If You Believe
Page 24

 Kristin Hannah

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She pulled one of the notebooks out and it fell open.
She tried not to read it, but the words leapt out at her, drew her in.
The ravages of poverty are all around me, haunting the train lines with the pathetic, pitiful wails of hungry children, the quiet whimpering of desperate parents. The country is falling apart, one homeless, wandering person at a time. How can this, the greatest nation on earth, allow its people to go uncared-for, unfed?
There the entry stopped. Frowning, she flipped through to another page.
The winter of '92-'93 was relentlessly cold for the thousands of men who camped along the boggy beaches of Lake Michigan. They worked for endless, backbreaking hours on structures that, once finished, would rise into the cloudy Illinois skies like the spires of a magical fairyland. Together, they dreamed, and the country, it seemed, dreamed right along with them.
But like all dreams, the much-anticipated World's Columbian Exposition of 1894
had a dark, nightmarish side to it. And like all nightmares, it has been pushed aside by the strident light of day, to be forgotten.
The fair opened on May first, and what a glorious opening it was. White-pillared palaces rose from a six-hundred-acre oasis of lagoons, courts, and plazas. The whole world gazed at the midwestern United States in awe. It ran for six months, then closed. The elegant, breathtaking white fairyland came down one piece at a time.
And what was left after the magic had run its course? A hundred thousand jobless, dreamless men, women, and children wander the cold, empty streets of Chicago, huddling around street corners and begging for scraps of food. They stand in endless, desperate breadlines, battered tin cups outstretched. Babies and young mothers sleep in open doorways and beneath damp blankets of newspaper.
Never has the chasm between progress and poverty been so hauntingly large in this country as it is today. We are in the clutches of an economic depression so carnivorous and insatiable, it's eating the very fabric of our lives. We are sacrificing our children to it, our future. And no one, it seems, is listening. . . .
Mariah closed the book, shaken. His images were potent and unforgettable. She'd known, of course, of the depression that gripped the country, but she never dreamed it was so urgent, so bleak.
She swallowed thickly, feeling sick for the children— babies—living without food or shelter.
His words moved her more than she would have imagined possible, told her something about the man who'd written them. These weren't the musings of a carefree drifter with an easy smile. This article was written by a man who knew the taste of tragedy, the feel of it. Knew it as intimately as she knew sorrow and despair.
They were the words of a dreamer, someone who wanted to change the world. A man who understood pain and sorrow and death . .. and hope and redemption and second chances.
A man who believed in love.
Mariah was mesmerized by the thought, drawn to it like a moth to a burning flame.
Somewhere behind the cocky grin and drifter bravado lay the true Mad Dog—or whatever his real name was.
Absently she pulled the notebooks from the bag and gently piled them in the bottom drawer, then shut it.
Folding the bag, she slid it under the dresser and reached for the sheets, then crossed the room and started to make his bed.
In quick, practiced motions, she stripped off the wrinkled old sheets and tossed them outside. Then she whipped the bottom sheet in place and started smoothing it out.
The sound of footsteps interrupted her concentration.
She froze.
A shadow crossed the open door.
She glanced sideways. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed, wearing his dirty black cowboy boots and a Turkish towel. And nothing else.
She gasped. "Oh, my Lord . .." The top sheet slipped through her fingers and slumped on the bed.
He grinned, his teeth startlingly white amidst the shadows. "Now, ain't this a surprise.. . ."
She couldn't speak. Not for the life of her.
His left eyebrow cocked upward. "A pleasant surprise."
"Good evening," she managed, though there was no air in her lungs.
She stared at him, unable to glance away. At the look in his eyes, seductive and predatory, her control started to unravel. All the questions about him, about her, about them, spiraled through her mind so fast, she felt lightheaded. And his words /
could be the best time you ever had hung in the air between them, tense and heavy.
He might as well have said them again.
"Here, let me help you." He strolled to the bed and stood at the other side. The crisp white sheets spread between them, cool and inviting. Mariah tried not to look up, tried to concentrate on the bed and only the bed. But no matter which way she turned, she saw the flat, well-muscled flesh of his stomach, and the soft, coffee brown hair that furred his chest. The acrid scent of lye, softened by masculinity and woodsmoke, hovered between them.
He bent toward her. A long lock of damp, wheat blond hair fell across one gray eye.
She tried not to look at him, but couldn't help herself. He was so devastat-ingly handsome. His eyes were crinkled in the corners, dancing with seductive gray light.
Deep, grooved laugh lines bracketed his full lips. Without the scraggly stubble of beard, his jaw was strong and squared.
He grinned at her and leaned closer. Their gazes fused above the blinding whiteness of the sheet. She swallowed hard and dropped her gaze. His hand moved in a seductive, circular motion on the sheet, smoothing out the wrinkles.
Mariah watched his hand, mesmerized for a moment by the contrast of his deeply tanned skin against the stark linen. Then she realized what she was doing. Jerking away from the bed, she nervously brushed the curly wisps of hair from her face.
