Read Prairie Wife Online

Authors: Cheryl St.john

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Historical, #General

Prairie Wife

BOOK: Prairie Wife
10.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
Prairie
Wife by Cheryl St. John

 

No mother should have to bury her child. Amy Shelby had learned
this sorrow well. Her heart had gone into the ground a year ago along with her
boy's tiny casket. And not even her husband, Jesse, wrestling the same pain, could
resurrect any hope in her.

Jesse Shelby mourned two losses--his baby son and his openhearted
bride, for when their child died, Amy retreated behind a wall of grief as wide
as the Nebraska prairie. But could a chance for a new family heal their wounded
marriage--and guide them back to the comfort of each other's arms?

 

"There's more fire in a bottle of whiskey than I've found in
this bed for a long time, Amy."

"What did we just do? Wasn't that okay?"

He slipped his arms into his shirt and glared at her in the
darkness. "What
did
we do?"

Holding the sheet pressed to her breasts, she wondered why she was
having this discussion. It didn't make sense.

He came toward her and leaned forward, one hand on each side of
her hips on the mattress, his face inches above hers. "I know what it
used
to be. Lovemaking."

Her chest tightened.

"Do you even love me anymore, Amy?"

Her head roared with confusion and fear. He was her husband. He
was Jesse. He'd just known her body intimately for the thousandth time, and yet
she couldn't say what he wanted her to say. He needed her.

His need terrified her....

 

ISBN 0-373-29339-9 PRAIRIE WIFE

Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Ludwigs

www.eHarlequin.com

Printed in U.S.A.

 

This story is dedicated to my
faithful readers. I appreciate you.

Prologue

Shelby Station, Nebraska,
1867

Amy
would never know how many shovelfuls of earth it took to fill a
grave so heartbreakingly deep and yet so pathetically small. She'd lost count
around two hundred or so. The first falls of dirt had been loud, landing on the
sanded and varnished wood coffin with a mind-numbing
thud.

A couple of women had urged her away from the grave, but she'd
resisted their efforts and had remained to experience the entire ordeal. It was
the least she could do.

Jesse had built the casket. A day and a half it had taken him. A
day and a half while she sat beside the small, still body laid out on wooden
planks in the dining room, barely acknowledging visitors, gifts of food or
expressions of sympathy. The finished project, when he'd carried it into the
house, was a work of art. An eloquent expression of love and grief. An
outpouring of everything he felt and could express only in this final gesture
for his son.

The corners of the heavy oak box had been flawlessly fitted tongue
and groove, the entire work stained a dark mahogany, then varnished to a shiny
gloss. The interior was padded, upholstered and tucked with a rich blue velvet.

Amy had left the room while Jesse and her father, Sam Burnham,
placed the lifeless body of her barely three-year-old child in the casket. When
she'd returned half an hour later, Tim looked as though he were merely sleeping
upon the luxurious fabric. He looked as though at any moment, his eyelashes
would flutter and his blue eyes would open; he'd smile that smile that touched
every place in her heart and left her aching with pride and love.

But Tim was as still as he had been since she had pulled him from
the creek behind the station and tried to breathe life back into him. He wore
his Sunday clothing, dark pants and a white shirt, a miniature string tie. His
fair hair was neatly combed, and the obstinate curl that had always fallen over
his forehead had been tamed into perfection.

As Amy watched, Jesse ruffled the lock so that it fell upon Tim's
forehead in the endearing way it always did. She knew just how soft Tim's hair
felt beneath Jesse's loving touch. She had finger-combed it back a thousand
times.

Taking a step closer, Amy noticed something in Tim's hand that
hadn't been there before. A ray of sunlight streaming through the dining room
window glimmered on gold. Her boy held a watch. The pocket watch that Jesse's
father had given him, and with which Tim had always loved to play. As a baby,
he'd sat on Jesse's lap, enthralled with the timepiece. Jesse had promised the
child that one day the watch would be his. It shouldn't have been so soon...and
it should never have been like this....

The watch's
tick
was loud in the silent room. The sun
caught and reflected droplets on Tim's still tiny hands. Tears. Tears had
fallen from Jesse's eyes, tears were still streaking her husband's lean cheeks.

As if in a cocoon of silent unreality, Amy watched without feeling
anything. The place where her heart had been was a cavity. Cold. Empty. Jesse
had carried on. Jesse had built a coffin. Jesse ate and drank coffee. Jesse
cried.

Amy was as lifeless as their son.

The least she could do was stand here now and watch it all. Watch
as her father and Jesse scooped dirt and moved it into the grave, their shirts
growing damp with sweat. It must feel better to do something. But she didn't
have to feel at all, did she? Everything would be okay— she could survive
without letting out the scream on the inside.

She watched as Jesse paused in his efforts to wipe perspiration
from his eyes. Perspiration—or tears? His blue gaze lifted and discovered her
standing across from him. If there was a message in his expression, she didn't
receive it. He had tried to hold her the night before, but she'd turned away,
unable to allow him into her private world of nothingness.

Amy closed her eyes and thought of her precious Tim in his little
shirt and pants, lying against the blue velvet. Thought of the watch ticking...
ticking... until it wound down... silent forever. Like her son.

Chapter One

Shelby Station, Nebraska,
1868

Jesse
entered the kitchen at twilight. After the stage travelers had
eaten and gone next door to their assigned lodging, he and Amy always ate a
late supper together, and the help thoughtfully left them alone. The room
smelled of beef and gravy. Steam rose from a pan of potatoes from which Amy had
recently poured boiling water.

