If You Believe
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He frowned. "I see."
Do you ? she wanted to say. How could you—when I don't even understand it myself? But she said nothing. So she just stood there, staring up at him, wishing—oh, God, wishing—things were different.
Suddenly he looped an arm around her and drew her close.
She knew she should pull away. It was wholly improper to let him touch her this way. More than that, it was fraught with risk.
But right now, standing in the empty yard, it felt good to have someone—to have him—beside her. The silent, unquestioning support was something she'd never had in her life, and it made her feel warm and safe and . . . however inappropriately, cherished. She leaned infinitesimally toward him, resting against the hard ball of his shoulder.
In his arms, she felt safe. The irrational fear of leaving the farm receded again, slunk back into the darkness in the back of her mind. It wasn't that she couldn't leave, she told herself. She just didn't want to. Not now. Not yet.
Maybe tomorrow she'd feel like leaving. And if she really wanted to go, the damn gate wouldn't stop her. Nothing would ... not if she really wanted to go.
Her eyes fluttered shut. A quiet sigh escaped her lips. "Thanks," she said quietly, "I needed that."
He tightened his hold. She felt each finger like a curl of fire through the worn fabric of her sleeve. "You need a hell of a lot more than that, Mariah, but I guess this'll do for now." Before she could respond, he leaned toward her and planted a moist, openmouthed kiss in the tender flesh beside her ear.
She shivered at the heat of the contact.
Then he turned and walked away.
She stared after him. She wanted to look away and knew she should, but she couldn't.
Something had changed with them today. It had started when he'd come to her bedroom. Not to fight with her or scare her or tease her, but simply to say that he understood what it meant to feel lost and alone.
It meant so much to her, that moment of intimacy, perhaps more than any moment she could remember in the last ten years. He'd reached out to her, however tentatively, and touched her soul. It was a kindness she wouldn't have expected from a man like him.
A man like Stephen, she thought immediately, but the thought carried no weight this time, no sting. And no truth.
Mad Dog wasn't like Stephen. True, they were both footloose wanderers who couldn't stay put, but where Stephen was dishonest and self-centered, Mad Dog was honest and caring.
He wasn't like Stephen.
She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a breathless sense of panic. She wanted to believe he was like Stephen, needed to believe he was like Stephen. Then she could keep him at arm's length. Without the negative comparison, she didn't know what to do, how to handle him, how to protect herself.
But he wasn't like Stephen, she knew that now. Knew it with a certainty that terrified her.
"Oh, no ..." She brought a cold hand to her mouth. Please, God, she thought, don't let me start feeling that way again. Don't let me think he might be different.
But it was too late. God help her, it was too late.
Rass leaned back against the oak tree and drew his legs up to his chest. Curling his arms around his ankles, he stared down at the farm he'd helped to build with his own two hands.
Sadness tightened his chest. A dull pain throbbed in his left shoulder.
There's so much left to do.
So many things he'd never gotten around to.
A small, wistful smile pulled at his lips. The loafing shed had been the first thing he'd built. What did he know about building—a geology professor from New York?
But he'd found the supplies—books, nails, hammers—and he'd done his best.
The first effort had fallen down in a hard rain. The second lasted almost through the winter. And the third, well, it was still hanging on to existence by a thread.
He'd been able to laugh about it, then and now, because of Greta. He remembered standing alongside her during the rainstorm, both of them soaked through to the skin, rain streaming down their faces as the shed crashed to the ground.
The memory of her throaty laughter rang through his mind, reminding him how they had stood there, hand in hand in the drenching rain, and laughed at his failure.
But where had Mariah been that day? Questions like that plagued Rass more and more as he got older.
He had so many memories of Greta, and so few of Mariah. Somehow they'd excluded her. They hadn't meant to. Jesus, they hadn't meant to....
It was just that they'd come together so late in life. Neither of them had ever thought they'd fall in love, and it had been such a precious, all-consuming gift. They'd never expected to have children, never wanted to, and with Greta's age, they'd never worried about it.
Then Mariah had come, all red-faced and crying and demanding.
They'd loved their daughter, deeply and completely. But had they ever told her, ever showed her in the thousand tiny, wordless ways they showed each other? God help him, he couldn't remember... .
She was lonely now, so damned independent. Exactly the woman two middle-aged parents had raised her to be. Strong, defiant, aware of her own intelligence.
But they hadn't taught her how to love or how to be loved.
He felt another sharp, twisting pain in his heart at the thought. God, how could they have been so blind?
He shook his head, staring through stinging eyes at the dull brown grass.
She'd never called him daddy, not even as a child. She went straight from "father"
to "Rass" at the age of six. And for a year after that fiasco with Stephen, she didn't call him anything at all. Didn't even speak to him.
Why the hell had he let her retreat so far into herself? Last night he'd looked into Jake's eyes—a stranger— and Rass had seen pain. How had he missed so much in his own child?
