Authors: LaVyrle Spencer
He considered her for a long moment before asking quietly, "Why didn't you go back upstairs when I told you to?"
But neither of them had the answers to these questions that echoed through the windswept night. Abbie lowered her forehead onto her crossed arms again and silently shook her head. She heard Jesse move, sitting forward on the edge of his chair, leaning his elbows on his knees again.
"Is there any coffee in that pot?"
She got up, lifted the blue-speckled pot, found it full, then placed both palms around it. He watched from under lowered brows, reminded of those hands upon him, feeling for fever. She disappeared into the dark pantry.
There, alone, she pressed her hands to her open mouth as if it might help her control this urge to cry when she got back out there where he could see her.
His eyes followed her as she came back out with cups, filled them, then turned to find he had removed his boots and braced his feet up on the fender of the range to warm them. Wordlessly she handed him his cup, their eyes locked while he lowered his feet so she could step past to her chair.
Side by side they sipped, not talking, both of them staring introspectively at the little patch of fire visible through the stove window. He rested his feet once more against the fender while she wound her toes around each other. There was something about sitting barefoot together before a snapping fire that was disconcertingly calming. Animosity ebbed away, leaving them almost at peace with each other.
"Did you think that I knew Melcher was coming back to stay?" he asked without turning to look at her.
"Well, didn't you?" she asked his toes. She remembered what his feet looked like bare and was conscious of how bare her own were right now.
"I know that's what you've been thinking all these months, but it's not true. I knew he was coming for the meeting the next day, but I had no idea he'd end up staying."
She turned to study his profile, following the line of his forehead, nose, moustache, and lips that were lit to a burning, glowing yellow-red. He lifted his cup, took a swallow, and she watched his Adam's apple lift and settle back down. He was, she admitted, a decidedly handsome man.
Almost tiredly she said, "Don't lie to me anymore, Jesse. At least don't lie."
He lifted his eyes to hers, to the firelight dancing away on her smileless face. "I never lied to you. When did I lie?"
"Silence can be a lie."
He knew she was right. He had deceived her by his silence many times, not only about Melcher coming back, but about owning the railroad and being the one who paid her for his keep. She took a drink of coffee, then held the cup carefully in both palms, looking down into it.
"You knew what hopes I'd pinned on him, Jesse, you knew it all the time. How could you not tell me?"
She looked perhaps seventeen, and broken-hearted and all golden-skinned in the blush of the dancing firelight. It was all he could do to keep both of his hands around his cup.
"Because if I'd told you he was coming back I couldn't have had you that night, isn't that right?"
Startled, she found his eyes. She didn't know what to say. All this time she had thought…
"B… but Jesse," she said, eyes gone wide, "it was I who came to you that night, it was I doing the asking."
"No it wasn't." He scanned her face, those wide eyes which looked black in the shadowy kitchen, then forced himself to look away. "Not from the first day it wasn't. It was me, always me, right up to the very end, trying to break you down until I finally succeeded. But you know something, Abbie?" He pulled his stocking feet off the fender, leaned elbows to knees and spoke into the depths of his coffee cup. "When it was over, I didn't like myself for what I'd done."
At that moment the lantern on the table behind them guttered, spluttered, and went out. Shaken, she studied the back of his neck, the hair that grew thick and curling about his ear "I don't understand you at all."
He glanced back over his shoulder. "I want you to be happy, Abbie. Is that so hard to understand?"
"I just… it doesn't… well, it doesn't fit the Jesse I know, that's all."
He eyed her over his shoulder for a moment longer, then turned his eyes to the fire again and took a drink of coffee. "What fits me then? The image of a train robber? You're having trouble untangling me from that image. That's part of the reason I came back here. Because I cared what you thought of me afterward, and that's never happened to me before with a woman. You're different. The way we started out was different. We started so…" But he stopped, going back to the beginning in his thoughts, enjoying some memories, sorry about some others, but unable to encapsulate his feelings into words.
