Sage Bowen sat back in his chair and propped his feet on a nail keg. “You don’t think anyone will come looking for us in here?”
“It’s not like we’re hiding. Just need a place to talk. It’s good to see you, friend. It’s been way too long.” Peter pushed another log into the wood stove in the middle of the mercantile and leaned back against his chair. “What more could we ask for—warm room, coffee pot full of fresh coffee, and a long night stretched ahead of us.” He laughed.
“Sorry to keep you from the warmth of your wife’s bed,” Sage teased. “She’s beautiful, Peter. Congratulations.”
“She is beautiful, and thank you. I almost lost her, though.”
“Trey Martin?” Sage didn’t try to keep the sarcasm from his voice as he spit out the name.
“Not at all. I thought it was. It was my own stupidity, actually. I was jealous and wouldn’t give either of them time to explain.”
“How do you feel about Rosie and Martin?”
“Why do you want to know? She’s married, Sage. They got off to a rough start. From what I understand, you showed up about the time it was at its worst. But I like the guy. He’s had a lot of stuff thrown at him over the last few months. Can’t say I would have been any different.”
“Do you think she loves him?”
“I’ll answer that myself, Sage.” SueAnna strode to stand beside Peter.
Peter stood and offered her his chair. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two alone for awhile. I don’t need to be in on this conversation.”
Sage shook his head. “No, you can stay. The three of us have known one another too long for there to be any big secrets.”
Peter shrugged his shoulders and pulled up another chair. “Okay, but just remember I offered.”
“How did you know where to find us?” Sage asked. Was Trey lurking in the shadows?
SueAnna snickered. “Not too many places you can go in the living quarters where you wouldn’t be heard by everyone. I knew you and my brother would want to go over old times. I just followed my instincts.”
“I’m still waiting for your answer.” Sage was pushing and he knew it. Why was he so eager to have his heart broken?
She put her hand on his arm. “I love him,” she smiled.
Was that it? She loved him? What had he expected—a blow-by-blow description of her heart?
“Does he love you, Rosie. Does he love you like you deserve to be loved?”
“Yes, Sage. He loves me.”
He stood and walked to the window. Now he wished he had allowed Peter to leave. “How do you know he won’t change his mind? How’s he going to explain to everyone back at Rawlings’—all those people who heard him introduce you as the housekeeper?”
SueAnna rose and moved to stand next to him. ” I choose to believe he won’t change his mind. And the truth is—when he introduced me as the housekeeper that’s all I was. But that has changed. I am now his wife.”
He spun and caught her by the shoulders. “Are you telling me, Rosie Morrow, that as ill as you have been he…he…how can you make such a statement?”
Peter jumped to his feet. “That’s none—”
“Stop it, Sage. You have absolutely no business to question me like this. The nature of our relationship is strictly between Trey and myself. I owe you no explanation, or apology for that matter.” She shrugged off his hands and turned to go.
His arms hung loose. “Don’t go, Rosie. I’m so, so sorry I put you through this. You’re right—you owe me nothing. I’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
“Do you mean to tell me you rode all the way here just hoping I would no longer be married? Tell me this—were you looking for me the day Winnie Hollings introduced us? You were just as surprised to see me as I was you. You haven’t been pining away for me all these years. Why the sudden interest?”
Her hands were on her hips, and one toe tapped a cadence of warning he remembered. He cowered with his hands over his head. “I know the stance. You’re gonna hit me aren’t you?”
She squealed with laughter. “If I thought for one minute it would do any good, I would take one of Lorna’s skillets to your thick skull.”
He took her hands in his. “Can you ever forgive me? I’ve made a real fool of myself, haven’t I?”
“I will always love you for the friends we have been and for the friends we will always be. I know you were only trying to save me from a situation that seemed impossible. But you, Mr. Preacher Man, are forgetting something you should have learned in seminary—we have a big God and with Him all things are possible.”
“Then you forgive me? Is that what you’re saying?” He smiled but his heart was breaking. She was right about one thing—he hadn’t been looking for her. But once he found her, he didn’t want to let her go.
She stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. “I forgive you. Now, I’ll go back to my box, like the good little puppy Doc insists I be, and let the two of you catch up with the past five years.” She kissed Peter, then left, but the fragrance of roses lingered.
He pulled his chair up to the stove and propped his feet on the nail keg again. “You say one word and I’ll deck you.” He smirked at Peter.
Peter shrugged. “Wouldn’t think of it, pal. But I’m curious. Tell me how is it that we now call you Reverend Bowen? This has got to be interesting.” Peter poured them each another cup of coffee and sat back down, his hands clasped behind his head. “I’m ready any time you are.”
“A girl.” Sage looked at his friend out of the corner of his eye.
“A girl? Okay, a girl. So?” Peter sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees.
“I’m a preacher because of a girl. You wanted to know, and I’m telling you.” He was enjoying this.
