If You Believe
Page 22

 Kristin Hannah

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She would never have thought that such a simple sentence could romance her so completely, could make her feel so ... free.
But they did. Nothing she did with Mad Dog would be held against her, or even remembered by anyone except herself.
Not like before, when she'd been so public about her passion ... and her heartbreak.
No one would ever know.
She shivered. Seductive words indeed.
Chapter Fourteen
Mad Dog threw a dark apple into the "red" barrel. It hit with a thunk that sent tiny bits of fruit flying. Absently he stared at the boy picking apples in the other tree. For some strange reason, he felt bad about what had happened in the kitchen that morning.
"Hey, kid," he said, tossing another apple in the barrel.
Jake paused in his work and peered through the colorful leaves. "Yeah?"
"About this morning ..." Mad Dog shrugged, not quite sure what to say. "I'm sorry if I said something that upset you."
Jake stared at him for a long minute, then slowly smiled. "Yeah, me, too. I guess I acted sorta dumb."
Mad Dog grinned. "Hell, I do that all the time." He waved the boy over. "Come on, let's take a break."
Jake scrambled down from the ladder. Gently placing his sack full of apples in the
"mostly red" barrel, he followed Mad Dog to the sagging wooden fence.
Mad Dog yanked his canteen from around the fence post and took a long, gulping drink of water. The cool water felt good dribbling down his exposed throat. "Ah, that's good." He handed the canteen to Jake. "Course, it'd be better if it was tequila, but sometimes a guy just has to make do."
Jake stared at him. A tight frown worked its way across his serious face. "What do you mean?"
He grinned. "Don't take me too seriously, kid. It's just a saying."
Jake took a quick sip of water. Wiping the moisture from his lips, he looked up at Mad Dog through earnest green eyes. "You're a fighter, aren't you?"
"Yep." He smiled, ran a hand through his hair, and unbuttoned his shirt. The cool afternoon air breezed across his sweaty chest, fluttering the edges of his shirt. "You follow me?"
Jake paled. The canteen slipped through his fingers and hit the grass. "Huh?" The word was a high-pitched squeak.
"You follow fighting?"
"Oh." Jake's scrawny chest caved in. Something that looked like relief flashed through his eyes. "Yeah, I guess."
"Seems people think it's sort of romantic."
"Don't you?"
Mad Dog snatched a towel from the fence rail and wiped the sheen of moisture from his brow. "Nothin' glamorous about hittin' a man, kid."
"Why do you do it, then?"
He sat down in the warm grass and idly ran his hand through a pile of multicolored autumn leaves. "Money, I guess. Same reason a man does anything."
"My grandfather used to say a man should let honor guide his actions."
Mad Dog snorted. "Yeah, I've known men who'd say a fool thing like that. Most of
'em never missed a meal in their life."
Jake moved toward Mad Dog hesitantly and sat down a respectful distance away.
"Have you? Missed meals, I mean?"
"More than a few."
"When you were a boy? I mean, that would explain—"
Mad Dog looked at Jake sharply. "You ask a lot of questions."
Embarrassment stained the boy's cheeks. He looked away, stared hard at the grass.
A glaze of something that looked suspiciously like tears sheened his eyes. "Sorry."
"Oh, for Christ's sake, don't take it so personal. I just meant, there's some things a man doesn't like talking about. Some things / don't like talking about." He smiled at the boy. "So tell me something about yourself. Where you from?"
Mad Dog couldn't think of a damn thing to say about that. "Oh."
"M-My grandfather's name was Jacob, too." He glanced up, stared at Mad Dog through eyes that looked impossibly big against his small face. "You ever know anyone by that name?"
He felt a surprising jolt of emotion. It had been years since he'd thought of old Jacob Vanderstay. A bitter smile thinned his lips. "Yeah, I knew one once. He was a mean son of a bitch, too. Wanted everyone to live by his rules. And I never knew a person who had so many rules."
"How did you meet him?"
Mad Dog leaned back against the wobbly fence rail. A dozen images, long forgotten, surged through his mind, bringing a bittersweet smile to his lips. Laralee.
He shook his head. Christ, how long had it been since he'd thought of her? "I knew his daughter."
"How come you're smiling?"
"She was something else. I wonder what ever happened to her."
"Your wife?"
"Almost." He grinned at the boy. "But I made a clean getaway."
The boy frowned. "Did you ever go back to see her?"
"Naw." He stretched his arms across the top rail and stared up at the endless blue sky. "She was rich and spoiled as hell. Her dad thought I was a lousy bum who might be redeemed by hard work in the family business." He leaned toward Jake, grinning. "You know what the family business was?"
Jake looked like he was going to smile. "What?"
"Funeral parlor." He laughed. "The old man wanted me to take it over if I married his precious daughter." Mad Dog shuddered dramatically. "It wasn't for me. And Laralee and her dad made it clear: If I married Laralee, I was an embalmer in training.
So one night I just packed my stuff and moved on. But for a long time I wondered what happened to her."
