One week later
“I missed Thanksgiving Day, didn’t I?” SueAnna sat propped against her pillows while Trey brushed her hair.
He kissed the tip of her nose. “Not mine. The moment you opened your eyes and smiled was my Thanksgiving.”
“Trey, did you call me Annie? I kept hearing someone say, ‘Annie, my Annie’.”
He stopped brushing. “If I confessed, would you be upset?”
She shook her head. “Did you know I could think while I was sleeping? I could hear people talking and I had thoughts, but it was like I was in a deep, dark hole, and I couldn’t get to the top to let anyone know where I was. I tried and tried to scream but no one heard me.” Tears filled her eyes.
He thumbed away her tears. “Shh. Don’t tell me if it’s going to make you cry.”
“But I want to tell you this.” She took his hand and brought it to her lips. “Once, before Lily was born, I came in the house when my mama and papa didn’t know I was there. I can still see them standing in the kitchen, their arms around each other. And her called her ‘my Annie’, and then he kissed her. I never did let them know I saw them kissing. But by the way he said her name, I knew he loved her very much.
“And I love you very much, Mrs. Martin. Will you ever be able to believe me without being afraid?”
“When I heard someone call me Annie, I knew it was you. Usually my nickname was Rosie, but Annie was Papa’s love name for my mama. The night she died he called to her over and over again, just like you were doing. He kept saying, ‘Don’t leave me Annie. I need you Annie. Please, my Annie, come back to me.’ I heard you say those words and I tried so hard to climb out of the darkness. ” She sniffed and smiled at him.
Trey closed his arms around his wife and stroked her hair. “I didn’t want to live if you didn’t. I begged God to either make you well again, or let me die with you. I will spend the rest of my days trying to make up to you for all the pain and hurt you suffered because of my stupidity.”
“That would be dumb. What a waste of days those would be when we could be enjoying one another, and the changing prairie, and all that’s ahead of us. ” She nipped at his nose.
He held her at arm’s length. “But we do need to talk. Peter and Claire are still here.”
“I know. I thought about that, too, but only since I’ve been awake. I think I would like to talk to Peter. Could you send him in? And would you mind terribly leaving us alone while we talk?”
He scowled. “What about Claire? Can you—?
She put her fingers across his lips. “Let me talk with Peter first. Then we’ll decide what to do next. First, finish brushing my hair then go get my brother. I haven’t talked with him in over two years. Under different circumstances I would be wild with anticipation.”
“Do you have any idea, my Annie, how wild I am with anticipation?” His voice was husky.
She closed her eyes as he caressed her face. His touch was gentle, yet possessive. Warmth enveloped her as his lips found the hollow between her neck and shoulders.
He chuckled softly when she shoved him away. “I know, I know—go get your brother, right?”
“Court me, Trey. I want to get all dressed up and wait in the parlor for you to come calling. I want to giggle when I se you ride up, and swoon when you walk through the door. I want to see your eyes light up when you see me. I want to race you across the prairie, with my hair blowing and you hollering for me to wait. I want to do things in the right order. I’ve been a Ma since I was a girl, an a bride before I was loved.”
Peter stepped hesitantly into the room and leaned his back against the far wall.
SueAnna held out her arms toward him. “Peter, please come. I thought I’d never see you again.”
He approached her bed. “Yeah, well great homecoming, Sis. I should’ve come two years sooner.”
She laughed. “Two years sooner and you would never have left, silly. Here,” she patted the bed beside here, “sit and talk to me. I want to know everything that has happened since you started back to Ohio. I take it you didn’t make it all the way.” She punched him on the shoulder.
He sighed and propped one knee onto the bed. “There’s not a whole lot to tell—got as far as Altoona, Illinois, before I ran out of money. Found a job with a farmer—Claire’s father. The rest is history.” He picked at the covers on her bed.
She took his hands in hers. “What made you come back to see use? You never even wrote, Peter. We thought you were dead.”
He shrugged. “Guilt, I suppose. Claire’s Papa was killed, then her ma died and she grieved being an orphan, as she called it. It made me realize that I left you and Lily in the same predicament. In my mind, you were still little girls. I never thought about you growing up and getting married.”
“I got married to keep Lily with me.” She told him the story and watched his face cloud.
He jumped to his feet. “If I’d been here, you wouldn’t have had to marry the no-good cheater.”
“Peter Karl Morrow, I’m ashamed of you. You don’t know Trey, and I’m the only one with any right to call him such names—and I refuse to do that. You weren’t here, and nothing can be done about that now. You come right back over here and finish this conversation.”
He stomped back to her bed and plunked down in the chair next to it. “You can’t possibly mean you love this guy. How can you just forget all that took place? You do remember him holding and whispering sweet nothings into my wife’s ear, don’t you? How can you forgive him? Tell me, because I’m struggling to get that ugly little scene out of my mind.”