“There’s more to it than that, you clown. Spit it out.”
“Do you remember the Price family? They lived on the Morgan ranch south of you. A real rundown place.”
Peter scratched his head. “Yeah, I think so. But I don’t remember there were any girls. Only Price I remember was Reuben. He was a tall skinny kid with curly yellow hair and freckles.”
“That’s the family. There weren’t any girls, until Reuben went off and got married.”
“If you fell for his wife, I don’t want to hear it.” Peter leaned back in his chair again.
“No, I didn’t fall for his wife. But she had a whole passel of sisters. Reuben didn’t know they all came with the bargain. First thing you know, there he was—grinning like a schoolboy and carrying a wagon full of females everywhere he went.”
“So which one did you fall for?” Peter punched his friend in the shoulder.
Sage swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Kathryn—they called her Katie,” he whispered. There was a long silence as he fought a silent war with the demons of the past.
Peter laid his hand on Sage’s knee. “You don’t have to tell me more, you know.”
“I know. Haven’t thought about it in awhile and guess it isn’t as easy to explain as I hoped it would be.” He took a deep breath. “I was planning to ask her to marry me.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Early one morning, Reuben came driving into the yard with his wagon empty. I knew something had to be terrible wrong. And I was right. Reuben was hollering like a wild man and all I could make out was “Katie…Katie.”
“Was she sick?”
He shook his head. “No. She’d fallen from the haymow. You know, Peter. There wasn’t a mark on her. No blood. No nothing. She was laying on that bed looking like she was…was just asleep. She was so pretty. I thought at first it was a joke. I swear I could see her breathing.” He covered his face with his hands. The memories were too real—too difficult.
“I tried to pick her up. I still thought she was teasing. But she felt…she was in my arms, still warm—but she wasn’t there.”
Peter put his arms around him. “Are you sure you want to go on with this? I’ve heard enough.”
“No, you haven’t heard the half of it.” He pulled away from his friend and wiped his eyes. “After her funeral, Reuben brought me a book—a red book tied with a white ribbon. On the front it said My Memory Book in gold letters, and her name was inside, Kathryn Rebecca Lowry, age sixteen.”
“How old was she when you met her?”
“She’d just turned sixteen. I was nineteen. The book was a gift for her birthday.”
“Did you read what was inside?”
Sage nodded. “It was all about us…me and her. She even drew pictures of me. They looked funny but they made me bawl.” He sniffed. “The last entry was the day before she fell…and died.”
“This is tearing you apart, man. Please, you don’t have to tell me one more word.”
“Yes, Peter. I do. Her last entry was what decided me to be a preacher. She wrote—I love Sage, but I can’t marry him and I think he’s going to ask me. He’s a good man, but he hasn’t ever asked You to be his Savior. We talked about it, but he thinks he hasn’t done anything so bad You wouldn’t let him into heaven. You died for us both, Lord. Now I would be willing to die to Sage would believe and want to be in heaven with me someday. I hope he will understand how much You and me love him.”
He smiled. “Now I want as many people as I know to love Jesus and go to heaven to keep my Katie company.”
“Didn’t you question God, Sage? Weren’t you mad at Him?”
“I had lots of questions. And I was mad at everyone for a long time. Did some things during that time I’m too ashamed to talk about now, even to you, Peter.”
“But how could you get through it? What changed?”
“Katie helped me through it. I didn’t tell you all she wrote in her last entry. I didn’t even see it myself at first. One day, when I was at my worst, I sat in a horse tall in the barn and opened her memory book again. On the next page she’d written—The only thing better than being in heaven today, is knowing I will be there one day.”
Peter frowned. “That changed you? How?”
“I had no idea what she meant. How could she know, even before she died, that she was going to be in heaven? I didn’t think anyone could know ahead of time. I just always hoped that when the time came I would have done enough good things to make it. But she added a scripture at the bottom, and I looked it up.”
“For God so loved the world?”
“No—’For by grace are you saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
“And that means…?”
“I had to ask a preacher that same question, but it changed my life. I could never earn what God had already given to me as a free gift. Heaven is a choice, Peter—not a chance. Just believe. That all I had to do. He already did everything else for me when He died on the cross.”
Sage wound his arm around Peter’s neck and rubbed his head with his knuckles. “Think you can ever get that through this thick skull of yours?”
Peter unwound Sage’s arms. “Tell me this, my friend. Could you have ever loved my sister like you did Katie? Would she have been just a substitute?”
“Nobody ever takes the place of another person. I love SueAnna for who she is. She isn’t Katie. My love for your sister is because she’s just…just my Rosie.”
“Well, you best get past the my Rosie part, Sage. She’s not yours.”
“I know that now. But just between you and me, it’ll take awhile.”
They finished their coffee in silence, then Peter stood and give Sage a hug. “I’m glad you’re here, my good friend. See you in the morning.”
Sage was grateful for the privacy. The perfume of rose petals haunted him.