Authors: Starla Kaye
What was she to do now? Could she actually stay here in Dryfork, seeing the man she’d loved for so long courting other women? It would be awful, even if she were to court some of the other men here.
She sat dejectedly on the stool behind the counter. Staying here didn’t seem good. She thought about her wealthy, widowed Aunt Sybil in Kansas City who had asked her months ago to come visit her, even to consider moving there. Her aunt was lonely for company and she had several men she would like to introduce to Faith. The idea had never held any appeal to her because she’d carried the slim hope that Adam would… Well, he wasn’t going to let her love him.
Again, her eyes welled up. Again, she refused to let the tears fall. There were men around here wanting to court her and there would be new men showing up before long in response to the mail–order groom ad that Daniel had sent off. But she would still have to watch Adam drift further and further away from her. What she wasn’t going to do was mope around after him any longer. She did have some pride.
She glanced around the store. Hers and yet not. What was she to do about the mercantile? She’d hoped Annabelle would have returned by now or at least contacted her. She hadn’t heard a word, which did worry her. Of course, she could send a wire to her dear older friend about the situation. And tell her what? That she needed to come back as soon as possible and take back over her store? That Faith wanted to move away, start fresh somewhere else where she wouldn’t have to see Adam every day?
Not seeing him all the time–even when they avoided talking to each other–would be hard. But it would be for the best, for both of them. Her stomach knotted. She’d already gone through a change by moving away from her parents’ home and by working for the first time. Could she really move several hundred miles away from everything she knew, from her friends?
Angelica and Jennie. She needed to talk to them. Now.
Grimly determined, she stood and went to the window to flip the sign around to CLOSED. She stiffened her shoulders, stepped outside, and pulled the door shut behind her. She pulled out the key she carried in the pocket of her skirt and locked the store. She couldn’t remember when the mercantile had been closed during the middle of the week and she felt a little bad about doing so. But she also felt an urgent need to go see Jennie. She would rent a horse and buggy from the livery stable and drive out to Daniel’s and Jennie’s ranch. Jennie would understand and help her make some decisions.
Stepping down to the dirt road with her thoughts focused, she gasped when Adam called out to her from his shop. “Where are you going?”
She stopped to glance back at him and noted Marinda standing beside him in the doorway looking none too pleased not to be the sole focus of his attention. Faith had no sympathy for the woman. “Personal business.” Then she straightened her shoulders and continued on her way.
* * *
“I thought we were going to walk around town,” Marinda said. She gave Adam a smile as he eased away from the doorway, but he saw her irritation.
Not ready to deal with her, he turned back again, still watching Faith striding toward the livery stable. Dirt rose up around the hem of her long skirt. Riders had to move out of her path because she seemed not to even notice them. What was wrong with her? Why had she closed the store? It was always open, except for Sundays. He struggled with not going after her and demanding answers. But what right did he have to question her? What she was doing shouldn’t matter to him, but it did.
The kiss he’d given her flashed into his mind, just as it had all too often since then. How many times had he chastised himself for doing it? And then for not scooping her up and carrying her to her apartment? He shouldn’t have weakened like that. Nothing had changed between them. He could never give her what she wanted from him. He couldn’t give her the love she deserved, didn’t think he was truly capable of it anymore. He couldn’t give her children that she would want before much longer. She was still young and she would make a good mother. He’d seen her with some of the kids around town, watched her smile at them, and had listened to her laugh with them. Yes, she deserved a chance to be a mother. But he couldn’t be a father again, not that he’d ever really been one. But he didn’t think he had the strength to face possibly losing another child and it happened all too often. And he couldn’t survive losing another wife in childbirth, particularly one he actually cared about.
“Adam,” Marinda said more forcefully, trying to get his attention. She lightly touched his arm.
He didn’t exactly cringe, but as he looked at her, she pulled her hand away. What had possessed him to flirt with this woman, to hint at being interested in her? She was pretty, yes, but…well, she didn’t really appeal to him. He didn’t know what to say to her. “I…I…”
Fortunately Angelica came hurrying down the boardwalk and spotted him. “Why is the mercantile closed? Where’s Faith?” Angelica asked, frowning at him, then even more when she saw Marinda next to him.
