If You Believe
Page 31

 Kristin Hannah

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Mariah's ability to breathe died for a single, exquisite second. Joy filled her heart and almost made her weep at its poignant sharpness. Nothing he could have said would have meant more to her. Her throat burned with unshed tears, her eyes glittered with them.
She looked at him, met his searingly honest gaze and knew that he meant it.
Suddenly she wanted to tell him about Thomas, to share with him the excruciating burden of her sadness and let her soul be comforted by the simple act of talking.
"Come on, Mad Dog, let's fight." Jake's youthful voice shattered the moment, sent it spiraling into the oblivion of lost chances.
Mariah forced a bittersweet smile. "Try not to hurt him," she whispered throatily.
Mad Dog didn't smile. He just looked at her through those heart-wrenchingly honest gray eyes. "I always try not to hurt people."
"But it happens," Mariah said quietly.
Mad Dog sighed. They both knew exactly what they were talking about, and it had nothing to do with Boxing. "It happens."
It was the first time Mariah had ever despised honesty.
Mariah checked her appearance in the mirror. Again.
Nervously she tucked a stray lock of hair into the loosely woven braid that streamed down her back.
It wasn't much of a hairstyle; she'd tried for hours to match the hoity-toity chignons and rolls in the magazines, but without success. Finally she'd given up on looking sophisticated and elegant, and chosen instead to look relaxed.
It might have worked if she could unclench her jaw.
She forced herself to take a deep, calming breath. It was just a braid, she told herself. Women had been braiding their hair for years. She had no reason to feel self-conscious.
But she was. She'd done this for Mad Dog; tried to look pretty. And now she didn't know which scared her more—that he would notice or that he wouldn't. She hadn't cared about her appearance in years, and she realized now what a blessing that was.
Just thinking about Mad Dog's response made her stomach knot up.
She almost hoped he didn't notice.
Stiffening, she smoothed her damp palms on her brown apron and turned away from the mirror. Head up, braid swinging, she marched down the stairs and sailed from the house.
Outside, the fires she'd started earlier were burning brightly, belching smoke up around the sooty cast-iron caldrons that squatted above them. Jake stood at one caldron, stirring the bubbling applesauce with a long, wooden-handled paddle. Rass was sitting beside him, his folded body propped against the side of the spring-house. His soft, rumbling snores wafted through the air.
Jake looked up at her and smiled. "Gosh."
She paused, fighting the urge to tuck the stray hairs from her face. "What is it?"
"You look pretty with your hair that way."
An unfamiliar heat crawled up Mariah's throat. An uncertain smile pulled at her mouth. "Thanks."
He eased the long paddle from the applesauce and carefully laid it on the makeshift canning table Mariah had set up earlier. "Wait here, okay? I'll be right back." Without waiting for her response, Jake tore off across the farm and disappeared in the barn.
Mariah smiled. All of a sudden, she felt pretty. Whistling softly, she headed for the canning table and started peeling the last few apples of the harvest.
Jake came out of the barn at a dead run. Breathing hard, he raced across the orchard and skidded to a stop beside the table. "M-Mariah?"
She glanced at him. "Uh-huh?"
He chewed on his lower lip and swallowed hard. His knobby Adam's apple slid up and down his throat. "I wanted you to have this." He held out his fist. Slowly his fingers unfurled. On his palm lay a frayed, wrinkled pink ribbon.
Mariah stared down at it, feeling an absurd urge to cry.
Jake glanced down at his feet. "It belonged to someone I loved i lot. I want you to have it."
Mariah stared at him, standing there so alone and frightened-lcoking, his hand outstretched, his face downcast, and felt a powerful rush of emotion. God, she wanted to surge toward him and take him in her arms and tell him how very much that scrap of a ribbon meant to hei But she was afraid of frightening him away, afraid she was blowing a molehill of a gift into a mountain of jmotion.
"It's just a dumb old ribbon-----" he said in a thick voice.
Mariah redized how long she'd stood there, staring at him, sayirg nothing. She reached out and took the ribbon from him. It felt warm and satiny in her palm.
"Would you tie it on for me?"
He looked up then, and she saw the sheen of tears in his eyes. "You'll wear it?"
She swallcwed hard. "I'd be proud to wear it, Jake."
He came up beside her and took the ribbon back. She turned around.
Hesitantly, he pulled the coil of twine from the tail of her braid and replaced it with the ribbon.
"There," he said, stepping back.
She turned around. He looked up at her, his green eyes filled with the same aching, tender emotion that filled her heart.
There were so many things she wanted to say to him right now, but somehow nothing made it up her thickened throat. It had been so long since she'd expressed her emotions, she didn't know how to anymore. So she just stood there, staring at him, hoping he could read her mind.
He gave her a slow, hopeful smile.
And, crazily, she thought that he had.
Chapter Nineteen Mariah stood at the kitchen window, staring out across the quiet farm. Dawn was breaking along the horizon, sending plumes of purple and pink into the midnight blue sky.