"There. It's done."
"Thanks." His voice sounded soft, intimately beguiling. It reminded her of the words she'd read, dreamer's words, and she felt herself soften inside.
She looked up, met his intense, burning gray eyes. A shiver coursed through her, brought goose bumps to her arms. "I ... I cleaned the bunkhouse." She glanced down. Heat spread across her cheeks. She knew she shouldn't say the next words that came to her mind, knew, too, that she would. "For you."
He glanced around, smiling. "It looks—" Suddenly his smile faded. A frown creased the tanned flesh of his brow. "Where's my bag?"
She cast a guilty glance at the corner of the room. "I put your belongings away. The bag's under the dresser."
He pinned her with eyes as cold as a winter sky. "You pawed through my things?"
His voice was quiet.
She licked her lips nervously, wishing she could melt into the floorboards.
Anything—anywhere—so she didn't have to look into his eyes. "Not p-pawed. I just—"
Then, as quickly as it had come, his anger dissolved. The dark intensity in his gaze vanished, leaving sparkling gray pools that whispered of passion. Screamed of passion. He gave her a crooked grin. "Oh, well. I'm hardly in a position to be angry."
The heat of that smile hit Mariah hard, worming through her insides like a trail of fire.
He sauntered around the bed toward her, his fingers looped casually inside the towel. A silvered droplet of water clung tenaciously to the end of his hair.
Mariah stared at the tiny bubble, focused on it, trying to drown out the rest of him.
But she couldn't quite succeed. With every step he took, she was acutely aware of him. The soft thud of his bootheels on the floorboards; the quiet, even tenor of his breathing; the easy rise and fall of his bare chest.
"Mariah ..." On his lips, her name was a whispered caress, a promise of something yet to be.
He stopped in front of her.
She stared at the drop of water, watched it quiver for a moment at the wet tip of his hair, then plummet downward. It splashed in the thicket of chest hair and zigzagged down the hard, washboard length of his stomach, disappearing in the thick white fabric of the towel.
Her gaze followed it, lingering a half second too long at the sagging waistband of the fabric.
His hands moved to the towel. "I could take it off...."
Fear chilled her. She snapped her chin up and met his smoldering gaze. "No!"
A slow, mocking smile curved his lips. "Ah, Mariah ..."
She stumbled backwards and hit the wall.
He moved toward her. "Don't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
A hysterical bubble of laughter escaped her. She clamped a hand over her mouth, mortified that the insipid, childish sound had come from her.
He leaned toward her, slowly—so slowly—bringing his hands toward her face.
She pressed against the wall. The erratic, pounding beat of her heart thundered in her ears.
Casually he placed his fists against the wall, one on either side of her head. Then he leaned toward her. The tip of his nose brushed hers.
The simple touch jolted Mariah to the core. Her eyes widened. She swallowed hard, unable to tear her gaze away from his face. "Wh-What do you want?"
He kissed the end of her nose. "You know what I want."
She cleared her throat and tried desperately to sound calm. "N-No, I'm sure I do not."
His head lowered, just a fraction.
Mariah's heart stopped beating. Time seemed for a moment to pause.
He kissed her, a soft, gentle brushing of lip against lip that lasted no longer than a heartbeat. "I want you, Mariah." He drawled the words against her mouth. He closed his eyes, leaned infmitesimally toward her. "God help me, I shouldn't want you, but I do."
She felt the tender movement of his lips against hers, and a violent shiver cascaded through her body, leaving a trail of goose bumps in their wake.
He pulled back slowly. "Come to bed, Mariah." The invitation was whispered against her ear. His parted lips felt soft and moist against her flesh.
She froze. Fear spilled through her, left her cold and shaken and trembling.
His words came back to her, mocked her. No one would ever know.
What a fool she'd been to even consider them. She would know. What was left of her after he'd finished would know, would always know....
She shook her head, trying to say something. But her throat was as dry as old ash, and no sound came out except a pathetic whimper. The progress she'd made recently dissolved in a puddle of familiar fear. It felt good, that fear, comforting. It was an emotion she understood.
With a quiet gasp, she ducked out from his arms and ran for the door, slamming it shut behind her.
Mariah didn't stop running until she reached the picket fence. There, she sank to her knees on the cold, hard ground, and bowed her head in shame. God, she wanted to cry, needed to cry.
/ want you. The soft, shattering words came at her from a hundred different directions.
A tiny sound of despair lodged in her throat.
She wanted him, too. There was no longer any point in denying it; she was weary of trying. She wanted him to kiss her. God help her, she'd ached for his kiss, dreamed of it. From the moment she met him, he'd taunted her, upset her, angered her, touched her. Her world hadn't been the same since he strolled into it last week, and it wouldn't be the same when he strolled out.
When he strolled out.
The words spiraled back at her, burrowed into her heart. He would leave soon, and her life would go back to the way it was. This brief interruption of passion would be forgotten.
Never, probably, to come again.