If You Believe
Page 13

 Kristin Hannah

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"Thanks, Rass."
"You're welcome." Turning, Rass walked out of the barn and shut the door behind him.
The darkness of the night curled around him, comforting in its familiarity as Rass walked back to the farmhouse. Later, alone in the huge feather bed made for two, he stared up at the darkened ceiling.
You sent him to me, didn't you?
For a tantalizing moment, he thought Greta was going to answer. He waited, acutely sensitive, for the scent of lavender and the touch of the wind.
But tonight there was no answer, save the one in his heart. Still, he smiled. For the first time in months, he looked forward to the morning.
Mad Dog made a bed for the first time in years. He spread the crisp, clean linen across the bumpy mattress and smoothed it out carefully. His hand strayed along the fabric, feeling its unfamiliar texture.
Eagerly he stripped out of his clean clothes and slipped into the bed, drawing the blankets high on his chest. The cool sheets and heavy blankets wrapped around him, cocooned him in a kind of comfort he hadn't known in years.
God, it felt good.
He let out his breath in a sigh and stared up at the ceiling, trying to see into the darkness that huddled above the rafters. But it was impossible. The blackness was impenetrable; he might as well have been staring into space, trying to pierce the distance between the earth and moon.
For no apparent reason, he found himself thinking about Mariah Throckmorton again. She'd be in her bed now, the blankets pulled up to her chin, her hair fanned out across the sheets like strands of mahogany fire.
No, he decided. Braided. She'd have that soft, beautiful hair coiled and twisted and controlled. Always controlled.
He smiled just thinking about her. There was something special about her. She intrigued him. No, more than that. She ... drew him. He wondered what she thought about, what she dreamed about. Wondered if she was anything like him at all. If she ached for something more in her life than she had on this dusty little farm, that elusive, formless something.
He'd chased that need for years, trying to track it down, turn it into something tangible and real, but it was still nothing more than a hazy dream, a longing. He was no closer to it now than he had been fifteen years And yet still he searched for it, and for some strange, inexplicable reason, he thought maybe Mariah would understand his restless longings.
Strange . . .
He closed his eyes and stretched out. The cool linen chafed his bare skin, caressed it. The sensation was foreign and vaguely erotic. Heat curled in the pit of his stomach and radiated into his groin. He turned restlessly, trying to sleep.
But it was too late. He was thinking about Mariah again.
The next morning, Mariah scraped leftover sausage, sauerbraten, and potatoes from the cutting board into the hot frying pan. Adding spices and onions, she smashed the mixture into a hash. The thick, pungent aroma of frying onions blasted up at her, bringing tears to her eyes.
Absently she wiped away the stinging tears and stirred the hot mummix. The roiling, formless mixture bubbled and popped. Behind it, a tin of freshly baked cornmeal hoecakes sat warming on the stove top.
Not once did she turn away from the stove or glance back at the table.
Then she heard the soft rumble of laughter.
Ignore it. Ignore him.
But she couldn't. She turned slightly and cast a surreptitious glance at the table.
Mad Dog was sitting in her chair, with his elbows on the table. He was chatting with her father as if they were the best of friends.
Her gaze slid along his profile, noticing the strength in his squared jaw, the softness in his lips. Sunlight shone through the window behind him and wove through his long, sun-streaked hair.
Marian's heart felt heavy in her chest. Loneliness slid into longing and moved through her body.
She looked away. It wasn't Mad Dog Stone that caused the ache in her soul, she reminded herself sharply. It was simply his presence, here in her home, talking so intimately with her father, smiling, joking.
Marian had never had a gentleman caller. It was a fact that had never bothered her until now, this moment. Now, when she looked at Mad Dog, so at home at her kitchen table, she felt a wrenching sadness. A regret for the life she didn't have, would never have.
She couldn't deny that deep in her heart, she wanted a man in her life, wanted the endless, undying love Rass and Greta had shared. Marian had grown up believing in that fairy-tale kind of love, had seen it every day in her parents' eyes, had expected it.
Now, of course, she knew better. Though, even now, in the long, cold winter nights, she lay in her lonely bed, staring up at the darkened ceiling, and she ached for its loss.
But Mad Dog Stone wasn't the answer to her loneliness. She had to force herself to remember that. Though he stirred something in her—that was undeniable—it was only loneliness that made her respond to him. That, and nothing more.
She forcibly tore her thoughts away from Mad Dog and focused instead on the breakfast. Pushing the hash to one side of the pan, she cracked six eggs into the hot grease.
When the eggs were done, Marian dished up breakfast and sat down opposite Mad Dog, careful not to meet his gaze. She focused hard on her food, studying each bite intently.
But she felt his gaze on her, hot as fire, stinging as a slap.
She kept her head bowed and bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling. Her heartbeat was erratic, and she couldn't seem to draw an even breath.
She felt ... vulnerable. It should have angered her, should have made her mad enough to bury the debilitating emotion beneath an avalanche of cool animosity.
That's how it had worked for years, whenever anyone— even Rass—had gotten too close.