"How did we start?" she encouraged, wondering what he'd been about to say.
"Oh, all the fighting and baiting and getting even. When I woke up the first time in this house and found out how I got here, you know how mad I was, and you were convenient so I took it out on you. But I just didn't want you to go on thinking that I was still getting even that last night when we made love. That had nothing to do with getting even."
She realized there had been countless times since when she'd thought exactly that. It was part of what haunted her. He looked back over his shoulder, but she was afraid to meet the disturbing eyes of this new, sincere Jesse.
"Is that what you thought, Abbie? That I made love to you so I could hand Melcher the money with one hand and a soiled bride with the other and watch him squirm while he decided what to do with them?" He still sat a little forward of her, coffee cup slung on a single finger, empty, forgotten, looking back, waiting for the answer she was afraid to give. "Did you?" he quietly insisted.
And at last her eyes could not resist. They trembled to find his as she managed to choke out, "I… d…
didn't want to."
Her words were greeted by a long silence before Jesse sat back in his chair, crossing an ankle over a knee so his stockinged foot brushed her gown, almost touching her knee. One dark hand fell over his anklebone, the other dangled the up over his upraised knee.
" Abbie, I'm going to tell you the truth, whether you believe it or not. It
conscience money I gave Melcher, but not because I'd shot him. It wasn't him I was paying off, it was you, because I felt guilty about the night before. But I swear to you, the idea came to me in the middle of that arbitration meeting. I figured if I gave him that much money he
ettle here and probably
. Oh, I admit I forced his hand a little bit, but I didn't do it to put you on the spot, Abbie. Not at all. I thought if I could fix it so you could have him and a nice cozy marriage and a nice cozy business and a secure financial future, I'd have you off my conscience."
She looked at the side of his face. He was watching the coffee cup as he tapped it on his knee.
"And am I?"
The cup fell still. He looked into her eyes.
She picked at a thread on her lap. "Are you always so generous with your mistresses?" she asked, seeking to break his spell of madness that was weaving itself about them like some silken, seductive web.
He surprised her by simply answering, "No."
She realized she'd been expecting him to deny the others, and that it suddenly hurt when he didn't. What did it matter that there had been others? Yet she could not look him in the eye for tear he'd understand more about her feelings for him than was prudent at the moment.
"Wouldn't it have been much easier to just turn me away then I came to you?"
His foot came off his knee and hit the floor and he was on his feet, suddenly absorbed in refilling his cup.
With his back to her, he answered, "Hardly." Then he took a long pull of coffee while, stunned, she stared at the thick hair on the back of his neck. He stood there for a long time before finally asking, "Did you know you were the first woman who ever said no to me, Abbie?"
Again he had managed to surprise her; what he said made no sense.
He turned to face her suddenly, interrupting. "Don't blame yourself, Abbie, not one more time. It was me who did the asking, no matter who came to whose room, and you know it. But you were different from the rest."
"I should think that in bed one woman is no different from the rest."
His hand shot out, grabbed her by the chin, and lifted her face roughly. He looked for a moment like he might strike her "You cut it out, Abbie! You know damn well you were different and that it was more than your just being a virgin. It was all we'd been through together that made you different. That and the fact that you'd saved my life."
Suddenly, at his angry touch, at the intensity in his eyes, she felt her own sting with tears. She twisted her chin out of his grip, her eyes never leaving his as at last she unburdened herself.
"Do you know how low I thought you were for using what I didn't know against me? For not telling me David was coming back? For not telling me you owned the railroad? For not telling me it was your money that was… was paying me off like… like some whore?"
"No, let me finish. I've been angry at how you sashayed out of here and thought a little tumble in the hay didn't matter to a woman like me, who—"
"I never thought—" He sat down, putting one hand on the back of her chair again.
