If You Believe
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He laughed. "Look at your watch."
"Oh, that." She smiled broadly. "I believe I counted seconds instead."
He pulled her on top of him, curling his arms around her naked back. "Well, that's a pisspoor memory to carry around with you. How 'bout we change the record?"
"What do you mean?"
He came toward her. "One, two, three—"
Their lips melted together in a long, searing kiss that reignited the flames of their desire.
Mariah gave in to the passion completely, utterly. She didn't think about Stephen, or the past, or even the nagging fear that Mad Dog would leave her.
Right now, she didn't care. All she cared about was the wonderful, exhilarating things he was making her feel. She closed her eyes and tumbled into the searing, satisfying world of pure physical pleasure.
Rass quietly closed the door behind him. The minute the lock clicked into place, he sagged, feeling tired and infinitely old. The porch planks creaked beneath his feet in a whining protest that seemed absurdly loud in the silence of the night.
"Rass? You out there?"
Rass lifted his head and stared at the buggy parked in front of Doc Sherman's house. Now, in the silvered moonlight, it was a shadow cast in streaks of ash gray and jet black. Cleo, the horse, was invisible against the dark night sky, and Jake was a slim reed of blackness that shot up from the charcoal seat.
Rass tried to smile for the boy. "I'm here, Jake." Tiredly he pushed away from the door and shuffled down the creaking steps, across the gravelly path to the buggy.
Jake bounced down from the driver's seat with the exuberance of youth and held out his pale hand. "Can I help you?"
"Thanks." Rass grabbed Jake's hand and hauled himself up the springy metal steps, settling slowly on the padded leather seat.
Jake bounded in beside Rass and snapped the reins. Cleo put her big head down and began a slow, even plodding toward home.
Moonlight illuminated the wide swath of dirt road that cut through the endless acres of grass and wheat. On either side, black fences stood in sharp contrast to the blue-tinged fields. Sounds filled the night: the steady clomping of Cleo's hooves on the hard-packed dirt, the wheezing snort of her breathing, the squeaking whine of well-sprung buggy wheels turning toward home.
"Thanks a lot for supper, Rass. The food was great," Jake said.
Rass attempted a smile. "It would have been better at the Chinaman's place."
Jake shuddered dramatically. "I couldn't eat that stuff. It looked like gooey grass."
Rass laughed unexpectedly and found his mood lightening a bit. "Well, Ma's Diner is good, too."
"Yeah. Service sure is slow, though. It must be eleven o'clock.'
"We're in no hurry." Rass leaned against the tufted leather seat and let out a tired breath. For the hundredth time tonight, he found himself thinking about Mariah and Mad Dog, hoping he'd done the right thing in leaving them alone.
The two of them were perfect for each other; Rass was more sure of the fact with every passing day.
But Mad Dog was a bad bet, and Rass had known that from the minute they met.
Usually Rass pushed the realization aside, buried it beneath a thick layer of optimism. But at times like this, when he felt weak and sick and alone, Rass fell prey to the fear that Mad Dog would leave her . .. and Mariah would fall back into the bleak pit of her own despair.
And this time she'd never come out of it.
Ah, Greta, he thought, squeezing his eyes shut. Am I doing the right thing"? The vision of his wife came to him as clear as day, her face implanted in his soul like a treasured photograph.
Bittersweet memories hurled themselves at him, and he sighed. He was too tired tonight to fight them, too tired to be strong. Loneliness pressed in on him from all sides, crushing his lungs until he could barely breathe. Tears stung his eyes.
Ah, Greta . ..
"Are you okay, Rass?"
Rass wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Fine. Why?"
Jake cocked his head back toward the house. "That was a doctor's place." He shrugged. "I saw the sign and, well, I just wondered . . . you know, if you were all right."
"Doc Sherman's a friend of mine."
It wasn't an answer at all, but Jake seemed not to notice.
"But let's not tell Mariah I saw him, okay?"
Rass stared at the boy, studying him in the weak, eerie light of the moon. Jake sat as tall and straight as a nail, his elbows resting lightly on his knees, his fists hung over the rim of the buggy on the reins. His hair was a smooth, precisely cut red-gold fringe that hung out from beneath his hat.
Surprisingly, Rass found himself remembering someone else with the promise of red-gold hair.
He ran a shaking hand through his white hair. Thomas would be sixteen about now, just Jake's age. Pain rippled through Rass at the thought, escaped his chapped lips as a quiet whimper. Even now, all these years later, he couldn't think about the baby without aching for the loss of his tiny life.
"Rass . . ." Jake's quiet, tentative voice cut through Rass's old man's memories.
He swallowed, tried to find the courage to speak. "Yes?"
"I need your help with something."
The simple question was a gift. With it, Rass was able to push aside the painful thoughts and focus instead on something real, on something that mattered. The bitter memories fell into the background of his mind. "Sure, Jake. If I can."
Jake stared hard at Cleo's butt and swallowed. "I ... haven't gotten to spend much time with Mad Dog."
