She swayed unsteadily. Lord, she wanted to kiss him. Right here, in the middle of her kitchen with her father and an impressionable boy looking on.
She tried to look calm and unaffected. But her knees were knocking so loudly, her father could probably hear them. ."Tonight," she mouthed.
He leaned toward her. "It’s getting damn cold by the river," he whispered.
His breath was warm against her forehead. She shivered and fought the urge to close her eyes. "I’ll get rid of Rass and come to you tonight."
He smiled. "I’d rather you come with me tonight."
She couldn’t help herself. She laughed.
Rass peered toward them, trying to see past Mad Dog’s broad back. "What’re you two giggling about over there?"
Mariah spun around and started hurriedly chopping bacon. "Nothing, Rass. Mr.
Stone just asked for my … coffee recipe."
Mad Dog turned toward the table and started walking toward Rass. At Marian’s feeble lie, he paused and glanced back at her. "Yeah, Rass, I gather recipes wherever I go. It’s hobby of mine."
There was a moment of stunned silence, then all four of them burst out laughing.
Mariah bent down for the wicker basket heaped with clothing. Looping an arm through the handle, she picked up her sewing box, and headed outside.
Opening the front door, she stared out at the farm, washed now in the amethyst shades of early twilight. Over by the springhouse, Mad Dog and Jake were boxing.
The crunching smack of their punches echoed across the silent, still acreage.
A tingling warmth spread through her at the sight of them. Her fingers tightened around the scratchy wicker of the basket, her throat closed up. It felt so right, coming out of the house on a cold autumn evening to see her boys boxing in the yard.
The moment swelled inside her, pushing at the edges of her heart until it felt overflowing. Her boys. For a moment she let herself imagine that they really were her boys out there, that Jake was her son and Mad Dog her husband, that they all belonged together.
She squeezed her eyes shut and tried to banish the foolish dream, but it wouldn’t go away. The last few days of autumn had been magical, a season of impossible dreams. She could almost believe it would last.
"Come on out, Mariah."
She glanced sideways and saw her father sitting slumped in the porch swing.
He scooted sideways, patting the slatted space beside him. "Join me."
Mariah glanced down at him and smiled. Lord, it had been so long since she’d sat with her father on the porch swing. Her heart ached with longing at the thought of joining him, sitting beside him. Belonging .. .
"You used to love the swing. I built it for you. Remember?" The single, tantalizing word lodged in her heart. Remember .. .
Clutching the basket and flat sewing box, she moved to the swing and sat down. It creaked loudly beneath her weight, welcoming her in the way it had since childhood.
They sat in silence for a while, then slowly, gently, Rass began to rock. The swing glided back and forth, back and forth, taking Mariah back in time with its easy, familiar motion. She found herself relaxing, slipping back into a place and time that had no heartache, •no loss. For a few heartbreakingly perfect moments, everything was the way it used to be. The way it should have been. *
There was only one thing missing. Mama . ..
Her mother sat in this swing for hours, darning her husband’s pants, her daughter’s socks. And laughing, always laughing.
"What is it, Mariah?" her father asked quietly.
She reached down and pulled a pair of Jake’s pants into her lap, staring down at the patched, brown woolen pant leg so hard, it smeared. She thought at first that she wouldn’t answer her father, couldn’t answer him.
She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling an overwhelming sadness. She licked her lips and stared out across the farm.
"Mariah?" He said her name softly, almost whispered it.
And suddenly, sitting here on the porch, beside her father, she felt a flash of courage, a momentary strength. She turned to him, knowing her eyes were wide with pain, and for once, not caring. "Do you … miss her all the time?"
Rass let out a soft breath. "Every moment of every day."
Mariah felt tears swell in her throat. They clung, burning, to her eyes and refused to fall. "Me, too."
Rass reached out, laid his trembling hand on her shoulder. "She loved you, Mariah.
Jesus, she loved you so much."
Mariah felt the warmth of that touch all the way to her soul. "I know that. I just …
wish I’d told her more often."
He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "She didn’t need to hear the words. She knew."
"I needed to say them." Marian’s fingers clenched the coarse fabric. Grief curled around her throat, made breathing almost impossible. The porch swing kept up its gentle rocking motion, creaking back and forth.
Mariah stared dully at the pants. Tears burned in her throat and behind her eyes. She knew that if she could turn now, in this instant, to her father and say / love you, it would all change. Or if he could move toward her and take her in his arms the way he used to …
But she couldn’t and he didn’t. There were too many years of quiet distance between them, too deep a layer of awkwardness. She didn’t know how to reach out to anyone, least of all her own father. And so their silence grew heavy and uncomfortable, rang with ghostly reminders of the laughter that used to fill this porch at night.
She told herself it was all right, that someday she’d make it right with her father. She was getting stronger every day. Soon she’d be able to say the words that burned in her heart. Maybe even tomorrow . . .
"Ow, shit!" Mad Dog’s yelp of pain rang through the silence.
Mariah’s head snapped up. Mad Dog lay sprawled in the dirt, arms flung wide, legs spread. Jake was crouched beside him, shaking him.
