallowed my pride—it tasted bitter going down my throat—and said what he was waiting to hear. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
He spared me a glance. “Alright,” he agreed, though the tight line of his mouth didn’t lessen any, nor the stiff set of his shoulders. “Let’s go over and say howdy.”
The world stilled as we walked toward Joshua. The normal sounds of town seemed to fade until I no longer heard the laughter of men or the cries of children. Even the sound of droning gossip seemed to soften. The minute I’d laid eyes on him, I knew that what they were saying just couldn’t be true. It just couldn’t. All I needed was the warmth of his arms around me, and all my doubts would disappear as though they’d never been.
Joshua was looking straight ahead, at what I didn’t know, and didn’t even look my way when we approached.
It was Wesley who caught his attention by clearing his throat. “Howdy there, Joshua.”
When he turned, his eyes were so dark they looked like pools of spilled ink. “Wesley,” he replied evenly. “What brings y’all to these parts?”
The shiver of delight that had run over my body when I saw his familiar face was turning cold. Why didn’t he look at me?
“Maggie thought to have a word.”
When his eyes flickered to me, they didn’t seem familiar at all. All the laughter and warmth had been drained out of his face until he looked like nothing more than a cold, hard shell of the man I’d been courting. “Howdy, Maggie.”
I felt a fist clench in my chest. I couldn’t remember him ever speaking so coolly to me before. Didn’t he still care for me? “Hello, Joshua. I… I wanted to see you.”
His grin came quick as ever, though his eyes glinted meanly. “Lots o’ folks come to see me nowadays. What’s one more?” He leaned over and spat after he spoke.
I stumbled backwards, shoved by the wall of his indifference that rose up to meet me. “Since when am I just somebody? I thought we… I thought I was special to you.”
“That you are, darlin’.”
“Then why—” I stopped abruptly when I realized he was laughing at me. I flushed hotly and felt the warmth rushing through me. “What the devil is the matter with you?” I snapped.
I felt Wesley jerk my arm, but I didn’t look at him. “Shush, Maggie.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Wesley,” Joshua drawled. “I rather like ‘er with a bit of backbone.”
I was trembling from head to toe, though whether from anger or otherwise, I couldn’t be sure. “Is it true?”
He met my eyes without blinking and I did my best not to flinch away from the coldness in his gray depths. “Why would you go and ask me a thing like that for? I s’pose it’s what everyone’s been askin’, but I reckoned you’d know better, Miz Maggie.”
“We’re supposed to be getting married!” I said through clenched teeth. “Don’t you think I have a right to know?” I felt Wesley stiffen beside me, but Joshua’s laughter told me plain that my brother was none too happy at the news.
“Well, that isn’t goin’ to happen anymore, is it, sweetheart? I already spoke to your pa and he reckons it’d be bad for the family name if you was to take up with an accused criminal.” He spat the word out, along with more spittle.
I felt my bones stiffen inside my body until I thought they would break. What was he saying? I’d never known he’d come to Pa. My father certainly hadn’t thought it important enough to mention it to me if he had. “This will all get settled,” I said stubbornly. “And then things can go back to the way they were.”
“The only way this is gonna be settled is with a bullet, darlin’.”
I swallowed over a throat that felt as dry as sawdust. “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“Maggie.” Wesley was tugging on my arm, but I only had eyes for Joshua.
“If something else is going on, I need you to tell me! I believe in you, Joshua!”
He smiled faintly. “I reckon you always will, won’tcha, Maggie?”
“I—” I spluttered, so ruffled by his detached manner. Before I could make a reply to the question we both knew the answer to, there was a ripple of commotion behind us that I couldn’t ignore. When I turned around, I found myself face-to-face with Patrick Harris.
He tipped his hat to me, though his face remained taut and determined. “Howdy, Maggie.”
I knew it was rude, but my mind couldn’t form a reply and I doubted my mouth could reply if it did, so I only stared.
“Joshua,” he acknowledged, turning his attention to my beau who met his gaze head-on.
“What can I do for you, Pat?” he asked lazily, crossing his arms over his chest.
“I want you to do the right thing by my sister, who’s carryin’ your bastard. Failing that, I reckon I want you to take a bullet to the heart.”
“Oh, ho!” Joshua remarked. “And you mean to give it to me, is that right?”
“That’s right,” he replied tightly.
I looked back and forth between them, my heart hammering so loudly in my ears I thought I would deafen from it.
“What’ll it be, Joshua? Do you intend to do the honorable thing?”
Joshua didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest by every eye on town being on him. Rather, he seemed to bask in the attention. “Honorable,” he repeated, leaning over to spit as though it’d left a bad taste in his mouth. “There wouldn’t be anythin’ honorable about marryin’ your sister, Pat. We both know that.”