Adam nodded toward the livery. “All I know is she was in a rush to get to the stable.”
“The stable?” Looking puzzled, Angelica lifted her long skirt and stepped down into the road. Without another word, she took off after Faith.
He wanted to do the same. He couldn’t. Instead he fisted his hands at his sides and felt deep regret curling inside him.
“I thought the two of you–you and Faith Paddington, I mean–weren’t courting.” Once again Marinda wanted his attention and answers of some kind.
“We aren’t, never have.” Not that Faith hadn’t wanted him to court her. Not that he hadn’t wanted to, but he’d always known he wasn’t good enough for her. He’d had to be the hard one…until that kiss.
He faced Marinda, added honestly, “I need to be fair with you. I’m a widower, in case you haven’t heard, and I’m not interested in getting married again. And I don’t want children either.” There had been a time, though, when he’d wanted a marriage that would last all of his life and a house full of children. That dream had long ago died.
She appeared to mull over what he’d said and then resigned. “I can’t say that I’m not disappointed. First your brother Caleb is avoiding all of us women brought here with hopes of getting married. Now you claim to not want a bride. I guess I must accept that, respect your choice.”
She gave him a sad look and moved by him into the doorway. “Too bad, though.” She hesitated before adding, “I’ve known heartache, too. I lost my husband and two young boys to influenza a couple of years ago. But I grew tired of living in the past. I want a family again. Maybe one day you’ll change your mind. It can be awful lonely.”
He felt a bit gut–punched at her admission. She’d lost a great deal, too. Probably more than he had, because he imagined that she’d actually loved her husband. Yet she had found her way past her grief. Why couldn’t he? Or was what he felt about what happened more anger than regret? Anger because he hadn’t been in love with Meredith and she hadn’t loved him either. They’d been trapped by circumstances. He’d never really known love, until it was too late for him.
Trapped. Yes, that was how he felt. Trapped by the tragedy of it all. Trapped by his brothers who were determined to drag him kicking and screaming out of what they saw as his grief. But he wasn’t so sure it was grief that kept him from living now. Maybe what he should have done after he’d lost Meredith and his son was move away. Maybe distance from the pain and the pity from his brothers would have been better for him. What was keeping him from heading somewhere else now? He could sell the shop or he could just close it. Seth had gone off on his own to California, supposedly to search for gold. Adam had always suspected Seth had really left because he needed space from his smothering, over–protective older brothers. He’d wanted to become a man on his own, without their well–intentioned guidance.
Striking out on his own would be difficult. He liked being around his brothers, but maybe he wouldn’t ever completely heal until he took some time to be truly alone. Maybe away from them he could finally think it all through and put his past to rest. But he would miss them. He would miss Faith, too.
He looked toward the livery and felt lower than he had in a long time. If he’d been a better man, a stronger man, he could have loved her. No, he did love her, he just couldn’t be the man she needed, a man who didn’t carry the burdens of a past he might not ever come to terms with.
Just as he started to turn away, Faith and Angelica came out of the livery in a buggy. The two women were chattering away and didn’t even glance in his direction before heading off to the east. He was pretty sure they were headed for Daniel’s ranch, no doubt to go see Jennie. What was driving Faith to close the store today and shirk that responsibility? Something personal, she’d claimed. His curiosity was peeked. But he had to let it go. Just as he had to let Faith go, for her own good.
* * *
Jennie met them in front of her small house as Faith pulled the buggy to a stop. She cupped a hand over her eyes against the blaring late–morning sun. “What a nice surprise!” she exclaimed and then frowned. “But why aren’t you working at the mercantile?”
Before Faith could even answer, Angelica said bluntly, “Faith is thinking about moving to Kansas City.”
“What?” Jennie gasped, her eyes widening. “No! You can’t!”
Faith set the brake and wrapped the reins around it and climbed out of the buggy. She understood Jennie’s panic since she felt the same way. A move away would be so drastic and she would really miss her friends. She forced a smile as she headed toward Jennie. “I’ve been thinking that I need a change. And my Aunt Sybil has been asking me to come visit her.”