She watched, mesmerized, as light broke across the land. A glittering layer of hoarfrost clung to the acres of dead grass and shimmered on the fencing. Cleo stood at the paddock gate, waiting to be grained, her breath visible in the cold air.
Any day the snow would come, blanketing the dor-marit grass with a layer of sparkling, pristine white.
They were ready for it. The hard, backbreaking chores of the harvest were done.
The fruit had been picked and preserved and stacked and stored, the fields had been readied for the coming winter, the last colorful autumn leaves had fallen. Now the farm was an endless thicket of skeleton-bare trees huddled against the frosty air.
And Mad Dog was still here.
Mariah smiled to herself. Even now, she couldn't believe it. Every morning she raced to the window first thing and wrenched her curtains aside.
And every morning she'd seen smoke coming up from the bunkhouse chimney.
Today was no exception.
She leaned forward and glanced through the rippled glass, seeing the small, white building. Just the sight of it filled her with almost unbearable hope. They would have another day together, at least one more.
Whistling softly, she went to the icebox and pulled out the eggs and bacon.
Behind her, the stairs creaked, and then came the shuffling, slow-moving sound of Rass's slippers on the hardwood floor. "Mornin', Mariah," he said in a raspy, slightly slurred voice.
"Morning, Rass." She went to the stove, poured him a cup of steaming coffee, and met him at the table. "Here you go. Breakfast will be ready in about fifteen minutes."
He collapsed on the chair and took the cup from her. Curling his shaking, big-knuckled fingers around the warm china cup, he rested his elbows on the table and took a grateful drink. "I hope I make it to mealtime."
Mariah laughed at the familiar morning complaint. "Let me know before I serve up,"
she quipped, heading back to the stove. She slapped a slab of bacon down on the slopboard and began slicing it into even strips.
The front door creaked open, then clicked shut. Jake hurried into the kitchen.
"Morning Rass. Mariah."
She turned to him, smiling. "I'm making your favorite this morning."
Rass groaned. "Oh, God, Mariah, not more apple pancakes."
"They're Jake's favorite," she defended.
Rass feigned disgust. "I know, but every morning is a bit much." He turned to Jake.
"Don't you like anything else?"
Jake grinned. "Apple fritters."
Rass shook his head. "You were destined to live on an apple farm."
Mariah felt a rush of emotion at her father's poignant words. She smiled at Jake.
"On this farm, I think."
Jake stared back at her, his smile slowly fading. A hint of moisture glittered in his eyes. "I don't have any other place to live."
Mariah set down her knife and wiped her hands on her apron. "You always have a home here, Jake. I hope you know that. I—" She glanced at Rass and corrected herself. "We need you. In fact, it's getting colder now, and I was thinking that you might like to move into the guest room downstairs."
He swallowed hard. "Thanks. I'd like that."
They all stared at one another in silence.
Behind them, the front door creaked open and •slammed shut. Hard bootheels sounded on the wooden floor.
"Christ," came Mad Dog's voice from the foyer. "Not more apple pancakes." He walked into the kitchen, grinning.
Marian's heart swelled with quiet happiness at the sight of him, standing so casually in her kitchen, as if he belonged here. The wonder of it all rushed through her, warmed her as it did every morning. Fleetingly she wondered if he felt it, too, this growing sense of belonging, but she pushed the question aside with practiced ease.
She'd made a point of not asking such things; not of him, and not of herself. For now, she was content to simply accept the gift of their time together.
"You're spoiling the kid," he said, leaning against the doorjamb.
"If you had an acceptable favorite breakfast, I'd spoil you, too," she responded.
He gave her an affronted look. "What's wrong with a shot of tequila?"
Rass snorted. "One more apple pancake and I'm going to start siding with Mad Dog."
"I love 'em," Jake piped up, beaming.
Mad Dog crossed the kitchen toward Mariah. She heard each footfall, felt each step. Anticipation shivered through her. Her heart beat erratically in her chest, her breathing sped up. Their gazes met, locked. She saw the carefully banked fire in his gaze, and knew it mirrored the look in her own eyes.
She spun back to the slopboard, focusing on the bacon so her father wouldn't see her eyes. It was getting harder to hide her feelings for Mad Dog. They had slept together several times since that first night. They sneaked around the farm like errant adolescents, laughing, looking for privacy. But no matter how often she loved him, she wanted more.
The need for him was like a living, breathing presence inside her. Every time she looked at him, she ached; when he touched her, she felt as if she were melting.
He came up behind her. She felt the heat of his body like a prickling fire against her back. "Morning, Mariah," he whispered.
She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the urge to lean back and let him hold her.
"Morning, Mr. Stone."
The soft tendrils of his laughter curled around her heart and squeezed. "I was thinking, Miss Throck-morton .. ."
She caught her breath. "Yes, Mr. Stone?"
He leaned toward her. She felt his breathing ruffle the back of her unbound hair, slide along the back of her neck, heavy and moist. "My schedule is free tonight," he murmured in a voice so quiet, only she could hear it. "Again."
Response washed through her in waves, radiating to the very tips of her fingers. She turned around and stared up into his smoldering, passionate gray eyes.