Silence settled around Trey like lead. He didn’t want to think, but the events of the last couple of days kept slithering in and out like a rattler among rocks. So Mr. Taylor might be his pa. He hated the possibility—and the man. He was married—but he didn’t love his wife. How could he? How could he love the woman who now stood in the way of any chance to reclaim Claire?
The click of the door opening broke the silence.
“I said leave, Ben, and I meant it.”
“I’m not Ben. I’m Lily and I brought Miss Libby because she feels bad I stuck my tongue at you. She says I should ‘pologize, but I’m not the one sorry because you said mean things about Annie . But I am sorry you got hurted, so I decided to come see you and let Miss Libby tell you whatever she wants. She has a mind of her own, you know.”
He turned his head and Lily jumped when their noses clashed. “You’re still in your nightgown. Does your sister know where you are?”
“No, because she would say I shouldn’t bother you, but I don’t always do what she says because sometimes Miss Libby has other things for me to do instead.”
“Don’t you know you shouldn’t be in a man’s bedroom by yourself? Go on back to you sister and take your raggedy doll with you.”
Lily put her elbows on the bed. “Why are you always so cranky? Why can’t you be nice like Ben? I don’t like you as much as I do Ben because you always grumble and say naughty things about people. Miss Libby says you need to learn manners, but you know what I think?”
“I don’t suppose it would matter to you if I didn’t care to know, would it? Okay, let’s have it, then you get out of here and leave me alone.”
The mattress dipped as she replanted her elbows closer to him. “Well, I talked with Miss Libby about this. I think what you really need is to love Jesus. Do you know who He is? I don’t know how He does it, but He can come live in you heart if you ‘vite Him in. You can’t see Him, but if He’s in there then it makes Him sad when you’re mean and He tells you only you don’t really hear Him talking. You just can think the things He tells you and SueAnna says that is the Holy…that’s the …I can’t remember what she says only it’s Holy.”
Did this child ever take a breath? “You mean the Holy Ghost?”
She giggled. “No, silly. Ghostes aren’t holy. Ghostes aren’t even real, are they?” Her eyes got big and she inched even closer.
She jumped and two fat tears ran down her face. “See! You’re mean. I know Jesus is living in my heart cuz I ‘vited Him, but I don’t feel very nice for you. I wanted to help you feel better but now I’m glad I stuck my tongue at you. And I don’t know what the Holy thing is, but if it tells me I have to say sorry again I’m not going to do it because you aren’t nice.”
Lily walked to the door, then stopped and came back and shook her finger at him. “Ben said I should ask you if you needed anything necessary. But even if you do, I’m not going to tell him because then you will know how it feels to have somebody be mean to you.”
The door clicked behind her, but to Willie it sounded like a jail door slamming shut. Was he really mean? Ma’s heart would break if she knew what he’d become.
“Ben. Beenn,” please let someone hear me.
He closed his eyes and continued to yell. When footsteps approached the bed he breathed a sigh of relief—until he opened his eyes and saw it was SueAnna.
“I was hollering for Ben.”
“Yes, I could hear you. But Ben went out. I guess you forgot there was a bell beside your bed so you needn’t yell.”
She moved to the window and he caught a whiff of rose petals as she passed.
“Maybe a little sunshine will make you feel better.” She pushed the curtains to one side. “Would you like more water? Doc Thayer says you can eat something if you feel like it. What would you like?”
He scrunched his eyes closed. “I’d like for Ben to get in here. And no, I don’t need any more water.” Did she leave? Why doesn’t she say something? How hard would it be to let him know she’d call for Ben?”
“You still here? I told you I want Ben.”
“And I told you he wasn’t in the house.”
He opened his eyes and met hers, rimmed with dark circles and full of tears.
“I don’t know why my presence continues to make you so angry. No matter what you think of me, I’m not the husband-hungry female you seem to believe I am. And it’s not my fault I’m not the woman you wish were here. As soon as Mr. Covington is able to be up and around on his own, I’ll take Lily and go back to the Nelsons. Under the circumstances, I’m sure there will be no problem having this marriage annulled. In the meantime, couldn’t we at least be civil to one another? Now, what can I do to help you? That’s why I’m here, isn’t it? Hired help?”
Well, at least he knew Lily got her long windedness honestly. “I don’t want your help. I need Ben.” Why did he scream at her when she’d never raised her voice?”
“Then you’ll have to wait until I can find Ben. Do you wish to have breakfast?” She removed the pillow from behind his head.
“I told you I didn’t want anything from you. Why did you let me think you was Claire? Did you enjoy letting me make a fool of myself?” The words sounded cruel even to him.
She plumped the pillow and put it back behind him, then wound her hands in her skirt. “I wasn’t trying to be dishonest, Trey. You wanted it to be Claire, and I didn’t think it would hurt. Thinking about her is probably what kept you from giving up.”
“You could have told me who you were instead of letting me touch you all over.”
She smiled at him. “You didn’t touch me all over. You touched my face and convinced yourself I was who you wanted me to be. I couldn’t just leave you there. I never intended for you to find out it was me. I suppose I have Ben to thank for that.”
He turned away from her. Why didn’t she snap at him like he did at her? Claire would have. Claire wouldn’t have let him get by with his rudeness. He would get mad and ride off in a huff then come back the next day for more. But SueAnna—
“You love her, don’t you?”
“Love who?” The question cut into his thoughts of SueAnna.
“Claire. You still love Claire Hudson.” She lowered her eyes
“Are you going to go after her? Doc told me he was thinking about asking Mr. Covington to allow you to go.”
“And what good would that do? I already have a wife.”
Her eyes watered, but she didn’t look away. “I think you should go. I’ve already told you, I’ll take Lily and go back to the Nelsons. We both know this marriage is a sham. It’s not like I’d be asking for a divorce.”
“You want me to leave? Just like that?” Why was she so eager? Isn’t that what he wanted to hear?
“Oh, I get it. I leave and Ben stays. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Ben has nothing to do with this conversation. I don’t want to be the one who stands in the way of your happiness, that’s all. What good would it do if we were to stay married if you love someone else? We don’t even know one another, Trey. We don’t know if we would have ever loved one another if things had been different. But unless you go looking for her, you’ll never know. Will you?”
“And what would become of you? How would you make enough money at Nelsons to care for you and Lily? Where did that thought come from? You’ve never cared before.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’d send my name into one of those mail order bride places. I’m sure there’d be somebody out there who would like a housekeeper–and her little sister.”
“You wouldn’t do that. I…that would be a dumb thing to do. It would be dangerous. You could get some guy who wouldn’t even—”
“Wouldn’t love me? And that would be different than what, Trey?” She swiped at a tear. “I’m sorry. That was unnecessary.”
“I deserved it.”
She got to her feet and the fragrance of rose petals engulfed him again.
“Thank you for finding me.”
She shrugged. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
“But you wouldn’t have had to help hunt for me.”
“And what kind of wife would that make me? I”ll get Ben.”
“Thank you…for everything.”
She smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Her presence lingered even after she left the room and it bothered him. He’d seen her smile before, but why did it cause his chest to tighten today?
And why did the smell of rose petals send his senses into a whirl?