Jennie hugged her, squeezed her almost painfully. “Visit, yes. Move, no.” When she eased away, she looked chagrined at her strong physical reaction.
Angelica stepped next to them, her eyes glistening with tears, too. She’d been fairly quiet during the ride here, commenting now and then on a couple of the places she’d lived, always sounding sad. There were so many secrets in her life and Faith would miss getting to know her, learning some of those secrets.
“Have you talked to your parents about this?” Jennie asked, taking Faith’s hand and tugging her toward the house. “Come inside. I’ll pour us some tea. I made it just this morning, maybe I expected company.”
“No, I haven’t mentioned it to them. But then I really made this decision a short while ago.” When she’d seen Adam with Marinda Tamberline… when she’d realized there really wasn’t any hope for them left.
They walked inside the small three-room house and Faith’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer lighting. As Jennie bustled over to take a teakettle from the cook stove, Faith and Angelica sat down in two of the four chairs around the table by the window. Faith’s stomach fluttered with nerves. Talking about this was difficult, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew this was what she needed to do.
“This is Adam’s fault, isn’t it?” Jennie questioned, sounding bitter. “Because he just can’t let go of what happened. Foolish man. Meredith never loved him and he never loved her. But losing their baby…” She slammed her mouth closed; evidently realizing she’d said more than she should have.
Faith sat stiffly, feeling sick. She’d known he was a widower, but neither he nor his brothers had ever said much more than that in her presence. “He married a woman he didn’t love. No doubt out of honor, because he’d gotten her with child.” She could see him doing that.
Jennie shook her head. “Actually they were married before he became a soldier at Fort Dodge. I’m not sure exactly how they met or why they married, but it wasn’t because she carried his child.”
She carried a cup of tea over and handed it to Faith. “All I know is that things were really bad between them by the time she got pregnant. She wanted to leave him.” Jennie looked uncomfortable. “Don’t ever let Daniel or Adam know I told you even this much, which is all I know. It wasn’t my place to tell Adam’s story.”
“I’ve heard similar bits and pieces from Ben,” Angelica admitted.
Faith felt a little betrayed. “Why didn’t either of you tell me this before now? It might have helped me understand him better. I might not have driven him away, because I would have been more cautious.” She sighed. “Now it’s too late.”
“Why is it too late?” Jennie pressed, going back to the cook stove to pour more tea.
“Because the idiot man was flirting with Marinda Tamberline earlier today,” Angelica blurted out, scowling in disgust. “Because Faith thinks that was his way of telling her he’s not interested in her. That he’s finally going to start courting and it won’t be with her.”
Faith wished that she’d never admitted what had finally made her think about moving away. She didn’t want their pity. “I’ve just decided to accept things for the way they are. He doesn’t want me. I can learn to live with that, but I can’t live with seeing him going around town with other women. Or marrying someone else. I just can’t.”
Jennie carried over two cups of tea, handed one to Angelica, and sat down next to Faith. “So you’re not even going to fight for him? You’re just going to accept this idiotic move of his, when we all know he’s just––”
“No, I’m tired of fighting for him. My heart has been bruised by him for the last time.” Faith swallowed against a painful knot in her throat. She sipped at the tea. “I’m leaving as soon as I can send a wire off to Annabelle about the store and find out what she wants to do with it. I would get on the next stage headed east, but I made a commitment to her.”
Angelica set her cup down and looked squarely at Faith. “There will soon be a lot of men coming to town looking for a bride. I’d bet there will a half dozen who––”
Faith shook her head and thrust up her chin. “That may be, but I can’t stay here and watch Adam with someone else. I can’t. I’ll find a husband in Kansas City.”
* * *
It was almost sunset by the time Faith and Angelica rode back into town. The three women had argued and cried a lot in the last few hours, but she was even more determined to move now than she had been earlier. Tomorrow she would send a wire off to Annabelle. Tomorrow she would start packing her belongings once more.