"And I, well, I came here to get to know him. . . ."
Rass straightened. Now that was an unexpected bit of information. What was Mad Dog to Jake? "You did?"
Jake winced. "Didn't I tell you that?"
Rass chewed his lower lip, studying him intently. The boy was sitting even straighter than before, but his hands were shaking on the reins, his mouth was trembling. "No,"
he said slowly, "you didn't tell me that."
"I ... uh, musta forgot." He tried to laugh. It was a strained, hollow sound that didn't fool Rass for a second.
Jake licked his lips nervously. "Anyhow, I came here to meet Mad Dog." He turned to Rass. "He's a famous fighter, you know."
Rass nodded slowly, but again, he wasn't fooled. Jake didn't want to meet Mad Dog because of his fame.
"Uh-huh. So what's the problem? He's on the farm, you're on the farm. Get to know the man."
Jake's gaze skidded away. A redness that looked like embarrassment—or shame—crept up his cheeks. "He doesn't seem to want to get to know me."
"I see. So, you want to know how to get close to a man who doesn't seem too inclined to get to know you."
Jake let out his breath in a relieved sigh. "Yeah."
"That's not too hard. If the mountain won't come to Mohammed, then Mohammed best head for the mountain."
"What does that mean?"
"Simple. You're here to get to know Mad Dog. If he's not sniffing around your door, you'd best knock on his."
Jake shook his head. "He wouldn't like that."
"So? What do you care?"
Jake turned to Rass suddenly. The boy's eyes were big as quarters. "You mean just follow him around till he does talk to me?"
Rass shrugged. "Why not?"
"What if he punches me?"
Jake rolled his eyes. "He's a professional, remember? He'd kill me. I don't know the first thing about defending myself, either. My mama made sure I didn't know how to fight. She thought it was a useless waste of time."
"All women think that—it's a genetic deficiency."
"Oh . . ." Jake frowned. "She never mentioned any thing about a deficiency. She just said fighting was stupid and didn't solve anything."
Rass stifled a smile. "Maybe Mad Dog would teach you to fight. That'd get you two together for a while." Jake grinned. "That's a great idea, Rass." Rass felt the last niggling bit of grief slide away. His natural optimism bounced back, bringing a smile.
"I'm a professor," he said proudly. "Ideas are my life."
Mariah came slowly awake. Yawning, she arched in a long, lazy stretch. Pain twisted through her muscles at the movement.
She groaned. Her body felt pulverized and pounded ... and wonderful. Memories of last night seeped through her sleepy brain, warming her once again.
She blinked lazily and opened her eyes. Sunlight streamed through her bedroom in a thick, dusty slash of gold. Through the half-opened window, she heard the chattering call of a barn swallow and the distant echo of voices.
She stretched again, rolling out of bed. Her feet hit the cold floor with a muffled thump. Smiling—she couldn't seem to stop herself—she reached for her flannel wrapper and put it on.
Then a question hit her with the force of a blow.
Wrenching the fabric belt around her waist, she hurried to her bedroom window and yanked it open. Cool morning air hit her in the face.
Please be here, please . ..
She shoved the lacy curtains aside and stared down at the bunkhouse. The door was open.
Her heart picked up speed, thudded anxiously in her chest. Her throat went dry. He never left the door open.
She poked her head out the window, her eyes desperately scanning the small farm.
She found him. He was standing alongside the water pump, washing his face, wearing a faded pair of blue jeans and nothing else.
Relief poured through her. She clutched the window ledge with shaking fingers and bowed her head. "Thank God."
Slowly she brought her head up and looked down at him. Emotion tightened her heart, and she swallowed hard, wondering what exactly she felt for Mad Dog this morning.
She knew what she felt about herself—for the first time in years, she was excited about the day, eager to see what would happen. She felt young and free and unafraid to reach for what she wanted.
And what she wanted was Mad Dog.
It was simple, really. She wouldn't have him for long, wouldn't feel this way when he left. So she had to seize the time they had together and cling to it, enjoying every moment. It didn't matter how she felt about him; it never had. What mattered was how she felt about herself.
She smiled. Lord, it felt good to simply enjoy something, to ask nothing from it, expect nothing. To simply accept.
He looked up suddenly and smiled at her, waving.
Mariah felt the effect of that smile all the way on the second floor. Memories of last night washed through her, leaving her tingling and warm in their wake. She shoved her hand out the window and waved back at him. "Morning, Mr. Stone."
"Morning, Miz Throckmorton," he called back, his smile broadening.
Down by the picket fence, Rass pushed to his feet and started walking toward Mad Dog. He was saying something Mariah couldn't hear. All she caught was the word
Mad Dog turned to him.
And Mariah saw the red scratch marks that crisscrossed Mad Dog's back. Horror rounded her eyes. With a gasp, she stared down at her stubby fingernails, unable to believe she'd actually done that to his skin.
Then she looked at her father.