He smiled. Slowly and with great relish, his gaze slid down her slim back, past the tight indentation of her waist, to the gently rounded curve of her butt. The often-washed linsey-woolsey of her dress clung enticingly to her backside, swishing with each step.
Tilting his hat back, he followed her.
They made their way to a small knoll some distance from the house. The windswept rise should have been no more than a hump in the unending golden fabric of the field, but even to Mad Dog it seemed to be more; a place, not just a bump.
An ancient oak tree stood guard over the spot, its gnarled limbs reaching protectively toward a small ironwork settee. Beside the chair, a rounded headstone pushed up from the well-tended grass, its white marble gilded by the sun’s uncertain rays. In front of it sat a pottery bowl of dying purple dahlias.
Mad Dog glanced at the inscription on the stone. Here lies the body of Greta Wilhemina Throckmorton. Wife, mother, friend. April 17, 1820 to December 23, 1893.
A sharp pain shot through his insides. He squeezed his eyes shut. Aw, Christ …
A whisper of wind worked through the oak’s leaves, chattering, welcoming. Slowly he opened his eyes, and found Mariah staring at him.
For once, there was no animosity in her eyes, and no guarded distance. "Are you all right?"
He felt a sudden urge to reach out to her, to tell her he understood. But he couldn’t move, didn’t move. He just stood there like an idiot, staring at her, feeling her pain mingle with his own to become a cold, heavy block against his lungs.
In the end, all he said was, "Fine."
She eyed him a moment longer, then turned away. Moving slowly, as if each step were dangerous, she crossed to the ironwork settee and took a seat. She perched stiffly on the scrolled edge, her ankles pressed tightly together, her hands in her lap, her face downcast.
Rass moved eagerly toward the tombstone. Kneeling, he replaced the dying flowers with fresh ones. "Sit down, son." Then he started talking to the gravestone in quiet, murmured tones.
Mad Dog walked around the gravesite and came up beside the settee.
Mariah didn’t look up.
He inched past her knees—brushing them slightly—and sat down beside her. The metal creaked beneath his weight.
She stiffened and scooted to the very edge of the seat.
Beside them, still kneeling on the ground, Rass cleared his throat. "Hi, Greta." His voice was lower and softer than Mad Dog had ever heard it before. A quiet kind of emotion suffused it—love, maybe, or reverence. The gentle greeting had a surprisingly strong impact on Mad Dog. It reminded him of the way his mother had spoken to him so long ago.
"We have a visitor with us today, Greta," he whispered. "Mr. Stone. I have great hope for him. What do you think?"
Mad Dog glanced sideways at Mariah.
She sat as stiff as a hat pin, her gaze stoically focused on the gloved hands folded primly in her lap. She didn’t so much as look at her father or the tombstone. Even in profile, he could see the tension that held her rigid. Her mouth was drawn into a thin, unforgiving line. A network of worry wrinkles creased the corners of her eyes.
She seemed … agitated—even more so than usual. As if she were holding on to her precious self-control by a fraying thread.
A sweet, lavender-scented breeze ruffled through the grass. Rass closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. A slow, potent smile worked across his face. "I think so, too,"
he whispered, though the words were lost almost immediately on the breeze.
He turned, looked up at Mad Dog. "Do you feel it?"
Mad Dog forced his thoughts away from the woman sitting so silently beside him, trying not to care why she looked so sad and alone and lost. "Feel what, Rass?"
"Close your eyes."
"Okay." He did as he was asked.
"Listen. Hear the wind …"
Overhead, the leaves chattered together, the breeze was a melodic, whistling echo.
"Smell the fruit. The apples, the pears …"
The sweet fragrance of the orchard engulfed Mad Dog, filled his senses. A reluctant smile pulled at his mouth.
He heard Rass’s slow, shuffling footsteps crunching through the grass toward him.
Then came the quiet creaking of old bones, and a gusting exhalation of breath.
Mad Dog opened his eyes and found Rass kneeling directly in front of him.
"That’s God," the old man whispered. "He’s not in some church, some building erected by hammer and nails. He’s in us, in the goodness we show to one another. In the love we let ourselves feel."
Mariah snorted. "Ha."
Pain glazed Rass’s eyes. He sat back on his heels and drew his blue-veined hands into his lap. "My daughter doesn’t believe." There was a wealth of tired sadness in his words.
She stared down at him, her face curiously devoid of emotion. "I did once."
Rass met her cold gaze with his own warm, caring one. "God isn’t like a game, Mariah. You don’t roll the dice once and then give up if you lose."
She didn’t even flinch. "Let it go, Rass."
"You let it go."
She rose slowly to her feet. "I’m done with church for today." Her gaze flicked to the tombstone and stuck. "Tell Mama hello for me."
"Tell her yourself."
Mariah didn’t answer, didn’t seem even to hear. She was staring at the small patch of clipped grass beside her mother’s grave. Something glinted in her eyes, something dark and agonized, then she looked away. Without another word, she picked up her heavy skirts and left for the house.
Both men watched her leave, Mad Dog sitting on the half-empty settee, Rass kneeling in the grass at his feet. Neither said a word.