Patrick lunged for Joshua, but before he could get to him, my brother was holding him back.
“Easy there, Pat,” my brother was saying. “You’ll have your satisfaction.”
“Get your hands off me,” he growled.
“Go and cool off a spell,” my brother advised. “You’ll get your chance.”
Patrick wrestled free and stood squaring off with my brother, huffing angrily. Wes didn’t give an inch. “I reckon he meant to be your brother-in-law, but I can’t stand by idle while he does this to my sister.”
“Settle things the honorable way, like you said.”
“So be it. I challenge you, Joshua, to a shoot-out here tomorrow at noon. Bring a doc. You’re gonna need ‘im.” Pat sent Joshua a murderous glance before nodding tightly at Wesley. Tipping his cap once more in my direction, he stomped off.
As soon as he’d stepped away, I heard the buzzing of wagging tongues begin again, louder than before. Joshua had watched the entire exchange without a flicker of emotion on his handsome face.
My heart was hammering hard enough it was like to kill me. It was some minutes before I could turn back to him and even longer before I could speak. “Is the Harris girl really… in a family way?” I persisted.
“Her brother certainly seems to think she is,” he replied.
“But why would Pat say you had a thing to do with it? I know you would never—” Before I’d finished speaking, that same impish, mocking smile sprang to his lips again, making me come up short.
“Did or didn’t don’t make a lick of difference now. I suggest you get on home and don’t get caught talkin’ to me. Enough folks has seen you as it is.”
“Will you come to the house?” I asked impulsively, stepping toward him with my hands clasped in front of me.
“Think of your reputation, Maggie. Folks wouldn’t like it none if they knew—”
“I don’t care what people think! All I care about is you!”
“I think we best be goin’ home,” Wesley said, taking my arm once more.
“Leave me be,” I snapped, shaking him loose. “Joshua, please. Promise you’ll come.”
His eyes slid to my brother and his grin widened. “Alright, Maggie. I’ll come ‘round later on after noon.”
I nodded gratefully and would have said goodbye if Wesley hadn’t pulled me away. I could hear Joshua’s low, rumbling laughter following us down the dirt road. “What’d you do that for?” I asked, trying to tug free of his iron grip.
“You shouldn’t be makin’ plans with him, he’s lookin’ as guilty as sin.”
“We don’t know that Lydia Harris really is expecting. Why, she could have made up the tale! And even if she is, that doesn’t make it his!”
Wesley had never looked so grim. “We’ll talk about this later, alright? We best get home.”
Just then, I noticed a gaggle of women had stopped to stare. Their eyes were following our every step and the thought that they had heard me made my cheeks flush with shame. I tried to smile at them, but no one returned the kindness. Instead, they looked away, covering their mouths, though it couldn’t quite muffle their animated whispers back and forth.
Even when I turned away, I could still feel their curious eyes burning into my back. Unable to get their judgmental faces out of my mind, I sat stock-still no matter how hard the buggy jostled me. I heard their vile whispers following me with the wind and strained to hear. But like their voices, the wind whipped by too fast for me to make out the particulars, touching my ear just long enough for me to know they were laughing at me.
Wesley led me back to the buggy without so much as glancing at the mercantile. I didn’t fight him or try to protest—I was weak as a rag doll.
We’d been on the road for home for a while before I even looked at him. His mouth was set in a tight line that looked permanently etched into his face.
“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked quietly, breaking the silence that had fallen between us.
“Can’t say I know for sure,” he said, and I could feel his eyes on me even though I was avoiding his. “I reckon all that can happen is someone is gonna get shot.”
“And you think…”
“I don’t rightly know, Mags. Pat… why, you know he’s the best shot…”
In all of Texas, I finished silently, having heard it many times before. “Why does it have to be like this?” I burst out. “Why can’t they just… talk it out or something that doesn’t involve spilling blood?”
Wesley guffawed. “Talkin’ is women’s business, I s’pose that’s why. Why, you wouldn’t know any of this if not for women’s gossip.”
“But it was your gossip that I heard, brother dear.”
Wesley shook his head at me. “Don’t sass, Maggie. You best curb your tongue when we get home, you know Pa won’t stand for it.”
How well I knew. I bowed my head demurely, all the fight plain shocked out of me.
“No matter what happens, Mags… you know you’ve got us. Me and Trent. And one day… well, one day, there will be someone else.”
Even if I hadn’t known it before, his words left no doubt that he gave Joshua up as a goner. If I were honest with myself, I could admit that’s what everyone would think. Even a small part of me already mourned, hard as I tried to silence it.
“No,” I replied brokenly. “No, Wesley, there won’t ever be anyone else for me.”