Trey sat his box of belongings on the floor outside Mr. Covington’s room. He’d risk the tongue lashing he’d likely get from Hilda so he could make one last effort to get himself out of this mess. Though it was unlikely his boss had ever loved a woman, he’d surely understand his need to at least try to make things right with Claire. And since he and SueAnna never…well, it wouldn’t be like she was a used woman. She’d not have trouble finding another husband to care for her and Lily.
“Who’s out there? That you, Miss Lily? You may come in, you know.”
Trey peeked into the room. “It’s me, Sir. Wonder if I might talk with you.”
“Come on in. How long you been standing there? You spying on me?”
“No, Mr. Covington.” He stepped into the room and bit the side of his cheek. This was going to be much more difficult than he’d imagined. In the first place, how serious could a conversation be with a rag doll layin’ on his boss’s chest? No wonder he was worried about somebody spyin’ on him.
“You must have something on your mind. Spit it out.”
The more he tried to explain his need to return to Claire, the more the muscle in Covington’s jaw rippled. The man was likely to grind his teeth plumb out of his mouth before he’d get an answer.
“Why did you marry this girl if you knew you had another one waiting for you?” He pounded both his fists against the mattress and the doll on his chest jiggled to one side but was quickly righted and given a pat on her back.
Did this big man realize what he’d just done? It would please Lily, but it sure looked silly. It was hard to keep a straight face but for certain this was no time to be smilin’.
“Why didn’t Ben marry her? Or is this Claire-girl someone you just decided would make a handy excuse?”
“No excuse, Mr. Covington—a reason.”
“Uh-huh. A reason. So let me get this straight. You can’t be a husband to SueAnna because you maybe have another lady waiting somewhere. And in the meantime, you want me to give you permission to go riding off into the sunset while SueAnna takes on Hilda’s responsibilities. And, of course if you don’t find this Miss Hudson, then you’ll come riding right back here and take up with the girl you’ve married as though nothing has happened.
“If I leave, Mr. Covington, I’ll not come back…even if I don’t find Claire waiting for me.”
“And if you stay, you have no intention of being a husband to SueAnna.”
He nodded. “We ain’t really married. Me and SueAnna never…we never…we didn’t…” His face burned and the words wanted to stick in his throat. His ma would be ashamed he uttered such private things.
“I don’t care to hear what you did or didn’t do, young man. You stood before a preacher and took a vow, did you not?”
He hung his head. “Yes, Sir, except—”
“Except, nothing, Trey. I can’t keep you from riding out of here. But I promise you this—you will regret every minute you waste chasing after a maybe when you have the real thing within your grasp. While I can’t keep you here, I would hope you’d at least be man enough to tell your wife—and yes, she is your wife—why you’re leaving. Now go away and let me rest. Oh, and by the way, you best let Hilda know your plans. And good luck with that one.”
Trey straightened. “You’ve been more than good to me, Mr. Covington. I’ll stay—for now—but I aim to sleep in the bunkhouse.”
“Where you sleep is up to you and SueAnna. I don’t care to be informed if and when you change you mind.”
He shrugged. “Guess I hadn’t planned to announce nothin’.”
“Then you understand why I need to stay in the bunkhouse? It has…well, it isn’t you, Miss Morrow. I just wouldn’t want to…well, to bother you at all. You know, up early, in late—” It sounded lame even to his ears.
“Actually, Mr. Martin, I’m quite relieved that you have no intention of sharing my bed. How you explain it to others will be your business. I feel no need to make our decisions public.”
“Yeah, well what about Lily?”
“What about Lily? You knew before you ever agreed to Mr. Bittman’s proposition that Lily would be a part of the arrangement.”
“But she talks all the time. What’re you going to do if she announces our business.”
“I will talk with her if the need arises. Can you even begin to understand what Lily has had to face in her four short years? I was eleven-years-old when Lily was born, and my mother never left her bed after that. I was 12 when she died. I’m the only Ma Lily has ever known. Then Pa died, and that left my brother Peter and I did our best to be both Ma and Pa.”
“Lorna mentioned a brother. Where is he?”
“I wish I could answer that question. When he left Elmwood, he was going to go back to Illinois to try to find work and purchase a place so we’d all have a home of our own again. That was three months ago.”
“And you’ve heard nothing? Maybe he’s not planning to come back.”
She crossed her arms across her middle. “You think I haven’t thought of that very thing? Peter is four years older than me. To be 20 and have the responsibility of two younger sisters, when he’s ready to take a wife, is a bit much, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Did he have a girl?”
“Not that he ever talked about. It’s just that he was old enough to be on his own without the the burden of caring for us. What about you?”
His heart plunged. Was she asking whether he had a girl? He had no intention of telling her about Claire. There was no need. He wasn’t leaving. He just wanted her to know he wouldn’t be—
“Was that question too difficult?” She cocked her head to one side.
“What about me?”
“You asked what I was going to do should Lily choose an inopportune time to announce you were not sharing my room. I’m asking you…what are you going to do?”
“Same as you, I reckon. Cross that bridge when we get to the water.”