Then, when she disappeared into the house, Rass sighed tiredly and pushed to his feet. Walking to the edge of the mowed grass, he stared down across the farm.
Mad Dog went to the old man and laid a hand on his rail-thin shoulder. He wanted to say something to comfort Rass, but such a thing was so alien, so totally foreign, he had no idea how to go about it. So he stood there like a fool, his hand planted on Rass’s shoulder.
"Ah, Greta," Rass whispered to himself. "Our little girl is hurting so bad—–"
Mad Dog said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Then, suddenly, Rass turned to him. "You could help her."
He frowned. "I don’t even know her." • "That’s an excuse."
Mad Dog wanted to laugh or turn away, but the blue fire in the old man’s eyes held him in a steel-edged grip. "Maybe," he said evenly.
The keen intensity faded from the old man’s eyes. A caring warmth replaced it.
"Excuses have a way of catching up with a man. Even on a backwater farm in the middle of nowhere."
Mad Dog stared over Rass’s white-haired head. A question hung on his tongue, heavy and demanding. He knew he shouldn’t ask it—shouldn’t care—but he couldn’t help himself. Something in Mariah’s face had touched him, and he wanted to know why. "What’s wrong with her?"
"You’ll have to ask her that yourself."
"She won’t tell me."
"Maybe not the first time. Try again." He looked up at Mad Dog, captured his gaze.
"You’re a fighter, aren’t you?"
"Not in that ring."
Rass gave him a perceptive, probing look. For the first time in years, Mad Dog felt
… vulnerable. Like the frightened, lonely kid he’d once been.
"Not yet," Rass remarked.
Mad Dog knew he should let the conversation die its uncomfortable death right there, but there was something else he needed to know. He tried to ask the personal question casually. "That patch of grass by your wife’s grave—what does it have to do with her … problem?"
He knew he hadn’t fooled the old man. Rass looked up at him, a smile curving the edges of his pale lips.
Mad Dog felt—crazily—that Rass was pleased by the question.
"Everything," Rass answered softly, and then he walked away.
Mad Dog stood there a long time, listening to the cant of the breeze through the autumn grass. Colorful leaves tumbled across his boots, swirled and danced above the golden carpet in a wash of green and burgundy and brown. The wind was a low, mournful dirge.
The old man was wrong. Mad Dog couldn’t ease the sorrow from Marian’s face, couldn’t lift the burden from her shoulders. That was something he’d learned about problems. You had to solve your own.
He put his hands in his pockets and focused on the strand of smoke spiraling up from the chimney. If he closed his eyes—and he was careful not to—he could have imagined Mariah inside the house. Her skin would be pale, almost translucent, her hands would be shaking. She’d be moving slowly from room to room, her back stiff, her hands clenched, looking for something to take her mind off her troubles.
Surprisingly, he wished that Rass were right, that he could help her.
Mariah stood at her bedroom window, staring down at the bunkhouse. A headache pulsed behind her eyes; every now and then her vision blurred from the force of it.
She rubbed her throbbing temples with her fingertips.
Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead against the comforting coolness of the pane. God, she felt so vulnerable and alone. The shield she’d cultivated for many years was gone, shredded. It had left her the moment she looked at that tiny patch of clipped grass beside her mother’s grave.
Oh, she’d lost her armor before—every Sunday, in fact—and she knew she’d get it back. But right now, without its steel protection, she felt empty and afraid.
Especially with Mad Dog Stone lurking behind every corner, pushing her—always pushing her—making her feel things she didn’t want to feel. Making her want things that scared her to death.
And Rass. God bless him, but he didn’t understand. To Rass, death was a doorway; a momentous, anticipated experience in a person’s life. He had no doubt that he and Greta would be reunited, and less doubt that his wife was in a better place than he. He couldn’t wait to join her.
But Mariah hadn’t believed in God, or in heaven, in a long, long time. Ever since the first time she’d stood by that small patch of grass.
At the memory, pain surged through her; pain so blinding and intense, it almost brought her to her knees. She sagged against the window and squeezed her eyes shut.
"No," she murmured desperately. "No …"
But the images came anyway; she was too weak to fight them off. Red-gold hair and murky blue-gray eyes. A pale blue blanket …
A strangled sound of grief escaped her. The memories battered her senses, left her shaken and defenseless. His tiny, quavering wail. The doctor’s horrifying words, I’m sorry, Miss Throckmorton, there’s nothing we can do….
And the blood. Sweet Jesus, the blood …
"Oh, God …"
She covered her face and stood there, swaying in the center of her empty, lonely bedroom. She wanted to cry, ached to, but the tears were trapped in a cold, hard block in her chest.
"No more," she whispered shakily. Her hands slid slowly away from her face and dropped lifelessly to her sides.
She wouldn’t think about Thomas anymore. She couldn’t.
If she did, she’d go mad.
Mad Dog stood by the table, his gaze fixed on the stairway that led upstairs.
He backed away from the table, shaking his head. It wasn’t his business. Whatever memories haunted Mariah Throckmorton were her own.