"Can I mash those for you?"

He started forward, but his wife grabbed the pan with a pot holder
before he reached it. "I'll do it. You sit."

She used to let him help in the kitchen. She used to enjoy his
company and having him near. Now she tolerated him.

The change had to do with Tim. And the day their son had drowned.
And the way he had died. And the loss they'd suffered.

That was the day everything had changed.

But Jesse didn't know what to do about it. Nothing he said or did
or attempted made a difference. Amy had become a different person. A person who
didn't like him much. He doubted she even loved him anymore. As though it had
been his fault. As though he hadn't wondered a thousand times if he could have
prevented their son from waking from a nap and wandering from Shelby Station
unobserved.

So Jesse sat at his place at the table and waited while she mashed
the potatoes and set the food in front of him. Sat there like he did every
night, waiting for her to talk to him, to look at him.

They ate in silence. Amy was a wonderful cook, and as he did every
night, he told her so and ate everything she'd prepared. He didn't bother to
pick up his plate or offer to help with the dishes, because that was something
else she didn't need him for.

She carried their plates to the sink.

"I have a few chores to finish." Grabbing his hat, he
went outside.

In the stable, he drew a bottle half full of whiskey from a nail
keg and took a long pull. The fiery liquid immediately warmed his chest and
within minutes his tense muscles relaxed. His newfound friend made the
emptiness a little easier to bear. A year was a long time to miss a child
without someone to share the grief. A long time to miss his wife's touch, her smile,
anything remotely resembling comfort or affection.

He worked on repairing harnesses, and by the time the moon was
high in the sky, the bottle was empty and his patience was chafed beyond
endurance.

His last chores were to check all the horses, make certain the
lock on the luggage room was fastened tight, and extinguish lanterns. Two
windows in the austere boardinghouse beside the house were illuminated,
indicating overnight travelers still awake.

He washed at the pump, the refreshing cold water minimally cooling
his frustration, then he entered the house, where an oil lamp cast shadows in
the kitchen. Amy stood beside the table, cutting fabric around a paper pattern.

"There's coffee left on the stove," she said.

"No thanks."

She folded her sewing and tucked it into a basket. "I'll get
the lamp."

Jesse walked ahead of her up the stairs, careful to keep his
movements steady.

Once inside their room, she placed the lamp on the bureau. Jesse
shrugged out of his shirt while Amy removed her dress and underclothing and
pulled her nightgown over her head. He watched, glimpsing her slender body in
the golden light. She'd lost weight in the past year, enough that she appeared
too fragile. He'd hired more help for cooking and for cleaning rooms, but Amy
worked too hard.

Still watching her, he pulled off his boots and socks. Avoiding
his eyes, she moved to her dressing table, where she sat and removed the pins
from her hair.

Her aloofness irritating him, Jesse moved behind her, picked up
the brush from the table and, starting with the tangled ends, ran the bristles
through the silken softness of her honey-colored tresses. Once the tangles were
out, he stroked her hair from scalp to ends, the way she'd always loved.

"Your hair smells better than anything," he said, bending
to lower his face into the tumble of glossy waves against her neck and inhale.
All his resolve to keep his distance melted at her familiar clean feminine
scent, and a knot formed in his belly.

"You've been drinking," she said.

It was his turn to avoid her comment. This was his wife, the woman
who'd once come to him willingly and eagerly. After placing the brush on her
dressing table, he threaded her hair with both hands and then caressed her
shoulders through the thin cotton fabric of her nightgown. Her gaze raised to
meet his in the glass, then skittered away.

He flattened his palms and slid them down the front of her gown,
covering her breasts and cupping them. A groan escaped his throat at the
long-missed pleasure of touching her, and he resisted pressing himself against
her spine. He'd been in this emotional vacuum too long—way too long, and
whiskey could only dull so much.

"Jesse—"

Taking her shoulders, he turned her upper body toward him and bent
to cover her mouth with his. She didn't resist, didn't stiffen... didn't
respond. He knew she tasted the whiskey on his lips, wondered somewhere in the
back of his mind if it had become a familiar—or dreaded taste. Damn her! All
she had to do was let his kiss and his touch affect her as it used to do. How had
it happened that he'd become unable to reach her—to have any effect upon her?
Sometimes he wondered if she'd even miss him if he didn't come to the house for
supper. If he never came home again.

A deep aching regret and helplessness surged through him, creating
a desperate need to demand the love and acceptance she denied him. He ended the
kiss, urging her up from her seat and toward the bed. She turned back the quilt
and slipped beneath the covers.

Jesse blew out the lamp, divested himself of his denim trousers
and knelt to lean over her. In the moonlight that slanted through the parted
curtains, her lovely oval face appeared pale, her eyes dark and luminous. He
touched her cheek, skin so soft that every time he experienced its delicacy, he
was amazed.

He knew the tender skin at the swell of each breast was just as
soft; he raised her gown to pull the garment over her head, and she didn't
challenge his right to do so. With his nose and lips, he appreciated the
velvety skin of her breasts, pressed gentle kisses in the swells and hollows,
inhaled her heady scent and saw stars behind his closed eyelids. He was weak
when it came to this woman.

BOOK: Prairie Wife
10.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

UnStrung by Neal Shusterman, Michelle Knowlden
La dama del lago by Andrzej Sapkowski
Skarzy by Jeffery, Shane
The Cloud Collector by Brian Freemantle
Close to Critical by Hal Clement
Two Ravens by Cecelia Holland
Shadowdance by Robin W. Bailey