Lily bounced on the side of the bed. “And I have a big bed, and it has a pink quilt, and Hilda says maybe Mr. Martin will build a bed for Miss Libby, only I’m not going to ask him. I’ll ask Ben. And there’s a big chest with drawers that can hold my things, only I told Hilda I don’t got many things, but she said that will change now that we’re living with Mr. Covington and you have a husband. And you know why I get a bed all to myself? Because Hilda says when a man and woman marry they sleep together, and there isn’t room in your bed for me so now you don’t have to sleep with me no more. Do you like that?” She gave another bounce. “Only I told Hilda I wished it was Ben you was sleeping with.”
SueAnna stilled the bouncing and sat beside her little sister. “My, it sounds like you and Hilda had quite a conversation. Did she really tell you all that, or did you ask questions?”
Lily grinned. “One time, a long time ago, like clear last Sunday, I told Mr. Nelson he was a smart man and my pa was a smart man and how did they get so smart, and he said it was because smart peoples aren’t scared to ask questions. So I ask a lot of questions and then one day I’ll be smart.”
She squirmed around and took SueAnna’s chin in her pudgy hands. “Will you and Mr. Martin get babies?”
SueAnna took a deep breath. As much as she wanted this little girl with her, it wasn’t going to be easy to be a mother before she was a wife. “Honey, look. For now, Mr. Martin is going to keep sleeping in the bunkhouse because…well, because this is a busy time of year and…and he might be out late and needs to get up early, and he doesn’t want to bother me. So I will be the only one sleeping in here.”
“So when Mr. Martin does sleep in here, then you’ll get babies? I want a girl one, if you don’t mind. And I’ll name her…let’s see,” she tapped one finger against her chin. “I’ll name her Kathleen AnnaRose. Would Mama like that if I named her AnnaRose like our names? Only I would call her Kathy. I like that name, don’t you? Only when you get a boy baby, then you can name him Peter so we won’t forget about our brother Peter. Do you think Peter got deaded somewhere? He’s been gone a long time. I asked Hilda but she didn’t know. Why are you crying? Is you mad with me?”
“Oh, child.” She tapped her finger against Lily’s little snip of a nose. “I could never be angry with you. But it is not good manners for you to talk non-stop. And about asking questions—how about if we make a deal?”
“What’s a deal?”
“It’s when we both agree to something. This is my deal. When you are with me you may ask all the questions you want. But when you are around other people you mustn’t bother them with your questions—or do all the talking. Is that a deal?”
She shrugged. “I guess. But how will I get smart if I can’t ask questions? And what should I do with all them words what want to come out? They’re nice words, Annie. I don’t let bad words come out.”
SueAnna squeezed her. “Even nice words don’t need to be said all at the same time. Okay?”
“Okay, but now I get to make a deal. Can I?”
“That’s not fair. You already did.”
She laughed. No, I meant that when you are asking permission you should said may instead of can.”
“Oh, well here’s my deal. My mouth isn’t big enough to hold all the nice words and the bad ones, too. So to make more room, when a bad word wants to come out I’ll just do this,” she bent forward, gagged then stomped her foot. “See, I let it out then stepped on it so it wouldn’t say nothin’.”
Well, SueAnna, you got yourself into that one, now how are you going to get out? It’s good that you want to stomp on those bad words, but gagging is not at all polite. Is there perhaps another way you could manage to let them escape without being quite so obvious?”
Lily pursed her lips, wrinkled her forehead and tapped her chin. “I think I need to talk with Miss Libby first. Oh, I forgot. Hilda sent me in here to tell you we should come eat.”
“What?” She jumped to her feet. “Lily, that’s been a long time ago. Please don’t tell me they’ve had to wait all this time for us to come to supper.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you they had to wait. But I’m hungry, aren’t you?”
She gripped Lily’s hand. “We’ll have to hurry, and I expect you to tell Hilda that you didn’t do what she asked of you.”
“You tell her for me, okay?” Lily jumped with both feet at the same time down each step.
SueAnna yanked on her hand. “No, it’s your responsibility to tell her why we’re late. And you will ask her to forgive you for not obeying her. Now, walk like a lady and don’t forget our deal.”
Lily held up four fingers. “See, I gots these many things to remember, just as many as me. Don’t hop down the stairs. Don’t talk so much. Tell Hilda I’m sorry and…and, I forgotted this one.” With each reminder she’d pulled down one finger and now had only one pudgy digit tapping her chin.
They’d reached the dining room, and SueAnna took a deep breath. Chairs scraped against the floor as the men gathered around the table stood as she entered.
“You sit down, sweetheart, so those men will.” Hilda called from the kitchen.
“I should be helping you.” She took a bowl of mashed turnips from Hilda’s hands.
“Nonsense, not this your first evening here. You’ll have plenty of time to try to teach this cowboys a thing or two, but for tonight you just relax.”
Lily took the bowl of turnips from SueAnna. “Ooh, now I remember my other finger,” she pulled down her index finger. “Don’t gag.”
SueAnna didn’t risk a glance at Trey.