"Be quiet!" she ordered. "I want you to know what hell you put me through, Jesse DuFrayne, because you did… you did. You made me feel unworthy of David's love, like I had no right to marry him even if he asked. You cannot imagine what that did to me, Jesse. I don't want you to leave here with a clear conscience. I want it to hurt you like it did me, because even after you were gone all I had to do was walk through this house to be reminded of what I'd done with you, or to walk into David's store to be reminded that you'd paid for it all. Even there you seemed to be laughing at me from the very walls you'd financed. I waned to strike back at you, but there was no way, and I'd begun to think I couldn't be free of you."
"Do you want to be?"
"I want it more than anything in the world," she said in utter sincerity.
"Meaning you're not?" He looked up at her hair, down at her trembling lips.
"No, I'm not. Maybe I'll never be, and that's why I'm glad I'm on your conscience. Because all it would have taken was one single statement of fact that night and none of this guilt would have been necessary.
Now I face a wedding night of…" She looked down at her lap. "… of questionable outcome, to say the least. And you say
want a clear conscience?"
"Abbie," he pleaded, moving nearer, turning to face her, with his hand still on the back of her chair. "I told you, I didn't know he'd stay—"
But she cut him off. "You realize, don't you, that I still stand to lose it all. Now, when I am on the very brink of everything I ever hoped for—a husband who thinks the sun rises and sets on me, a business that will mean security for as long as we live." She looked up at him squarely. He was very close, leaning toward her. "Why, I've even acquired an acceptance from this community that I never had before I knew David. As his wife I will at last fit in, where before I was nothing more than that… that
up the street.'"
It grew quiet, all but for the wind and the fire. He studied her, sitting there in her nightgown and wrapper, looking down at her lap. And he suddenly knew that to stay here was to hurt her further.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked miserably. "That I'm sorry?" His fingers touched the back of her hair again, but she did not flinch away this time. "I am. You know it. I'm sorry, Abbie." She looked up and found his face filled with sincerity, all hint of smile or teasing erased.
"I've gone through hell because of you, Jesse. Maybe sorry isn't enough. I knew from the first day David told me he was going to settle in Stuart's Junction that he was settling here because of me. I knew he had me on a pedestal, but I couldn't tell him differently. He would never, never understand why I did what I did with you. But do you know what my deception is doing to me, inside?"
It was clear to Jesse what it was doing to her. He could see the pain in her face and wished he had not been the cause of it. He moved back a little bit.
"What will you say on your wedding night if he suspects?"
Her eyes moved to the isinglass door. "That it was Richard."
"You've told him about Richard?" he asked, surprised.
"Not all that I've told you, but enough."
"Will he believe you?"
She smiled, somewhat ruefully. "He's not like you, Jesse. He hasn't had every woman who came along the pike."
Repeatedly he lifted the hair from the back of her neck, letting it drop back down. Very quietly he said to her ear, "There've been no women along my pike since I left here."
Shivers tingled up her spine and down her arms. But he was what he was. "I'm going to marry David, Jesse. He's very good for me."
"So was I once."
"Not in that way."
"In lots of ways. We could always talk, and laugh and—"
His hand stopped toying with her hair for a second. "Yes, and fight," he admitted unabashedly, with a smile in his voice.
"Even after you left I was still fighting you. When I read the truth in that newspaper the day after the meeting I smoldered for days."
He grinned. "You were always good at smoldering," he said, low in his throat.
"Remove your arm from the back of my chair, Mr. DuFrayne, or I shall smolder all over again."
"The name's Jesse," he said, leaving the arm where it was.
"Oh, spare me from all that again. The next thing I know you'll be claiming you're a train robber with a bullet in your hip."
He laughed and squeezed the back of her neck, then gave it a gentle shake and rubbed her earlobe with his thumb. "Let's see you smolder a little bit, huh, Abbie? For old times' sake?" His hand left her neck and he got her by a little piece of hair and yanked it lightly.
But she calmly faced him, repeating, "I'm going to marry David Melcher and until I do you're going to get out of my house and out of my life."