"You could've gone back to see." There was a strange bitterness in the boy's voice.
Mad Dog shrugged. "What for? She wouldn't have wanted to see me again—not after the way I ran out. Believe me, kid, women are funny about shit like that."
Jake looked at him through green eyes that were strangely sad. "She would have wanted to see you .. . I bet."
"Could be." Mad Dog pulled his gaze away from Jake's face. There was something unexpected in the boy's eyes, a pathetic edge of pain that was too deep, too agonized....
Mad Dog tried to tell himself it didn't matter; the boy's pain didn't concern him. But even so, an odd, prickling sensation worked down his spine. It took a supreme act of will not to look at Jake again.
He felt... ashamed. As if he'd somehow let the boy down.
But that was crazy. Jake and Mad Dog had nothing in common except a kindred wanderlust that brought them both to the same small farm in the middle of nowhere.
Besides, he told himself, what did he know about sixteen-year-old boys? Maybe they were all a little sad and pathetic. Especially before they got laid.
He leaned sideways and grabbed the canteen, taking a long, satisfying drink. Then he thumped Jake on the back. "Well, kid, let's get back to work." Uncurling slowly, he dragged his tired body to his feet and headed toward the tree.
But all the way there, he felt Jake's gaze on his back, a warm, tangible presence that seemed to demand something in a sly, silent voice. It was goddamn disconcerting.
* * *
Rass sat beside Greta's grave, with his hand laid casually, lovingly, on the cool headstone.
He closed his eyes and held his breath, waiting for the scent of lavender and the gentle touch of the breeze. But it didn't happen this time, and without its magic, he felt depressingly alone.
Sweet Jesus he missed her. .. .
He let out his breath in a tired, lonely sigh.
"Snap out of it, old man," he told himself. He couldn't let go now, couldn't crawl into the shell of sorrow that had encased him since Greta's death. Now, more than ever, he had to be strong for his daughter. For once, she needed him. And by God, he wouldn't let her down again.
Mariah. Her name filled him with regret.
"But she's getting better." He said the words aloud, allowing himself to take some small measure of comfort from them. This time they weren't just words to assuage his guilt. They were true.
She was getting better. She no longer stood as stiff and rigid. She'd even loosened that ridiculously tight chignon of hers. She smiled at Jake and laughed with Mad Dog.
She'd taken a first step down the road to healing, a single, trembling step.
Now he needed to kick her in the butt. Metaphorically. Anything to make her take another step. And he had to do it quickly. Instinct told him he didn't have a lot of time.
But how? That was the question that had brought him to Greta in the first place.
How could he force Mariah and Mad Dog to see what Rass saw so clearly?
The sound of Mad Dog's rumbling, baritone laughter seeped up from the orchard, where he and Jake were I picking apples. The two of them were starting to get along, Rass thought. Probably because of the time they spent working together.
And suddenly Rass had an idea. A slow, thoughtful smile tugged at his lips.
"What do you think, Greta? Am I on the right track? Could a little time alone together be the answer?"
This time the breeze came, ruffling through the fallen leaves in a chattering, dancing swirl. It smelled of sunshine and warm earth and lavender.
Rass smiled. He had his answer.
Whistling softly, smiling, he said good-bye to Greta and headed down to the orchard. As he came over the rise and dropped down into the thicket of trees, he heard the crack-thunk of an apple hitting a barrel.
He peered around a large, leafy tree and saw Jake first. The boy was burrowed high in the tree, carefully plucking ripe apples from the branches. Mad Dog was at the next tree, throwing apples, one at a time from the pile in his arms, into the various barrels.
Rass shook his head. Fortunately Mad Dog was an honest, good-hearted man, because he was pure disaster as an apple picker.
Rass stepped away from the shielding foliage of the tree. "You trying to go straight from picking to applesauce in a single step?"
Mad Dog spun toward Rass's voice. He had the good grace to wince at being caught. "Shit. Sorry, Rass."
"Well, I guess there's too many rules around here, anyway."
Mad Dog grabbed his hat from the fence post and cocked it on his head, grinning at Rass. "It's a specialty of mine—breaking rules. One of the few things I do well."
Jake climbed down from the tree and headed toward Rass. "Hi, Rass." He set a few apples into the "mostly red" barrel and reached for the canteen.
"Hey, Jake," Rass said, "I thought I'd go to town for a few things. Do you know how to drive a buggy?"
Jake nodded. "Sure, Rass. I used to drive my mama to the doctor's."
"Good. Run on down to the pasture and catch Cleo for me. She's the swaybacked black. You can't miss her."
Jake reached down for his slouch hat and crammed it on his head, then started walking. Rass and Mad Dog watched silently as the boy turned down the gravel road and headed for the barnm.
They stood in companionable silence for a long time. The sun was just beginning its lazy descent. The blood-red shadows of twilight clung to the darkening horizon.
Memories came flooding back to Rass, filling the cold, dark places in his heart with remembered warmth.
"Greta used to love this time of day," he said softly. "She called it the magic hour.