For years she'd made herself unapproachable and distant. It had been her armor against an unkind world and a passionate, thoughtless nature.
But this time she couldn't make it work, couldn't shut off her emotions with a mental demand and a steel will.
The strange feelings kept creeping back, insinuating themselves into every fiber of her heart and soul. Inside her, she felt a darkness growing, consuming her, eating through the self-control she'd always fought so desperately to maintain.
She was finding it harder and harder to ignore him. Some part of her, some little silent part she'd thought she'd buried long ago, came sputtering to life in his presence. Something about him pushed past her reserves and made her see the aching, desperate lack in her life, the loneliness, the isolation. Just looking at him, at his easy smile and ready laughter, made her remember what it felt like to be free and unafraid. To be touched and held and loved.
God help her, sometimes when she looked at him, she remembered what she wanted to forget. She remembered how good it felt to be held in a man's arms, how comforting it was to be touched.
And it scared her to death.
Chapter Nine
"It's time for church," Rass said, pushing his empty breakfast plate toward the center of the table. "Your mother is waiting." He gave Mariah a bright smile. "She was never a patient woman."
Mad Dog frowned. "I thought—"
"My mother's dead," Mariah said matter-of-factly. "But Rass still visits her every Sunday."
"Sometimes more often," Rass added.
Mariah softened at the quietly spoken words and smiled at her father. "Usually more often."
Mad Dog pushed his plate away. "No church for me, thanks."
"It isn't what you expect," Rass said quickly.
He looked at the old man. "How do you know what I expect?"
Mariah laughed and stood up. "It isn't what anyone expects."
He was stunned by the sound of her laughter. It was so unlike her, soft, musical, and yet throaty. Somehow it conjured images of dark nights and steamy passion.
She frowned at him. "Is something the matter, Mr. Stone? You look rather pale."
He couldn't believe he'd reacted so strongly to something as innocuous as a laugh.
"Nothin's wrong."
She started to turn away, wanted, he thought, to turn away, but she didn't. She stood there. Their gazes locked. Something passed between them, something ...
Then, abruptly, she turned away from him.
He blinked. The strange connection with Mariah faded so quickly, he wondered if he'd imagined it. He tried to remember what they'd been talking about.
Oh, yeah. Church.
He glanced at Rass. "Sorry, Rass. I try not to be a hypocrite."
Rass frowned at him. "What do you mean?"
"I don't believe in God."
"I suppose you believe in the devil?"
Mad Dog laughed. "Him, I've seen proof of."
"What if I could show you God?"
Mad Dog felt a grin start. "He lives here, does he? In Lonesome Creek?"
Rass nodded seriously. "Of course he does. You could just come and see-----That wouldn't be hypocritical."
He shrugged. What the hell. At least he'd get to be with Mariah—maybe even see her smile. "Okay, Professor. Let's go find God."
"Is that what you're wearing to church?" Mad Dog asked Mariah as she came down the stairs an hour later. She gave him a cold look. "What's wrong with it?" His gaze swept her from head to foot. She was standing perfectly erect, her small, gloved hands properly pinned to her midsection. An austere stand-up collar, unrelieved by lace or adornment, hugged her pale throat. Dozens of round black buttons—the only color other than dirt brown on the entire dress—marched from her absurdly high collar to her narrow, belted waist. Pointed brown boots peeked out from beneath the plain hem. Her hair was drawn back from her head so tightly, he wondered if it was nailed in back.
He brought his gaze slowly back up her body and looked into her eyes. "Nice dress," he said blandly.
She gave him a delicate sniff and walked out the door.
He was certain that she wanted to slam it behind her, but she didn't.
Plunging his hands in his pockets, he idly strolled out of the kitchen and followed her onto the porch.
Rass was standing in front of the house, holding a bunch of vibrant purple flowers.
He looked ... younger, as if the prospect of going to church erased a dozen years from his face. Gaiety lit his watery eyes with brilliant blue light. "Are you ready, Mad Dog? Mariah?"
"I'm ready," she answered crisply.
Mad Dog glanced around for the wagon, but there wasn't one to be seen. "You want me to hitch up the buggy?"
Rass laughed, a big, good-natured sound that echoed across the lonely farm. "We don't need horses to see the Lord, Mr. Stone. Follow me." Without another word, he took off across the golden fields.
Mad Dog cast an uncertain look at Mariah. "Where's he going?"
She didn't look at him, but he thought he saw the barest hint of a smile touch her lips. "God lives in the west pasture, Mr. Stone."
He, too, started to smile. "Not in the back twenty?"
"There, too, of course, but we visit Him in the west pasture."
He moved toward her, drawn irresistibly by the sarcasm that limned her words.
"You believe that, Mariah?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, then tilted her chin. When she spoke, her words were as soft as the early morning breeze. "What I believe is none of your business, Mr. Stone."
And she stepped past him.
He watched her walk on ahead of him, her body held unnaturally erect. The round, thick oval of hair anchored to the base of her neck glinted like a coil of dark fire in the pale sunlight, reminding Mad Dog of the heat that lay beneath all that stiff propriety.