"Why didn't we see it, Greta?" The words slipped past his chapped lips.
It had never mattered before that Mariah called him Rass; hell, he'd been proud of her pride and defiance.
But now, damn it, it mattered. There were many things he wanted to tell her, lessons yet to teach her.
He didn't even know where to begin.
He sighed, disgusted that he knew perfectly well how to reach out to a stranger, but had no idea how to connect with his own daughter.
It should be simple and straightforward.
I'm sorry, Mariah. I love you.
Tears stung his eyes again. Not so simple, he thought with an unfamiliar bitterness.
Not with Mariah.
Somehow, he and Greta had created a child who didn't hear those words well, didn't want to hear them.
Had they forgotten to tell her as a child? Had she stood alone in their happy home, waiting for a declaration her parents had taken for granted?
He'd never once told Greta that he loved her. His own parents had never said the words, and yet he'd known, just as Greta had known. He'd always thought of love that way, as a look, a touch, a smile. Not a word to be passed from one to another like a Christmas gift.
But now he wondered. What was love to Mariah? Had she waited, lonely and aching and afraid, for the simple words that had never come? Had she run away with the first man who said them to her because she was so starved to hear it?
A dark, sadness filled him. He didn't know, might never know what he and Greta had done wrong. And, perhaps it didn't matter. Perhaps all that mattered was making it right now.
He had to get past the silent wall of her defenses. Maybe then he could figure out a way to say the hundreds of things that needed saying.
Or maybe just the one.
It was almost nightfall when Rass finally came to the barn. Jake heard the old man's voice, calling out to him, and relief rushed through him. He'd been lonely today, tired and sad. He couldn't wait to sit and talk with Rass. When he was with the old man, Jake felt safe and cared-for.
"Hey, Jake," he said from the doorway, "come on down."
Jake frowned. Rass sounded . . . tired.
He crawled to the corner of the loft and peered down. "Hi, Rass."
Rass smiled weakly. "Hi, Jake."
Jake got a really bad feeling in his stomach that something was wrong. His frown deepened. "You don't have any food with you." I Rass shook his head. "Come on down."
Jake clambered down the ladder and dropped onto the floor. "What's going on?"
Rass walked toward him, his feet making a shuffling, scuffing sound on the hard-packed dirt floor. There was a sheen of moisture in his rheumy blue eyes. "I've been thinking, Jake."
Jake licked his lips, trying to banish a rising sense of apprehension. "Oh."
Rass glanced sideways, staring hard through the small, dusty window in the barn's left side. "It's not right that you hide out here."
He waved a veiny hand. "But nothing. I try not to make the same mistakes twice.
And I know better than to let you hide from whatever it is you don't want to face."
Jake froze. Emotions—fear, anxiety, anticipation— hurtled through him, left him winded and reeling in their wake. "Wh—What makes you think I'm hiding from something?"
"Believe me, Jake, I've learned to read the signs."
"I'm not hiding from anyone." He flushed, realizing his mistake instantly. "I mean, anything."
Rass's eyes narrowed at Jake's words. The old man studied him for a long, uncomfortable moment before he spoke. "Good. Then there's no reason to stay in the barn."
Jake shook his head. He tried to swallow, but his throat was dry. He was afraid his obvious fear was revealing to much, but he couldn't help himself. "I don't think so...."
Rass laid a firm, comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "It's time for you to meet my daughter ... and Mad Dog. Time to quit hiding."
It's time. Jake sighed heavily. How many times had he thought those exact words?
Maybe Rass was right; maybe it was time to stop running and hiding and being afraid. He'd followed Mad Dog for months now, too scared to actually say hello.
"Come on," Rass said gently, and turned for the door.
Jake couldn't move. His feet felt as heavy as stones.
You don't have to follow him.
He could turn around right now and run. Just forget the whole thing.
But he'd tried that already.
For ten years he'd tried to forget about the legendary Mad Dog Stone—tried and failed.
He had to go with Rass; he knew that. He had to go. He'd been following Mad Dog for months, dreaming in cessantly of this moment. He couldn't let it slip through his fingers now because he was afraid.
The old man stopped, turned around. "Uh-huh?"
Jake wet his lips nervously. "Stay with me." He tried to say the words in a flippant, casual tone and failed. They came out weak and pathetic-sounding.
Rass nodded and gave Jake a soft knowing smile. "I will."
Jake squeezed his eyes shut and said a quick, silent prayer. Then, silently and side by side, they walked out of the barn and headed toward the house.
Jake's stomach was twisted into a throbbing, nauseous knot. He tried not to be afraid, but it was impossible. He was scared to death.
Finally, after all these years, he was going to meet his father.
Chapter Eleven Mariah stood at her mirror, pinning her hair into a tight coil at the base of her neck. She rammed one hairpin after another into the thick chignon, securing it until a hurricane couldn't bring it down.