She dropped the pants and lurched to her feet, screaming Mad Dog’s name.
He sat up and gave her an infuriatingly cocky grin. "The kid’s gettin’ good," he said, rubbing his jaw. Then he smiled up at the boy. "I’m proud of you, Jake."
Jake beamed. The two of them bent their heads together and started talking. The unintelligible garble of their lowered voices drifted through the still, chilly air.
Shaking, Mariah slumped back onto the swing’s slatted seat. Tiredly she reached down and retrieved the pants.
"He’s a good man," Rass said softly.
Mariah didn’t even pretend to misunderstand. "Yes, he is."
"Do you love him?"
The question surprised Mariah. It was one that had knocked gently at the door of her mind a hundred times in the past few days, but she’d never let it in. Every day it took more strength to ignore, though, and she was getting weaker by the hour. Every time she looked at him, she wondered if she loved him.
He didn’t love her, of course; she knew and accepted that. But somehow, that seemed almost unimportant. She wanted—needed—to know if she loved him.
Sometimes, when she looked up into his smiling face, or felt the warmth of his touch, she felt … something more than sheer physical response.
She turned to her father. "How would I know, Rass?"
He smiled. A dreamy, faraway look crept into his eyes. "You’d know."
Mariah sighed. "Well, it certainly wasn’t love at first sight for Mad Dog and me."
"I don’t know," Rass said with a smile. "Cracking a man’s jaw with a shotgun is a form of courting in some cultures."
Mariah couldn’t help smiling. "I guess I don’t love him, but . . ." Her voice trailed off.
She licked her lips nervously and looked at her father. In his rheumy blue eyes she saw something she never remembered seeing there before. Unconditional love and acceptance. It stunned her. Fleetingly she wondered if it had always been there or if it was something new. She didn’t know, didn’t care. What mattered was the fact that now, for the first time ever, she didn’t feel like a failure in her father’s eyes.
Her heart swelled with aching emotion. She felt suddenly younger and filled with hope for the future. "But I think I could love him … if I let myself."
An infinite sadness crossed his eyes, and Mariah thought—crazily—that he took responsibility for her inability to love. "Don’t be afraid of going out on that limb, Mariah. It’s where the fruit is."
"I don’t know if he can love me back. I … I don’t think he can."
Rass smiled sadly. "We never know that, Boo."
Mariah glanced at him sharply. Emotion tightened her throat. "You haven’t called me that in years."
Sadness filled his eyes. "I should have."
Mariah swallowed hard and stared at him.
"You know what I think?" He leaned toward her. "I think he could love you, too."
"If he stays." She said the three terrifying words aloud.
Rass’s smile faded. Slowly, tiredly, he leaned back against the porch swing. Even Rass, the eternal optimist, couldn’t pretend to have an answer for that one. "If he stays."
With that, they lapsed back into silence.
Mad Dog dried himself off and stepped out of the shower. Whistling softly, he wrapped the towel around his waist and headed for the steamy mirror.
Anticipation shivered through him. Mariah had made good on her promise; she’d found a way to give them some time alone. Jake was harnessing Cleo right now. Any minute, Rass and the boy would be leaving for town.
Still smiling, he reached for Rass’s razor and started to shave. Outside, someone screamed.
Mad Dog dropped the fancy pearl-handled razor. It clattered in the porcelain sink.
He yanked the towel away from his body and grabbed his blue jeans, stabbing his feet into the pants as he hopped to the door and ran down the hall. Breathing hard, half-dressed, he burst outside.
He saw the farm in a series of horrible images: Marian, on her knees in the dirt; Rass sprawled on the ground; Jake, staring at Mad Dog with tears streaming down his face.
"Oh, Jesus." The quiet words slipped past his lips as he bounded down the steps and raced across the yard.
"Rass, Rass!" Marian’s shrill, desperate voice filled the silent air. She clutched her father’s shoulders, shaking him hard. "Wake up." Her voice broke off into nothingness.
Mad Dog kneeled beside her, touched her shoulder. "What happened?"
She jerked toward him, staring up through huge, terrified eyes. "He just.. .
collapsed." She brought a hand to her mouth, as if speaking the words made it more real. "Oh, God …"
Mad Dog reached for the old man’s wrist. "There’s a pulse," he said. Relief washed through him. "He’s still alive."
Beside him, Marian made a sobbing sound.
He squeezed her shoulder lightly, then scooped Rass into his arms. The old may lay limp and lifeless, his head lolled back. "Get a blanket," he said to Mariah.
She sat there, stiff as a statue, her head bowed, her hands curled into shaking fists in her lap. Her eyes were dull and vacant.
"Mariah!" he yelled at her.
Through a fog of fear and terror, Mariah heard Mad Dog yelling at her. With great effort, she lifted her chin. "Uh-huh?"
"Go get some blankets. Now!"
She snapped out of her incomprehensive state and spun away from him, racing into the house. She thundered up the stairs and barreled into her bedroom, snatching the blankets from her bed. Wadding them against her chest, she plunged back down the stairs and ran outside.