“Look at me, brother, and listen closely. When our mama never got out of her bed after Lily was born, I took care of her and the baby—I had no choice. When she died a year later, I became Ma to Lily and housekeeper for you and Papa—I had no choice. When Papa died and you left us with the Bittman’s—I had no choice. When the Bittman’s were going back to Ohio and take Lily and leave me—I made the only choice I had to keep this family together. But those days are gone, Peter, I am now free to choose—and I choose to forgive Trey. I choose to try and recover a marriage that might just have a chance. And I choose to go on with my life. Do you have any idea how good it feels to finally make decisions for myself?”
“But how can you forget?” He covered his face with his hands.
“I can’t—that’s God’s job. He is not only a forgiving Father—He’s also a forgetting one as well. We don’t deserve to be forgiven, Peter. Our sins nailed HIm to the cross just as surely at Trey or Claire’s. I choose to let him do my forgetting for me. But you’ll have to decide for yourself what to do.” She pulled his hands away from his face and kissed his fingers.
“They loved each other since they were kids. You think they’re going to forget that, Sis?”
“And you whined halfway across Ohio because you had to leave Sophie Walker. Have you forgotten her?”
“We were fifteen years old, SueAnna. Of course I’ve forgotten her.”
“Count backward, dear brother. How old do you think Trey and Claire were? Wouldn’t you be surprised if you saw Sophie again? Don’t you think you might do just what Trey did? By the way—guess who I’ve seen not so long ago.”
“Tell me it’s Sophie, and I’ll not believe another word you say.” His eyes crinkled in the first hint of a smile since they began their conversation.
“No—Sage Bowen. And you’ll never guess what he’s doing now. He’s a preacher. Can you believe that?” The smile on her brothers face was a relief.
“A preacher? You’ve got to be lying now.” He laughed and shook his head. “A preacher. What do you know about that? Is he here in Prairie View?”
“No. He preached at a little stage stop that the neighbors use for a church. He…well, he offered to bring me here to have the marriage annulled. He even hinted that he’d be willing to quit the ministry if I’d just give the word.”
“Why didn’t you? Would it have been better than what you have now?”
She slammed her hands on the mattress beside her. “Stop it, Peter. You don’t know anything about what I have now. And no, it would not have been better. I took a vow. What do you think Papa or Mama would have told me? Or, for that matter, what do you think they’d have to say to you? I don’t think I want to continue this conversation if you’re going to be like this, Peter. You’re bitter and angry. When you decide to deal with it, then you come back. I’m not strong enough to carry your baggage.” She turned her head from him and closed her eyes. Why—when for the first time she had a glimmer of hope that she and Trey could make a marriage and a home—why, did her brother challenge the wisdom of her choice? She wasn’t wrong. Was she? Was it wrong to want to be loved. Was it wrong to take another chance?
“Claire’s going to have a baby.” He sounded as though the death toll had just rung. “I can’t take a chance in this weather to start for home. And I can’t bear the thought of staying where she can see your husband day after day.” He stood. “I wish Sage Bowen would show up here. I could use a preacher about now. “He shuffled out of the room like an old man.
SueAnna leaned against her pillows. She was so very, very tired.
Claire raised her head from the table as Peter sat down across from her. “Does she hate me? Have I ruined everything between the two of you?”
He rubbed his eyes. “I don’t think SueAnna could ever hate anyone. Not even you.”
“Do you hate me, Peter? Should I leave? Tell me how to make this right. I’ll do anything.”
Her heart pounded. What if he did ask her to leave? Where would she go? What about the baby? “Sweetheart, please answer me. Don’t just sit there.” She couldn’t cry…there were no more tears inside of her. But fear tied a knot around her heart.
“I don’t hate you,” he whispered. “How could I hate the one person I love more than life itself? It’s just…Claire, it hurts so much. I try and try to forget, but when I close my eyes there you are again…you and Trey.” He laid his head on the table. “Give me time. I need time.” His voice was hollow.
“How much time? Will I know when you’ve forgiven me, or will this be between us for the rest of our lives?”
When he didn’t answer, she moved away from the table. It was that last thing she wanted to do—but she had to talk to SueAnna. Perhaps if his sister could forgive her, Peter would try to do the same.
She stood in the doorway of SueAnna’s room. It appeared she was sleeping and she didn’t want to awaken her. This was the first time she’d actually taken a long look at the woman who was Trey Martin’s wife. So tiny. So young. If only she’d known Trey was in this place, she’d never have agreed to come. But would she have been able to give Peter a reason? And would he have been any more understanding than he was now?
This was a foolish idea. Why did she think this fragile woman would even consent to see her again, let alone have a conversation. How could she expect her forgiveness?
SueAnna looked at the beautiful woman standing in the doorway. so this was Trey’s Claire? This was the ghost she’d been competing with—only she was real now. She no longer had to imagine what she looked like. And it helped her understand how hard it much have been for Trey to forget her.
Lord, I hope you have made a full deposit of grace in my account today. I’m going to need every bit it it. Trey has told me over and over how much he loves me, and right at this moment I’m choosing to believe him. Erase all doubts and fear from my mnd and replace it, Father, with the assurance of your presence. Give me a love for this woman, just as you have loved me.
She turned to the woman, still standing in the doorway, and held out her arms. “Do come in. It’s time we got acquainted.